Squeaking into the Christmas canon just as the gates were closing, “Mistletoe And Wine” is a hard song to listen to charitably in late July. Mind you, it was a hard song to listen to charitably in late December 1988. Good Christmas songs since Slade’s 1973 breakthrough have been an extension of pop – aimed at the same buyers, performed in the same style, with only the seasonal trimmings and sleigh bell presets to mark them out from what else was going on. “Mistletoe And Wine”, on the other hand, is in the tradition of “When A Child Is Born” – it has nothing to do with any of the currents of pop in 1988. It’s the first Christmas hit since “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma” to be aimed squarely at people who only buy singles at this time of year.
Unlike “Grandma” at least it isn’t setting itself up as a present for an old lady who deserves better. But I still don’t like it: the twinkly arrangements and choirs are dressing for a sanctimonious centre, like a lecture on the “true meaning of Christmas” in school Assembly. The religious bits felt shoehorned in to me at the time – as indeed they were: the song was originally a satirical one from a musical based on The Little Match Girl, and was meant to prod at the self-satisfaction of the middle classes who feasted and made merry while the poor starved. Cliff thoroughly repurposed the tune: self-satisfaction is now A-OK as long as you remember the Baby Jesus.
If the 15 year old me, secure in my teenage atheism, had known about that I’d have taken great delight in pointing it out before going home to my own very securely off Christmas feastings. As it was I just grumbled about what an incredibly clumsy line “children singing Christian rhymes” is (and I was right). But really what hobbles “Mistletoe And Wine” isn’t even the sanctimony, it’s that there’s no sense of wonder backing it up. The best secular Christmas songs get at something true and thrilling about Christmas, even if it’s the bug-eyed greediness of a happy child. But the best Christmas carols have some kind of awe at their centre – they’re songs about an event so impossible and vital it split time in two, and even if I still don’t believe in that event I can be moved by others’ belief in it as filtered through art. We’ll have a couple more chances to see if Cliff Richard could rise to that challenge – “Mistletoe” is memorable but too pat, and the overall impression is of a sugared pill.