From singing Mariah Carey with drag queens in the desert to being driven mad by the Asda playlist, Guardian writers share their most poignant festive music memories
Flying Pickets – Only You
Christmas songs are about the expansion of feelings, loud and bright, against the winter’s darkness. Sometimes they catch you unawares, turning a full beam on to a memory, or a person no longer here to share the light.
The Flying Pickets’ a capella Christmas version of Yazoo’s Only You beguiled me as a young child. Vince Clarke’s lead synthesiser line became an a nursery rhyme in their hands – a sugar-sweet “ba-da-da-da” – sung by very ordinary men. The melody’s pretty simplicity bred a lovely cosiness, too, most of its little notes sitting next to each other together on a piano. My father liked it, as did I, starting to respond to music’s magic in my own way at the age of five.
Three weeks after Christmas 1983, my dad unexpectedly died. I ran away from that intro for years, very literally when it poured out of radios and shop doorways. It declined in ubiquity as the Christmases rattled on. Things got better. But some winters, it appears, and it can still unseat me completely. All I needed was the love you gave. All I needed for another day. Only you. Jude Rogers
Chris de Burgh – A Spaceman Came Travelling
I was in a taxi with my eldest daughter when A Spaceman Came Travelling by Chris de Burgh came on the radio. We’d just left the hospital, where her newborn sister had been admitted with a severe respiratory infection that meant she couldn’t keep food down. I’d previously gone out of my way to avoid De Burgh and his work, my childhood scarred by Lady in Red and the sight of him giving a speech at a televised awards ceremony, which he’d opened with the words: “Some things take time, like a pint of Guinness, or… making love.”
Now I was trapped with his stupid Chariots of the Gods-y Christmas song while feeling pretty wretched. Inexplicably, I found myself having to turn my head and look out of the window so that my daughter couldn’t see me bawling my eyes out, impossibly moved by … what? Its tenderness? Its message of hope? Maybe the line about the mother and child lying down on the bed, afraid. I brushed it off as the result of my heightened emotional state, until the following year when I heard it in passing and burst into tears again. And the year after that, and the year after that, and so on, until I realised that I was stuck with this frankly excruciating response, evidence that you can’t pick the songs that are going to floor you. It just happens, whether you like it or not: a Christmas mystery. Alexis Petridis
Paul Kelly – How to Make Gravy
Christmas in Australia can be strangely dissonant: despite it falling in the middle of summer, we spend the sweltering festive period sending cards with snow on them, watching Hollywood films set in dark, frozen cities and making roast lunches, all with a determination to do as the motherland does. This inflexibility only budges for the occasional pavlova, replacing reindeers with ‘roos in our carols, or a jazzy card showing Santa getting involved in a round of beach cricket. But the only Christmas ritual I can remember feeling entirely Australian is playing singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s epistolary song How to Make Gravy on the 21st of December each year.
“Hello Dan, it’s Joe here,” it starts, and we slowly learn the details of Dan’s life. He’s writing home on the 21st from prison, telling his brother that he hopes “if I get good behaviour, I’ll be out of here by July”. But as he reminds his brother of his secrets for a good gravy (“Just add flour, salt, a little red wine and a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang”), masculine bravado gives way to melancholy and transforms into one lonely man’s lament for “all the treasure and the trash” that he’ll miss as he spends Christmas Day alone. It is a reminder that underneath all the schmaltz, Christmas can be a sad time, when we tally up the damage of the year and remember who is no longer there. Since moving to the UK I have an alert on my phone to remind me to listen to it on the 21st, even though I don’t really need it. Sian Cain
Spice Girls – Christmas Wrapping
Yes, the Spice Girls’ version, not the Waitresses’ original. They say as one door closes, another one opens, and as my favourite pop group appeared to bow out with Goodbye, their tragic 1998 Christmas No 1, they hinted at new musical horizons on the B-side, a cover of the Ohio post-punk band’s 1981 cult hit. I specifically remember playing it for the first time: walking to buy dad’s paper with it on my portable CD player and stopping, dumbstruck, outside the post office to play closer attention to the words. I was nine years old and had never heard music like this before: conversational, funny women singing about how exhausting it can be to live up to tradition.
