It’s a question most songwriters have mused on while contemplating their bank balances. After all, Slade’s Noddy Holder reportedly takes in a cool £500,000 every year from Merry Xmas Everybody, while Mariah Carey is thought to make around £400,000 annually from All I Want for Christmas is You. So, just how do you compose a smash-hit Christmas record?
The field is littered with failures (few will be hitting the dance floor at this year’s Christmas party to Lady Gaga and Space Cowboy’s Christmas Tree).
But love them or hate them, everyone knows a good Christmas song when they hear one. From children’s choirs to spontaneous ho-ho-hos, there are hallmarks of the genre that we all recognise. But how much sleigh bell is too much? Here are the rules from three men who should know: Roy Wood of Wizzard, the man behind I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday; songwriter Joe Kearns, who has worked on Christmas songs with Lily Allen and Ellie Goulding; and, of course, Holder himself.
Rule 1: Ditch the magic, keep it normal
“What I wanted to do was write something that would strike a chord with normal families at Christmas time,” says Holder, whose famed Christmas hit celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and is one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, re-entering the charts every year since 2007. “That’s why I wrote the line about your granny saying all the old songs are the best, then when she’s had a few sherries she’s up and dancing and showing her knickers off.”
It’s a sentiment that Carey’s song echoes, if an octave or two higher up the register – listing as it does all the magical, festive things that Carey doesn’t want for Christmas: “I won’t make a list and send it to the North Pole for Saint Nick/I won’t even stay awake to hear those magic reindeer click.”
Slade’s hit supposedly came about when the band’s bassist Jim Lea was challenged to write a Christmas song by his mother-in-law. After Lea had put together the melody for the verse, he showed it to Holder, who claims that he returned home from the pub having enjoyed a few whiskies and wrote the lyrics in one sitting.
Written amid the oil crisis, the three-day week, industrial action from coal miners and rail workers and 10.30pm blackouts for TV broadcasters, Holder hoped the song would “lift the spirits up and provide a light at the end of the tunnel – hence the line: ‘Look to the future.’”
Needless to say, the song was an instant hit, rocketing to No 1 in the charts on the day it was released. “It’s very uplifting,” he says.
Rule 2: A singalong is essential
Holder’s old friend, Roy Wood of Wizzard, believes that being able to sing along to a Christmas tune is crucial to its success. Wizzard’s Yuletide anthem I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday also turned 50 this year, and despite being pipped to 1973’s Christmas No 1 by Slade, the song has stood the test of time. “I was just trying to make it so families could sing along with it,” he says now.
Holder agrees: “No matter where you hear it – whether you’re in a pub or if it just comes on the radio – everybody sings along, even 50 years on,” he says of his own Christmas smash hit.
Rule 3: Don’t forget the ‘trigger’ words
Carey may turn her nose up at the usual Christmas fare – “I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree” etc – but the song remains a veritable goldmine of festive jargon (essential, say insiders, to landing a success).
“Literally saying the word ‘present’ or phrase ‘under the tree’ is the easiest way for listeners to latch on,” says producer and songwriter Kearns, explaining that key phrases are a surefire way to make a song feel Christmassy.
Wood concedes that he deliberately “threw in all the subjects of Christmas” and then did his best to ensure they would “roll off the tongue easily”.
Rule 4: Go easy on the sleigh bells
As with decorating your tree, Wood’s advice for sprinkling a Christmas song with festive gimmicks is everything in moderation. Although I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday makes use of tubular bells, sleigh bells, a children’s choir and French horns to convey the flavour of Christmas, he says: “You have to be selective, otherwise the public are going to be a bit annoyed with it after a few plays on the radio.”
Kearns explains that sounds like sleigh bells work as an audible “identifier”, using the intro to Kelly Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree as an example.
“It’s a pop-rock song, but because of those bells at the beginning, as a listener you immediately think ‘Ah, it’s Christmas,’” he says. “We’ve made a palate in our heads of what Christmas sounds like.”
