The Brits love their Christmas music. Since the 1970s (according to my ad hoc online research), there has been particular emphasis placed on the Christmas Number One: the song that is at number one in the charts during the week in which Christmas Day falls. In an effort to snag this much-coveted title, some artists shamelessly release Christmas-themed songs (which is the framing plot-line for the movie Love Actually, the part with Bill Nighy). Several of these have become perennially beloved Christmas songs, many of them ones that Americans have never heard.
Here are 12 songs—some Christmas number ones, some not—that I can guarantee you will hear every year at Christmas-time in the UK.
Note: I seriously considered putting in links to the YouTube videos of these songs, but given how quickly those links get broken, I decided against it. Instead I’ve put in a link at the end of each blurb for a Google search for that song on YouTube.
1. Merry Xmas Everybody, by Slade
To kick off the list, let’s look at the song that kicked off the Christmas Number One phenomenon. “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade was released in 1973, with lyrics reflecting the difficult circumstances the country was in at the time. If you think too hard about them, the lyrics can be rather depressing—but at the same time, they’re beautifully hopeful as well, urging us to “look to the future.” Google Search for “Merry Xmas Everybody” on YouTube
2. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, by Wizzard
I seriously love this song! Like, seriously. Last year I kept thinking, “How come I’ve never heard this song before? It’s amazing!” Well, it’s because Wizzard never made it in the US, that’s why. But this song from 1973 has a great, upbeat tune and pleasant, fun-loving lyrics. Not terribly profound, but unbeatably fun. Google Search for “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” on YouTube
3. Step Into Christmas, by Elton John
This is one you’re likely to hear in the US, as well, but I’d say it gets more airtime in the UK. Another upbeat song with peppy lyrics, Elton John and Bernie Taupin intentionally recorded this song (also in 1973) with a “wall of sound” mix as a kind of tribute to Phil Spector and the Motown sound of the 1960s. Google Search for “Step Into Christmas” on YouTube
4. Stop the Cavalry, by Jona Lewie
This is another Christmas song that I find rather depressing, but my British friends assure me it’s not. (They’re wrong.) Though released in 1980, it is written from the point of view of a soldier in World War I, who wishes they would “stop the cavalry” so that he can be at home for Christmas. It was, in fact, never intended to be a Christmas song, but rather a war protest song. But the chorus includes a brass band—and that, plus the line about wanting to be at home for Christmas were apparently enough for the British public, and it’s now a staple of the holiday season. Google Search for “Stop the Cavalry” on YouTube
5. Wonderful Christmastime, by Paul McCartney
You’ve probably heard this one in the States, too. Given the popularity of the Beatles on both sides of the Pond, their singles tend to get plenty of airtime in both countries. Another cheery song with happy lyrics, this one never fails to get me singing along. Oh, it was released in 1980. Google Search for “Wonderful Christmastime” on YouTube
6. Happy Xmas (War Is Over), by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band
Speaking of songs by former Beatles … and of war protest songs, for that matter… this is another you’re likely familiar with from American radio. It’s never been a favorite of mine—and apparently the public felt similarly when it was originally released in 1971. But over the years, this one has grown in popularity, and you’re sure to hear it every year. Google Search for “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” on YouTube
7. When A Child Is Born, by Johnny Mathis
This song has been covered by a few different artists, but the most popular is certainly the version by Johnny Mathis, released in 1976. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before I came to the UK, but it’s pretty popular here. And it is one of those rare specimens, a modern Christmas song that actually has something to do with Christ. Google Search for “When A Child Is Born” on YouTube
8. Do They Know It’s Christmas?, by Band Aid
Originally released in 1984 to provide aid for the Ethiopian famine, this song has since been re-recorded three more times, in 1989, 2004, and 2014—all four releases linked to charity events. The lyrics are rather banal, but it’s proved enduringly popular, particularly in the UK. Google Search for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” on YouTube
9. Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues
This is yet another song that makes me think the Brits have an incredibly depressing view of Christmas. Released in 1987, it has been listed as one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time in various polls—and it’s all about a couple in New York arguing about their relationship and calling each other nasty names. It’s certainly unique, that’s for sure, and it’s ubiquitous in Britain during the holidays. Google Search for “Fairytale of New York” on YouTube
10. Last Christmas, by Wham!
Americans are probably familiar with this one, too, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard groups of girls (and some guys) on their way to or at the pub, singing the chorus of this song to get in the festive mood. Originally released in 1984, it has been in the top 100 on UK charts for eleven of the subsequent years, regaining popularity particularly after the turn of the 21st century. Google Search for “Last Christmas” on YouTube
11. All I Want for Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey
Another song that Americans are familiar with, but the Brits seriously love this song! It’s another that often gets belted out by groups on their way to pub, and also makes appearances at office parties, social clubs, and businesses. Case in point, yesterday I stopped at a cupcake stand in the London Underground, and this was the song playing. Released in 1994, it went to the UK #2 spot during the week of Christmas—narrowly missing out on Christmas Number One status by East 17’s Stay Another Day. Google Search for “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on YouTube
12. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy, by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
OK, I sneaked this one in. I don’t actually hear it that often, even in the UK, but I love it enough that I had to include it on this list. If you’ve never heard it, you may balk at the idea of a duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, but it actually works very well. It was written and recorded as part of Bing’s 1977 television Christmas special—but between the recording, in September, and the airing of the special, in November (US) and December (UK), Bing died, which led to rumors that the recording was somehow computer-generated. The “Peace on Earth” part was reportedly written specifically for David Bowie, who hated the song “Little Drummer Boy” and didn’t want to sing it. Google Search for “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” on YouTube