It made perfect sense for the Spice Girls to sing it – kudos to whoever pitched it to them – but there’s a cynicism to Christmas Wrapping that marks it out from the rest of their chirpy hits. At nine, I had no idea what punk was or what a massive role it would take in my life. And it was at least a decade before I learned more about the Waitresses, another radical female-fronted group whose funny, feminist songs were in fact written by a man, Chris Butler. It’s easy to mock women who attribute ttheir introductions to feminism to the Spice Girls but no culture is too lowbrow to offer revelations – or consolations that Christmas is typically a bit crap. Laura Snapes
Big Star – Jesus Christ
My dad died just after Christmas, early in 1992. It had been a miserable autumn: I’d had what I later realised was my first serious bout of anxiety, which caused me to drop out of a postgraduate course. My first real love dumped me. And then we learned my dad’s cancer was incurable. My soundtrack to that autumn was Third/Sister Lovers by Big Star, an album very much suited to my state of mind. But on it is one big, bright Christmas song, Jesus Christ: “Angels from the realms of glory, stars shone bright above / Royal David’s city was bathed in the light of love,” sang Alex Chilton, incongruously.
I didn’t play that to my dad as he lay in the bed he would die in a couple of weeks later. But when I play that song, I think of him. In the months before his death, Dad – a jazz and classical fan with no interest in rock or pop – had started playing my records when I was out. I’d come home and he’d react like he’d been caught looking at porn. I know Big Star were among the groups he had listened to. So Jesus Christ is a complicated song – it reminds me both of him alive and curious, and in his last days. It’s like Christmas itself: a beacon, shining in the dark of winter. Michael Hann
East 17 – Stay Another Day
The year: 1994. The place: Britain. The person: a not very happy American teenager. I’d moved to London a few years earlier from the US and this proved more traumatic than expected. London was discombobulatingly unfamiliar. The things kids here obsessed over – Kylie Minogue, chart shows, crisps – were not things American kids ever thought about, and after initially trying to join in, I miserably checked out and wallowed in homesickness.
One thing I especiallydidn’t get was the obsession with the Christmas No 1. Who listens to the radio over Christmas? Even New York Jews didn’t do that. But you can only maintain the pose of unhappy outsider for so long before you bore yourself and in 1994 four men from Walthamstow broke down my defences. It was love at first hearing when I heard Stay Another Day and suddenly I cared very much about the Christmas No 1. I went to Tower Records (RIP) opposite Kensington Market (RIP) to buy the single and I felt like I was supporting my first sports team. When they appeared on Top of the Pops as the Christmas No 1 of 1994, I cheered aloud and, for the first time, began to think maybe I could live in this weird little country after all. Hadley Freeman
Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You
In my 20s, I thought any problem could be solved by getting on a plane. And so it was that I found myself, age 30, on a flight to Reno, with a dream of never coming back. My friends had concocted the idea of a Mariah Carey-themed drag cabaret night a few years before. This year, they were taking the show to Burning Man. I tagged along.
Forty-eight hours later, we arrived at Black Rock City around 2am. Flames 10 feet high lit the sky. Burning cars, fireworks, screams and yells. It felt like a military coup crossed with the last night of Reading festival. It was then that Michael turned the music up loud: “I don’t want a lot for Christmas …” We sang at the top of our lungs. It felt like an act of defiance: they would take us as we were or not at all. Some stared, others laughed. And we drove in to meet our other friends.
We sang at the top of our lungs. It felt like an act of defiance: they would take us as we were or not at all
I learned a lot on that trip: the power of a collective to build a community, how to relinquish control. But most of all I learned that I wasn’t in a place to adopt the “radical self-reliance” the festival preaches. I’d leave the desert and my friends to go to the Esalen Institute, the birthplace of the new age movement, in search of a way to be happy. I went to LA and walked the Hollywood hills, trying to find meaning. But then I came home. My health deteriorated and I nearly died. I was admitted to hospital. And it was there I learned that self-reliance requires love and friendship, too. So whenever I hear that song, I think about it blasting out of a van in the middle of a desert, the love I have for those beautiful friends, and the capacity we all have to change. Jenny Stevens
Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody
We never had a record player, so after years of hearing pop music through a tiny transistor radio, getting one was top of my Christmas list. I can still remember the thrill of my Fidelity UA4, in white PVC-covered MDF. It wasn’t hi-tech – I Sellotaped a 2p coin on the arm to stop the needle jumping – but it was mine.