Rule 5: The tricks of harmony and melody
“There are two kinds of Christmas songs,” says Kearns, “the bright ones and the dark ones.” While White Christmas by Bing Crosby is dark, owing to its use of minor chords, Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree feels brighter because it uses major chords. “Maybe there’s something in that, about the two sides of Christmas: the excitement and celebration but also the sadness and reflection,” Kearns suggests.
He adds that there are certain musical tricks songwriters can deploy to capture the festive mood, notably using a chord progression from minor to major in the chorus to create suspense. “The penultimate chord will have a minor 7th to give you a feeling of nostalgia or sadness and then it will almost always resolve back to the major root,” he says, giving White Christmas as an example.
Anything too complex, though, runs the risk of breaking Rule 2. “It was a catchy melody on the ear that people could remember and sing along to,” says Wood of his hit. “It had to be in a key that the general public could sing easily.”
Rule 6: Get ’em dancing and keep ’em dancing!
Our experts say tempo and rhythm can be the difference between a Christmas song that’s remembered for the ages and one that’s thrown out with that year’s wrapping paper. Holder insists that having a “rhythm you can dance to” was crucial to Slade’s success. “The drumming is what we used to call shuffle beat – it’s a beat that drives,” he says. “We used it on a lot of our records and it’s based on 40s and 50s jazz and rock’n’roll records.”
Wood opted for a swing rhythm which he says is “a bit more jolly than a straight rock’n’roll beat”. Meanwhile, Kearns says that a lot of hit Christmas songs have an “explosion moment”, such as in the intro to “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” and “All I want for Christmas is you”.
“Often the song might announce itself in a pretty gentle way before the drum rhythm picks up and it explodes into a Christmas Party feeling,” he says.
Rule 7: Get in the mood, even if you record in June
We punters get into the festive mood by watching Christmas films, decorating the house and enjoying a mince pie, and Wood claims this approach applies equally to songwriting. “Especially with a Christmas song, it’s important to be in the festive spirit,” he says.
Despite recording I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday at the height of summer, Wood was determined to recreate the festive mood in the studio. The frontman installed fans in the corner, which made it “absolutely bloody freezing”, hung blue lights from the ceiling, ordered his bandmates to wear scarves and woolly hats and even put up a Christmas tree. “I wanted to make it look as Christmassy as possible, and it worked,” he says. “It definitely fed into the music.”
Rule 8: The X factor
That’s both the talent and the television show. For regardless of a Christmas song’s musical elements, there are other commercial decisions that can determine its success. For years, record companies ruled the roost, dictating who got played on the radio. More recently, TV shows such as The X Factor or being picked as the soundtrack for big Christmas adverts have been a way to ensure success in the charts. Kearns describes these as “a cheat code” for scoring a Christmas hit.
With the rise of social media, however, subversive efforts to disrupt this music industry control have grown, allowing Rage Against The Machine to pip Joe McElderry to No 1 in 2009, for example, after a Facebook campaign to dethrone The X Factor winner went viral. This paved the way for YouTuber LadBaby to break the record for the most consecutive Christmas No 1s in a row – previously jointly held by The Beatles and the Spice Girls – between 2018 and 2022 by singing about sausage rolls.
Rule 9: Learn to live with triumph
If you follow the rules and produce a blockbuster Christmas hit, be prepared to be dogged by success for decades. Holder famously ad-libbed a howl of “It’s Christmaaaaas!” at the end of recording Merry Xmas Everybody.
Half a century on, he says: “I must get my catchphrase shouted at me every day at least once. In November and December it’s up to 50 times a day. If I’m going around the supermarkets or shops at Christmas, it’s on every single tape.”
Yet from his point of view, the financial upsides make it all worthwhile. “It’s a nice pension plan,” he admits, though he is unwilling to put a figure on how much he earns from the royalties. He is also reluctant to concede that there really is a formula to writing a Christmas No 1. “If I could write down a magic formula and bottle it, I’d sell it,” he jokes. From his laugh, though, he knows that he already has.