‘Tis the time to be tortured. It is December 23 and you have popped into the mall to pick up a few last-minute items for your festive meal. You promise the parking attendant you will bring him some change once you’ve bought your meat and veggies.
As you walk through the mall doors, you are accosted by a shrill All I Want for Christmas – a horrifying cover by someone trying to imitate Mariah Carey. In the grocery store, things take a turn for the worse: it is the overly familiar chestnut, the Christmas with Boney M collection.
The Little Drummer Boy stalks you down the veggie aisle. By the time you’ve reached the meat section, you’ve endured three verses of Oh Christmas Tree. In the holiday-induced, extra-long checkout queue you consider plugging your ears with your broccoli to avoid the unholy earworm Feliz Navidad.
Outside, the parking attendant cannot believe how you’ve turned into the Grinch. In your mind, the Christmas songs you most despise are looping perversely. Boney M are the torturers in chief when it comes to Christmas muzak.
People must love them because the Boney M single Mary’s Boy Child is featured on the United Kingdom’s list of bestselling singles of all time and is purportedly the most popular non-charity Christmas song of all time in the country.
Since their debut in the 1970s, Boney M Christmas songs have remained impressively high on the bestsellers’ chart.
Boney M goes platinum – every year
Liz Mitchell, the group’s lead singer, told the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone last year that the Christmas with Boney M album goes platinum every year. But despite these mammoth sales, the band members enjoy little of the profits.
“Our royalty statement has been minimal and menial. Really. We get maybe the seventh of 1%," Mitchell said. Most of the millions have gone to their record company and the writers of their songs.
David du Plessis, chief executive of the South African Music Performance Rights Association, is convinced many of us are closet Boney M fans. He says those who profess to hate Boney M often harbour a secret appreciation for their songs.
“People complain about the Boney M Christmas album, but people like to hear what they are accustomed to. And, whether you like it or not, you are accustomed to the Boney M collection. So if you go into a retail store, you are expecting to hear Boney M,” he said, meaning you may subconsciously feel disconcerted if you don’t.
But not all stores agree. “If you’re standing in a queue, the last thing you want is music that irritates you,” said David Yapp, station manager for Red Cap Radio, Mr Price’s in-house radio station.
“It must be music that you can click your fingers to. It must be feel-good music. Our mix is a cross between hot adult contemporary – the kind of music played by Highveld Stereo – and top 40 music, the kind of music played by 5FM.”
The station, which has a weekly listenership of 4.7-million people, plays Christmas music during the festive season because “that is what is going around at the moment”.
Entertaining, not irritating
“We’re not ‘bah humbug’. We love throwing in a Christmas carol,” added Yapp, “but there must be some sort of control over it.”
Yapp and his team have crafted a way to create a festive feel without getting on the nerves of the customers. “We’ve taken the hooks of some Christmas carols and made them into [shortened] jingles,” he said.
The jingles are played at intervals throughout the day with the aim of entertaining – rather than irritating – Mr Price customers, who stay in store for only 12 minutes on average.
Sandton City, Johannesburg’s most opulent shopping mall, seems to be taking the safe route. Stepping into the mall, one hears only the sounds of feet, voices, the wheels of trolleys and prams and, occasionally, whining children. But “when it is quiet you can hear Christmas music”, said a security guard; in other words, hardly ever.
“You play and select music for your customer base,” said Du Plessis. “The shopping malls do it just the way that the radio stations do.”
In keeping with Du Plessis’s observation, there is a definite pattern to which shops play what music. Most of the “trendy” clothes and shoe stores play no Christmas music at all.
In Due South, which sells outdoor gear, a shop assistant pre-empted the opening lines of Avril Lavigne’s Hot 10 seconds before it started playing. She knows the entire album off by heart. “You either love it or you hate it,” she said.
Three CDs on continuous loop
Jared Cruikshank (19), who has been working at the store since May, said the staff alternated between three CDs that looped continuously. The store, he said, was only allowed to play CDs that head office had approved.
According to another employee, the music is selected with a specific aim in mind. “By the sounds of things, it is to get people to buy and to give them more energy,” he said. “But every time I listen to it I want to go to sleep.”
More traditional shops – department stores and grocery shops – seem inclined towards a smattering of Christmas tunes. CNA sandwiched pop songs with All I Want for Christmas and Sleigh Ride.
A shopper at Bryanston’s Nicolway Shopping Centre complained that he had heard Santa Claus is Coming to Town three times in the space of an hour. “It was really irritating.”
Upmarket Thrupps in Illovo centre plays bland Michael Bublé-type music at a volume so low that one cannot discern the subject matter of the lyrics. The centre seems to straddle the religious divide of its customers with its music and by giving an untraditional nuanced spin to its Christmas decorations: white Christmas trees adorned with blue-white lights – an almost universal requirement for our society’s melange of cultures.
Spirit of Christmas 'foreign to Africa'
Less than 10km away, pigeons pick at the remains of two burst dustbin bags in the parking lot of Randburg Square. Inside, not a jingle bell or a strain of Deck the Halls is to be heard. Two decorated pine trees in the window of the Edgars store are the only nod to Christmas.
“But that’s a lazy, 50-year-old effort from Edcon; it’s orders from head office,” said a Randburg resident, who asked to be called Jabu Nkosi.
The reason why the mall lacks festive references is because “the spirit of Christmas is foreign to Africa”, he said.
Nkosi, who had popped into the centre to use the ATM, said that most shoppers at the mall were from Diepsloot and the outskirts of Soweto. “Around here you won’t find a sense of Christmas carols,” he said. “You’ll find people looking for something to drink.”
But, he said, this needed to change. “The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, the spirit of family. It is just like the African idea of ubuntu.”