Year on year, you see ye olde faithful line up to try and grab a slice of the Christmas pie. They’ll crop on a talk show in a new jolly turtleneck saying that they have reinvented the wheel of the festive jukebox favourite with a new track or even sometimes an album of them that are guaranteed to fetch them merry royalties forever after. More often than not, however, they end up with a lump of coal lingering towards the naughty end of the Christmas charts list.
Why is it then, that every year the same 15 or so songs dominate the airways? Well, the reason that the Christmas classic club is so remarkably sparse is because there is apparently a secret, elusive formula to follow. Sure, the festive favourites are good songs, or at least some of them are, but the truth is you wouldn’t listen to them during the rest of the year and that doesn’t seem to be limited to context alone. The elite club of classics seem to have unearthed something within songwriting that aligns just right with Christmas to make them soar.
We have investigated this phenomenon and below we have presented the findings by collating the essential ingredients that these tracks share and analysing the modern trends. From chorus’ fit for a drunk to yell to rhythmic repetition, these are the tricks to write a Christmas classic.
The essential ingredients of a Christmas song:
Make it Kitsch
The days of sincere festive hits are clearly over. More often than not, novelty songs sit atop the Christmas charts these days.
While the old ‘White Christmas’ crooners of the past dominate all the best festive playlists, it is their old-timey sincerity that makes them stick. In the modern world that proves very hard to emulate without coming off like a daft facsimile of the past. You may as well just be daft.
Get some Jingle Bells on it
If you’re playing the odds game, then over a whopping 90% of Christmas classics feature jingle bells of some description. While that research has not been officially verified, the evidence is imperative.
In fact, you’re best off getting them in nice and early for an unmistakable Xmas intro. Complete the jingling with a few tings on the triangle and then let the pristine white piano take it away.
Use only the most traditional time signatures
Never get inventive on a Christmas song. You want it nice and simple in a classic 4/4 time structure so that people can tap their toes at the party without tripping themselves up and the tune rattles along without any nasty surprises.
People want what is on their list, not some kooky inventive shock. Especially after a year that has offered up a few too many hiccups. Perhaps that”s white the rhythmic repetition of ‘Step Into Christmas’ has rendered it a classic once more.
Give it a shout-along chorus
The emphasis here is on shout as opposed to singalong. Christmas is a lairy time where people are merry in both of its meanings. Why not give people something to shout about in a literal sense.
“So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody is having fun,” is the quintessential classic—it’s a chorus that would sound the exact same coming from the pipes of Nina Simone as it would the terraces of a football stadium.
The right key and chords
You’ll struggle to find a single Christmas hit that isn’t in the major key. Regardless of how melancholy some of them may feel, that effect does not come from the chord structure that forever lingers in the realm of a major.
In fact, the rare major 7th crops up more than a few times to offer up that special chord change lift. John Lennon drops it into ‘Imagine’ with aplomb and a slew of others have tried to mimic the swelling sense he conjured.
A little bit of romance
While on the surface, when you think of Christmas songs you picture Santa, sleigh bells and a smattering of fake snow, when you wade through the slew, however, you find a surprising splash of sexiness.
Whether it’s kissing some bearded fellow behind the tree or Eartha Kitt’s sultry crooning on ‘Santa Baby’, the romance of mistletoe and yearlong office flirting reaching a culmination at the Christmas party is a force to behold—just stay clear of the #MeToo nightmare of the unbelievably inappropriate ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’.
Forget being cool
You can’t be cool at Christmas, at the very least not in the swaggering rock ‘n’ roll sense. You either have to go the downbeat, hard-luck Shane MacGowan route or embrace the camp side of stockings and tinsel with a scarf wrapped around your neck and a stately sweater.
Even David Bowie, in his Thin White Duke stage, sequestered the white stuff for snow and popped on his best M&S outfit. Other cheesy folks have successfully followed in his footsteps, but so far, there has never been a leather-clad Christmas classic.