A photo collage of Bing Crosby and David Bowie, Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney, Destiny's Child and Wham!, clockwise from top left..
A photo collage of Bing Crosby and David Bowie, Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney, Destiny's Child and Wham!, clockwise from top left..

Christmas songs tend to elicit strong emotions: sometimes, they remind you of that special someone you’ll see over the holidays, or someone you’ll miss dearly; other times, they bring deep feelings of sadness or loneliness to the surface; at others still, they make you want to smash up the perfume counter at the department store, or stuff your head into the raw rear of turkey, just to avoid hearing “The Christmas Shoes” again.

But most people have a favourite Christmas song, and most songs tell a story of some kind, and – well, perhaps you see where we’re going here: if you have a favourite Christmas song, chances are there’s a book just like it, so we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Below, simply find your favourite yuletide jam, and we’ll recommend the perfect read for you to unwrap – with nary a lump of coal to be found.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey

“I don't want a lot for Christmas; there is just one thing I need,” coos Mariah Carey on her yuletide mega-hit. All she wants is the object of her affection; she doesn’t even “care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree”, if you can believe it. If this kind of pure, yearning romance – unfettered by materialism or status (or even a wish for snow!!) – is your thing, may we suggest Jane Austen’s stone-cold classic about that very thing? In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood develops a romance with Edward Ferrars, but it’s not until his love is proven to be based purely on love – or, that “all he wants for marriage is Elinor” – that we come to our happy ending.

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues

The Pogues’ famous Christmas tale isn’t exactly a happy one: set in New York City, with an Irish twist, it tells of an ill-fated Christmas Eve in which a man (“a bum” and “a punk”) and woman (ahem, “an old slut on junk”) fall apart and back together in a troubling, co-dependent relationship. It’s not altogether far off from the all-consuming, problematic relationship at the heart of Megan Nolan’s must-read 2021 debut, Acts of Desperation. Based mostly in Ireland, but with Athens asides, it’s a dark, gritty coming-of-age story for anyone who’d rather be gripped in a tale of despair over Christmas than schmaltzy, feel-good fare.

“2000 Miles” by The Pretenders

Two thousand miles is very far through the snow. So, with that distance between her and her love, Chrissie Hynde remembers what once was, as her love appears “sometimes in a dream”, “outside under the purple sky.” If this musical remembrance of things past is your favourite Christmas choon, we recommend Marcel Proust’s wistful epic on memory, love, art and death: the multi-volume In Search of Lost Time. The sad news is that it may not cheer you up over the holidays; the good news is that you will get to savour this read for months and months… and months… to come.

“Stay Another Day” by East 17

Unrequited love: a theme which, like the trees that we decorate each Christmas, stays evergreen all year round. And East 17 know it: just look at the snow falling all around them in the video below, as they implore their lover to do what the song’s title begs; and listen to the bells! If you’re experiencing a bit of this – unrequited love, but also a bit of snow – it might be the perfect time to dig into Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece Fiesta (also known as The Sun Also Rises), in which young man Jake falls madly in love with fellow American expatriate Brett Ashley in Paris and Spain. By the book’s end, when it becomes clear that she’ll never be his, you can practically hear Jake whispering: “Oh don't leave me alone like this, don't you say it's the final kiss; won't you stay another day?”

“Last Christmas” by Wham!

“Last Christmas” is a classic for a reason. Like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”, it turns heartbreak into hope, its pragmatic lyrics about carrying on after a romantic failure urging you to do the same, while its soft synths imply snowy romance and a fresh start. If, like George Michael, “knowing what a fool you’ve been” resonates with you, you might also enjoy relating to Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Idiot, who among other lessons learns the power of unrequited love at uni from a Hungarian math student. It’s a breezy read with unsuspectingly heady subject matter – sound like any Christmas tunes you know?

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

“Jingle Bell Rock” was recorded in 1957, which plants it firmly in the Baby Boomer era of Christmas music, the kind of song you would hear tinnily whispered from shop radios in the early 60s and – as you well know – into the 2020s. But here’s the thing: it’s a jam, isn’t it? And at just about two minutes long, when “the jingle hop has begun”, it leaves you wanting more. If this is your favourite Christmas song, we recommend George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four: written in 1949, it hails from a similar post-war era, and though it sometimes feel like the kind of book parents like to talk about, it remains as cherished and relevant as when it was first written. Thanks for the rec, mum and dad!!

“Santa Baby”

Just kidding! Nobody’s favourite song is “Santa Baby”.

“Driving Home for Christmas” by Chris Rea

“I'm driving home for Christmas / Oh, I can't wait to see those faces / I'm driving home for Christmas, yea / Well I'm moving down that line / And it's been so long / But I will be there / I sing this song / To pass the time away.” Read those lyrics, and try telling us that Chris Rea’s toe-tapping, steering wheel-slapping classic isn’t basically a modern Christmas The Odyssey. Sure, Jesus hadn’t done his thing yet by the time Homer created his epic poem, and we bet Chris Rea didn’t have to slay a bunch of suitors when he got home, but picture Odysseus on his ship, heading back to Ithaca, tapping his foot to the beat of a jaunty tune, and you’ve got the ur-text of ‘coming home after a prolonged period away’-core. If your favourite tune is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, this is also the recommendation.

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

Hey, here’s an easy one! If your favourite Christmas song is Macca’s “wonderful” addition to the canon, do yourself a favour and dig into The Lyrics, a song-by-song look into Paul McCartney’s life by the musician himself – and the closest he’s said he will ever come to writing a memoir.

“Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie

A little tradition, a little contemporary flavour; a story rooted in history, but told in a new, fascinating way: are we talking about Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s take on “The Little Drummer Boy”, recorded for a Christmas special in 1977, or are we talking about Maggie Shipstead’s magnificent 2021 novel, Great Circle? If you’re a fan of the former, there’s plenty for you in the latter, an American epic that simultaneously tells the story of Earhart-esque aviator Marian Graves in the mid-20th Century and film star Hadley Baxter in the 21st, as their life intertwine in compelling ways. There’s a reason it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; maybe it should be on your Christmas list, as well?

“8 Days of Christmas” by Destiny’s Child

We talked about what to read if your favourite Christmas song is about wanting nothing but love. But what about those who want love… plus all the other materialistic trappings of the Christmas season? “A pair of Chloe shades and a diamond belly ring”? “A gift certificate to get my favourite CDs”? And, of course, “the keys to a CLK Mercedes”? If, like Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle, these sorts of things catch your fancy – and why shouldn’t a person dream big? – we suggest Gustave Flaubert’s absolute classic, Madame Bovary, about a woman whose dreams perennially outsize her reality. Sounds like you’re going to need a bigger tree, though.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid 1984

A well-meaning bop that nevertheless hasn't aged super well: “There won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they'll get this year is life / Where nothing ever grows / No rain nor rivers flow.” First: you know and we know things grow in… Africa, the world’s second-largest continent. Second: Africa was actually doing pretty well until the arrival of colonialism. If this is surprising news – which may be understandable, given the way history is still taught in the UK – then we recommend Sathnam Sanghera’s searing study of the history of the British Empire, Empireland, in which he doesn't lament there “won’t be snow” even once.


What did you think of this article? Email 
editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Photos above: All images are Getty
Destiny’s Child by Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage
Wham! by Michael Putland/Getty Images
Mariah Carey by James Devaney/FilmMagic
Paul McCartney by David Redfern/Redferns
David Bowie and Bing Crosby by Bettmann

Image: Vicky Ibbetson / Penguin

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