In Nick Hornby’s 1998 novel, About a Boy, Will Freeman is a 36-year-old bachelor who has bobbed through life idly and somewhat self-indulgently thanks to the royalties accrued by his father’s successful Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh.
We don’t hear much about the song in Hornby’s novel, beyond a brief burst of lyrics:
“So just leave out the mince pies, and a glass of sherry,
And Santa will visit you, and leave you feeling merry,
Oh, Santa’s super sleigh,
Santa’s super sleigh…”
Still, it’s enough for us to fill in the musical blanks. It’s the kind of Christmas song that will rhyme “sherry” with “merry” and make no apology. It’s the type of Christmas song that contains absolutely no emotional fibre whatsoever. Even glimpsed briefly on the page, it’s clear that it’s clumsy and corny and relentlessly banal.
And yet somehow at Christmas, our appetite for bad taste grows triplefold; as if our greatest act of festive generosity is a collective lowering of the bar – we will eat the thin, dusty chocolate coins, we will embrace the garish panto, and the packet stuffing, and the tinsel and the bad television. We will find something in our eyes when we hear the bells kick in on East 17’s Stay Another Day, despite it not actually being about Christmas at all.
Christmas hits look easy, the way Mills & Boon novels or Hallmark movies seem like the kind of things one could rattle off without difficulty given a quiet night in and a decent bottle of Picpoul. But in truth they have their own rules, traditions and forms of internal logic that stretch far beyond a few strings here, some sleigh bells there, a children’s choir and a triangle. Or at least this is what I tell myself. The alternative is too dispiriting.
We are a nation that favours the ludicrous at Christmas
Fifty years ago, Elton John released his own Christmas song, Step Into Christmas, and this year, to mark the anniversary, the singer has re-issued the song on a special Christmas-themed EP.
On its first release, Step Into Christmas peaked at number 24 in the UK singles chart (the top prize having gone to Slade, of course), but its success has gathered over time – in 2019, it hit number eight in the UK, and number one on the Billboard Christmas Charts. Two years ago it was certified double platinum, and in 2009 it was the ninth most-played Christmas song of the 2000s.
It is also unremittingly dreadful.
Step Into Christmas is a kind of real-life Santa’s Super Sleigh. It was written, recorded and released in a week, and frankly it shows. “Welcome to my Christmas song,” it begins, half-arsedly, before heading off on some nonsensical lyrical voyage in which Elton’s tune is both a song and a card, and also a literal place one can step into, join with others to eat, drink and be merry, and to watch the snow fall “forever and ever”. If you were concerned about the outlay for such a festive grotto, fret not, “the admission is free”.
In the most baffling verse, Elton talks of how “I’d like to sing about all the things/ Your eyes and mind can see/ So hop aboard the turntable/ Oh step into Christmas with me.” What does it mean? Does it even matter?
Obviously we have Bernie Taupin to credit for the lyrics, but Elton was still present, he chose to sing the song, or at least to hold the words in his mouth, and therefore he cannot escape culpability. Please also bear in mind that this was a full year before Elton claims he first tried cocaine.
Recently, the singer spoke about his ambitions for the track. “We knew we wanted to have fun and get everything Christmassy rolled into it,” he said. “Especially the music of Phil Spector, which we tried to emulate.” The Spector-esque music is perhaps the only thing that saves this song – the sleigh bells, the Wall of Sound tone, a nod to the creator of some of the finest festive songs of all time, and powerful enough to somehow bury the ludicrous verses.
Still, we are a nation that favours the ludicrous at Christmas. For the past five years we have made songs about sausage rolls number one; we once gave the crown to Mr Blobby; and for several successive years allowed the winners of a TV talent show to commandeer the festive top spot. Perhaps, in this light, Step Into Christmas is actually a masterpiece; a great example of literary nonsense – a yuletide Jabberwocky, if you will, subverting language and reason. Perhaps, in fact, we should all hop aboard the turntable and just embrace the clumsy, the corny and the relentlessly banal.
Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs” is out now