One thing about the streaming revolution in pop is that it gives us a pretty accurate tracker of the UK’s changing tastes in Christmas songs. Now, by “tastes in Christmas songs” it’s probably fairer to say “what goes on Christmas playlists”: this is the one time of year where you are likely to encounter very specific songs “in the wild”, and it’s hard to say how many of the plays of Christmas songs are people sitting and listening to them. It’s also hard to say how many Christmas playlists are hand-built rather than ‘off-the-shelf’.

But! Whether we choose to hear Bobby Helms and Sia or have them thrust upon us, hear them we do. And what we hear at Christmas is shifting. While trying to get my head around how it’s shifted I came up with this rough model: there are four distinct phases of Christmas music which wax and wane in strength in the UK Christmas charts. Something old, something new, something glam and something Wham.

What are these four Christmases and how is the picture shifting?

OLD CHRISTMAS: This might also be called “American Christmas” – the US christmas canon, spearheaded by Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms, has made huge inroads into the UK Christmas charts. This is purely a cultural import: as Paul O’Brien points out in his excellent chart posts, “Jingle Bell Rock” was never a UK hit at all before 2019. American Christmas movies are probably a driver here – the Home Alone effect.

It’s not that American Christmas hits were unknown in the UK pre-streaming, of course – you’d find Bing, Brenda, Andy Williams and a few Spector tracks (or knock-offs) on most 2CD BEST CHRISTMAS EVER compilations 30 years ago, bulking out Disc 2 alongside some forlorn carols. But they weren’t top billing. The US Christmas canon is very much still on the rise here – I was surprised (and happy!) to hear “Feliz Navidad” in a petrol station the other day, unthinkable even a decade ago.

GLAM CHRISTMAS: The American Christmas classics are pushing the Christmas music of my childhood out of the way. It used to be that Britain and America had two quite different Christmas traditions, and ours involved the men of rock larging it up on TOTP or gurning at frightened schoolkids. This phase of Christmas music broadly runs from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” up to roughly Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” and includes Wizzard, Slade, Elton John, Mud, Greg Lake (Greg Lake!!) and “Wonderful Christmastime”.

If you were a British kid in a certain era this stuff IS Christmas music. But its stock has very much fallen – it’s now the least salient of the four Christmases I’m talking about. Proper Binman Christmas Music no longer makes much of a chart dent – “Wonderful Christmastime” held on for a bit and will feature in the charts as we get closer to X-Day, so might a couple of the others, but at the moment of writing nothing from the 1970s is in the Top 40.

WHAM CHRISTMAS: Compare the fortunes of the Slade era Christmas music to their 80s and 90s successors. This actually was what prompted this post – Andrew Hickey on Bluesky wrapped up the 70s and 80s stuff into a bundle, and when he and I were younger they very much were packaged together. But in terms of public fortune there’s a dramatic disjunction between two eras of Christmas – the glam era is dying, the Wham era rules supreme.

This phase runs roughly from Wham!’s “Last Christmas” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, two Christmas songs which have nothing in common barring the fact they went to No.1 last year and will probably do so again. Also up there is “Fairytale Of New York”, the late Shane MacGowan the holy spirit in the Christmas Trinity. But “Stay Another Day” and Shakey are both performing a lot better than anything from the earlier phase of Christmas songs. (The big loser is Sir Cliff).

Will the era of Wham! and Mariah end like that of Noddy and Roy Wood? Unlikely, or not for a long time – both these tracks were huge US hits too which probably inoculates them against changing fortune. The Pogues’ song may well be a perennial too; Shakey is probably doomed in the longer term.

NEW CHRISTMAS: And finally the most intriguing Christmas – the modern stuff. The signal with modern Christmas songs is confused by things like Amazon exclusives which turn up for a year because they’re front-loaded on Amazon playlists (this got “River” to No.1 a while back). But even so the shape of a modern playlist era canon is becoming clear – the recent songs are performing strongly in the charts so far this Christmas.

You can count Buble in with the oldies if you want, but Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me”, Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath The Tree”, and potentially Sia look to be here for the long haul. (I am a bit surprised Taylor Swift’s “Christmas Tree Farm” hasn’t caught on more, considering, but give it time). All these are 2010s numbers – there’s a need for fresher material on playlists which didn’t seem to be there in the sales era, and so there does seem to be a real void in Christmas pop between Mariah and the last 10-15 years. Maybe it will be backfilled.

So what’s the broad picture? An Americanisation of Christmas, certainly – there’s an Ed Sheeran song doing OK this year but all the modern big guns are US singers, and the gradual retconning of Christmas Past shows no signs of stopping. And hand in hand with that a decline of the specific UK Christmas canon. Like a lot of peculiar-to-Britain popular culture of my childhood – British home computers, British comics, British TV and films – the British Christmas hits are fading from view, squeezed out of a global market. 

I’m in two minds about that – on the one hand I think making strange and silly little bits of sometimes-commercial art was something we, as a country, did well for a long time, even if they pleased nobody but ourselves. And there’s a genuine sadness when something that people did well, and enjoyed doing well goes away. On the other hand I feel that nostalgia is our national curse, that the present holds a world of joys (British or otherwise), and that the same people who are most nostalgic keep electing governments for whom the idea of leisure, or hobbies, or unprofitable art are anathema. Like the big man says, the Christmas we get we deserve.