On this year’s Royal Variety Performance, Michael McIntyre joked, “in December we forget every piece of music that was ever written, and focus entirely on the same 15 songs over and over and over again…” And he wasn’t just talking about the X factor. He was talking about the Christmas songs we love to love every year, from around mid-September.
According to the Performing Rights Society, the top ten most played Christmas songs are:
- All I Want for Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey
- Last Christmas – Wham!
- Fairytale of New York – Kirsty MacColl, The Pogues
- Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid
- Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade
- White Christmas – Louis Armstrong
- Driving Home for Christmas – Chris Rea
- Merry Christmas Everyone – Slade
- Mistletoe and Wine – Cliff Richard
- Walking in the Air – Aled Jones
And there are lots more – 4Music regularly play the top 50 Christmas songs, or something similar. And these songs generally fall into two categories – kitsch and miserable.
By kitsch, I mean they represent a shallow but lovely view of Christmas. Songs like Merry Christmas Everyone or Mistletoe and Wine would fall into this category. I don’t have anything against them as such, it’s just that it’s really obvious that they aren’t true. Sometimes painfully so. But they do represent how we tend to treat Christmas – we try to make it a magical time, where our problems don’t matter any more. We forget our money worries and feel free to spend what we like. Warring family members get on for a day, no matter how thin the veneer of happiness is by bedtime. For one day, we pretend that everything in the world is lovely.
The miserable songs try to redress the balance, and get closer to what Christmas is really like. Last Christmas is one example: “last Christmas I gave you my heart, the very next day, you gave it away.” Fairytale of New York, famously recorded by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, consistently tops lists of the UK’s favourite Christmas song. The song is a mixture of reminiscence of happy Christmases past, a miserable problem-filled present, but hope that next year will be better. Maybe we like this because it’s how we feel, or maybe it makes us feel good that, no matter what our Christmas is like, it compares well with the couple in the song. Maybe we just like the antidote to all the Christmas sweetness and denial.
The truth is, neither song really tells the whole story, does it? Kitsch, sparkly-sweet pop songs might seem like obvious self-deception, but all the slightly more miserable tunes offer us is a frank look at how things are, without any real suggestions of how things will change, apart from, “with a bit of luck it’ll be better next Christmas.”
The real message of Christmas acknowledges that the world is a mess – as a Christian, I believe that we can face up to the truth of that. But I can do that because there is real hope. Christmas is about God stepping into his world, into the mess, to sort it out. In becoming a human, the Lord Jesus immersed himself in what it’s like to be us. And when he grew up, he sorted out the root of our problems, the cause of all the mess we see in the world. He made it possible for us to be reconciled to the God who made us. In Christ, there is real hope, and real joy. Real hope and joy that don’t just last for a day, but last for eternity.
This year, in addition to “Glee, the Music: The Christmas Album“, I bought Sufjan Stevens’ box set “Songs for Christmas.” It’s brilliant, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly (on Spotify if nothing else, although you miss out on the extra Christmassy goodies). Mainly because I think he gets the right balance, between reality and hope.
Here’s a taste:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2v14-15)