It came with three records, and among them was Merry Xmas Everybody, the Christmas No 1. Everyone I knew – at least, everyone under 10 – thought Slade were the best band ever. The whole school were taken to the cinema to see the Slade In Flame film and Merry Xmas Everybody instantly sounded like a Christmas classic. Hearing Noddy Holder sing “Look to the future now” through a stereo system was revelatory, as were the UA4’s facilities which meant I could play the 7” over and over again, or pan Noddy’s festive bellow from the right speaker to the left.
In years to come, Slade would be edged off the UA4 by the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and the Smiths, before the little record player was itself seen off by a proper hi-fi. But I love Merry Xmas Everybody as much now as I did then: it’s the song that started my lifelong journey into sound. Dave Simpson
The Pogues – Fairytale of New York
I can’t remember the first time I heard Fairytale of New York. It was released in 1987, the year I was born, and from a very young age it was part of my consciousness. It wasn’t the Christmas stalwart it is now, played in every shop and pub from November onwards. Not that the song has lost its edge – Fairytale of New York is about a truly unhappy Christmas haunted by memories of better times and lost love. It acknowledges what those of us who struggle to relate to the happy families you see in festive adverts already know: that this season of comfort and joy can also feel deeply melancholic.
I didn’t know this age three, of course. My mum always turned the volume down when it got to the verse where Shane MacGowan calls Kirsty MacColl an “old slut on junk” and she comes back with “you cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse”.
Over the years, the Pogues became part of our family fabric. My little brother, who is severely disabled, became obsessed with them and used to play them all the time. Since our family scattered, with my brother in a care home, hearing the song fills me with memories. It also reminds me that no Christmas is perfect, no family without its sadnesses. Call me Scrooge, but along with Silent Night / Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis by Tom Waits (choice lyric: “Everyone that I used to know / Is either dead / Or in prison”) it gets me through the relentlessly chipper festive season. Rhiannon Lucy Coslett
Asda FM’s Christmas scheduling
Low’s Just Like Christmas? Wham!’s Last Christmas? Literally any version of Silent Night? Sure, there are Christmas songs I’ve held closely, danced to joyously, even sobbed along to. But are they the festive tunes that have truly shaped me? Absolutely not. That honour goes not to just one song. That honour goes to Asda FM.
Anyone who has ever worked in a supermarket – but more specifically behind a checkout till in a supermarket where you can’t get away – will know exactly what I mean. For such places are not particularly open to test-driving the Sufjan Stevens Songs for Christmas boxset on their customers. Instead, they stick to a revolving diet of Wizzard, Slade, Aled Jones and Cliff Richard, which lasts the length of a single shop if that. For those embarking on a 12-hour shift, Christmas is the most murderous time of the year. You like Merry Xmas Everybody? Try listening to it 476 times a day while morons attempt to buy their turkey with out-of-date magazine coupons that won’t scan, then come back to me.
I managed three, maybe even four Christmas periods at Asda, dressed in a little green waistcoat, wondering how time could possibly move so slowly, only to discover that the reason was that an extra play of Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas could be squeezed into every minute. After that, the choice became clear to me: either I got the hell out of my home town or I ended up on the front page of the Hinckley Times having run amok through the town centre with a sharpened parsnip. Tim Jonze
Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You
When I was a child, the weeks leading to Christmas felt like being dragged on one endless shopping trip. I remember spending an unhealthy amount of time in my local Debenhams and the Orwellian voice of their in-house radio presenter announcing the shrill wail of Noddy Holder and Shane MacGowan’s drawl. Bells would jingle over the tinny speakers as I sat in the shoe section, waiting for respite in the form of some Blue, or even Gabrielle. It instilled a reflexive urge to get away from any and all Christmas songs.
Then came Love Actually. Watched every Christmas during my dad’s channel-flicking binges, it was so intensely saturated with festive cheer and it soon swam into a confusing mental montage of Mr Bean wrapping gifts, Hugh Grant dancing to Girls Aloud and Emma Thompson crying to Joni Mitchell.
The last Christmas before my mum died in 2013, though, she was in hospital and there was no shopping trip. Yet we did watch Love Actually, and although the film remained charmless, I’ll always remember my mum smiling and quietly singing along to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You in the closing scenes. It seemed a moment of respite: the Christmas cheer was working. In the five years since, I look back on those shopping trips with a different view: I’m glad we had the chance to spend that time together. And whenever Mariah Carey’s song comes on, it puts a smile on my face. Just don’t make me sit through another rerun of Love Actually. Ammar Kalia