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It is easy for a song to feel ‘Christmassy’ when the music is explicitly telling you it is; if you consider the words for We Wish you a Merry Christmas, there is absolutely no doubt what the song is about.  Similarly, Away in a Manger, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen and Unto us is Born a Son all refer to the birth of Christ – arguably a key aspect of Christmas.  There are also those other songs where there is no connection to biblical events at all, but rather the seasonal subject matter, such as snow. Howard Blake’s We’re Walking in the Air (from The Snowman) for example has no religious connotations, but the story from whence it comes is seasonal: the characters meet Father Christmas and most importantly the story features snow and a snowman; it is these seasonal indicators which provide us with the ‘Christmassy’ feel.

Musical Factors

The discussion becomes most interesting when words are taken out of the equation leaving no explicit Christmas message.  Prokofiev’s Troika is frequently associated with the festive season, but why?  No doubt it is a result of its use of sleigh bells intimating a sleigh ride and therefore snow, and when do we get snow…?

This timbral association is frequently used in the popular music world, for example the 1994 Christmas number one by East 17 Stay Another DayThere is little suggestion of Christmas in the lyrics but the tubular bells (along with the snowy imagery in the video), help to create a sense of Christmas.

Another yule-tide sound illusion is noted by Jarman-Ivens (2008):

“Choirs are another common feature, possibly implying a religious element or more generally a sense of community, and certainly intended to conjure up images of carol singers at the door such as those found on traditional Christmas cards.” 

To illustrate my point, the years 1979 and 80 gave us essentially un-christmassy chart toppers which we may have been attracted to because of the Christmassy nature of the children’s choirs used in the tracks: Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd and There’s No One Quite Like Grandma by the St Winifred’s School Choir.


Sometimes, the easiest way in which to create a Christmassy sound is to steal pre-existing material.  This is the case in Corelli’s famous Christmas Concerto.  It was inscribed by the composer as ‘fatto per la notte di Natale’ or ‘made for Christmas night’ and its appropriated seasonal music is characterised by:

“Lilting melodies in triple time… mainly in conjunct motion, prominent use of parallel 3rds, drone basses and symmetrical phrases. Such features are prominent in the music-making of Italian shepherds (pifferari) who have been recorded playing the shawm (piffero) and bagpipe (zampogna) at Christmas in towns.” (Chew & Jander, n.d.)

This appropriation in music still takes place today; Troika is appropriated by Greg Lake in his I believe in Father Christmas in lieu of a traditional chorus. 

Music will surround you over the next week, as you are shopping, in the pub, walking around town or settling down in front of the TV; whether that music is Christmassy or not, take time to enjoy it!


Merry Christmas!


Chew, G., & Jander, O. (n.d.). Pastoral. Grove Music Online.

Jarman-Ivens, F. (2008). The Musical Underbelly of Christmas. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, 113–136.


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