It’s hard to compete with the Christmas classics – “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Let It Snow,” “Santa Baby,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” “Deck The Halls,” “Frosty The Snowman” – the list is endless. (Some are copyright-protected, some are in the public domain.) But every year, songwriters give the holiday song format a go: snow, check; fireplace, check; chimney, check; mistletoe, check; maybe a Santa here, a ho-ho-ho there.
For a songwriter, the thing about a Christmas song is its shelf life. It can be broadcast on radio, TV, online, played in retail stores, dentists’ offices, and so on, year after year, in perpetuity, meaning a steady seasonal stream of performance royalties for the songwriter(s), throughout their lifetime(s). It can even be re-released every year (hello Mariah Carey).
Former Bee Gee Barry Gibb – one of the world’s greatest songwriters – recently caused a stir by expressing to the BBC his view on modern Christmas songs: “A bit too much of a marketing trick,” he said. Of the 1,000-odd songs the group wrote, not one celebrated the festive holiday. Bah! Humbug!
Sometimes, just like any other song, at any other time of year, writing a Christmas lyric can be cathartic. In 2018, pop-rock singer Corey Hart penned “Another December,” a touching and unique personal tribute to his late mother, but universal enough for anyone who’s lost someone and must get through the holidays without them.
“We were super-close, and the holiday seasons were particularly poignant and melancholic after her sudden passing in 2014,” Hart says. “The songwriting process helped me traverse through some of those emotional minefields to a more peaceful space of reconciliation.”
“It’s so quiet / But I hear you every time the choir sings,” he croons, and later, “All that you taught me since I were a child / All of your light still shining through me, ever so bright on this Christmas / Bright on this Christmas night… Oh, Mama, how I miss you most on every Christmas Eve.”
“‘Another December’ may well be one of the few Christmas-inspired songs not included on a traditional Christmas offering, but rather on a standard album,” Hart believes of the piece, that was added to his Bob Ezrin-produced EP, Dreaming Time Again, in 2019.
If you’re lucky enough to get through 2020 without experiencing a loss, there’s also the isolation felt from the strict recommendations not to celebrate the holidays with people outside your household, in order to curb the rampant spread of COVID-19, as cases rise exponentially. For many, this Christmas will be sad, lonely, or just plain weird.
To capture that feeling, and in keeping with her noir-pop sound, Vancouver artist Kandle co-wrote the appropriately titled “Christmas Mourn” on Zoom with Debra-Jean Creelman, formerly of Mother Mother, about longing for a significant other who lives far away. “The first line I came up with was, ‘I wasn’t warned of the many ways the holidays can make a girl mourn,’” she laughs, adding that the lyric, “Underneath the mistletoe, I long for you and kiss my phone,” is “very real for me.”
The part-guilt-trip, part-lovesick ballad was inspired by old classics like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and “all the Bing Crosby stuff,” says Kandle. “The goal was how to make it sound classic and timeless, and add strings and sleighbells, and the kind of melodies that are new, yet predictable and catchy. And I wanted to put a twist on it and make it sound very vintage, but have completely modern, COVID-related lyrics.
“That was the fun of it,” she explains. “Making something that sounds uplifting and beautiful, but lyrically is quite sad. We can’t be with our loved ones this year. I think it has to be a really depressing year to get me to write a Christmas song [laughs]. I don’t think I know how to write really happy songs.”
Johnny Reid decided to turn that COVID frown upside down. The country singer has released a handful of original Christmas songs, dating back to 2009 with “Waiting for Christmas to Come,” and just released a deluxe version of the My Kind of Christmas EP from last year. He’s covered a range of topics from sadness to anticipation.
“The goal was how to make it sound classic and timeless” – Kandle
“Before I even started writing for these Christmas albums, I thought, ‘What’s Christmas to me?’ Christmas is home. Home, good one. Family. Friendship. Innocence. Magic. Anticipation. I’m trying to capture the emotion of what Christmas is, and it’s very subjective because Christmas is a lot of [different] things to different people,” says Reid.
“Then, there are certain colours that you need to use: snow and angels and bells and church and choirs. All these images and words that are undoubtedly connected to Christmas. But the real approach for me is to try and capture the spirit of Christmas, usually lyrics, melodic, and music, and try and tie that together to take people to Christmas time.”
For this historic year, Reid – who moved to Canada from Scotland with his parents when he was 13, and now lives in Nashville – set out to write a song called “Christmas 2020,” with his frequent co-writer Jodi Marr.
“I was going to write what everybody’s feeling,” says Reid, “and then I thought, ‘What we should do is just accept the situation for what it is, and get on with Christmas and have some fun.’ That was the idea. The opening, ‘What a year this has been / I won’t be sad to see it end,’ I think a lot of people feel like that.”
In the rollicking pop song “A Time For Having Fun,” instead of lamenting that we can’t all get together as usual this Christmas, he sings, “If hindsight is 2020 / Let’s sing and all be merry / Let the sleigh bells ring again, my friends.” Then he throws in some pandemic life references: “Hang virtual mistletoe – it’s free” and “Zoom call a Christmas party.”
With lyrics so tied to this year, will this be the only Christmas song in history with an expiration date? Reid doesn’t think so.
“It will be a long time, I believe, before people forget 2020,” he says. “There’s going to be grandparents, people my age in their 40s, teenagers, and even kids. I believe the shelf life, to me, is going to be consistent with the amount of people that remember this crazy time.”