Christmas Day is Dec. 25.
It’s easily defined. Even kids who don’t follow the calendar know when the holiday falls.
But when does the full Christmas season begin? Radio programmers annually debate that as they season up their playlists. Retailers roll it out as early as possible, knowing that it pads their bottom lines. And producers of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade would suggest that it starts when Santa Claus’ float arrives at the finish line on 34th Street in Manhattan on Turkey Day.
It’s not difficult to imagine that in years to come, the season will begin for some listeners when they first hear Dan + Shay‘s “Officially Christmas” proclamation. The cheery track — released to country radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 9 — is the aural equivalent of Christmas in Rockefeller Center, a brightly tinseled three-minute rush of positivity that wrestles with the holiday starting line without actually reaching a conclusion.
“I wanted to have a song that is just like an exclamation — ‘It’s officially Christmas,’ you know, whenever that may be, if it’s the first of December, if it’s the day after Halloween, the day after Thanksgiving,” says Dan Smyers, who co-founded the duo with lead vocalist Shay Mooney. “I like to say it’s officially Christmas whenever you feel it in your heart.”
Smyers had that title and another, “Pick Out a Christmas Tree,” in mind when he contacted frequent co-writer Jordan Reynolds (“Speechless,” “Glad You Exist”) with a spur-of-the-moment proposal to whip up some holiday music in late August. Reynolds suggested Dave Barnes (“God Gave Me You,” “Craving You”) and Nicolle Galyon (“Tequila,” “Automatic”) as ideal collaborators, and they all met at Smyers’ studio after dinner that same day.
Despite the sweltering summer heat, Smyers lit up a patio fireplace and a candle or two, and popped some balsam fir essential oil into a diffuser to set the mood. They tackled “Christmas Tree” first, and when that was about finished, Smyers revealed his “Officially Christmas” title. As odd as the word “officially” is for a song, they figured repeating it would make it feel more natural. Smyers delivered the first two lines, “It’s officially Christmas/And I’m officially yours.” Galyon chipped in the next phrase, “I’m officially wishin’…” and it led to “…for somethin’ not in a store.” It was like a musical sugar cookie, and no one was apologizing.
“Christmas music is truly ear candy,” suggests Galyon. “That’s such a secret with Christmas music. It should bring out the kid in you. And I knew that my kids would love it.”
Undergirding that chorus, they fashioned a descending chord progression that changed every two beats — fast by country standards, but appropriate to the season.
“Christmas songs have more key changes than a rental home,” quips Barnes. “You can put out a Christmas song, and it’s going to have a million chords in it. And we love it.”
Once the candy-cane chorus was complete, they turned their attention to the verses, instinctively separating them from the chorus with twisty phrasing that changed the pace. The opening stanza captured the feel of a crisp holiday vibe in a small town, using Galyon’s birthplace — Sterling, Kan. — as a casual measuring stick.
“When you’re driving down Main Street, what does everything look like? Are people outside? There’s stuff up on the white [lamp] posts,” says Reynolds.
And they stuffed the second verse with more homey images: a crackling fireplace, anticipation of Santa and the family singing “Jingle Bell Rock.” Between the weather, love, community, Kris Kringle and Christmas music, about all that was missing to set the scene was the nativity, and it wasn’t like they overlooked it.
“A lot of it was just about what [visuals] tend to work with one another,” says Barnes. “We talked about that, and we just didn’t have another reference point for that. Those kinds of moments, if it’s not sort of substantiated throughout the song, it can get a little wonky.”
The final “Officially Christmas” touch was a bridge that used a half-time feel to create a Santa pause in momentum. The lyrics revisited how people had longed for the season all year, and the symbolism that is embedded in the holiday’s celebration.
“Everybody needs something to look forward to, and more than ever after these last couple of years,” reasons Galyon. “Right now, you can just feel in our writing community how important it is to be writing toward the future because I think everyone has high hopes to kind of come out of the other side of what we’ve all been through with a fresh face, fresh excitement and hope. And you know, as cheesy as it sounds, Christmas is about hope, and it’s about all things new. And so, in a way, that bridge speaks to that.”
And it provided a pathway for yet another piece of upbeat sound, modulating from the key of B to C#.
“I was like, ‘Guys, we have to do a key change. It’s not even up for debate. We got to do it,'” says Reynolds. “Of course, Dan is just loving it because that means more work for him when he produces the song, but I remember the note that we landed on, it starts the new key on that same note, so Shay knows exactly where he’s going.”
They wrapped the writing session somewhere between 2 a.m.-4 a.m. Smyers and co-producer Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Michael Ray) pulled together a studio band within just a couple of days, and they enlisted arranger Cody Fry, a Nashville musician currently nominated for a Grammy for an elaborate version of “Eleanor Rigby.” Fry applied staccato strings to give the chorus a Beatles effect and infused horn fills with a Chicago feel, recording the wind instruments at Sound Emporium.
Smyers found subtle places to inject humor — stacking, for example, a punchy electric guitar and strings to simulate reindeer hooves in verse two — and Mooney threw in a roller-coaster countermelody near the finale, which Smyers built into a harmony-laden bonus.
“Officially Christmas” has the potential to become part of country’s annual holiday tradition, bringing a little joy to the world at a time when many adults are stressed out by the demands of the season.
“Making original Christmas music is very difficult,” says Smyers. “It’s a finite amount of buzzwords, and everything’s already been said after all these years. It’s just a matter of rearranging them in a clever way and trying to say something a little differently than what’s already been said. I feel like we landed it on this one. I’m super proud of it.”