Friday, December 21, 2012

Problematic Christmas Songs (Updated)

Since the world did not end, and we will have Christmas, I thought I'd repeat this one.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through The Bronx
not a creature was stirring where usually sit throngs.
The Pennants, they fly from the flagpoles with care
in the hope, in the New Year, a new one will be there.
The Yankees are nestled all snug in their beds
while visions of ticker-tape run through their heads.
And I at computer, wearing my Yankee cap
will now make you aware of a worrisome trap.

Problematic Christmas Songs.

Let’s start with the biggest Christmas song of all: “Jingle Bells.” Guess what: This song has NOTHING to do with Christmas!

The lyrics make no mention of Christmas. Or Jesus, by any name: Christ, Lord, King, King of Kings, King of Israel, King of the World, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, Holy Child, Teacher, Rabbi, Wonderful Counselor... none of them.

Nor do the lyrics make any mention of presents, or a gathering family, or even Santa Claus and his entourage (Mrs. Claus, reindeer, elves, whatever else he’s got). “Jingle Bells” is about winter. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.

Then there are the songs that someone (I forget who) once described as “songs Dean Martin liked to sing to get a woman to snuggle up with him by the fireplace.” “Winter Wonderland.” “Let It Snow.” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” “Marshmallow World.”

Now, I’m not gonna rip Dino or say these aren’t nice songs. But they don’t have anything to do with Christmas, either. They're about winter, not about Christmas. And since we associate Christmas with winter, regardless of Scripture suggesting that it didn't happen during winter (not to mention that there's no snow mentioned in any of the Gospels), we associate these songs with Christmas, however erroneously.

One of the Dean Martin fireplace songs (which doesn't have anything to do with Christmas) that most certainly is not nice is "Baby, It's Cold Outside." She says she has to go, her mother will worry, she's got a reputation to protect, and he keeps telling her it's cold outside, no cabs to be had, she should stay.  "Well, maybe just half a drink more," she finally relents.  (Dean Martin with booze on hand? How out of character... ) And then, just 2 lines later, "Say, what's in this drink?" So on the 12th day of Christmas, your true love gave to you... 12 roofies roofing? That's why this is known as "The Date Rape Christmas Song," and is inappropriate on so many levels.  At the very least, it's about a guy working way too hard to seduce a girl and using Old Man Winter (if not the Christmas season itself) as an excuse.

“Sleigh Ride” is another song like that, although considerably more innocent. The most familiar version is by Johnny Mathis. Johnny has been vague about whether he’s gay, but I never believed it until a few too many listens to him sing, “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling too... ” Come to think of it, the song also mentions “a winter fairyland.” Johnny’s a great singer, even at age 75, but this song does him no favors.

“Frosty the Snowman” also has nothing to do with Christmas. It wasn’t until the 1969 special, narrated by an animated Jimmy Durante (as if the great comedian wasn’t already quite animated), that Frosty (voiced by another great comedian, Jackie Vernon) got a semi-official link with Christmas.

And, as the author of the blog "Nutball Gazette" pointed out, the song begins, "Frosty the Snowman was a happy jolly soul." Was? What happened? Is he dead now? As in melted? Or is he just unhappy? Maybe he's only mad that he didn't get any royalties from the song.

In fact, “Winter Wonderland,” “Marshmallow World,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Frosty” appear on the 1963 classic A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records – better known as The Phil Spector Christmas Album. So does “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” which is also not about Christmas (the lyrics mention “red leaves,” suggesting it takes place in autumn), although it was the theme song from a 1945 Christmas-themed movie starring Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley (he’d won an Oscar in the role in the previous year’s Going My Way) and Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict, the most beautiful nun you’ll ever see.

Putting aside what Phil did later, and some of it was monstrous, the album had 13 songs, 5 of which are not Christmas-related. The highlights, in my opinion, are Veronica Bennett (Phil’s girlfriend and eventual ex-wife, now usually known as Ronnie Spector) singing “Frawsty the Snowman” in her N’Yawk accent; and Darlene Love belting out the album’s one original song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Phil demanded an original song for the album, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich wrote it, as they wrote (and would continue to write) so many songs he produced. Sonny Bono played percussion on the album, and if you listen closely, you can hear his eventual wife, Cher, singing backup on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

The rest of these, I’ll do in alphabetical order.

Auld Lang Syne. I’m not sure why this song got associated with New Year’s Eve, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

The Christmas Song – better known as “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire.” Mel Torme wrote it, Nat King Cole is its best-known performer. “And so, I’m offering this simple phrase, to kids from 1 to 92.” So, for everyone age 93 and up, you’re out of luck?

Deck the Halls. “Don we now our gay apparel.” Once, this meant, “Let’s all put on some festive clothing to commemorate this festive season.” Now, it means, “Sweetheart, even Lady Gaga wouldn’t be caught dead wearing THAT.” And I’m guessing “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol” means “Sing an old Christmas song.” Could be worse, I suppose: You could be calling a woman “Carol the ancient Yuletide troll!”

