Album: Saint Etienne, A Glimpse of Stocking (Foreign Office)

Without bells on – the atheist's guide to Christmas music
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The Independent Culture

There's an excellent book, just published in HarperCollins paperback, called The Atheist's Guide to Christmas.

With all profits going to the Terrence Higgins Trust, it's a collection of mostly humorous essays by writers ranging from Richard Dawkins to Derren Brown, Simon Le Bon to Simon Price, all broadly making the same point: namely that you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy Christmas.

None of Saint Etienne's three permanent members – Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell – strike me as likely members of the God Squad (and one of them comes from a Jewish family), but they too understand the frisson of excitement that even the godless get at this time of year.

The wonderfully named A Glimpse of Stocking is a collection of Saint Etienne festive originals old and new, with a handful of carefully chosen cover versions. The best-known track is their hi-NRG Tim Burgess duet "I Was Born on Christmas Day" (which Bob Stanley actually was), a hit back in the 1990s, but the newer "Through the Winter" is a real heart-melting beauty, "No Cure For the Common Christmas" is a stunning Yuletide melodrama, and the saucy-but-sweet "Unwrap Me" raises a smile by quoting the Specials: "My name's Sarah, and I'm going to enjoy myself first..."

The self-explanatory "21st Century Christmas" brings us into the age of sending your wish-list to Santa via SMS, but there's a more nostalgic, mulled-wine flavour in the glam boogie of "Come on Christmas", which boasts the brilliantly impatient plea "Come on Jesus, won't you get born for me?"

There are also hints of Christmasses past in the way the fairy-dust disco of opener "Gonna Have a Party" throws in a snatch of Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas", and the unmistakeably Wham!-like feel of "Welcome Home".

The cover versions comprise Billy Fury's "My Christmas Prayer" (the singer's last self-penned song, which failed to chart in 1959), Randy Newman's "Snow", Margo Guryan's obscure but charming "I Don't Intend to Spend Christmas Without You", Chris Rea's "Driving Home for Christmas" flipped around to the perspective of the waiting wife, and the Doors' "Wintertime Love", on which our pop heroes have miraculously managed to locate the only Jim Morrison lyric in existence (Come with me/ Dance, my dear/ Winter's so cold this year etc) that doesn't make you want to punch him.

At times, as on the impressionistic instrumental "Snowbound on the South Bank" and the choral interlude "Fireside Favourite", the trio can evoke the spirit of the season without even needing words, or anything as crass as jingle bells. The rhetorical question "Do you believe in magic?" – SE's motto since the start – still applies, at Christmas more than ever.