Metal and Christmas have an interesting relationship for a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is that the genre as a whole has a tense history with Christianity. Equally relevant is the fact that many people who get into metal, as musicians or fans, do so because they have a darker outlook on the world, or an interest in exploring the more difficult sides of life. Many who identify as metalheads cite the metal scene as a place where they found home as being someone who is a little different, and many people who are a little different do not have the most positive experiences with mainstream cultural traditions.
Given this, there are several approaches to Christmas from metal bands and artists.
The first and most common tactic is to not do it at all, whether this is due to it not suiting a band’s style, the artists not celebrating it, or just lack of interest.
The second is the anti-Christmas approach, with cynical, subversive, or mocking songs, either original, or altered covers. While I respect this subset of songs and understand the value of venting frustrations at this time of year, I would classify Christmas songs and anti-Christmas songs as different beasts due to their differing purposes.
The third approach is the cover song. These vary greatly from “O Holy Night is already a banger, why would we NOT put a blistering guitar solo in it?” to “Nigh-unrecognizable black metal renditions where one only knows it’s a Christmas song from the title”.
The final category is the least common, and that is the sincere original Christmas song.
This final category contains many fine songs, but most miss the mark when it comes to balancing metal and Christmas in music, lyrics, and themes. For example, some are Christmassy only in the lyrics, but lack any compositional indication of the occasion, or there are those which sound Christmassy but aren’t really about anything. “Christmas Truce” is a masterpiece that hits the mark on all three axes. Now that I’ve had two whole years to calm down from the excitement of new Sabaton and examine it with a level head, I would love to tell you why.
“Christmas Truce” begins with a melody which manages to strongly evoke “Carol of the Bells” without being a direct cover. It’s a favourite tune when it comes to metal Christmas songs, but referencing it here is a stroke of genius. Like “Christmas Truce,” “Carol of the Bells” was not initially intended as a Christmas song. The piece we now know today as “Carol of the Bells” was written in 1914, the year WWI began and in which the historical Christmas Truce took place. Originally based on Ukrainian folk songs and known as “Shchedryk” by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych, the work gained the Christmas association in 1936 with the addition of Peter Wilhousky’s English lyrics.
In parallel to this, Sabaton members Pär Sundström and Joakim Brodén have stated they didn’t set out to write a Christmas song specifically, but instead wanted to use Christmassy sounds to set the scene of the historical event, similar to how they used bagpipes to set the scene for “Blood of Bannockburn” on 2016’s “The Last Stand.”
Both Sundström and Brodén felt this story needed the right care and attention, and it therefore departed from their usual songwriting methods. Normally, songs are written and stories chosen to fit, so writing the right song for this story created some pressure. While it may have been an obvious inclusion for 2019’s “The Great War,” they took the time to get it right, and it was instead the first piece completed for 2022’s “The War To End All Wars.” They say the first song completed sets the tone for writing an album, and the resulting step up in Sabaton’s composition is evident across multiple tracks.
Finally on the musical front (pun not initially intended), we have Sabaton’s signature, rousing, singalong chorus. The lyrics “today we’re all brothers, tonight we’re all friends” would be unbearably saccharine in so many other contexts. Here however, they create quite a moving link between a modern audience, brought together from many walks of life to sing along at a concert, and those soldiers a century ago, at peace for an evening, singing carols and hymns in No Man’s Land. Different stakes in a different century, but a similar glimpse of how good things can be when we band together.
Which brings me to the perfect melding of Christmas and metal in terms of lyrical themes.
In Christian tradition, extremely broadly speaking, the Christmas story is about the arrival of a figure who is meant to teach us how to build a better world, eliminating inequality and bringing peace. Themes of hope and peace are a common thread throughout the season. Religious stories, folklore, and even modern Christmas media are full of Christmas miracles involving previously opposed groups getting along, or individuals making decisions to do better by their fellow humans. The great tragedy of real life is that instances of this happening rarely stick, often due to social, economic, or other pressures.
In November of 1914, the realisation was setting in for many that the “Home By Christmas” propaganda from their governments was just that. It was around this time that Winston Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine. “What would happen, I wonder,” he mused, “if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found for settling their dispute?” The great tragedy of the historical Christmas Truce is, of course, that battle recommenced in short order, largely due to threat of punishment from those with much more power who were nowhere near the fighting themselves. Groups of soldiers who had participated in the truce were rotated out, to prevent them getting any funny ideas about not shooting at the men they’d spent Christmas with.
Metal’s position as a genre which deals in the darker sides of life makes it the perfect genre for this particular Christmas story. Metal can celebrate the truce without glossing over those who had died or would die, like some renderings of this same story unfortunately do. Additionally, power metal specifically lends itself well to the hopeful and uplifting. Previous intimate and heartbreaking Sabaton songs set in WWI such as “Cliffs of Gallipoli” or “The Price of a Mile” deal primarily in the grief and horrors of war, as do songs about these or similar battles from much more sonically brutal bands. By contrast, “Christmas Truce”, while tinged with the human tragedy present in all war stories, is rooted in the hope of human friendship and brotherhood, therefore using Sabaton’s subgenre to its full potential.
Taken altogether, this is the perfect combination of band, subgenre, occasion, historical events, seasonal messages, compositional choices, and lyrical themes. The cherry on top is that it’s independently a good song, arguably elevating the songwriting of “The War To End All Wars” as a whole, and can be enjoyed year round, not only for seasonal or novelty value. While there are too many factors in what becomes your personal favourite for me to have any say on that score, all of the above puts “Christmas Truce” head and shoulders above any other Christmas metal I’ve ever heard from an analytical standpoint.
May you all have a safe and happy winter holiday season. I hope you get to enjoy your favourite metal with your favourite people. And I invite you to listen to some Sabaton and consider what might be possible if we all just decided to do a little better by each other.