Britain likes comforting familiarity when it comes to Christmas music. The UK’s Spotify Top 10 for the week of 24th-30th December last year was comprised entirely of classics from across 60 years of pop history, from Bobby Helms’ Jingle Bell Rock (1957), to Michael Bublé’s 2011 cover of It’s
Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, which seems to get increasingly difficult to avoid each year.
But what about our European neighbours? Taking the wholly unscientific method of the stats for the most streamed songs in each European country last Christmas, it’s clear that tastes vary massively. And while naffness and a certain sense of irony – from Andy Williams’ retro swing sound, to Elton’s glam piano runs and Wham!’s chiming 80s synths – is apparently as essential to a British Christmas as mince pies, some of the songs that the Europeans were streaming were brave enough to take Christmas seriously.
The Austrians, Germans and Swiss were confirmed lovers of English-language Christmas songs in last year’s stats, with their Spotify Top 10s made
up almost entirely of these. The Baltic states had a mixture of Anglophone
Christmas songs and non-seasonal international hits, while the Benelux countries put the familiar Mariah Carey, Wham!, Brenda Lee, Bublé, Helms, Williams and Ariana Grande (Santa Tell Me from 2014), as well as José Feliciano in their Top 10s, although the Netherlands swapped Helms and Lee for Chris Rea and Kelly Clarkson.
French Spotify users, meanwhile, hardly bothered with Christmas songs at all, only the irrepressible Mariah appearing in last year’s festive Top 10.
The Portuguese and Italians also made room for Wham! and Mariah, but otherwise followed the same pattern, as did much of the east of Europe, with the exception of Hungary, which had six Christmas songs in English. Spain had no Christmas songs at all in the Top 10.
We have to go far north, to the lands most closely identified with snowy festiveness, to find nations truly invested in Christmas music and embracing songs in their own language.
Nestled among familiar Anglophone songs, Sweden had the a cappella classic Tänd ett ljus (Light a Candle) at No 7. Released four years after The
Flying Pickets bagged UK Christmas No 1 with Only You (it reached No 3 in
Sweden), the similar-sounding track by the trio Triad topped the Swedish New Year 1988 chart. The all-time classic from 1982, the ironic Mer Jul
(More Christmas) by Swedish synth-pop duo Adolphson & Falk, was at No
10 on last year’s festive Spotify chart.
Norway had two brand-new Christmas songs in the native tongue in their Spotify Top 10 last year, both of them connected with reality TV. Pop Idol star Astrid S’s Når Snøen Smelter (When the Snow Melts) was shimmering and understated, while the evocative and emotional duet Når julefreden senker seg (When Christmas Peace Descends) by comedian Truls Svendsen and his partner Charlotte Smith, which emerged from their stint on Norges nye megahit, is surely one the best songs ever to have come out of a celebrity TV talent contest.
While Denmark went mainly for hits that are familiar to Brits, hugely popular singer songwriter Rasmus Seebach’s sparse acoustic ballad from
2015, Der’ Noget I December (There’s Something About December) made an appearance in the chart, while his Lille Store Verden (Little Big World), with its
message of peace on earth for Christmas, was just outside the Top 10.
But it is the Icelanders and the Finns who are most enthusiastic about festive songs in their own languages. Iceland had seven Christmas songs in Icelandic in their streaming Top 10 from acts including comedian Laddi,
actor and singer Helgi Björns, rapper Herra Hnetusmjör (Mr Peanut Butter)
and veteran singer Björgvin Halldórsson, and the pop band Í svörtum fötum (Dressed in Black). While there was more than a touch of irony to the two retro covers from the bands Memfismafían and Baggalútur, the latter’s gossamer-delicate Jólin eru okkar (Christmas is Ours) (2020), a collaboration with quirky singer BRÍET, brought real emotion to the charts.
Finnish Lapland is, as everyone knows, the home of the real Santa Claus, and the Spotify Top 10 for Finland last Christmas also included some truly heartfelt songs. Both the stirring, Nativity-themed Tulkoon joulu (Let Christmas Come) (2009) by Suvi Teräsniska and female-fronted pop rock band Haloo Helsinki! with their anthemic modern classic, Joulun kanssas jaan (I Share Christmas with You) (2017) were irony-free zones.
While the homogenisation of musical culture continues apace in some ways – it is clear you would not have been able to escape the strains of Mariah Carey or Wham!’s sleigh bells anywhere in mainland Europe last year – at the fringes of the continent there is still room for new and heartfelt explorations of what Christmas really means.
A EUROPEAN CHRISTMAS in five songs
Adolphson & Falk, Mer Jul (1982)
The Swedish synth-pop duo’s song is an unlikely Christmas classic, with ironic lyrics focusing on the excess of the season: “More Christmas, give
me/ More Christmas, I want/ More Christmas”.
Rasmus Seebach, Der’ Noget I December (2015)
Seebach became the fastest-selling Danish artist of all time on the release of his second album in 2011. The simple festive song There’s Something About December from his fourth album Verden ka’ vente (The World Can Wait) was a platinum-selling single.
Haloo Helsinki!, Joulun kanssas jaan (2017)
A rousing Christmas hit with plenty of characteristically Finnish rolled “Rs”
from frontwoman Elisa Tiilikainen, I Share Christmas With You had backing
from the choir of Helsinki Cathedral.
Baggalútur and BRÍET, Jólin eru okkar (2020)
The utterly beguiling Christmas is Ours by these two Icelandic acts would
melt the heart of even the most Scrooge-like: “Christmas is ours and no matter what happens/ I want to spend it with you.”
Truls Svendsen and Charlotte Smith, Når julefreden senker seg (2021)
When Christmas Peace Descends came out of a Norwegian reality TV talent
show, but is destined to be a modern classic, with its captivating imagery of the Northern Lights and the Norwegian fjords.