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Christmas Must Be Tonight

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

"Christmas Must Be Tonight"
by Robbie Robertson, "Islands" (1976)

In Britain there were two Christmas albums competing with each other for years, both compilations. One was composed of recent hits, and largely secular. It was reissued year after year with one or two track changes each time. Essential content was Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade, Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon, Do They Know It’s Christmas by Band Aid and I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake. The other album was composed of ancient hits along the lines of Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte, Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree by Brenda Lee and White Christmas by Bing Crosby, and admitted a little more religious content. They were around in the late 70s, and still run today, though now both are double CDs. You had to have these two, and I own at least four versions, plus you need one selection of genuine carols. My favourite is still a 1984 W.H. Smith chain store budget set featuring loud horns on everything. 1

In the USA artists went further and devoted whole albums to the Christmas spirit. Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You was the ultimate expression, joined by The Beach Boys, Tamla Motown and everyone else you could think of. A Christmas hit is a major money spinner. Slade have been the most consistent in Britain with countless reissues of their Christmas knees-up, frequently charting too. Theirs was a traditional British Christmas; blind drunk, noisy, sitting in a sea of wrapping paper, glazed with excess turkey and Brussels Sprouts, farting (and laughing about it) at Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas Speech on TV at three o’clock on Christmas afternoon. I Believe in Father Christmas was a rather gloomy take on Lieutenant Kijé, including the revelation of seeing the father dressed up as Father Christmas and realizing his identity - in the cold light of dawn, I saw him in fool’s disguise . It’s resurrected annually (and is our family’s favourite). Christmas Must Be Tonight has never made either compilation.

The attraction of Christmas hits is that they appear on best selling albums for twenty years. This, apparently was on Robbie Robertson’s mind in 1975, coupled with a more personal motivation.

Barney Hoskyns
A case in point was Christmas Must Be Tonight, an out-take from Northern Lights, Southern Cross, subsequently included on Islands. The song, written by Robertson after the birth of his son, Sebastian, was originally intended to have been a Christmas single in December 1975, but when no one in the A & R department got behind the idea it was dropped from the label’s schedule.

The song is not raucous and boozy (one recipe for a hit), nor does it lift from the classics (another) nor sweetly sentimental (a third), nor does it have a contemporary quasi-political message (a fourth), nor is it funny along the lines of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause nor a novelty like Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree or Run, Rudolph, Run. What Christmas Must Be Tonight is in intent, quite unashamedly, is a modern carol. Mary’s Boy Child was written in the same vein, and now appears in churches at carol services. Like the classic carols, it rests on a strong, beautiful and memorable melody line, the best on the Islands album.

Christmas Must Be Tonight is written in the language of the King James Bible:

wrapped in swaddling. Lo! the Prince of Peace.…
and it came to pass …
over my flock I bide …
behold wise men journey from the east …
Say ‘fear not, come rejoice’ …
Praise the newborn King …

Now I’m not a churchgoer, but I do turn up for the carol services at the kids’ schools, and since I was a boy, the language has changed. The modern readings leave me glazed. The King James translation of the Bible has been quoted as one of the great works of English literature, and the writing was contemporary with Shakespeare. A lot of it goes past me when it’s chanted like a mantra. I hadn’t a clue what ‘saved by the blood of the lamb’ meant until I read a Time magazine article on Moses3 very recently. Some of the early 17th century language unfortunately invites double entendre. A 19th century church near me was converted into a second-hand bookshop, and across one window was emblazoned the biblical quote “Behold I come quickly.” As a regular visitor I got used to seeing what happened when pairs of women spotted it. Whisper-whisper. Giggle. Mutter, ‘…must know my Darren.’

