I have read many impassioned, thoughtful, posts this week about the wonder of anticipation, the joy of waiting, that is Advent, the season of preparation before Christmas. I’m sold. Or would be, if the temperature hadn’t dropped to record lows this past weekend, and if the snow hadn’t started falling, and sticking, yesterday.  But, alas, these things transpired, and so I’ve given up any pretense of not listening to Christmas music on the 24/7 Christmas station.

My husband is pretty disgusted with me. It’s not even Thanksgiving!  This is true. But when we climbed into the car yesterday, in the dark, with the snow, and our three year old requested Christmas music, the first song playing was “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” There was no denying that, either, and I reveled in my vindication.

There are songs that station plays – there’s one in every city, right? – that make my day instantly better.  I could sit in traffic all night, looking at the lights of the city from the congested Kennedy, if only Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” and  “O Tannenbaum” looped unceasingly. I don’t mind walking through unplowed sidewalks through the frigid air after finally finding a parking space eight city blocks from my office, if The Jackson 5’s rendition of “Santa Claus is coming to town” is blaring through my headphones. I will venture out to the grocery for something forgotten, even if it means changing out of my comfy pants, if I can sing along with Zooey Deschanel as we are seduced by Leon Redbone. We all know it’s cold outside, and we’d make up any excuse to cuddle with our sweetie, despite our maiden aunt’s vicious mind. Stevie Wonder sings “Someday at Christmas,” and my hope is renewed.  These songs – November or not – are light in darkness, warmth in the cold to me.

You’ll note these songs are all secular, so may not actually count against Advent anticipation.  When I’m planning worship in Advent, it’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Toda La Tierra” all the way… though when we go caroling at the Assisted Living Center, I will gratefully oblige residents’ and parishioners’ requests for “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

But even if I can’t include myself in the number of Advent-observing-crusaders, Christmas music remains fraught nonetheless.  And it’s usually not the religious music that bothers me.

Sometimes it’s the religious music that bothers me.  I love “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” despite being a lady, because, you know, I love the image of Baby Jesus fighting off Satan, and am a little sad it’s not in the UM Hymnal these days.  But the little caroling books one church had owned since roughly the Depression began the second verse (which I’d always heard as “To Bethlehem in Judah, the blessed angel came”)  had it as “To Bethlehem in Jewry…”  I would always try to correct the group, but get an eye roll from my less than sympathetic music guy.

So horrifying.

It’s sins like this that remind me why some of my non-Christian friends are so offended by the pervasiveness of Christmas celebrations, and why I am so intent on wishing most strangers a Happy Holidays.   At Christmas, most of our religious songs proclaim Jesus as the Christ, as God incarnate – a claim that’s largely at odds with most other religious traditions.  I’d be irritated if my first grader was made to sing such things in her public school holiday program if I weren’t a Christian, I think. But I’m distressed far more often by the songs that claim Christmas not as hope for the poor or the redemption of the earth, but as cause for crass materialism, ridiculous misogyny, maudlin pseudo-compassion, or particularly bizarre marriages of religious and secular narratives, or nationalistic ones.

Here, without further ado, is a list of “Christmas” songs that make me cringe, cover my children’s ears, and change the station.

**  “The Christmas Shoes” – Strikes the wrong tone on poverty, charity, death, children and the nature of God. Primary theological claim: this kid’s mother is dying so you can learn about the true nature of the holiday.

**  Elvis Presley’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” – laden with mixed metaphors   

             He’ll come around when the chimes ring out, ‘It’s Christmas morn again!’
             Peace on earth will come to all if we just follow the light.
            Let’s give thanks to the Lord Above, cause Santa Claus comes tonight!

**  “Santa Baby” – Everything about this song is terrible.

**  The merchant song in Disney’s The Small One – just the teensiest-weensiest bit (or, hugely) anti-semitic.

**  “The Soldiers Night Before Christmas” –

             So I took off my jacket, the one made of red,
             And I covered this Soldier from his toes to his head.
            And I put on his T-shirt of gray and black,
           With an eagle and an Army patch embroidered on back. 

**  “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” – Because I need anything to encourage my children in their belief that “all things are possible with God,” applies mostly to their Christmas list.

**  “Do they know it’s Christmas? – summarized by the very wise Rev. Katie Day as “the one wondering whether or not the Africans know it’s Christmas.”

**  From the annals of the poor, tortured Rev. Naomi Miller, whose children love it: “The Cat’s Carol.”   Self-sacrifice is good, I guess. But there are 650 different things wrong with this.

**  “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”  Alcoholism, cynicism, family brokenness. This one belongs on that great SNL Christmas-parody album from the 80s, “Dysfunctional Family Christmas.”

**  “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” Infidelity is cute.

Quibbles? Additions? Make sure to add them to the comments.

17 thoughts on “If not the worst thing about being a part of the dominant culture, a close second

  1. I love that song. I think we go through this most years…. I think she’s being willingly seduced. She wants to stay, she’s playing it coy, he’s giving her excuses to transgress restrictive social expectations. It’s actually a feminist artifact 😉

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  2. We do–it’s our yearly ritual.

    I think it’s been re-contextualized the way you describe. Not sure it had that subtext originally. One of the earlier versions of the song features Dean Martin singing with a chorus of female voices who aren’t even credited. Not exactly the epitome of female empowerment!

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      1. Indeed.

        But you got me wondering about the song’s origins. Frank Loesser wrote it as a duet for him and his wife, which is charming, actually. But then he sold the song out from under her. So… a mixed bag there 😉

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  3. Great list. The Christmas Shoes is definitely the worst for me – makes my ears bleed. I almost spit out my tea with “Dean Martin does not represent a feminist worldview.” 🙂

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  4. I always thought that Santa in “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” was the kid’s dad dressed up as Santa. Don’t burst my bubble after all of these years!

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  5. Joanna, me too – OF COURSE Santa is the daddy! But even as a child I wondered why couldn’t Santa be the mommy sometimes… until I grew up and realized that moms are the best Santas ever!

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  6. The one I always thought I hated was Away in A Manger, with it’s gruesome theology (“No crying he makes”? Not if He was a real human baby!), but then I noticed the last verse where we pray that he will “Fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there”, which is what it’s all about! There are so many carols I really love, though. And Advent hymns. I wish I could sing well enough to lead “Wake, O Wake with tidings thrilling!”, which is beyond most of my congregations without help.

    We don’t have nearly so many secular songs as you do, and what we do have are mostly imported from the USA. My current favourite is “It’s baby’s first Christmas”, which is horrendously sentimental – but you see, I have a new grandson this year!

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  7. How many parumpapumpums will we be subjected to this season?

    The traditional (in-the-hymnal) carol that has always bothered me is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The image of “snow had fallen/snow on snow on snow” — couldn’t Christina Rossetti come up with a better way to express it than repetition? (And how much snow does the Holy Land get? I looked it up: average December temps in Bethlehem are 57F high, 42F low.) My favorite among the newer in-the-hymnal songs is “Star Child”: this year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive. Amen and amen.

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