I don’t hate Christmas, but I don’t hold any particular affection for it either: all that posing and pretending, all that false bonhomie. Fortunately, living where I do in a relatively remote part of the northern New Territories, I can ignore it—most of the time. The painful exception is when I have to do the daily shopping. Promptly on the first of December each year, all the malls and supermarkets start playing the hideous music that has somehow become attached to this festival over their PA systems. I do most of my shopping in the local wet market, but there are all too many items that are available only in the local ParknShop. That’s a local joke, by the way; apart from some of its branches in posh out-of-town areas, I’ve yet to find a ParknShop where you can actually park a car. You’d be lucky to find somewhere to park a bicycle at most of its stores.
Even pieces that might otherwise be tolerable lose their lustre when heard over a typical PA system. It reminds me of the bingly-bongly sound produced by an ice cream van. And some pieces would still sound horrible if played by a professional symphony orchestra in a hall with perfect acoustics. The most annoying are those that have been traditionally associated with Christmas but in fact have nothing to do with it: Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland and, worst of all by some considerable distance, Jingle Bells, which is a real turkey. I think that my own personal Room 101 would be a bare concrete cell within which I would be free to move but in which the only sound I could hear would be Jingle Bells playing on an endless tape loop through really tinny speakers.
Not that Christmas songs that actually mention Christmas are much better. I can well do without hearing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at any time of year. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful that I am forced to endure this brain-numbing ‘music’ for but a limited season. The local birds are quiet at this time of year too, unfortunately, and the really musical ones won’t be back until March, so I’ll simply have to put up with this unwanted aural assault without compensatory back-up on my walk back home across the fields after shopping.
Not far behind in terms of the level of induced nausea but thankfully far easier to avoid are the various Christmas songs that have been released by popular singers over the years. It is as if once established they feel obliged to offer a Christmas song at some point in their careers, and some of the best singers have produced some of the worst songs. Aesthetic judgement disappears even more completely than the average one-hit wonder.
I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list though (too painful), but mention must be made of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, Elton John’s Step into Christmas and Wham’s Last Christmas. However, two of the offerings in this category would stand out as worthwhile songs at any time of year: Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. And an honourable exception must also be made of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? It made an important political statement (and it was a far better song than USA for Africa’s pretentious riposte).
We are on firmer foundations when discussing Christmas carols, although there are some horrors here too: I cringe every time I hear Away in a Manger, and Silent Night wouldn’t seem out of place at a funeral. On the other hand, it would almost be worth going to church at this time of year for the chance to belt out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful without someone telling me that I can’t sing, even though it’s impossible to take the words seriously.
Especial opprobrium attaches to O Christmas Tree, which must take the prize for the most banal lyric of any traditional yuletide song. And even though the melody is slightly better, I find it difficult to imagine that a self-respecting socialist could sing The Red Flag with a straight face, knowing from whence the tune of the song he is singing was filched. ‘Middle-class sentimentality’ would have been Lenin’s verdict. And, when I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine that a self-respecting socialist would join the British Labour Party, for which this song is an unofficial anthem, in the first place.