No matter how far you travel back through time, you will find that music has always played a huge part in culture. It can be very personal; everyone has songs that make them feel certain ways – tunes that make you happy, tracks that help you to reflect – there will always be one that fits the moment…
But then there are some songs that hit everyone in the same way, and Christmas songs are the perfect example. This doesn’t mean that all Christmas songs are necessarily universally liked, but great Christmas songs will instantly make you feel like the snow is about to fall and your advent calendar is waiting to reveal what’s behind the next door.
In recent years the Christmas song has had a transformation. For decades, the Christmas Number One was the pinnacle of pop music achievement, a badge of honour. While other releases, popular as they may be on release, would eventually be lost to time, Christmas hits are carted out every year, regardless. Eventually, Simon Cowell found the perfect formula, and year after year his X-Factor stars would take the number one. However, this year marks the tenth anniversary of one of the biggest upsets in recent music history: Rage Against The Machine beating Joe McElderry to the top spot with their completely un-Christmassy song ‘Killing In The Name Of’.
Since 2009 X-Factor has remained a contender, winning three more Christmas Number Ones. But a trend for more non-traditional artists has seen the likes of the NHS Choir or LadBaby taking the win. The main problem is that none of these songs are memorable enough.
So it seems as though the time is fast approaching for a new Christmas classic. But how exactly do you write a Christmas hit? While occasionally a spanner is thrown in the works, there are some rules to follow if you want to have a crack at entering Christmas history.
Sing A Song Of Christmas
One of the best things about deciding to write a Christmas song is that the subject has already been decided. Sure, you need to find a bit of a niche – dancing round the Christmas tree, giving away your heart or screaming abuse at an ex-lover – but the bones of the lyrics are already there.
One piece of advice that is commonly shared is to avoid religion. For some this is a no-brainer, but for many it seems the antithesis of what the spirit of Christmas really is. But this is about writing a Christmas hit, and hits need to be as widely accessible as possible and singing about religion can be an instant turn-off. Instead, try sticking to the modern characteristics of the festive season: Santa, Christmas trees, family, relationships and presents.
While the dream is to have a joyous Christmas, sometimes, they just don’t happen. Relationships fall apart, families argue and sometimes Santa doesn’t leave the right presents under the tree. So while many of the most famous Christmas songs are uplifting odes of joy, they don’t have to be.
The main point to remember is to keep it thematic. Try to find the balance between centring the song on what Christmas means to you and keeping it relatable throughout.
Make It Jingle All The Way
The beauty of a true Christmas hit is that, lyrics or not, it is easily identifiable as a Christmas song. Look at TV shows, for example. Series often put out their Christmas episodes with a slightly modified theme tune. This means that even if the audience is watching a repeat in the middle of June, they will instantly know they’re settling down for a Christmas special.
The most common method is to simply add sleigh bells. It may seem like an obvious, overused trope, but there really isn’t anything that instantly brings on the festive feels like the sound of Santa’s sleigh. The most violently metal song can instantly become an X-mas song by just laying a few bells over the top.
Though it may seem contrary to the previous point of leaving religion out the song lyrically, you don’t have to do away with everything religious. Angelic vocals, like those used in hymns, or organs, as are heard by congregations on Sundays around the world still bring Christmas to mind.
Find A Reason
This may seem like a bit more of a cynical marketing trick than a songwriting technique – but find a reason to write your Christmas hit. Particularly around Christmas, people become more charitable, so use that to climb the charts. If you have a cause that you’re particularly passionate about, try collaborating with charities and like-minded people to write your song. The main benefit is that you have the possibility of much more exposure, as well as a team of people to help write the track.
Despite, or maybe because of the similarities that make a Christmas hit a hit, it has become increasingly difficult to write the kind of memorable songs that Mariah Carey and George Michael released (watch ACM students Max & Harvey’s ‘Last Christmas’ tribute on X Factor last weekend!). But if you do it right the rewards are unrivalled. Aside from the pride of creating a part of history, bear in mind the words of Slade’s Noddy Holder: “it’s like winning the lottery every December 25 for the rest of your life”.