You can’t have too much of Phil Spector’s Christmas Album, but if that’s not enough here’s a short playlist of Christmas songs that have some sort of social message.
1/ The obvious place to start is with James Brown’s Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto. James Brown here is offering a helpful counterpoint to the dominant narrative, that the sort of Christmas you have is solely dependent on virtue – “you better not cry/you better not pout” etc – set out in ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’, by The Crystals amongst others.
(Jim Reeves sets out a similar theme in ‘Señor Santa Claus’ – “I think we understand/Sometimes the toys all gone before you reach the Rio Grande” – but perhaps best to draw a veil over that one, given its sorry similarity to Mike Read’s UKIP calypso: “On Christmas Eve I watch for you and I no sleep a wink/If I no get Lolita something she feel sad I think”.)
2/ Roy Orbison’s Pretty Paper is a song about homelessness at Christmas (without actually directly mentioning either).
3/ Merle Haggard lays it on thick in If We Make It Through December, a story of unemployment and failing to make ends meet. Another sad old tale of not managing to get by is Tom Waits’ Christmas Card from A Hooker In Minneapolis. And things are looking pretty bleak for Victoria Spivey too in Christmas Morning Blues.
4/ We all want world peace for Christmas (see also Up on the Housetop by the Jackson 5: “What I want means more than fun/Love and peace for everyone”) but noone conveys it quite like Berlin-era David Bowie in his strangely incongruous Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy duet with Bing Crosby (‘Right or wrong, I sing either way’).
5/ Christmas Island by the Andrews Sisters is an innocent little song, but it’s grim to listen to, and feels totally wrong, ever since the establishment of an immigration detention centre on the island, from which a succession of horror stories have emerged.
6/ Finally I’d like to sneak in a mention of Christmas in Hollis – which just about deserves a place, as a song about being rewarded for honesty (“I’d never steal from Santa/Cos that ain’t right”). Run DMC sample Clarence Carter’s Back Door Santa in the song, which is great too, though it falls far short of qualifying for this list.
[updated Dec 7 2014]