Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Problematic Christmas Songs -- 2014 Edition

'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, and goes far beyond even naughty, 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 that it's cold outside, that there's no cabs to be had, that 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, she asks, "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 it 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 is openly gay, and it had been rumored for some time before he came out, 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 79, but this song does him no favors. (At least he's one of the few of these "traditional Christmas singers" who's still alive at this writing.)

"Frosty the Snowman" also has nothing to do with Christmas. It wasn't until the 1969 CBS TV 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 a friend who used to write 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.

Also weird about Frosty: If he's so afraid of heat, why does he have a pipe? And "two eyes made out of coal"? And, as was once pointed out to me, no matter how fat a snowman (and he did kind of resemble the portly Vernon), his walking wouldn't sound like "Thumpety-thump-thump." He's made of snow, walking on snow. It would sound more like "Swish, swish, swish."

"Winter Wonderland," "Marshmallow World," "Sleigh Ride" and "Frosty the Snowman" 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. There are 6 new entries on this annual piece of mine, and these are in red.

All I Want for Christmas Is You. The newest Christmas classic -- and even this one is now 20 years old -- it seems harmless enough. Indeed, it even seems to have the girl telling her guy to fight the commercialism of Christmas. But it also suggests that what she really needs is a man. So feminists tend to not like this one. To be fair, though, she doesn't say she needs him, only that she wants him -- which opens an entirely different can of worms. The song is rarely sung by a man to a woman, but when it is, it sounds a little stalkerish.

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 Shoes. The idea of this comparatively recent song, recorded in 2000 by Christian group NewSong -- a guy on line at the cash register, having driven himself nuts shopping, hears a kid tell the cashier he has to get these shoes for his dying mother, so that she can be presentable when she appears before Jesus, and he doesn't have the money, so the guy pays for the shoes for the kid -- is, on the surface heartwarming: One of those, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown" moments.

On the other hand, it might be the biggest downer in the history of Christmas songs. This song isn't about life, it's about death. If it was "a real Christmas song," the mom should be so thrilled by such a beautiful gesture, from both son and stranger, that she gets better and enjoys many more Christmases to come. Real life tends to not work that way, but "Christmas miracles" do. Why not sing about that? After al, NewSong, are you Christian in just name, or in deed?

The Christmas Song – better known as "Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire." Mel Tormé wrote it, and 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? Sorry, Betty White. Tough cookies, Old Man Periwinkle.

Deck the Halls. "Don we now our gay apparel." Once, this meant, "Let's all put on some bright 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." It 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 had 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) 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! It 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 by the (apparent) fact that his mother is kissing a man who 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, there's a version of this song 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 -- many of which were in chains. 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" -- or, as they're known in Britain, "poundshops."

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...

It gets worse: "A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben. Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen." The gender stereotypes are troubling enough. But putting a gun in a kid's hand is completely irresponsible, especially now, with the Newtown Massacre happening so close to Christmas a couple of years ago. One of these days, I expect to see a version of A Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Past is a grown-up Ralphie Parker with an eye patch, saying, "See? I actually did shoot my eye out!"

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!

It's 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!

True, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has ghosts in it, but how old were you when you stopped being scared of those ghosts? Even when I saw my 1st version of it -- the 1962 Mr. Magoo version, when I was about 6 or so, in the 1970s -- I wasn't scared of them.

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?

Little Saint Nick. The Beach Boys' contribution to Christmas songs is a guilty pleasure of mine: I love how they make Santa's sleigh sound like a hot rod. But they have a little problem with counting: "Haulin' through the snow at a frightenin' speed, with a half a dozen deer, with Rudy to lead." Half a dozen is 6. There's supposed to be 8 -- 9, counting Rudolph. In this song, Big Red is 2 reindeer short.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. First, "All of the other 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." What a 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 points out that, in the 1964 TV special based on the song, the story 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).

This is 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. Sam might be an unreliable narrator.

Also, if you ever hear Dean Martin's version, you might note that both the singer and the subject are known for having a red nose, albeit with very different causes.

Run, Rudolph, Run. (That's the title, while the lyrics say, "Run, run, Rudolph.") In 1958, Johnny Marks, author of the original Rudolph song, tried his hand at writing Christmas songs for the first generation of rock and roll fans. He wrote "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which became Brenda Lee's 1st hit, at age 13.

