What Makes a Great Christmas Lyric

2018-12-03 Essay


by Alec Plowman

The holiday season is upon us again. As a result, you’ve probably been bombarded with Christmas music on the radio, on television and in shopping malls.

That’s certainly been the case for me. And, so much exposure to Christmas music over the past few weeks has got me thinking: what makes a great Christmas lyric?

Writing the words to a Christmas song seems like it should be a breeze. But, in truth, there’s a fine art to getting it right: a balance of elements that needs to be achieved and some pitfalls that need to be avoided.

If you want to make sure your Christmas song is a cracker, rather than a turkey, then make sure you follow these rules!

Irony doesn’t work…

“You need to like Christmas to sing about Christmas,” Bob Stanley notes in his guide to writing the perfect Christmas hit for the Guardian. And, with that statement, he’s bang on the money.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for irony and cynicism in songwriting. Anger is a powerful emotion, and it’s resulted in some incredible lyrics. But, historically, the best Christmas songs are as un-cynical as they come.

It’s why, for my money at least, Eels’ “Christmas is Going to the Dogs” doesn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with Eels as a group. But that track, with lines like “Snow is falling from the sky like ashes from an urn” and a chorus of:

“Well, Christmas is going to the dogs We'd rather have chew toys than yule logs And things aren't looking very good, it's true So, I'll just lay here and chew”
... leaves me – and, I’d wager, the majority of the listening public – cold.

Great Christmas songs connect with people. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and the lyrics need to reflect that.

Let me be clear though. Wearing your heart on your sleeve doesn’t mean a trip to schmaltz city, as point number two shows.

…But bittersweet is OK

When writing a Christmas song, it’s tempting to think about things in exclusively positive terms. That can work, and many great Christmas hits have been unashamedly cheery. But, as Neil McCormick of The Telegraph notes, sometimes embracing some more complex emotions is what really makes a Christmas cracker:

“Many of the greatest Christmas songs have a bittersweet edge, perhaps because, for all the season’s positive associations, there is an inevitable sense of loss as we cast our minds back to the innocence that imbued the golden Christmasses of our youth.”
“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues feat. Kirsty McCall is a prime example. Originally titled “Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank,” its narrative, about an arguing couple that have fallen on hard times, seems like an anti-Christmas song in many respects. But, it felt raw, and real, and resonated with a lot of people. If “Fairytale…” was all bitter, it wouldn’t work. But critically, it brings the sweetness with a glimmer of hope in the final verse, as The Guardian notes:

“The song's brilliance is sealed by its final verse when [singer Shane] MacGowan protests, "I could have been someone", and MacColl shoots back: "Well, so could anyone." Then MacColl accuses, "You took my dreams from me," and MacGowan responds, with all the warmth he's been withholding: "I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own." So in its final iteration the chorus is no longer a tauntingly ironic reminder of better times but the tentative promise of reconciliation.”

It doesn’t have to be about Christmas

One mistake that songwriters make when writing Christmas songs is trying to focus them too much on the occasion itself. As a result, you end up with a barrage of clichés about sleigh bells, decorations and mistletoe and wine that are all surface and no substance.

In truth, you don’t need many Christmas references to associate a song with the festive season, and having them more scantly placed throughout the lyrics might work in your favour:

Let’s take a look at one of the enduring Christmas classics; Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Like “Fairytale…” its bittersweet sentiments work in its favour. And, crucially, other than the story of the song taking place at Christmas, and a present being referred to in the second verse, there’s no mention of the holiday season in the words.

“Last Christmas” taps into something more universally resonant. It’s about a heartbreak that happens to coincide with the festive season. Doing that gives it some real emotion, and that’s in no small part why it’s an enduring classic.

What is your favourite Christmas lyric of all time? And what makes it resonate with you? Share your thoughts with PREMIUMLYRICS.com!