Christmas songs are a strange breed. There are songs, artists and genres that, while broad trends change and derivation inevitably becomes evolution, may return to the charts periodically – often via a film soundtrack, cover version or simply on account of its status as an undisputed banger (looking at you, ‘Mr. Brightside’.) But with the last of the leaves fallen and the final Jack O’Lantern stuffed into the food waste caddy, a peculiar thing happens to the Official Top 40 and Marks & Spencer’s sound-system. Music is played that was played this time last year – for no reason other than the fact it is cold outside and the shops are busy.
Those falling chords signal Noddy Holder’s entrance to your year as surely as taxes. Radio One manage to censor a different word to last year out of ‘Fairytale Of New York’, but it’s still not the one you expected. That Coldplay Christmas song is met once again with the question, ‘did Coldplay do a Christmas song?’ followed by staggering indifference. Michael Bublé – well, he happens.
While this phenomenon is peculiar not least due to its power that has even, at long last, felled the great Simon Cowell’s Grinch-like attempts to own your holiday soundtrack, there exists an even more puzzling curiosity. We speak of the Christmas song’s lesser-known but equally redoubtable close relative – the Christmas song that is not a Christmas song.
Don’t follow? Here are five examples.
Lily Allen – ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ (2013)
Before there was Moz the Monster or Buster the Boxer, there was the Bear and the Hare. John Lewis’ Christmas ads have become as much of an institution as Slade, and their use of cover versions to soundtrack those heartwarming marketing masterpieces have included Aurora’s take on ‘Half The World Away’ by Oasis, while Elbow tackled The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’ this year.
2013 saw Lily Allen record a gorgeously tender reimagining of Keane’s 2004 single ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, providing the backing for an uplifting two-minute animated tale of animal companionship that came before John Lewis cemented itself as the master of Christmas advertising.
Allen takes the driving piano of the original and shapes it into a staggering ballad that, while far removed from all things snow and reindeer, addresses a subject matter that for some, is the stark reality of Christmas: loneliness.
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’ (1992/2009)
On the subject of all things non-Christmassy that are ever-present at this time of year, The X Factor may have fallen away in terms of both its monopoly on the Christmas number one and viewing figures, but in 2009 it remained a festive force to be reckoned with. As winner Joe McElderry, and Cowell, bid to clinch the top spot for the fifth consecutive year, a British DJ by the name of Jon Morter had other ideas.
Early in December, Morter launched a social media campaign that urged the public to prevent McElderry’s song ‘The Climb’ from reaching Christmas number one. By 15 December, the Facebook group had over 750,000 members. By the 20th, it had raised over £70,000 for Shelter – a riposte to critics of the campaign, which pointed to The X Factor’s commitment to donate a portion of profit to charity.
‘Killing In The Name’, with its cascading riffs and Zach De La Rocha screaming, ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!’, was at once the least Christmassy Christmas number one in history and the perfect choice to take down a commercial behemoth. Most memorable of all was Rage Against The Machine’s subsequent live performance on daytime national radio in mid-December, which, at the dismay of the BBC, De La Rocha did not censor.
Mumford & Sons – ‘Winter Winds’ (2009)
The men responsible for bringing folk music into the mainstream may have also emerged in 2009, but there is nothing anti-establishment about Marcus Mumford and his crew of well-educated, well-dressed multi-instrumentalists.
‘Little Lion Man’ is the most memorable of the handful of singles from debut album Sigh No More, but its follow-up was a different beast. All soaring brass, lilting rhythms and sad reflections on unrequited love on London streets, ‘Winter Winds’ can only be described as sounding exactly like its title. This brilliant appropriateness results in a vivid symbolic portrait of winter’s dualities – quiet, loud; cold, warm; sad, happy; the end of something, the beginning of something else.
The C word – that’s Christmas, just to be clear – is not in sight, but it would be a tall order to find a song that just sounds this much like Christmas time.
Coldplay – ‘Viva La Vida’ (2008)
Coldplay’s 2010 single ‘Christmas Lights’ (‘is that what it’s called?!’) is in fact a far more impressive effort than most give it credit for, encompassing both despair and hope into a Christmas song that complements those two elements with impressive rhythmic variation and equally strong distinct sections.
That boldness may have been borne out of the fact that by 2010, Coldplay were the biggest band on the planet, thanks to the all-conquering success of 2008 album Viva La Vida. Its title track saw Chris Martin and co. break new ground, eschewing conventional percussion at the behest of producer Brian Eno in favour of a single bass drum and church bell – the latter in part responsible for the track’s oddly Christmassy feel.
If its crisp chime isn’t convincing enough, Martin’s metaphors of ‘Jerusalem bells’ and ‘Roman cavalry choirs’ separately invoke Christian, traditional understandings of the festival, and a certain chorus written by The Pogues. It may even be more realistic – the NYPD have never had a choir.
James Lord Pierpont – ‘Jingle Bells’ (1850)
There is historical evidence that ‘Jingle Bells’, or ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’, as it was copyrighted in 1857, is not a Christmas song.
There is, after all, not a single mention of Christmas in neither the shortened nor little-known, complete version of the song, written in 1850 in Medford, Massuchusetts by James Lord Pierpont. Its subject matter was sleigh races held on Salem Street, Medford in the early 19th century, and one common misconception is that ‘jingle’ is a type of bell, presumably one related to Christmas. It is in fact an imperative verb, referring to bells attached to the harnesses of horses that acted to prevent collisions with other sleighs.
It is thought to have been a popular drinking song, with revellers mimicking bells by jingling ice in their glasses and heartily bellowing the full version, which goes on to tell of the adventures of a frivolous young couple together in a runaway sleigh.