The Evolution of Christmas Songs

  • Sharebar

The passing this week of Greg Lake, singer and songwriter of one of my favourite Christmas songs, made me realize that there are still a lot of new Christmas songs being written, ones with staying power.

The passing this week of Greg Lake, singer and songwriter of one of my favourite Christmas songs, made me realize that there are still a lot of new Christmas songs being written, ones with staying power.

For most of us, the Christmas songs that we hear year in and year out, even those done by modern artists, are songs from the 1950s and 60s. Whether it’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, White Christmas, It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas or Santa Baby and Christmas, Baby Please Come Home, a lot of what gets radio airplay is old.

Yes, Springsteen’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town is a vibrant, different take on a classic that gets copied often, and U2’s Christmas, Baby Please Come Home is great (as are Madonna’s Santa Baby and John Mellencamp’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus) but I want to look at newer creations.

So this is Xmas, And what have you done?
Another year over, And a new one just begun
~ John Lennon

It was in the 1970s that new Christmas songs started to appear, songs that weren’t written for kids or as disposable ditties. Of course John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is probably the seminal song of this type. It wasn’t just the message that changed. Gone was the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, replaced by an acoustic guitar and a chorus of voices not quite in sync with each other. Leave it to Lennon to redefine another category of music.

The aforementioned Lake, once part of ELP and King Crimson, released I Believe in Father Christmas two years later. This the first Christmas song that I remember hearing that had a more adult, less sugary take on Christmas as child-like innocence and adult cynicism battle in his mind. Somehow it finds an upbeat resolution. It was released just two years after Lennon’s So This is Christmas.

That questioning of Christmas probably peaked in 1984’s Do They Know It’s Christmas but I think the gold standard for dark Christmas dirges has to be the Pogues Fairytale of New York, released four years later. There are more ythat have stuck with me for decades: The Payola$ Christmas is Coming (1983!) which may not be known outside of Canada, sounds somewhat upbeat until you realize that the singer is unemployed and lonely. Faith Hill’s Where Are You Christmas epitomized and to some extent mainstreamed this adult angst Christmas song trend. Now everyone does it - from ColdPlay to th Barenaked Ladies.

A very Merry Xmas, And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one. Without any fear
~ John Lennon

Of course not everything written in the last few decades has been angst-ridden. Chrissy Hind anf the Pretenders' 2000 Miles, sung as if it were a sad tome, elevates to a happy song of hope. Even George Michael’s song of betrayal and broken hearts, Last Christmas, is upbeat. Technically not a Christmas Song, but I tend to only listen to Jon Anderson’s stunning Chagall Duet this time of year. And we can’t forget Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, the epitome of pure sugar.

I’m sure there are more, both traditionally sappy and modernly cynical. What’s your go-to recent Christmas song?