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Author Talk: ‘This Is Christmas, Song by Song’

In the new book This Is Christmas, Song by Song: The Stories Behind 100 Holiday Hits, music journalist Annie Zaleski tells the stories behind 100 holiday songs spanning from the 1940s to today. The 224-page book out now from Running Press contains the fascinating backstories behind R&B classics like Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” to glam rock stompers like Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” to modern pop hits like Taylor Swift’s “Christmas Tree Farm” and everything in between. In this interview, Zaleski talks about her favorite new wave Christmas songs, Mariah Carey’s marketing brilliance, and why she will always defend Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Zaleski

360°Sound: Please start by telling us how This Is Christmas, Song by Song came to be.

Annie Zaleski: Believe it or not, I was in a Facebook writing group, and there was an editor who was looking for a writer for a book on Christmas music. I love Christmas music. I have written about Christmas music consistently over the years, probably at least one piece each year. I immediately reached out and sent a bunch of links and said I would love to do it. I did a sample tryout blurb, and I ended up getting the job. I can never talk badly about Facebook because it’s brought me great things like this book.

What do you love about Christmas music?

I think part of it is the fact that it’s only popular a couple of months out of the year. I’m not the type of person who necessarily listens to Christmas music all year. If it’s November and December, I’m listening to Christmas music. I like the fact that you have the happy songs you know and can’t get enough of, but there’s a lot of melancholy in Christmas songs. There’s a lot of sincerity, and there’s a lot of sadness to them.

In my normal non-Christmas music listening habits, I do love music with a lot of emotion and music that is maybe more morose than normal. I think with Christmas music, I really tap into that. But I’m just fascinated by the history of them. When you think about the Christmas songs we hear on the radio every year, dating from the 1940s to the present, it’s the only time of year when the radio is not so heavily segmented by eras and genres. It’s a little bit more of a mishmash. I like the fact that you can get a sampling of it.

Discuss how Christmas music has reflected the evolution of pop music.

The book is arranged chronologically. I didn’t want to rank them as the 100 best or anything like that. Chronological made sense so you could see the progression of songs, but also just so people could enjoy them and not get mad that their favorite song wasn’t #1. Arranging them chronologically really gives you an insight into how popular music unfolded.

Early on, it was a lot of jazz and big band. It was very much what we would call old-fashioned today – more standards. And then as the rock ’n’ roll era came in the 1950s, the songs started embodying that. You’d have something like “The Chipmunk Song,” where there was some studio experimentation. So as technology started to creep into things, that also changed the songs. Then you hit the Beatles, and all bets are off.

Just as music splintered and exploded into so many amazing genres, Christmas music did the same thing. By the time you hit the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you have punk songs, hip-hop songs, new wave songs, electro-pop songs, rock songs, and even heavy metal songs. You can see the way that music expanded and really became vibrant through the lens of Christmas music.

What are some of your favorite new wave Christmas songs?

“Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses is probably my favorite. It’s a very fun, sort of meet cute in a grocery store. It’s just a great story and an upbeat song. But thanks to the album, A Very Special Christmas, there are a ton of new wave songs. You have Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland” and Madonna doing “Santa Baby.” I ended up using the Eartha Kitt original, but I mentioned that Madonna covered that song.

You can’t have a book about Christmas songs without mentioning Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” I include the Three Wise Men’s (XTC’s alter ego) “Thanks for Christmas.” That’s always been a longtime favorite of mine. New wave was not a monolith, and you can definitely tell with the Christmas songs that the new wave artists took a little bit of a different spin.

Why do you think Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is such a phenomenon?

Part of it is because Mariah is such a big star. She was a star when that came out [in 1994]. I think part of it is she’s a brilliant marketer. When her career was ebbing a little bit, she hit on the idea of leaning into Christmas. Over the years that song had been used in different pieces of pop culture, so there was definitely interest in it. And she said, “Hey, I’m gonna lean into this and lean into my persona as the Queen of Christmas.” It really worked because everyone loves an enthusiastic Christmas supporter. She was all in. She was very enthusiastic and very genuine about it, and she had a cheeky attitude toward it. Every year, she does these reveal videos online where Halloween is gone, it’s Christmas time, it’s Mariah time.

I think that people were looking for a new song, a new standard. It’s very difficult to write a good original Christmas song. Also, it’s a really good song. And it sounds old-fashioned when you listen to it, you don’t necessarily sit there and say that was released in 1994. It sounds like it could be from any era. That gives it an advantage in that it fits in with a lot of the older music. When you look at her career, basically right after “All I Want for Christmas is You,” she started having a string of #1 hits. This was before “Fantasy,” “One Sweet Day,” and “Always Be My Baby.” Right after she released the song, she really became a lot more popular.

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it Christmas song. Why do you think it’s so polarizing? And what do you think of it?

I fall on team “I love the song.” I wrote an essay defending the song several years ago. That is one of the pieces I wrote that gets the most response every year. It’s hilarious. I didn’t write it to be like that, but I was very surprised by that. It’s probably Paul at his most self-indulgent, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s him testing out synthesizers. The lyrics are pretty slight, there’s not a lot to it. I think people just find it annoying. I think that era of Paul McCartney, the late Wings into the early solo stuff, is polarizing. People have issues with Back to the Egg, the final Wings record. And I love that record. People were like, “What is he doing? This is not like the McCartney we know and love.”

It’s funny because I’ve seen more grumbling about Elton John’s “Step into Christmas” recently. I’m wondering if people are just not having classic rockers doing jaunty Christmas songs. That could be it. It was always befuddling to me because I always thought that that McCartney song was him experimenting and he was thinking ahead and it foreshadowed where he’d go on “Temporary Secretary.” [Editor’s Note: Check out our piece on “Temporary Secretary.”] Some people just want Paul doing sensitive love songs on a guitar; they don’t want to hear synth-pop Paul. I always want to hear synth-pop Paul.

What’s your final pitch for this book?

I think if you’re a fan of Christmas music, this book is for you. There’s no negativity. It’s really a celebration of what the songs are and why the songs are so meaningful and why people might really enjoy those songs. I think for Christmas music fans, it’s very affirming.

If you’re not a Christmas music fan, I think you might be surprised by what you read. It might give you new insights into songs you might not like, or it might give you surprising facts about things you didn’t know. At the very least, you would win at holiday trivia. You’d have so many fun facts and little nuggets of information to share with family – you can impress everyone. But I hope people enjoy it. It was a surprise and delight when I wrote this book to have learned so much. If you’re a fan of music history, I think you’d appreciate this, too, because there is a lot of information that’ll put this music in context.

Order your holiday copy of This Is Christmas, Song by Song: The Stories Behind 100 Holiday Hits direct from Running Press (part of the Hachette Book Group). Perfect for those special someones who dig real books.

If you are also on Team I Love the Song when it comes to Macca’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” you may also enjoy

Top Christmas Singles circa 1984


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