Feliz Navidad. The only problem I have with this one is that it’s incredibly repetitive. It was good of Jose Feliciano to write a Christmas song that kids whose first language was Spanish can sing, but couldn’t he have written a second verse?

Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. What a terrible idea to have to think about at Christmastime! As B.J. Hunnicutt taught us on M*A*S*H, “A family’s Christmas wreaths ought to be green, not black.” On top of that, lemme tell ya somethin’: If any reindeer ever tried to run over MY Grandma, she’d have popped him one, and then you’d know how he got the red nose!

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  "Make the Yuletide gay." Yeah, another one of those.  Made even more problematic by the fact that the song was introduced by Judy Garland.  (In the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis.)

Holly Jolly Christmas. The song written by Johnny Marks and introduced by Burl Ives in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (based on another song Marks wrote, as he also did "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree") certainly seems jolly and innocuous enough, until you get to the line, “Somebody waits for you. Kiss her once for me.” Bump that! If she’s waiting for ME, I’m kissing her for nobody but myself! Reminds me of George Carlin’s rant about the line, “Give her my best.” (Said rant is too risqué to discuss in a Christmas-themed post.)

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. I don’t know what’s worse: That the kid in the song appears to be unaware that the guy he sees in the Santa suit is actually his father, or that he appears to be not particularly troubled that his mother is kissing a man who (he thinks) is not his father. Either way, this is not a very bright kid. (Please, save the “Santa only comes once a year” joke. That, too, is too risqué.)

To make matters worse, the other night, I heard it on the radio, sung by... the Jackson 5, back when they were first big. So, THAT explains Michael Jackson... I wonder if he ever asked a child to sit on his lap.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas. “You can count on me,” the singer says. But he closes by saying, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” So, can she count on you, or not?

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. “Take a look in the five-and-ten.” Sadly, there are now very few five-and-ten-cent (or “five-and-dime”) stores. Woolworth’s closed in 2001. So did J.J. Newberry’s, bought out by McCrory’s, and very few McCrory's are left. Now we have “dollar stores.”

Another line: “There’s a tree in the grand hotel, one in the park as well.” Well, I should hope there’s a lot more than ONE tree in the park! I know, I know, Perry Como means a Christmas tree in the park. Still...

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.  Oh no you don't.  Look at all the places that are closed on Christmas.  If you need to buy something, you'll have to get it at 7-Eleven or Wawa or someplace like that.  And you will have to get things.  You think it's easy to shop for everyone you love for one day a year? Multiply that by 365!

Last Christmas.  First of all, it's by Wham! Second of all... Do I even need a "second of all"? The lyrics certainly suggest that it's the first gay Christmas song: "A face on a lover with a fire in his heart, a man under cover but you tore me apart." There are "blue Christmas" songs -- "blue" as in sad, not "blue" as in "blue language" -- but this one, even if the "man under cover" is the narrator, not his target, is lame as heck.  And did I mention it's by Wham?

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. “There’ll be scary ghost stories... ” Uh, excuse me, Andy Williams, but I think you’re getting your holidays mixed up!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. First, “All of the either reindeer used to laugh and call him names.” “Then one foggy Christmas Eve... ” Rudolph’s prominent proboscis saves Christmas. “Then how the reindeer loved him.” Lousy bunch of fur-covered front-runners. I wonder if any of them ever said, “I’m sorry.”

Lisa Swan of the blog Subway Squawkers (see the link to the right) points out that, in the 1964 TV special based on the song, it gets worse before it gets better: Even Santa himself gets on Rudolph’s case – and on that of Donner, who in the story is the lead reindeer on the sleigh and Rudolph’s father, for essentially passing on a genetic mutation (of which Donner himself appears to be only a carrier). Not one of Santa’s better pop-culture representations, but, remember, this story isn’t about Santa, it’s about Rudolph, and Sam the Snowman (voice of Burl Ives) is giving you his perception of what happened.

Santa Baby. Ah, the joy of Christmas, where everybody wants something. Usually several somethings. A '54 convertible? Cars were huge in the Fifties. A yacht? A duplex? The ring could fit, the deed to the platinum mine could be folded up, but how exactly is Santa gonna get all that expensive loot into her stocking? He’s magic, the stocking is not! Okay, she does ask Santa to "slip a sable under the tree for me." I just got carried away, thinking Santa is ONLY responsible for the stuff in the stockings.

Then again, considering the 1953 original was by Eartha Kitt, maybe it’s a long, slinky nylon stocking. As Bill Maher (on whose show Politically Incorrect she guested a few times) would say, “Easy, Catwoman!” To make matters worse, she ended up dying on a Christmas Day, in 2008.  (James Brown, who recorded an album called Funky Christmas, also died on December 25, 2 years earlier.)

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. This is probably the most oft-cited problematic Christmas song, because of the line, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.” Uh-oh, this makes Santa sound like something out of a George Orwell novel: “Big Brother is watching you.”

