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Why do we love anti-Christmas songs?

Lydia Stephens ponders why melancholic Christmas songs like 'Fairytale of New York' and 'Last Christmas' are often the most successful

Rejoice, Love Actually is on Netflix, meaning that in amongst sequences of Hugh Grant dancing in No.10, adorable shots of Keira Knightley, and a cameo by Rowan Atkinson, are the hilarious one-liners of Bill Nighy playing washed-up-has-been Billy Mack. King of the ‘Anti-Christmas song’ he asks his audience, please, “if you believe in Christmas, children, like your uncle Billy does, buy my festering turd of a record.”

Amongst these Christmas records you have distinct categories. There’s the universally loved hymns like ‘Silent Night’. There’s obligatory X-Factor Number 1’s which have brought us such delights as Joe McElderry’s cover of ‘The Climb’. Then you have the true commercial successes. Would anyone’s Christmas be complete without the sound of Slade’s Noddy Holder declaring ‘It’s Christmaaaaaaaaaaaas’? Finally, you have the unrivalled Mariah Carey with “All I Want For Christmas is You.”

Yet, interspersed amongst these feel-good tunes are the rogue breakup songs that aren’t really that Christmassy at all. Christmas Charts always make room for these down-beat ballads. For every singalong classic, there’s someone reminding us that this Christmas, much like Billy Mack they’re “wrinkled and alone.” But the idea to release an off-beat sad-tune has been around since the 1950s. Icons like Price, Elvis, and The Everly Brothers, brought us songs with titles and lyrics as unhappy as ‘Another Lonely Christmas’, ‘Blue Christmas’ and even ‘Christmas Eve Can Kill You’ – none of which inspire good will. Surely the fact that the King and Queen of Sad-Core Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell have had a crack at penning Christmas songs should indicate a trend for writing anti-Christmas tunes.

But the most groundbreaking to emerge from this tradition, never missing from a Christmas playlist or festive countdown, is the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl with ‘Fairytale of New York’. Typically the song comes at the night’s end, so after one too many drinks, you can disguise your drunken slurs as an impression of Shane MacGowan’s ‘unique’ voice. Now famous slurs like “You’re a bum / You’re a punk / You’re an old slut on junk,” make you wonder what on earth went on in the board-meeting when the band pitched their idea to then producer Elvis Costello. Legend has it, the song we all know and love is a hashed together response to a wager made by Costello that they couldn’t write a Christmas song. Yet we might ask, realistically what is alcoholism, heroin abuse, and a toxic relationship breakdown doing in a Christmas song? It truly sounds more like a Sex Pistols track than a Christmas sing-along. But apparently it’s one of the UK’s most played Christmas tracks of the 21st Century – so what are the British public playing at? What is it about this sorrowful complaint that puts us in the Christmas mood year after year, and allows you to be obnoxiously anti-Christmas without ever being a Grinch?

Moving away from drunken bars to the ski-slopes of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ music video, we get a more aesthetic kind of Christmassy sadness. It’s a song you associate with your parents’ office Christmas parties. Its charm you could attribute to a number of things: there are some appalling 80s perms, which have never been dampened by the test of time, or the snow and most of us recognise a young George Michael casting glances down the camera lens at you, whilst in the background, bells and 80’s synthesisers chime. All this occurs alongside the timeless lyrics: “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart / But the very next day, you gave it away”. With this tune it’s easier to pinpoint why we might be attached to a bit of sadness amongst all the manufactured mirth. Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. There’s heartbreak amongst it all.

But why spoil all the fun with reality? That’s the point – it is the sad reality.  The overarching themes that wrangle these songs together are loss, loneliness and separation. And there must be a reason why the most enduring songs, the miserable, melancholic, alcoholic ones are still so prevalent. Christmas is a time for empathy, but it’s also a time where we tend to turn inwards and forget those who aren’t immediately close to us. Systemic issues of isolation, alcoholism and chronic loneliness at this time of year may offer a reason as to this musical trend. That’s perhaps why bittersweet tunes like Band Aid’s ‘Feed the World’ and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Merry Christmas (War is Over)’ are often the most successful despite their sad sentiment. Whilst the outrageous success of ‘Fairytale of New York’ might be seen as somewhat anomalous, in most cases there’s a trend to be seen and to think about.

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