That same year of 1958, he cranked out "Run, Rudolph, Run," and gave it to Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley may have been the 1st rocker to record a Christmas song, with "Blue Christmas" the year before, but it's hardly a rock and roll song. In contrast, the Chucker went out of his way to make "Run, Run, Rudolph" sound like a Chuck Berry song, and it works great. That's the (Johnny B.) good news.

The bad news is that the lyrics have Santa asking a boy what he wants for Christmas, and he wants a guitar. No problem there. Then they have Santa asking a girl what she wants, and she wants a doll. In the Ike Age, this didn't raise too many hackles; now, it does. In 2006, Whitney Wolanin, then just 16 years old, recorded a new version with the genders reversed: The girl wants the guitar, and the boy wants the doll.

Santa Baby. Ah, the joy of Christmas, where everybody wants something. Usually several somethings. As Kanye West would say, "Now, I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger... "

But this song is also problematic on a practical level. 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, Eartha Kitt 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?

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays. Every place in this country has people trying to get back there for Christmas, because it's "home" to them. I have no issue with that. This song, usually credited to Perry Como, first mentions that the man trying to get home to Pennsylvania (Como's home State), is in Tennessee. No problem there, either.

But then he mentions people going "to Dixie's sunny shore." Even if you're not bothered by this glorification of the South (and I am), it doesn't fit with the whole "Christmas as winter wonderland" idea.

Also, when he sings, "From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific," whether he realizes it or not, he's using "terrific" in the original sense: Inspiring terror. If you've ever done Christmas shopping in Bergen County, New Jersey, where stores aren't permitted to open on Sundays, on the last Saturday before Christmas, you will understand. Christmas-shopping traffic and Christmas-travel traffic are not "terrific" as in "wonderful" or "jolly."

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.

Up On the Housetop. "First comes the stocking of little Will. Oh, just see, what a glorious fill. Give him a hammer and lots of tacks. Also a ball, and a whip that cracks."

Huh? Either the songwriter just threw together a few words that rhyme, without thinking about how they would sound; or Santa has his priorities way out of whack; or Will is into, uh, things that are too risqué to mention on Christmas.

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? What's more, the person being sung to could easily say, "This is my house, and when I say you go, you go. Don't make me break out my Ralphie Red Ryder BB gun."


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.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and...

Good Christian Men, Rejoice. Should these songs be gender-neutral? It's hard to do it for the former, unless you (or, should I say, "ye") want to make it, in the song's rhythm, "God rest ye merry gentlefolk" or "God rest ye merry Chris-ti-ans."

As for the latter, some have tried to make it "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice." It's fairer, but it just... doesn't... sound right. A similar effort is occasionally made to change a lyric in the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada": "True patriot love in all thy sons command" becomes " all of us command."

Good King Wenceslas. This song, while certainly telling of genuine Christian behavior on the part of its subject, has nothing to do with Christmas, and in fact takes place the next day. December 26, in addition to Boxing Day in the British Commonwealth, is St. Stephen's Day, the anniversary of the death of an early Christian martyr, and thus his "feast day" -- hence, "Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen."

There was a real Wenceslas, not quite a king, but Duke of Bohemia, born 907, died 935, assassinated by his brother (and, judging by his nickname, his total opposite), Boleslav the Cruel. And Wenceslas, too, has been declared a Saint, and is the patron saint of Bohemia, which is now in the Czech Republic.

Joy to the World.  Written by George Frideric Handel, there isn't much wrong with this one. But it shares a title with a song that country singer Hoyt Axton wrote, and which the band Three Dog Night took to Number 1 in 1971. Axton has died, but just about everybody from 3DN is still alive. I'd like to hear them sing the carol of the same title, just for the novelty.

The Little Drummer Boy. "The ox and ass kept time." Sometimes it's sung as, "The ox and lamb kept time," 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.

Silent Night. The entire song suggests that it was quiet and peaceful. But the Gospels make no mention of whether Mary had labor pains or whether baby Jesus cried. The Rosary Prayer, the Hail Mary, states, "Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" -- suggesting that both "yon virgin mother and child" may have been granted holy exemptions to the usual pains each would suffer at birth.

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" were never actually called kings in the Gospels. They were, however, called "wise men" in The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. But even their number isn't divulged: It's presumed that there were 3, since there were 3 gifts that they presented: Gold, frankincense and myrrh. One man, one gift? That seems reasonable, but it doesn't specifically say that.

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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