Silver Bells. Nothing wrong with this one, as far as I can tell. In fact, it’s my favorite secular Christmas song. But there’s one version of it that’s not... quite... right. I’m sorry, but Wilson Pickett? The Wicked Pickett should not have been recording Christmas songs! It would have been like asking Karen Carpenter to sing “In the Midnight Hour”! (Then again, she did cover “Please Mr. Postman.”)

And how neat -- and weird -- was it in December 2010, on Saturday Night Live, to hear Jeff Bridges, not known as a singer (though he and brother Beau did play pianists in The Fabulous Baker Boys), duet on this song with Cookie Monster of Sesame Street?

Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime. How is it that John Lennon, who dared to “Imagine there’s no heaven... and no religion, too” – not that he was saying there was NO God or Heaven, just asking us to imagine a world where people had “nothing to kill or die for” – wrote such a fantastic Christmas song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”? While Paul McCartney, one of the world’s greatest songwriters and one of its greatest sentimentalists, facing that most sentimental of holidays, wrote such a weak one?

The Twelve Days of Christmas. First of all, where did your true love GET all that stuff? Second of all, where are you going to put it all? I mentioned George Carlin before, but I wonder if he ever incorporated THIS song into his bit "A Place For My Stuff."

A partridge, 2 doves, 3 hens, 4 calling birds, 6 geese, 7 swans? That’s a lot of birds. Think of the mess! Five golden rings? I can see getting one, but 5? One for each finger on the hand? That doesn't make any sense, unless the singer is Elvis, Liberace, or Elton John.  Or maybe Pink, or Pauley Perrette in character as Dr. Abby Sciuto of NCIS.

Six geese a-laying? Who uses goose eggs? Maybe one of the geese is "the goose that lays the golden egg."  Eight maids a-milking? Maybe she already has 8 cows, but this is not specified in the song. Without cows, the milkmaids will have nothing to do.

Nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, twelve drummers drumming? I hope they’re all rented, because I can’t imagine having them around every day, especially if none of them does anything else.  Maybe one of the dancing ladies is also one of the milkmaids, and one of the leaping lords is also a piper or a drummer.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Have you ever eaten figgy pudding? Have you ever even SEEN figgy pudding? Me neither. “We won’t go until we get some.” Where is a family that doesn’t have any figgy pudding gonna go to get some on Christmas Eve (or Day)? If there’s a Jewish deli open (which once saved my mother when she needed wild rice for Christmas dinner), something tells me they’re not going to have figgy pudding, either.  Is it even Kosher?

Even the songs that are about the original Christmas – the Christ Mass – don’t always make sense. Again, I’ll do these in alphabetical order.

Do You Hear What I Hear? Ignore for a moment that “Do you hear what I hear?” is from the 2nd verse, thus the title should be “Do You See What I See?” Ignore also the likelihood (based on Scripture itself) that Jesus was not born in wintertime, on December 25 or otherwise.

In the 3rd verse, the shepherd boy says, “In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A child, a child shivers in the cold. Let us bring him silver and gold.” This is the Christmas song that gets my mother upset: She points out, if the child is shivering in the cold, forget the precious metals, bring him something more precious: Blankets. One would think that the shepherd boy, almost certainly poor, would figure that out.

And how did he get into the king’s palace, anyway? Not that I want to take the king’s side against a poor shepherd boy, but I would like to know. Maybe, like King David started out as, the boy was a crafty little shepherd who found a way around a seemingly impossible situation.

The Little Drummer Boy. “The ox and ass kept time.” Sometimes it’s sung as, “The ox and lamb,” in case you don’t want to use the word “ass” around kids, even to mean “donkey.” You know, call me a relic, call me what you will, say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill... but the drummer is the one who’s supposed to keep time! Why does the little drummer boy need the ox and ass (or lamb) to do it for him? I know, he’s just a kid, and he’s certainly not responsible for the lyric, he’s just telling the story. But this is another dumb one.

O Little Town of Bethlehem. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Oh, really? Doesn’t the Gospel have the angel saying to Joseph, “Fear not”? Maybe the fears of all the years are dispelled in Bethlehem, but the point (or part of it) was that, with the birth of this child, there was less to fear.

We Three Kings. “Star of wonder, star of night.” Great phrase, but there are no “stars of day.” Yes, there is such a thing as “the morning star,” but that’s usually the planet Venus. There are people who believe that the Star of Bethlehem could only have been a “conjunction” of at least two planets (probably Venus and either Mars or Jupiter) looking like one big, very bright star. And, at the time of the birth of Christ, it might not have been known that these planets which looked like stars weren’t actually stars. Even a king might not have known that. Ah, but the “three kings” are usually called “the three wise men.” They have often been called scientists, astronomers or astrologers. If they were those things, they would have known what the Star of Bethlehem really was.

Oh well. Regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, your partner's gender, politics or even what teams you root for... for discrimination is the biggest humbug of them all...

May your days be merry and bright. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. And God bless us, every one.

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