Correction: the single version of “December Will Be Magic Again” was recorded in November 1980.
With “December Will Be Magic Again,” we’re in considerably less serious territory. A one-off Christmas single with no attachment to an album, it dallies in its own winter wonderland, cordoning itself off from Kate Bush’s more serious contemporary work. When pop singers do Christmas songs, they’re usually partaking in a tradition of cheerful odes to Yuletide (with some notable exceptions). “December Will Be Magic Again” is one of these songs, abdicating its status as a contemporary of Never for Ever in favor of filling the Christmas single slot. Yet Bush couldn’t settle for even her Christmas fluff being drab traditionalism, and fucked around with it a bit.
You see, a lot of Christmas standards hail from the 70s and 80s and are created by artists such as Paul McCartney and Wham! These songs are often little more than lists of Christmas activities and odes to sitting around trees with your family. It’s a saccharine tradition that buys into capitalist notions of Christmas and giving corporations lots of money. To be sure, Christmas activities are often fun — no form of leisure is free of capitalist maleficence. But at its core, modern Christmas is as much a commercial enterprise as it is a global family tradition.
Bush doesn’t completely break from this pattern, as “December” is straightforwardly nostalgic. From the longing for the past implied by its title to its dwelling on childhood images, the song spends it runtime on a reconstruction of Christmas childhood memories. Bush settles into the falsetto end of her vocal range, singing lots of high notes with a wonder usually only prepubescents can manage. Bush has exactly the sort of voice which makes lyrics like “take a husky to the ice/while Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas”/he makes you feel nice” sound cutely intuitive in a way we’re not prone to seeing in things like “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Yet for its exercise in nostalgia, it separates itself from the mainstream of Christmas music by being a little too eccentric to be quite marketable (the song did pretty well in the charts, but was far from one of Bush’s bestselling singles). Bush’s own East Wickham childhood makes its way into the song. She has a refreshing tendency to lean on her own interests in her songwriting, which liberates “December” from feeling too commercial. There are the obvious references to staples of Christmastime like “old Saint Nicholas) (who is grossly maligned by the entire UK as “Father Christmas”) and romantic traditions (“kiss under mistletoe”), but they’re balanced by images of Oscar Wilde showing up: “light the candle lights/to conjure Mr. Wilde/ooh, it’s quiet inside/here in Oscar’s mind.” The reference is clunky, with two uses of “light” in a single clause accompanied by some strange stuff about dwelling in Wilde’s head (“it’s quiet in here/inside Oscar’s mind”). Yet it’s an oddly poignant choice of creative minds to dive into: Wilde’s idiosyncratic wit often responded to darkness in his personal life. As a queer man in Victorian England, Wilde’s status as popular author was diminished by his demotion to subhumanity for his sexual orientation. In some ways, true recognition for him came later when millions of people read his work and celebrated him as both a great creator of the fantastical and a queer icon, including a little The Happy Prince fan called Catherine Bush.
Yet despite touching on a complex character like Wilde, “December Will Be Magic Again” doesn’t have a lot of meat on its bones. With the exception of bits like the Wilde cameo, what Bush has to say here mostly boils down to “isn’t Christmas neat?” The song expresses this in an offbeat way in how it splits the focus between Christmassy bits and more generic moments about December’s atmosphere and snow “com[ing] to cover the dark up,” but it’s still just a reasonably fun Christmas song. Bush seems to think more of it, however, as she recorded a number of different versions of the song. “December” made its debut in, of course, a 1979 BBC program embarrassingly called The Christmas Snowtime Special, featuring performances from ABBA, Boney M, and Bonnie Tyler. This version of the song proves counterintuitive, as in addition to its standard Christmas bells it has drummer Preston Heyman playing bongos. It’s a conga-inflected recording like “Room for the Life,” which is… not what you’d expect a song boasting lyrics about Bing Crosby and Oscar Wilde. Even stranger is the song’s accompanying video, with an obviously stoned Bush wearing red pajamas whirling around in a red armchair and relishing whatever strain Santa has brought for her. By far the most extravagant video of the song, it’s an underrated classic of Bush’s videography that should be taught in every film studies class.
The next TV performance of the song appeared in the “Kate” special, and is by far its more minimalist production. There’s a simple setup of Bush at the piano with Kevin McAlea playing keyboards behind her, while Preston Heyman rings small bells during the chorus. Stripped of its artifice, “December” is a pleasantly quiet little tune, placing Bush’s vocals and melody at its center. Admittedly this was the “December Will Be Magic Again” I knew before writing this blog post, and its unobtrusiveness makes it the preferable recording for me. Bush’s strengths often lie in maximalism (wait until we get to “Breathing” or “Waking the Witch”), but working as an acoustic artist lets her shine as a singer-pianist as well.
Finally there’s the single version of the song that made it to #29 in the UK (it fared better in Ireland, a consistent supporter of Bush, where it reached #13) and it gets the final say on how this song gets read. Released two months after Never for Ever, it’s a standalone single that clearly wants to fill the “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow” archetype. Never for Ever is decidedly less a pop record than its predecessors, and pointedly lacks a sweeping dramatic single about the power of youthful precocity. Releasing a nostalgic paean like “December Will Be Magic Again” in its wake is an odd move, one that feels like Bush is pushing against the current trajectory of her songwriting in order to revive a song that debuted before “Babooshka.” That’s understandable — serious artists get to do silly holiday anthems as well. The problem with the single recording of “December Will Be Magic Again” is that it’s convinced the song merits the same seriousness as “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow.” It’s overproduced to hell, sounding more like a Phil Collins track than a Christmas ballad with its slow, powerful drumming, soaring guitar solos, and agonizingly overstated backing vocals from Bush. It’s hard to figure out why Bush recorded this song so many times — perhaps her perfectionism took over for a while. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to imagine this song working as a quiet piano-driven B-side for, say, “Army Dreamers,” which already had “Passing Through Air” for backmatter. The single is mistimed, needing to be set back a year or so for it to work.
Yet with “December Will Be Magic Again,” we see the end of a certain kind of Bush song. It’s her last track that can be feasibly reimagined as hailing from her pre-Kick Inside years, with its relish for childhood delights and simple attributes of a domestic environment. That approach has reached a breaking point. From now on her quiet songs will be more adult and introspective. She’s going to do silly songs in the future, of course — but even the silly stuff often carries plenty of weight. Bush’s earlier work is an ambitious testament to what youthful artistry can accomplish. Few songwriters are particularly mature early in their career. With Bush, a lot of her recurring themes from across her career are already in place on her first couple albums. For all its shortcomings, “December Will Be Magic Again” signals the end of Bush as prodigy as she moves into the era of the Fairlight, global conflict, and becoming a masterful singer to rival Peter Gabriel. Farewell, last of the Phoenix tradition. You’ve carried us far.
Recorded at London AIR Studios in 1979. Performed on 22 December for BBC Snowtime Special and 28 December for “Kate” special. Single version recorded in November 1980. Released as a single on 17 November 1980.