Saturday, December 31, 2011

Observations on some Christmas songs

There have been some issues with a number of Christmas songs that have been gnawing at me for some time now. We’ll pass over the fact that no one is alive who has ever heard bells from a sleigh that was being used as a legitimate means of transportation, and we’ll ignore the phenomenon of seeming to need children to enjoy Christmas and pass straight to specific songs that drive me crazy.

#1. Baby, It’s Cold Outside: A man who apparently lives alone pressures a younger woman who lives with her parents to spend the night with him. He even goes so far as to drug her drink while she tells him all the reasons that she should leave. We call this a timeless Christmas classic.

#2. What Child Is This? Great song, except for the first line of verse 2:

Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?

Now I recognize that this is the original wording from when it was written 150 years ago, but this doesn’t change the fact that I can’t sing the word “ass” in church without laughing. Call me immature if you must. I have occasionally seen it changed to “lamb”, which easily solves the problem without losing anything. Now maybe you militantly insist that it was a donkey who was present at the manger with the ox and not a lamb, but since the story (Luke 2) doesn’t mention any animals at all, I say don’t be such an “ass”.

#3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: Does it not creep anyone else out that we’re warning kids to be good because an old, bearded man watches them sleep?

#4. Do You Hear What I Hear? This song concludes with a mighty king encouraging the people everywhere to pray for peace and tells them that this child (Jesus) will bring goodness and light. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the only king in this story is Herod and that his response to Jesus’ birth was to kill children.

#5. The Christmas Shoes: At least one con is taking place here. If we take this song as being true, we should pity the songwriter for believing a wild tale and paying for shoes for an experienced little con artist. Certainly we can’t believe that, though this child’s mother has been dying “for quite a while”, he chooses the time when she is actually moments from death to run out and buy her some shoes, somehow not knowing before he gets in the checkout line that he can’t afford them. “Quick, son!” says dad. “Mom’s about to die—go to Wal-Mart!” This seems unlikely.

What seems more likely is that the songwriter is conning us. The song is a metaphor: cook up a sad though unlikely story, add a dash of God/Jesus stuff, pour some “Christmas season” syrupy sweetness on it, and people will buy your stuff. Compare:

Boy’s story  
Sad though unlikely story: Mom is dying and kid figures this is a good time to buy her shoes.
God/Jesus stuff: She’s meeting Jesus tonight.
Christmas season element: Somehow these are “Christmas shoes.”
Result: Man is moved and buys shoes.
Sad though unlikely story: Man who is grumpily buying Christmas gifts encounters a dirty boy who wants to buy shoes for his imminently dying mother but is too poor to afford them.
God/Jesus stuff: Song says God sent the kid.
Christmas season element: Songwriter wasn’t in “Christmas mood” but kid somehow reminds him what Christmas is “all about.”
Result: People who have little or no recent experience with young children are moved and buy Bob Carlisle albums, Donna VanLiere books, and Rob Lowe movies.

He goes the full extra mile and wields the mysterious power of telling stories of poor children who are somehow simultaneously naïve, innocent, and mature while suffering sad circumstances. For some reason, we are drawn to a story of a child if they have an abusive or alcoholic parent, have a father in prison, have only one living parent who’s just “too busy”, or—best of all—no parents at all. I may write more about this some other day, but in the meantime, check out Red Sovine’s Billy’s Christmas Wish.

Maybe I’m just a Scrooge, but maybe there are a lot of you out there who agree with  me. If so, what other songs belong on this list?


  1. Almost anything by Red Sovine belongs on your list, although the bit about Daddy killing Mommy's boyfriend kind of puts "Billy's Christmas Wish" in a class by itself.

  2. I'm just now getting around to reading this, and I must say, that through all your cynicism, there is a great deal of truth. I have to thank you, as always for the laughs. Since you were a little boy writing me thank you notes, you have always made me laugh! I love that about you! Keep 'em coming!

  3. Chase you need to do this with current pop songs or worship songs; this was a riot!

  4. How do you find the time to think about all of this?

  5. How about in “Little Drummer Boy” where a sweet song turns into a nightmarish sci-fi story when two animals (aliens?), the ox and the lamb, posing as regular dumb animals, are caught up in the moment and give themselves away by “keeping time” with the drummer boy’s song?
    What the song doesn’t mention is look of horror that slowly came across each person’s face as they realized the implications of the animals’ musical ability, and how the ox and lamb looked at each other and then suddenly galloped off into the night of Bethlehem, never to be seen or heard from again.


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