Wonderful Christmastime: A New Toy Turned Money in the Bank

Paul McCartney — 1979

When I was 16 I got my first part-time job. I started working at a music store in the fall of 2008 and by the time I began to find my bearings we were all tossed into the icy clutches of the holiday season. From the time I finished school to the time I got home at night I was flanked on all sides by pushy customers, full parking lots, and a near-lethal dose of constant holiday music.

Generally people felt no need to comment on the songs we played in the store. Whether you’ve worked in retail or not we all know what 99% of holiday shoppers look like: lightly agitated, eyes darting from shelf to shelf, checking their phones for notes or old texts to help them find their way. They’re not generally in the mood for pleasantries. Occasionally you can catch the rare shopper humming along to “Last Christmas,” but most of the time the radio plays in stores less to please and more to drown out the sound of shrink wrap rubbing against shrink wrap and slushy boots squishing into soaked carpet.

The only exception, time after time, was Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song so divisive, it always warranted comment.

Prior to this job, “Wonderful Christmastime” wasn’t really on my radar. I knew the song, but mostly just as a song for a crowded mall corridor. However as November and December rolled on, the song began to garner my attention. It stood out among the rest of the holiday playlist in its unorthodox aesthetic; Synthesizers have their place in Christmas music, but these ones were so bouncy and piercing. Its jutting staccato rhythm jabs at you as Sir Paul jerks back and forth from verse to chorus before devolving into a flurry of ding dong-ing.

“Music expert” pictured here putting more focus into Wario Ware than his future

At 16 I had a lot of (generally ill-informed) opinions about things, and by early December I formed a new one; “’Wonderful Christmastime’ is a trash song,” I would proclaim to my co-workers. I, in my superior taste, know what a good Christmas song is, and a good Christmas song “Wonderful Christmastime” is not!

I wasn’t alone in that take. Every now and then I would catch one of those pushy customers muttering something critical about the track under their breath as they handed me a copy of Nickleback’s Dark Horse to ring up. To this day “Wonderful Christmastime” seems to bring out something in almost everyone who hears it, be it toasty nostalgia or eye-twitching rage. Love it or hate it, it’s a special song, and there’s a lot more to it than just another cash grab Christmas song from a famous songwriter.

The year is 1979. The Get Back sessions, the Beatle’s final live performance, and Abbey Road are all a decade ago. Paul McCartney has been releasing music without John, George, and Ringo for almost ten years and he’s been very successful. He’s dropped two solo albums and another eight records with his band Wings. Just months ago Wings released Back to the Egg, the album will end up being their last, and Paul has returned to the studio to work on his next album, McCartney II, the sequel to his first solo release from 1970. Like on McCartney, Paul has chosen to record II completely on his own, save for some additional vocals provided by his wife and fellow Wings collaborator Linda McCartney. This was also the height of his love affair with the synthesizer, which lead to whatever the hell “Temporary Secretary” is.

It was also during these recording sessions that Paul came up with “Wonderful Christmastime,” which borrows a bit of DNA from the rest of the McCartney II sessions. Like on a good chunk of II, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 is his weapon of choice on “Wonderful Christmastime,” and he leans in hard. So hard that, to be honest, I forgot there were guitar flourishes in this song because the echoey synth completely dominates the track. Aside from the keyboard, there’s only some simple, repetitive percussion and Paul’s equally repetitive vocal lines to fill out the song. Considering what else he wrote for II, the composition is pretty weak compared to the fairly robust “Coming Up” or the clean and McCartney-sweet “Waterfalls.” The song is basically just Paul playing around with a new toy and he turned those experiments into a single.

Even if you think “Wonderful Christmastime” is awful, trust me, this is worse.

Jump ahead a couple months and Paul’s label Parlophone drops “Wonderful Christmastime” as a single with the questionable b-side “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae” on November 16th. It was also accompanied by a music video featuring the members of Wings (an ironic choice since they aren’t on the song, but a choice that makes Paul look a lot more suspect in the video). In its first weeks, “Wonderful Christmastime” saw middling success, peaking at #6 on the UK singles chart on the first week of January 1980 and 94th on the Record World Singles chart the previous week, but it didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100. It also wouldn’t end up tracking well the following year, but 1980 was also the year John Lennon was killed, and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” conquered the charts.

Not exactly Purple Rain

It didn’t make Billboard Magazine’s special Christmas Singles chart until December 1984 when it peaked at ten for two weeks. This, coincidentally, was also two months after Paul released Give My Regards to Broad Street, a musical that Paul not only produced the soundtrack for, but also starred in. The film was a flop, but the soundtrack performed reasonably well, making Paul especially visible that year, likely paving the way for his Christmas song once the season rolled in.

It wasn’t until 1996 that it peaked again, appearing at 29 on Billboard’s Hot Adult Contemporary Chart at the end of the first week of January. ’96 was actually a quiet year for McCartney releases so it’s unclear what spurred the song’s jump to the charts, but the real mystery is how Billboard defined “Adult Contemporary” in 1996 given that “Wonderful Christmastime” charted on the same list as Mariah Carey and Boys II Men’s “One Sweet Day.”

Over the least few years, Paul has been putting out music pretty consistently, and along with his new albums, “Wonderful Christmastime” has been picking up steam year after year. Three months after Paul dropped Egypt Station in 2018, “Wonderful Christmastime” finally landed on the Billboard Hot 100 at 47.

Jump ahead to earlier this year and the song peaked again at 28 on the week ending on January 2nd. Again, this was just two weeks after Paul dropped McCartney III, and I think there’s something poetic about his silly Christmas song peaking after the release of the sequel to the album that produced it.

It’s been a few years since that first Christmas at the music store, and whether or not its nostalgia for a good time or a genuine affection, I’ve grown to enjoy “Wonderful Christmastime.” It’s so quintessentially Paul McCartney in the same way “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is quintessential John Lennon. Where the latter is a timeless, biting protest song masquerading as a Christmas song, the former is sentimental, silly, and surprising, just like Paul’s music. Yeah the lyrics have barely any substance, but he’s had plenty of songs with uninspiring lyrics. For every “Let It Be” or “For No One” you get a “Lovely Rita” or “Wild Honey Pie.”

It’s silly, but Paul is silly. And the guy makes close to $400,000 every year from that song (or somewhere in the ballpark of $16 million since 1980), so the market has spoken. Silly, cheesy Christmas songs are A-OK.

…Alright, as long as someone like Paul McCartney writes them.

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Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf

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Peter Sanfilippo

Peter Sanfilippo

Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf

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