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Co-written by Dr Clara Neary from the Department of English and Dr Ruth Dockwray from the Department of Music, Media and Performance.

This enduring festive hit was first released in December 1973 and charted at No. 1, staying in the charts for nine weeks and selling over a million copies. It has been re-released in every decade since, charting a total of 18 times. It regularly tops the polls of the UK's best Christmas song and, almost five decades later, continues to net the band an estimated £0.5m a year in royalties. In 2009, PRS for Music, the copyright collective responsible for collecting royalties, estimated that approximately 42% of the world’s population may have listened to this song[1]!

Structurally, the song has a typical pop-song structure, with clearly defined introduction, verse, chorus and bridge sections. Musically, the song’s introduction, preceding the entry of the lyrics, is particularly powerful, consisting of a simple descending bassline – B♭ A G F – which seems to be written in the key of B♭. This is suggested by the clear directionality of the scale which moves downwards towards what the listener assumes is its tonic or ‘home’ note B♭, and this is reinforced by the repetition of each note in the sequence. This is, however, a musical ‘sleight of hand’ as the bass falls to a D at the end of this descending sequence. D is therefore revealed as the dominant and it becomes evident that the pitch has returned to its actual ‘home’ key of G major. This sudden key change is unexpected and plays a mischievous trick on the listener.

The song’s three verses are in the key of G and follow a typical pop-chord progression which is musically simple and will feel familiar to the listener. In terms of sentence type, each verse is mainly composed of interrogatives or questions. For example, the five lines of the first verse contain four questions: “Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?”; “Does he [Santa] ride a red-nosed reindeer?”; Does he turn up on his sleigh?”; “Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?”

Each verse contains only one statement or declarative. In Verse 1, this is “It's the time that every Santa has a ball”. In Verse 2 we have “Then she's up and rock 'n' rollin' with the rest”. The declarative in Verse 3 rewards further consideration, especially when we consider its context: consider the lines “Do you ride on down the hillside in a buggy you have made? / When you land upon your head then you've been Slade”. The latter line, which is the declarative, contains a lovely linguistic pun based on the phonological i.e. sound similarities between the band’s name and the simple past tense form of the verb ‘to slay’. ‘Slade’ and ‘slayed’ are homophones, words that sound alike but look different and mean different things. The linguistic creativity evident here is an example of what, in text analysis, is called lexical deviation and is caused by the presence of the unexpected proper noun ‘Slade’ where we would expect to find the simple past tense verb ‘slayed’. The resulting conflation of these two words – ‘Slade’ with ‘slayed’ – tells us something about how the band perceive themselves. The experience of listening to them, they suggest, is akin to a bang on the head!

The proliferation of interrogatives or questions in the song, and the use of direct address (the repeated “Are you …?”), are quite common in pop song lyrics, which often use a dialogic structure. Here, we only hear from one speaker, the questioner, which is also quite common. We never hear the answers to these questions and are encouraged to interpret them as rhetorical, referring as they do to well-established aspects of Christmas tradition (“Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?” etc.).

Musically, each of these questions is supported by a repeated IV-I chord progression. Technically called the plagal cadence, this is more familiarly known as the amen cadence, a musical feature which, as in the ‘amen’ at the ending of a hymn, creates resolution and closure through a return to the home chord (in this case G). The phrases “Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer? / Does he turn up on his sleigh?” both start on a pitch of C, to which they both return on their final word. This return to the originating pitch creates a sense of closure and provides us with a musical resolution which reinforces the rhetorical nature of these questions.

It is also interesting to consider the implied audience or addressee constructed by “Merry Xmas Everybody” and how this becomes more nuanced as the song progresses. In the first verse, the implied addressee seems to be an innocent child being quizzed on their knowledge of Santa (e.g. “Does he ride a red nosed reindeer?” etc.). In the final line of the first verse, however, our perception of the implied addressee alters with the word “sober”, in “Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?”, which invokes a more adult world of alcohol consumption. There is suddenly a ‘knowingness’ to this implied addressee which may conflict with our assumption, reinforced both at and by Christmas, of the innocence of childhood. Indeed, a very specific implied addressee is constructed by this line: the child whose father (who would typically ‘play’ Santa) could only be kept “sober for a day” by magical powers! This ‘knowingness’ is also signalled musically: following a series of preceding major chord progressions, the word ‘fairies’ falls on an A-minor chord, which would be interpreted as indicating a change in tone from fantasy to reality!

This shift may also cause an attentive listener to interpret the chorus that follows a bit differently. The lines “So here it is merry Christmas / Everybody's having fun” could now appear more tongue-in-cheek: we’re all expected to be “having fun” but it’s still just a day in real people’s real lives, and reality has its ‘ups and downs’! Indeed, the latter metaphor is reinforced by the musical structure of the chorus. The melody of “So here it is” follows an ascending scale (D E F# G) which listeners typically perceive as uplifting. It is this upward musical trajectory, coupled with the fact that each word in the phrase “So here is it” is monosyllabic and the phrase is sung on a crotchet beat rhythm, which creates the familiar ‘anthemic’ character of this song. Interestingly, though, the word “everybody” falls on F-natural, a note not found in the key of G major. This creates yet another unexpected return to the B♭ tonality heard in the introduction. The lines “Look to the future now / It’s only just begun” therefore appear hopeful, with the final word “begun” sung on a rising note which is higher than the originating note and therefore suggests optimism.

The chorus that follows ends on a dominant D-major chord but the bridge, typically a musically unique section which links two other sections, opens with a shift to a D-minor chord and swings constantly between D-minor and B♭ chords. The first four words of the phrase “What will your daddy do” are sung on a repeated D which rises to an F on the word “do”, adding emphasis; the next phrase “When he sees your Mama kissin' Santa Claus?” continues on a repeated F, falling on the second syllable of “Mama” back to D before descending further, on the second syllable of “Santa”, to B♭. The multiple repetitions of F, D and B♭, coupled with the back-and-forth ‘swing’ between the D-minor and B♭ chords, create an interesting sense of irresolution echoed by the bridge’s lyrics.

Once again, a layer of nuance is added to the implied addressee constructed in the bridge section: it would confuse a young child to see their mother kissing a ‘strange man’, while an older child would only understand what they see if they know Santa is a mere fiction. Both potential addressees experience a loss of childhood innocence which may be at odds with traditional conceptions of Christmas but does reflect the real world. The use of “will” (rather than “would”) in “What will your daddy do” heightens the epistemic modality, suggesting a resignation to the inevitability of reality ‘biting’, even (or especially?!) at Christmas! This construction of a future event (“What will your daddy do?”) is the only time anything other than the present tense is used in the song. This near-consistent use of the present tense (“Are you hanging …?”; “Does he ride …?”; “Does your granny …?” etc.) creates a sense of immediacy and excitement. The preparations depicted in the first verse show that the festive season is imminent, then suddenly, in the chorus that follows, Christmas arrives (“So here it is”)!

Hopefully we have shown here how a Christmas anthem so familiar to so many can still reward more careful listening. Singer and co-writer Noddy Holder’s intention, as he told the Daily Mail in 2007, was to write a song that would “reflect a British family Christmas”[2]. The song’s interesting juxtaposition of festive fantasy with reality may well do just that!

[1]  "Slade's Noddy Holder Promises to Strip if Song Makes Christmas Number One, NewsCred". 7 December 2009. Archived from the original on 9 July 2012.

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