Holiday Horror! Holiday Happiness!

Holiday Horror! Holiday Happiness!RudolphtheRed-NosedReindeerLife-SizeCardboardStand-Up

Christmas music is tricky. How do you sing about something pleasant and cosy without sounding smug? How do you make the same old songs interesting, year after year? How do you disguise the fact that you're just providing commercial background noise that will be used as a prompt for consumers to eat more, drink more, spend what they don't have?

Simple. In most cases, you don't. Popular Christmas music is usually awful. Legend has it that Spike Milligan, disgusted by the low standards of British pop, once recorded an intentionally half-assed tune called I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas and watched in misery as it climbed to number four on the charts – and his was one of the better offerings. But this year, instead of grousing about it, I decided to make a list. In fact, as it's a season of generosity, I made two! Comments are welcome – they are also mandatory. I want to hear your own top five favourites and unfavourites and I want to hear them now. Merry seasonal joy!

Holiday Horror – Christmas songs I just can't stand

5. The Twelve Days of Christmas

So I'm in a shopping mall, loaded down with gifts that I'm not sure anyone will want, sweating, dehydrated, colliding with strangers, my winter coat dragging off my arm, and somewhere above it all a chorus always seems to be shrieking, 'Fiiiiive! Gold-en! Riiings!'

Yarg! Go away! It's a fun carol to sing when you're a kid, but listening to this endless countdown of seasonal loot is just a slog – the singers themselves usually seem exhausted by the end of it. And what is the narrator going to do with it all that stuff? What is this 'true love' trying to prove or compensate for with such a display? There's something very odd about this couple.

 

 4. Walking in a Winter Wonderland

A lazy tune about a nauseating pair and their swell day together: strolling through the snowy fields, building an effigy of a religious leader in order to perform a bizarre imaginary marriage ritual, and ending their evening in front of a fire, 'conspiring'. Even the fact that a snarky Montreal columnist (was it Josh Bezonsky?) once recast it as 'Walking 'Round in Women's Underwear' can't save this song for me. It used to pop into my head whenever I'd be struggling down unploughed sidewalks in Halifax, with ice in my boots, usually still soaked from a splash of grey slush spewed by a passing car. Winter wonderland. Hooray.

3. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Another disturbing Christmas couple. It's really the husband dressed as Santa, right? And I assume he's doing this in order to fool his child, who he knows is watching. In that case, why snog the wife and ruin the illusion? Or does this man actually want the kid to grow up traumatised? (No, sweetie, Santa isn't interested in milk and cookies. He wants sexual favours. From your mom. Merry Christmas!) The probable truth is that our child-narrator has stumbled onto a kinky role-playing scenario his parents are enacting 'underneath the mistletoe'. Unless the wife is actually boinking Santa Claus for real. I can't believe I had to sing this filth in kindergarten.

2. Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time by Paul McCartney

Let's just say that this is a song that doesn't bear repeated listening. In fact it's hardly a song at all, more of a chant. A very, very, very annoying chant. Subject yourself to it for too long and it begins to sound sarcastic. Then mocking. Then borderline cruel. Paul's a smart guy – did he do this on purpose? I'm wondering if the one-legged model might have had some foundation for accusing him of all sorts of foulness a few years ago in divorce court, though I don't recall if this song was specifically mentioned. (Oddly, this is also the only song on my list that doesn't involve a couple doing something weird.)

1. Fairy Tale of New York – the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl

Fairytale of New York is a great song, with perfect vocal performances and lyrics that manage to tell a novel's worth of story in four minutes. Yet I have paid carollers not to sing it. It's all a matter of context. I live in Ireland, where for at least 45 days of the year this song is inescapable. (I sat in a pub one December and timed it: Fairytale was played at least once every hour. Don't ask me how many hours I stayed in that pub to prove this – let's just say that I take my research very seriously.) It's painful to see a good song turned into so much background bla-bla through unthinking repetition. And there are personal reasons why I can't stand hearing it. Fairytale was a big favourite of my sister Judy when it was released in the mid 80s – we even sang it around the house as a duet, thinking it was so funny (of course I was Shane). My sister's been dead for twenty three years, but the first time I hear this song each November I can't help getting teary-eyed, and crying in a shopping centre is pretty much a giant pain in the arse.

Holiday Happiness - Christmas songs that I will actually seek out

5. Little Girl Blue by Nine Simone/ River by Joni Mitchell

Not exactly Christmas songs, these two ballads start with sad piano renditions of well-known carols and then go on to their respective tales of heartbreak and regret. I love them both (and they go very well with my mopey Christmas story from 2006, which you will also find on this site).

4. The Twelve Days of Christmas by Bob and Doug Mackenzie

I'm not over-fond of this song, but our heroes don't get to the end of it anyway. And as a homesick Canadian girl, I like thinking about that four pounds of back-bacon, three French toasts, two turtle-necks and a beer, in a tree.

3. Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John by P.D.Q. Bach

P.D.Q. Bach's intentional awfulness lends itself very well to Christmas carols. I can never suppress a smile at this story, narrated with crisp choral enthusiasm, of a worthless drunk passed out on the floor after eating all the food in the house as the guests arrive for a party. I also know of no other song that better illustrates the importance of commas. Throw that Yule log on Uncle John!

2. December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush

I'll admit, it's all a matter of taste and mine is frequently awful. (Though I prefer the recorded version as there's less suspense as to where the next note is going to land.) Look at Kate: a wailing spindly goofball with saucer eyes and a voice like a kitten in a thermos. She's embarrassing, but so sincere - I might as well be looking at the personification of my own sad teenage years here. And I embrace them. Merry Christmas, you weirdo!

1.  Merry Xmas, Everybody by Slade

Okay, it's a stupid, trashy song. But again, this is all about context. As a North American, I never grew up with this slop pouring out of the radio every December, in fact I don't remember hearing it at all until 2002. At that point, I was visiting Ireland for the second time, on vacation from my exhausting job teaching at a Japanese high school, and counting down the days and hours until I saw my beloved Irish boyfriend again (since demoted to husband). So picture it: I'm in a new country, no homework or exams to mark, with my true love by my side and a pint of Guinness in my hand. What's not to love?

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