Behind Paul McCartney's 'Wonderful Christmastime,' a misunderstood holiday classic

"Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding."

'Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding'


"The party's on/ The feeling's here/ That only comes/ This time of year."

Now, whether that feeling is joy or nausea, one thing is for certain: Paul McCartney's 1979 single "Wonderful Christmastime" evokes something in everyone — Nostalgia? Revulsion? An uncontrollable urge to sing along or turn the radio off? (Or maybe both?)

Every December, we're all exposed to McCartney's Christmas classic, a quirky prog party jam that combines synths, sleigh bells and special effects that, like a true Christmas miracle, still  manages to provoke the same strong reactions as it did when it was released 38 years ago.

An upfront disclaimer: I am a huge Beatles fan, and McCartney is my guy, but I've always loathed this song. Until this year, that is. Its persistence and ubiquity in grocery stores and Shoppers Drug Marts alike has battered me into submission. I appreciate it's echoey synths, polyphonic B chords and "granny music" charm, even the "ding dong, ding dong" part that sends so many people over the edge.

If this weren't a Christmas song from one of the greatest songwriters in modern music, would it be rolled out every year? Or is it truly, at its core, just a great song? Once you're able to legitimately appreciate the song, and not in some ironic good-because-it's-so-bad kind of way, it feels something like an inside joke or a secret handshake with Sir Paul himself. "Wonderful Christmastime" would have all the makings of a cult classic, were it not for the fact that it was already so insanely successful.

Whether you love it or hate it, read on for some fascinating facts about the song that basically could buy McCartney a nice country home. Every. Single. Year.

Yes, you read that right

"Wonderful Christmastime" is played so much every holiday season that Forbes estimated it earns McCartney $400,000 to $600,000 US a year. Basic math would tell us that, since its release in 1979, it's brought in roughly $15 million US, almost half of his estimated annual earnings of $20 to $30 million.

There's a reason the royalty cheques are so big

McCartney wrote, produced and performed every single instrument on "Wonderful Christmastime," which come to think of it, just sounds like a very McCartney thing to do.

But is it a solo or Wings song?

The song was recorded during the McCartney II sessions, but it was released as a non-album single. However, it did appear as a bonus track on the 1993 reissue of Wings' Back to the Egg, and the band members appear in the music video, filmed at the Fountain Inn in Ashurst, West Sussex. To make it more complicated, it was also released on the 2011 special edition reissue of McCartney II.

It's far from McCartney's worst Christmas song

When it was released on Nov. 16, 1979, the B-side was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae," which is neither reggae nor, well, a very good song. It makes "Wonderful Christmastime" sound like "Let it Be" in comparison. It was also the first Christmas music released by McCartney since the '60s, when the Beatles would make annual holiday records for its fan club. There were seven in total, running from '63 to '69.

Brits loved it, Americans, much less so

When it was released, "Wonderful Christmastime" peaked at No. 6 on the U.K. Singles chart the week of Jan. 5, 1980. In the U.S., it failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, but did peak at No. 83 on the Cash Box Top 100, an influential chart that ran until 1996.

It was actually quite progressive

The echoey, oscillating chord progressions you hear throughout the song are the result of the specific synth McCartney used, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. The polyphonic analog synth was manufactured between 1978 and 1984 and became a favourite amongst prog rock bands. However, when McCartney recorded in 1979, the synth would have been fairly new and definitely still in its first generation. There is speculation that it was actually a Yamaha CS-80, released in 1976, but it's the Prophet-5 that appears in the video. So if the song, as some of its detractors claim, just sounds like McCartney noodling around with some new toys, the reason is because that's exactly what he was doing. And because he's McCartney, he turned it into a mega hit song.

It's becoming a Christmas standard

"Wonderful Christmastime" has become a popular song for artists to cover, including Diana Ross, Barenaked Ladies, Kelly Rowland, Demi Lovato and Kylie Minogue. De La Soul also sampled the synths and transformed the song into something entirely new with "Simply."

It still sounds great live

When it was released, Wings performed it on their 1979 tour of the U.K., which ended up being the final Wings concert tour. While it's no "All I Want for Christmas is You," which Mariah Carey seems to be under contract to perform once a year, McCartney has been known to dust off this holiday classic during his live shows, and even performed it on SNL in 2012, and again with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots in 2016. With it's somewhat tricky chord structures using variations on B major, plus how it shifts from all major chords in the verse to mostly minor ones in the chorus, it's just really fun to play. Vancouver's Yukon Blonde know what's up.

Santa uses it as pump-up music on the big night

Say no more.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?