Quick thought

How to Record a Holiday Classic

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! With chestnuts roasting on an open fire and children watching mommy kiss Santa Claus, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… song season! Yes, the December holidays mean it is time for the glut of holiday music that comes with it, and the inevitable debates over the value of these songs.

Christmas songs are nothing new; as long as there has been a Christmas to celebrate there have been Christmas songs. Some attribute St. Francis of Assisi for beginning the caroling tradition, others the Orthodox Church.  As the holiday became more secular, and additional winter holidays were included in the winter holiday season, the carol became less Christian and the wide range of winter and holiday songs exploded. Today, it is a well-known secret that an artist can make a quick buck and draw attention to themselves again if they record a holiday album. For example, Clay Aitken is a part of your holiday music – and nowhere else – thanks to his popular version of “Mary Did You Know?”.

There’s a difference between a quick cash grab holiday song that will destroy your brain and make you hate your relatives, and a song that will put you in the spirit of joy and love. The difference is the execution. Below are my guidelines for how to successfully record a sustainable Christmas hit, both for remakes/covers and original Christmas songs. While you’d think the latter would be harder to record than the former, I’d argue it’s the opposite.

Rules for Recording a Successful Holiday Cover:

  1. Don’t just do a karaoke version: Anyone can (and has) sung “O Holy Night” and “Let It Snow”. Those are easy to do and easy to do annoyingly. If you want to mail in an album, line up a few favorites and put one or two flourishes per song but don’t contribute anything unique. Rarely can someone do a song SO well that it becomes the standard for the song (think Josh Groban for “O Holy Night”). Instead,
  2. Adjust a traditional tune to your musical styling: That’s not to say you should turn Silent Night into a gangster rap tune (although if you do it right….). Rather, take what you do best and adjust the song to that. An example of that is The Barenaked Ladies and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings”. The first song traces back to the 17th century and the second to the 19th century, so they tend to be treated with a stuffy reverence that the song commands. What BNL (and Sarah McLaughlin) do is take the songs and adjust it to their style. BNL is more bubblegum pop, so the songs become slightly more upbeat while still in a rather slow cadence. Same with The Drifters and White Christmas – same song put in a style they know best.

Rules for Recording a Smash Original Holiday Song

  1. Get tied to a piece of pop culture: Even if it is not you that sings it in a movie or TV special, you are helped immensely if your original song becomes a part of holiday legend through pop culture. “All I Want for Christmas is You” is a hit, but became even bigger when sang in Love Actually, for example. TV Christmas specials count as well
  2. Tap into the year’s zeitgeist: Does your song speak to a modern audience? Does it address issues that the modern listener can relate to, and summarize current sentiment well enough to be a nostalgic look at the past? Your original song has a chance to stick. But what you cannot do above all else is
  3. Be depressing: The holidays are about joy, forced or otherwise. People want to hear uplifting music when they are off to church or the mall, not songs about how the world is going to hell.  Your depressing song may be a hit for a year or two, but eventually it ages poorly and if you like it, you become a source of mockery at parties or on podcasts. Case in point – “Christmas Shoes” is still played on occasion, but if you admit you like the song, you are likely to be mercilessly and rightfully mocked. However
  4. You can be depressed if you miss someone: It is acceptable to write a great holiday song about missing a loved one who is away (not dead) and could return. Pining for someone is something everyone can relate to, but is not as depressing as death or politics. Related to this:
  5. Being funny helps: Consider
    1. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”
    2. “I Want Crabs for Christmas”
    3. “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”

None are particularly artistic or thought-provoking, but they hit the fun/silly part of the season just right.

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