Quit the Christmas Panto and Keep it Real! What our best loved Christmas songs tell us about the reality of the festive period ...

December 18, 2018

I read somewhere recently that people felt like they 'had' to be cheerful and positive at Christmas. Now, I hate anything that whiffs of obligation; it sends me right into the rebellious child ego state and I just HAVE to play Devil's advocate! To make my point, I turned to one of the central pillars of our Christmas tradition: the Christmas compilation CD. What can these songs tell us about what we 'should' expect at Christmas time and what the real Christmas experience is like? Well, read on and take note, because it certainly isn't what you might be thinking ...

 

1. 'Do They Know it's Christmas?' Band Aid [1985]

 

I'm old enough to remember this song and its important message the first time around. FAR from telling us all to be cheerful and merry, this song is, in fact, asking us to consider the world of 'dread and fear' beyond our own cosy little Christmas bubble. It plays on all the trappings of a Western Christmas, such as snow, gifts and drinking, in order to draw a stark contrast between the experience of Christmas in the Western world and the experience of Christmas in a famine-riddled Africa. So - no. One of the most popular and famous of all Christmas songs does NOT tell you that you 'should' be having fun: instead, it encourages you to be charitable, and to consider those less fortunate than yourself.

 

 

2. 'Last Christmas' - Wham! [1984]

 

I can't be the ONLY one who's been singing 'this year/ To save my fronteirs' for the last 40 years? A moving thing to remember about this song is that it is sung by one of the most troubled souls in the Christmas song canon: George Michael. This is a man who had to hide his sexuality for years, playing up to his heterosexual pin-up image; someone who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction; and someone who died too young. What does this song tell us about the real Christmas experience?

 

Well, one thing Christmas is really good at is exacerbating our feelings of rejection, loss and loneliness. Since the nature of Christmas is that it only comes around once a year, the pressure to make memories, and to make those memories beautiful and brimming with joy, is increased. In this song, Wham! tell the story of lingering bitterness from the previous Christmas, which has been marred by a relationship that left the narrator feeling exploited. So, again, far from suggesting that we 'must feel positive at Christmas', the song acknowledges that real life still happens - even at 'special' times of year.

 

The best way to protect yourself is not to encourage the belief that everything must be perfect at Christmas, because it's not a realistic way of thinking: death, break-ups, illness aren't going to wait until the New Year just to be polite. As the song suggests,  we can merely strive to move on and learn from our mistakes.

 

 

 

3. 'I Believe in Father Christmas' - Greg Lake [1974]

 

This is my all time favourite of Christmas songs, because it single-handedly debunks all the Christmas 'shoulds'. The parallel phrasing in the opening lines is the give away to Lake's anti-consummerism message: 

 

'They said there'll be snow at Christmas/ They said there'll be peace on earth/ But instead it just kept on raining/ Failed tears for the Virgin birth..'

 

Now, that doesn't sound AT ALL like 'you should be happy and positive at Christmas'. Lake's anti-consummerism message is made stronger later in the song, when the parallel phrasing shifts from 'they said' to 'they sold', and he speaks of seeing Father Christmas in 'all his disguise'.

 

Of all the songs I've featured in this blog, this is the most important and the most ironic. I hear it played in shops, pubs, supermarkets and restaurants as we all play into the greatest of Christmas myths: that it is about BUYING THINGS and that you're not doing Christmas 'properly' unless you have this, that or the other. Let's not forget that the imagery of Christmas, especially that of Father Christmas's red and white outfit, has been dictated over decades of advertising. Lake's song reminds us of the hollowness of a Christmas based on expectations 'sold' to us by the retail world.

 

Far from being a song about 'being happy and positive' at Christmas, this is a song that strives to remind us NOT to 'buy into' an ideal - and therefore all of the pressures that come with it -  when that ideal is fake. Every year, thousands of people feel under pressure to buy presents they can't afford, and all because we've been spun a yarn by the advertising companies as to what Christmas is all about.

 

To protect yourself from the disappointment of the narrator when he sees through Santa's 'disguise', create your own traditions for Christmas.  Instead of being led to believe that you must have this or that or your Christmas will be ruined, decide on your own rituals: perhaps you'll stop exchanging gifts altogether and just sit down and enjoy one another's company; or, perhaps you will all decide to chip in for an experience together in the new year.

 

 

 

4. 'Fairytale of New York' - The Pogues [1987]

 

There's no way I could write a blog about the realities of Christmas without including this classic! It's the one to which everyone knows the chorus, complete with its, what Spock would call, 'colourful metaphors'.

 

'You're a bum, you're a punk!' /...'Happy Christmas, your arse! Pray God it's our last!'

 

The reality this song reminds us of is that our partners are not suddenly going to undergo some sort of magical transformation over Christmas and fulfil all of our yearnings and deepest held desires. They are going to be the same people they were the week before Christmas; someone with whom we might argue, bicker, and maybe even someone with whom we have become tired and disappointed.

 

The cleverness of this song is, of course, the opening, which paints a cliched New York Christmas scene: everything is 'as it should be'- it's Christmas Eve, it's full of romantic flattery, declarations of love, looking to a bright future together -  then, POW, in comes the reality: their animosity, their bitterness, their recriminations. This isn't a couple who are feeling loved up and looking forwards to another year together; this is a couple who are on the brink of breaking up and who are just holding it together over the Christmas period.

 

The message here is definitely not that you 'should' be positive, but that you should be authentic and honest about the situation you are in in your relationships, because, that way, you'll have the balls to call it a day and not have to endure yet another year of pretence.

 

 

5. 'Mad World' - covered by Gary Jules [2001]

 

This one is an interesting one, right? Christmas Number 1 in 2003. Yup, a song in which the lyrics 'the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had' made CHRISTMAS NUMBER 1 in 2003. Out of all the songs featured here, this is the one that really makes you want to find out what on earth was going on in the UK that year to make this song resonate with so many people - and what the similarities were  between 2003, when this cover was realeased, and 1983 when 'Tears for Fears' released the original.

 

In my opinion, this song is the epitome of existential angst. The tone of this song is one of discord, detachment, disconnectedness and distance. The world described is a frustratingly unchanging and unevolving one. The motif of the 'mad world' conveys an incredulity and bewilderment at a world which seems to have lost its way and now offers only one escape: a 'dream' of dying.

 

The Christmas message in this song seems to be that the world lacks direction and purpose; for example, the children in the song are 'waiting' for the day they will be happy. Perhaps this made Christmas No.1 in 2003 because that's when we started to become increasingly aware, Christmas after Christmas, of our lack of true fulfilment and happiness as a society?

 

Perhaps, the warning in this song is that we need to learn to enjoy the moment we are in, rather than always pinning our hopes on the future - especially since this song was realeased close to the millennium, when we expected to reach the 'future', but just ended up going around in the same old circles of war, hate, crime and suffering. Certainly, one reality of Christmas and New Year is our yearning for change and transformation, which sometimes never comes.

 

That's the end of my tour of Christmas songs and what they are REALLY telling us about what to expect at Christmas time. I'd love to know what your favourite Christmas song is and the message you feel it conveys about this time of year, so feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments box.

 

In the meantime: be sure to drop the Christmas panto act and keep it real. The harder you try to make Christmas perfect, the harder you'll fall. The most repeated message in all the songs featured here is that Christmas can bring great disappointment if you don't keep your expectations in check.  Wham! has spoken! Long live Wham!

 

 

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