“The moon is right / The spirit’s up / We’re here tonight / And that’s enough.”
Paul McCartney: 21-Time Grammy Award Winner; Two-Time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee; Honorary Doctor of Music, Yale University
Is there any pop Christmas song more hated than Paul McCartney‘s “Wonderful Christmastime?” The ex-Beatle‘s 1979 holiday ditty is, at the very least, in an elite category of festive tunes whose ubiquity in popular media and on seasonal retail playlists is matched only by our loudly-voiced collective disdain. Every holiday season, presumably for the last 36 years, we’ve gone through the same, contradictory routine: hearing “Wonderful Christmastime” constantly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, even as the professional and amateur critics around us complain about what a terrible load of tripe it is. Somebody has to like it; it is, after all, on the ASCAP’s list of the Top 25 most-performed holiday songs, right alongside such universally-accepted standards as “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” And yet no one seems willing to fess up.
This year, the most prominent shot fired across McCartney’s bow was by Gwen Ihnat of the A.V. Club, with a pithy post entitled “Paul McCartney Wrote a Simply Rotten ‘Christmastime.’” Ihnat’s objections are the usual ones: that “Wonderful Christmastime” is insipid and banal, a mere catalogue of vaguely Christmasy images that “would fit right into a fourth-grader’s recital at a Christmas pageant,” set over “varying degrees of spacey synth tracks with jingle bells.” These are all valid critiques (except for the “spacey synth tracks” diss; sorry, Ms. Ihnat, but those are inarguably rad). But they’re also critiques that apply to pretty much all holiday songs, not just McCartney’s. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “Wonderful Christmastime” is in its own way the ultimate secular Christmas song–not in spite, but because of its very shallowness.
So, okay, the cat’s out of the bag: I like “Wonderful Christmastime.” Or, perhaps more accurately, I’m pleasantly indifferent to it, which when it comes to Christmas music–or most of McCartney’s solo career, for that matter–is more or less the same thing. For me, “Christmastime” perfectly encapsulates the shallow, complacent, yet nevertheless pleasing milieu of the holiday season. It’s the musical equivalent of electric Christmas lights: cheap, tawdry, commercially manufactured, but still fully capable of bringing warmth to the home and the heart.
If that seems like I’m damning McCartney with faint praise, well, I probably am. But Sir Paul can take it: look at the trajectory of his career in the 1970s, and you’ll see that “Wonderful Christmastime” is the inevitable climax of a body of work utterly devoted to celebrating the prosaic, the commonplace, the blandly pleasant. His first single released as a solo artist, 1971’s “Another Day,” is a bittersweet, numbingly literal chronicle of a lonely office worker’s morning routine. Ram, his album with wife Linda released later the same year, is a guileless celebration of domestic life previously unprecedented in rock and roll–and, for that matter, rarely matched since. And it largely set the thematic tenor for the McCartneys’ later work with their band Wings: just listen to the 1976 single “Let ‘Em In,” which is basically just a list of incoming dinner party guests set to music. Hell, for that matter, listen to “Silly Love Songs.”
Yet if “Wonderful Christmastime” is very much in the solo McCartney tradition, I’d also argue that it’s a worthy addition to the yuletide canon, for much the same reasons. Yes, the lyrics are little more than a perfunctory roll call of clichéd holiday imagery: spirits, parties, a choir of children singing their song (they practiced it all year l0ng!). But it’s not as if there’s anything inherently more worthy or meaningful about chestnuts roasting on an open fire or dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Bell Square (quite the opposite, in the latter case). Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to name a contemporary Christmas song that isn’t a list of clichés–because Christmas itself is a cliché, and that’s okay.
See, our popular culture likes to tell us that there’s something inherently “magical” about Christmas, but that’s only true if you’re five years old, or if you believe that Jesus is the one manufacturing all that tinsel. What Christmas actually is, is whatever we choose to make it–which, for most of us who celebrate and enjoy the season, usually means a month or so of banal, nondescript, but comfortable domestic warmth, purchased from a retail store and then put in a box in the closet until next Thanksgiving rolls around. That isn’t a criticism–it’s exactly what I want out of the holiday season. And I think Paul McCartney understands that better than most. When he sings that he’s “simply having a wonderful Christmastime,” he means “wonderful” in the most boring, commonplace sense: “wonderful” like a cup of hot chocolate out of a packet, or an image of a crackling fireplace on your TV because who has a real fireplace these days anyway. McCartney bravely embraces the holiday’s inherent kitschiness, and there’s something to be said for his honesty: after all, when we try to make Christmas graver and more important than it actually is, we end up with truly irredeemable pap like “The Christmas Shoes.” And wouldn’t we all rather listen to “Wonderful Christmastime” than that?
Listen to “Wonderful Christimastime” on Spotify below. You know you want to: