Last month, branches of Pret a Manger were getting ahead of the curve and whacking unsuspecting customers over the head with a premature soundtrack of Christmas pop.
The ensuing apoplexy among certain customers (including Hugh Grant), and inevitable discussion on Radio 4, was enough to drag the needle off that particular vinyl, at least until a more seemly Advent hour. But the debacle serves to highlight our nation’s ambivalent attitude towards this annual deluge of festive ditties. For some, it’s the soundtrack of commercial control, of persuading us all to love each other a little bit more and prove it by spending a lot more money.
For others, the season isn’t truly upon us until Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ pops out of the tiny speakers in the seasonal specials aisle in Boots and reminds us that all she truly wants is a Wonder Woman Glam-azing Pamper Hamper.
Mariah’s Yuletide contribution has finally made it to the US No.1 spot 25 years after its original release in 1994. Once praised by the New Yorker as “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon”, it remains as divisive as every other festive pop song, from ‘Christmas in Blobbyland’ to Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Winter World of Love’ and Lou Monte’s ‘Dominick the Donkey’ – just three of the nearly 200 tunes associated with this time of year to appear in the UK singles chart.
At least Mariah’s is Christmassy, unlike some of the more out-there entries where a cynic might suggest some sleigh bells had been sprinkled on to give an otherwise ordinary pop song a burst of extra commercial tinsel. E17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ was a song originally written about a band member’s family suicide with no mention of Christmas in lyrics or video, until its success in the festive chart prompted an alternative version of the latter, quickly shot, complete with snowballs.
Similarly, jaunty sleigh bells can’t disguise the anguish of ‘Last Christmas’, George Michael’s timeless ode to love, loss and betrayal, just happening to occur during the holidays. In fact, the most meaningful seasonal statement was made away from the studio, with George pledging the millions of royalties to the Ethiopian famine fund supported by Band Aid and its equally mixed message. “It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid…” which is perhaps true, unless you’re living in Ethiopia in 1984, and are in fact the actual subject of the actual song.
Mike Chapman wasn’t even pretending to be festive when he penned ‘Lonely This Christmas’ for Mud one sunny summer afternoon in 1974. After the song racked up three quarters of a million single sales, he shrugged, “Slade had just had a Christmas number one, and I wanted one too.” He wasn’t alone. The 1970s saw a veritable festive music stockpile, the combination of colour TV for the masses, the peak era of Top of the Pops in particular and the lure of easy sales making a Christmas chart-topper an attractive prospect for everyone from Paul McCartney to Johnny Mathis, the Goodies to the Wombles.
The problem wasn’t the songs as they were. It’s that they’re all still being played, along with the following decade’s Cliff Richard’s spiritual yearning, Chris Rea’s driving and Shakin’ Steven’s snow-is-fallin’. It wasn’t until the Spice Girls flipped their version of ‘Sleigh Ride’ onto a B-side and Simon Cowell subsequently came along and properly cancelled Christmas music that a Yuletide number one stopped being a big deal.
But that’s 20 years ago now, and the more recent proliferation of platforms, loss of shared musical experience and collapse in sales of physical CDs means no newer songs have found it easy to break into that club and, goodness knows, everybody from Morrissey to the Cheeky Girls has tried. Even rebels and pacifists like the Pogues and John Lennon are requisite pillars of this over-established eco-system, still offering up those familiar alternatives for the spinster aunts and hipsters in the kitchen while the rest of us jig along to Shakie in the lounge, all conspiring in the myth that any of us still like these tunes. Hmm, don’t really enjoy the music, it doesn’t seem right without it… in that sense, to borrow from Mr Bublé, it’s beginning to look a lot like every other dysfunctional part of a standard British Christmas.
It means we’re forced to listen every year to a bunch of very average songs that would never have endured without their position in that sacrosanct channel. It also means we reach instead for our shared musical experience to budget-bursting commercials and must doff our caps once again to the ever-mercurial Mariah, who’s finally decided that, despite all the festive finery she could possibly lay her hands on, really all she wants for Christmas is Walkers crisps.