Robbie utilises the archaic vocabulary, even allowing himself to get away with dubious lines to force the rhyme, like A shepherd on the hillside, where over my flock I bide. Dubious lines are part of the tradition of carols though. Take the English translation of Adeste Fidelis, or Come All ye Faithful. In verse one you get:

O Come Ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and behold him
Born the king of angels …

And in verse 2 you’re expected to continue with the same music and fit in:

Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb
Very God
Begotten not created

Notice that Christmas Must Be Tonight and Come All Ye Faithful contain both a ‘lo’ and a ‘behold’, which though separated here form the title of a basement song! The unusual thing about Christmas Must Be Tonight is in writing it from a first person viewpoint, that of one of the shepherds. In content, it is like The First Nowell, with more emphasis on the shepherds and less on the kings.

In a dream I heard a voice
Say fear not, come rejoice
It’s the end of the beginning
Praise the newborn king


I saw it with my own eyes
Written up in the sky
But why a simple herdsmen such as I?

Robbie emphasises the humble aspect of the event rather than the regal one, and utilises the second voice (Levon) brilliantly to achieve the “ordinary man” viewpoint. The lead on the song is sung by Rick Danko. There’s a great, loping bass line. Note Garth’s wonderful shimmer through right below a star that shines on high. I love it when Garth accentuates the lyrics. Hoskyns has said that it’s a Northern Lights out-take, like Twilight. That figures, partly from Garth’s touches in the background, but also from the theme of stars on high, and indeed crosses. The two songs could easily have a similar genesis. Barney Hoskyns also damns it with back-handed praise:

Barney Hoskyns
The only redeeming moments of musical magic (on Islands) came in the saccharine ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight ‘…
(continued) 4

Robbie Robertson has re-recorded the song at least twice, though both versions are dated ©1988. The first appeared on the Scrooged soundtrack in 1988. I had never noticed where it came in the movie. The second emerged on Winter, Fire and Snow, Songs for the Holiday Season in 1995. Both are computer-drum excursions, presumably recorded with Gary Chang. The later one has prominent female vocal assistance, and is marked “P” 1995 and “remixed by Tim Gordine”. They conceivably come from the same original session tapes, which were produced by Robbie Robertson.

Why he should have chosen to re-record the song is interesting. He’s never done this with any other Band song, and though I enjoy his versions, they don’t match Rick’s voice on the original, and he would have known this better than you or me. It has to be that the song is personally significant to the point where he wanted to reclaim it. If the speculation around Levon’s autobiography is correct, then he (a) owns the publishing (b) bought out the shares for performing. If so, there would be very little financial motivation for re-recording it. He might just as well have offered the 1976 Band version. It might be that he wanted a late 80s sound, perhaps to see if it would get a hit. On Scrooged, it’s sitting alongside Annie Lennox and Al Green, Dan Hartman and Miles Davis. More likely to me is that he wanted to re-stake his personal claim by singing it himself. His voice is affecting on it.

It appeared too late for Band concert versions. Rick Danko seems to keep it up his sleeve, and offers it on solo dates in December of each year.

It’s such a cliché that it’s hard to re-state it, but the magic of Christmas, which is nowadays being celebrated across the non-Christian world5 as well as the Christian one is the promise that the birth of every baby brings. That is something that appeals beyond the Christian world and touches every human being. It is this aspect that Robbie has focussed on.

How a little baby boy, bring the people so much joy …

That’s every child, male or female. We all break into soft smiles whenever we hold a new baby, and this is why the story resonates in us. Biblical scholars have pointed out that the historical events would have to have taken place more like July, somewhere between 10 B.C. and 4 B.C. Most of the trappings of Christmas are borrowed from the dark ages fertility rites of Northern Europe. The convenient placing of the event just after the established Winter solstice festival, dates from hundreds of years after the early Christians. We can read these opinions and reject them or accept them. But every one of us can relate to the miracle that brings the people so much joy.


Studio album:
Islands, 1976

Robbie Robertson solo versions:
OST, 1988
Winter, Fire & Snow,


  1. 'Christmas Carols' by The English Chorale with The Altemburg Brass Virtuosi. W.H. Smith own label.
  2. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide.'
  3. 'In Search of Moses' by David van Biema, Time, December 14, 1998
  4. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide.'
  5. I've visited Japan shortly before Christmas and Thailand shortly after. The shops are decorated just like those in the UK or USA.

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