One of my three heroines in The Lost Child of Lychford is a put-upon vicar at Christmas time (I defy you to find me any other kind at that time of year). She expresses some of that frustration by naming some of her least favourite Christmas singles. These horrors include songs by Greg Lake, Chris De Burgh, and The Pogues (through sheer repetition, seriously, you should try being British at Christmas, it’s mostly hideous). Greg Lake fans should note, however, that he benefits from a bit of a twist ending.
So I thought, for an article to accompany my very dark Christmas novella, why not list some of my favourite Christmas singles? (That was a rhetorical question. Which will still probably get answers in the comments.) I’m not going to include traditional music here, or “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” which has probably influenced my work more than any other text, would take up half the piece. Also, Prokofiev’s “Troika” would get a paragraph or two for the way that I can’t get through it without recalling the TV trailers of my youth and bellowing “Christmas on BBC1!” No, instead I’m talking here about the sort of singles with a festive theme that get, or rather used to get, into the British charts. For this is a species on the verge of extinction. Talent show singles, charity crusades and tiresomely ironic responses to such have long since taken the place of current pop groups hopefully jingling sleigh bells.
I like, in no particular order…
Kate Bush, “December Will Be Magic Again”
Kate is my favourite recording artist. Her poetic snow comes “to sparkle the dark up,” “to cover the lovers” in a song which seeks, like so much of her work, the mystery under the world. Lizzie, in Lychford, would probably appreciate the sentiment.
Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa”
For some reason, Dylan purists consider his Christmas album to be a weird aberration. I don’t understand that at all. Sure, a lot of those folk haven’t gotten to grips with Bob’s Christianity, but they’re onboard for his love of traditional music, and this is the sort of accordion fest that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow had Springsteen done it. There’s something so hard-won and heartfelt about him having fun with this song. It’s a party for his friends.
The Killers ft. Toni Halliday, “A Great Big Sled”
The Killers produced several festive numbers, but though “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” is very funny, this is the hearty one that expresses a yearning for meaning beyond commercialism: “I want to relearn what I already know.” And “you can’t do that,” is such a brilliant retort to “I want to wish you Merry Christmas.”
Doris Day, “Winter Wonderland”
This is one of those Christmas songs that hides something more serious underneath its 1960s TV special gloss, to good effect. “Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream by the fire, to face unafraid the plans that we made…” What’s that about? Well, I don’t think the two lovers in question actually succeed in facing the issues confronting them, because before their little fireside chat they were pretending the snowman they made was Parson Brown, and that he would marry them, but the next time they go out, their snowman is just “a circus clown.” It’s knocked down by the “other kiddies” too. So are these two children, too young to understand what marriage is all about? I don’t think so. I think one of the two has told the other that they’re still just kids, too young to live up to the challenge of that initial snowman. I imagine Doris put a clerical collar on it and looked hopefully at her beau, and he looked kind of awkward in response. It’s all there, under the gleaming surface. Sorry if I spoiled that for you.
Saint Etienne, “I Was Born on Christmas Day”
I think I have two modes for liking a Christmas single. Some of them are about the mystery of the light in the dark, and some of them are about the warmth of family and friends, and this is very much the latter, the story of two youngsters who are working far apart but will see each other at Christmas. “Getting groovy after Halloween” sums up how I feel about the seasonal timetable too.
Wizzard, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”
Okay, so it begins with the sound of a cash register, because this was recorded by a band that always had a bit of comedy alongside their hairy scary glam look, like a poptastic Terry Pratchett. It also comes from the mid-seventies, when everyone and his auntie was trying for a Christmas Number One. However, it’s actually a sincere poke into the meaning of the season, though its grasp of mythology falters when it comes to the idea of the snowman bringing the snow. Or perhaps Roy Wood just invented a new mythos for himself there, and never felt able to expand upon it in another single. (Kate Bush made something quite similar into a concept album.) This track comes complete with a galumphing drum line made to get Grandmas dancing, a saxophone solo, the best tactical deployment of a children’s choir anywhere, introduced by the most intimidating command every roared at Yuletide, and it revs itself up for the finale with the most magnificent key change. “Won’t don’t you give your love for Christmas?” Indeed.
The Lost Child of Lychford is my Christmas single, being of novella length. It starts rather Wizzard, gets a bit Kate Bush in the middle, and then goes very Doris Day, I’m afraid, before… well, I’ll let you wait for hope like I do, every Christmas.
Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television. Witches of Lychford and its sequel, The Lost Child of Lychford, are available from Tor.com Publishing.