ALL many people want for Christmas is not to have to listen to Mariah Carey’s most famous record. The 1994 hit was voted most annoying festive song in a recent poll – perhaps because, from mid-October onwards, it’s impossible to enter a shop or turn on the radio without being reminded that all Mariah Carey wants for Christmas is you, baby. The song has plenty of fans, of course, having sold more than 16-million copies and being so intrinsic to the festive season that the singer is about to release her own documentary, Mariah Carey Is Christmas.

But bah, humbug, there are plenty of folk who can’t abide those seasonal jingles, and with Europe’s top winter music festival scheduled to open in Glasgow a fortnight after the Christmas holidays, we decided to ask Celtic Connections performers for their musical take on the merits and demerits of festive music. Asked to name their least favourite seasonal song, Slade’s 1973 smash hit was chosen twice: by singer Karen Matheson and accordion player Phil Cunningham.

Those musicians certainly aren’t anti-Christmas. Before playing Celtic Connections 2020 – which opens in Glasgow on January 16 – both are performing in Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook, a showcase of modern and traditional music which tours Scotland this month.

But you can have too much of a good thing, and for Karen Matheson, Merry Xmas Everybody tips the balance.

“Hearing this for the first time every year - in a shop of course - heralds the beginning of consumer hell and the dark side of Christmas where everyone is conned into spending money they don’t have,” says Matheson, whose Celtic Connections appearances include headlining at the Burns Night Auld Lang Syne concert. “Of course the whole gamut of the Christmas canon is played from November onwards, but this is the one that I associate with crassness.”

BBC Radio Scotland’s Take The Floor presenter Gary Innes, whose band Manran perform their 10th anniversary concert at Celtic Connections 2020, declares Have A Cheeky Christmas by The Cheeky Girls to be “one of the worst Christmas songs of all time”. Asked why, he says: “You just need to listen to understand what I’m talking about, although maybe that’s a little too cheeky.”

Multi-award-winning Scottish singer Emily Smith, who performs at Celtic Connections with Blazin’ Fiddles on January 18, has a different seasonal bugbear: Cliff Richard’s 1988 hit, Mistletoe And Wine. “Sorry Cliff,” she says,“but it’s just one I’ve heard too many times.”

Smith’s favourite Christmas song is a traditional carol. In The Bleak Midwinter, based on a Christina Rossetti poem, was first published in 1872 and, recalls Smith: “I always liked it as a child when I would hear it in church and in recent years I’ve included it in my annual Christmas show.The imagery and melody both seem to come together in a way that tugs at my heart strings.”

Eddi Reader’s favourite carol is even older. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen dates back to at least 1760, and she loves the Christmas Songbook’s jazzy version of that ancient song. Reader – who headlines at Celtic Connections’ Burns Night special, Auld Lang Syne on January 25 – also loves Dean Martin’s 1959 recording of Let It Snow. In fact, Reader can’t think of a festive song she doesn’t like.

“I love the positive energy surrounding the idea of Christmas - the potential, the hope, the intention for good. Songs are just the soundtrack to all that stuff.”

Phil Cunningham – whose Big Six-0 birthday bash is celebrated at Celtic Connections on January 26 – says his favourite Christmas song is Who Comes this night by James Taylor. “Who comes this night, this wintry night, As to the lowly manger?” it begins. “The shepherds and the kings did come, To welcome in the stranger …”

“I first heard it on James Taylor’s Christmas album a few years ago,” recalls Cunningham. “I fell in love with the melody and words. I was chatting with James and asked him where the carol originated. I was surprised to learn that it was written only a few years ago by a friend of his. It has all the sounds and feel of a traditional carol … a real masterpiece in timeless writing. We sing it now in the Christmas Songbook show.”

Karen Matheson’s favourite Christmas song is Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic, White Christmas, which was made famous by Bing Crosby in the film Holiday Inn.

“It reminds me of my dad, who I always used to think sounded like Bing Crosby,” says Matheson. “Christmas is a time for taking stock and remembering, and listening to this song makes me feel like a big warm blanket has been wrapped around me.”

By the time Celtic Connections opens on January 16, the tinsel will have gone and even Noddy Holder will have fallen silent. Right now, however, there are only a few shopping days left until December 25 – and since Celtic Connections tickets make ideal presents, this is the perfect time to browse the programme for events that will gladden any music-lover’s heart on Christmas morning.

Among the hottest tickets are two gigs featuring American singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell. Staged on January 29 and 30, both events feature Mitchell’s new supergroup, Bonny Light Horseman, whose self-titled album is released during Celtic Connections. One track, the folk trio’s reimagining of the song Jane Jane, includes a refrain from seasonal Southern spiritual song, Children Go Where I Send Thee.

“Three for the Hebrew Children, Two for Paul and Silas, One for the itty-bitty baby, Born in Bethlehem …” goes the refrain, which is sung by Mitchell. She recalls singing Children Go Where I Send Thee as a child, and clearly remains close to her heart.

Recrossing the Atlantic to Scotland, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale Of New York is cited as a festive favourite by both John McCusker and Gary Innes as their festive favourite.

Set in New York but with an Irish undercurrent, the 1987 hit has become a seasonal classic – with good reason, according to John McCusker, who plays several Celtic Connections gigs including the Burns night Auld Lang Syne event, as well as featuring in Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook.

“No matter what time of year it is, as soon as I hear the piano intro to Fairytale Of New York it takes me right to Christmastime with family and friends,” he says.

“I love so many Christmas songs, but this is the one that always makes me reflect on the year that is nearly over. The way Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl sing to each other is very real. The lyrics are beautiful and sentimental but not in a cheesy way. It's the perfect song.”

Like Eddi Reader, he says: “I totally love Christmas. Even though there is busy chaos everywhere with folk stressing and panicking about presents and ham, it's the one time of year where it feels like everything slows down. I love spending every minute with my two wee girls and seeing their faces on Christmas morning.”

Manran’s Gary Innes also loves Fairytale Of New York, partly because he has fond memories of sharing “a few drams” with Shane MacGowan at Celtic Connections Festival Club back in 2003 “while talking over the rules of the annual shinty hurling match” (Innes was formerly a leading shinty player). “He asked me to write to him as his accordion player was potentially leaving and then proceeded to write down a fake address on an envelope he produced from his jacket pocket. When I turned it over his family home address in Tipperary was written and stamped on the front of it. Legend!

“I’ll also never forget playing alongside Duncan Chisholm in 2009 at Mark Owen from Take That’s wedding in Cawdor Castle. Mark, Gary Barlow and all the band came over and joined us for a song and they requested Fairy Tale of New York which we all sang together.”

Today, the song is an Innes family favourite: “We’ve had our Christmas playlist on in our kitchen each morning since the beginning of December and our seven-month old daughter Gracie jumps up and down each time it comes on. That’s the true test of a song. Yes it is dated and some of its lyrics don’t quite fit within our current society. However, nothing makes me feel more like Santa is coming than that opening line.”

“It was Christmas Eve, babe …”

Celtic Connections 2020 opens on January 16 and runs until February 2, offering more than 300 concerts, ceilidhs, workshops and special events. Tickets make ideal Christmas presents and are on-sale now, in person at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3NY, by telephone at 0141 353 8000 or online at

Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook tours Scotland from December 15-21, playing the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on December 17