As I am gearing up for the Christmas run this year - a rare year where I'm not playing any carols gigs or Christmas parties, I can't help but fall in love with being in Sydney during this season. The incredibly hot days (hitting temps over 40 C and its only spring - woot!), the excuse for guilt-free shopping and, of course, Christmas songs playing in stores.
It's a sad state of affairs that so many people dislike Christmas songs, though the fact that they come out, in Australia, from September, might have something to do with it. We hear them for a quarter of the year, each year.
Still, from a songwriting perspective, Christmas songs are the hardest to write and some of the most beautiful and creative examples of image building you'll ever find in songwriting.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose"
“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? On the ground, snow is glistening"
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store, but the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door"
What makes fantastic Christmas songs such amazing pieces of songwriting is that they do something new with a very limited topic.
In songwriting, lyrics appeal when they say something in a way people haven't heard before and yet the topic is really universal, that is, very likely, a topic people have heard a million songs focus on before - never an easy task! But when the selection of things to talk about in your lyric is limited, such as when you write a Christmas song, it gets harder and harder to come up with new and fresh ways to say things.
When I first heard the song “All I want for Christmas is You", featured in the movie Love Actually, I fell in love with it, not just because some diva-voiced young teen was knocking it out of the park, but because, yet again, some genius songwriters had found a slightly different take on the “I want the person I love with me at Christmas” theme and they’d written a killer song around that idea (in this case, the writers were Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff). Those writers will be aptly rewarded with new versions of that song, and re-plays of Mariah's version, ad nauseum, annually!
But perhaps even more impressive is when writers manage to find an angle on Christmas that holds greater depth, more meaning, while still using familiar images and themes. My all-time favourite Christmas Carol lyric - brings a tear to my eye each time I sing it - is “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." (from Once in Royal David's City - Writer is Cecil Frances Alexander, penned in 1848 and unlikely to have earned him a penny, unfortunately). I love the broad scope and meaning, wrapped in such a beautifully simple and poetic line. Regardless of what you think of the Christian message, the beautiful idea that in one human, a baby, the aching of every human heart, with all its hopes and fears, might be met – filled and satiated.....ugh - tearing up just writing this.
As I spend an evening in early December, champagne glass in hand, swimming amongst my treasured Christmas tree decorations, choosing which precious memories I will put where, (each year I buy a new decoration that represents that year for me - perhaps from my travels, or for a significant event) and I create my masterpiece of a Christmas tree, I reach for my selection of Christmas music.
I start, always, with Elvis. What better way to make you smile, make you wiggle, make you sway around your living room, glass in hand, singing along to “Christmas is back in town". He is, once a glass of champagne is comfortably seeping into my body, closely followed by Ella Fitzgerald, because really, who's gonna do Christmas better than her. Of course, there's always space for the various artists pop Christmas album, because if you haven't listened to Christina Agueilera belt out “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", you're not really loving Christmas yet. And then there’s the young teen memories that Wham!’s “Last Christmas" bring up. Get your cool back with some U2 doing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", But when you really want the goosebumps and instant tears of joy, grab yourself Aretha Franklin singing “Oh Holy Night", (thank you YouTube) and OMG, it will be a holy night after that. Ugh......
Note to be made here, that there is a fantastic website called Diva Devotee, which has an amazingly fun page called Duelling Divas Oh Holy Night, where you can listen and compare killer versions by some of the worlds most killer voices, including Alicia Keyes (a rare faulty but beautiful performance), Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood, Patti LaBelle (worth watching for her hair), Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Hudson (I cried) and more! Listening through this collection reminds you how freaking hard this song is for even the best singers in the world. But when they nail it, there’s not another tune, short of “Nessun Dorma", that can produce instant tears and goosebumps – just brilliant songwriting. http://bit.ly/1yN0Phl
So, this year, as you roll your eyes at yet another store pumping out carols to help you believe Christmas is all about the shopping, reframe the experience as one in which you can appreciate the incredible talent of songwriters who craft those amazing lyrics that you can’t forget and melodies that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
“I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know"
“Santa, bring my baby back to me"
“Glor--or--or---or--or--or--or--ria, in excelsis deo"
(this one loses something without the melody....)
“Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices, oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born"
Are you are a Christmas Carol lover? What's your favourite song or line from a Christmas song? And what traditions do you have that get you into the yuletide mood? Share below!