Some people would say that the obvious answer to the question in this post’s title is: “It depends.” But those people are wrong. There are absolutely certain attributes that make a Christmas song good! I submit for your consideration:
1) It’s sincere without the treacle. (Note: aside from the last, none of these videos are watchable here because Sony BMG doesn’t seem to understand the internet. Click through to watch on YT.)
Ella Fitzgerald, unlike a lot of jazz singers, could project emotion without getting too sentimental. This version of “Sleigh Ride,” benefits from the big band treatment, which somehow makes the overly sweet lyrics a little more fun.
2) It gets back to basics.
I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but “O Holy Night” (and Johnny Mathis’ version in particular) is my favorite Christmas song. It’s unpretentious and tells the story of the birth of Christ with dignity and beauty.
3) It has great vocals.
If someone’s gonna write a new Christmas song, it had better have a fantastic singer on the track. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has just that. It’s a perfect Christmassy twist on a pop song that could be sung any time of year, and Mariah is probably in her best voice here.
4) It’s just plain fun.
There are jauntier versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and I’ve heard almost every one ever recorded, but I’m a fan of this one because it’s on the sexy side. Well, taken plainly, it’s a decidedly unsexy, pre-feminist tale of a guy coercing a woman into staying at his place with compliments and booze. With the right voices, Ray Charles and a slinky sounding Betty Carter, it becomes a weather-influenced version of a conversation familiar to many couples. (I find that, as a feminist, I’m mostly okay with this song because the reasons she lists for why she can’t stay are all external/societal factors, and in the end she does what she really wants to do: stay inside with her man.)
It should be noted, though, that a good Christmas song certainly isn’t limited to songs about Christmas. Take, for instance, the joyful fun to be heard in Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.”
Update: One thing I forgot, though it should go without saying… a Christmas song is automatically good if Harry Connick Jr. sings it, preferably after being hilarious: