My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part II, The Modern Christmas Songs

For some reason, just like the Hallmark cable channels, the satellite radio monopoly Sirius-XM has gone nuts this pre-Christmas season. I count six channels devoted to Christmas music, and I’m sure there are some other buried in there. There are two traditional Christmas music stations that appear to be playing the same songs and recordings; a Country Christmas channel, which means really bad compositions like “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” a poor rip-off of the slightly less revolting, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and better songs and carols sung with a twang; a Gospel Christmas channel, and “Nativity,” which includes only carols and songs referencing Jesus, and “Holly,” which avoid religious references completely and is required listening if you want to know how few modern Christmas ballads deserve annual airing. I could two: “Last Christmas,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” neither of which can be sung around a piano anywhere but backstage at the Grammys.

I been forcing myself to listen to all of it for days, and have reached some rueful conclusions:

  • In their rush to avoid referring to Jesus, the programmers over-play the established Winter Solstice canon to the point of madness. We’re talking “Snowfall,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got Your Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Sleighride,” “It’s a Marshmallow World,” “Let It Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman,’ and of course, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by every possible artist, over and over. None of these songs are about Christmas, but if you’re a Druid, I suppose they are appropriate and festive.

At least some versions have lyric changes made to refer to Christmas. Sometimes Frosty says, instead of “I’ll be back again some day!” that he’ll be back on Christmas day. (Is Frosty some kind of a weird Christ figure?). In Winter Wonderland, Farmer Brown’s birthday party is sometimes turned into a Christmas party.

  • Boy, the ex-Beatles’ attempts at Christmas songs are awful, especially John Lennon’s, with its depressive message, and the lame and gloomy couplet,

And so Merry Christmas, and a happy new year

Let’s make it a good one, without any fear.

It is also the last popular Christmas song to be written with a religious theme. Think about that, and what it says about the status of religion in U.S. culture.

  • I know this is a personal preference,  but when Bing Crosby’s recordings come on, his warm, smooth, impeccably-crafted delivery just blows everyone else out of the metaphorical water. Yes, even Old Blue Eyes.

Christmas keeps Bing’s legacy alive, though in an unfairly narrow context. We will never hear a voice like that again, I fear.

  • Having been forced to listen to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until it kept me awake at night, I have concluded that the suddenly au courant criticism of the song—bullying, you know—is baloney. It teaches the valuable lesson that being a target and a victim need not be permanent, and that if one has character and develops skills, there will be opportunities to prove one’s critics wrong.

I think of Rudolph as a reindeer version of Desmond Doss.

At the risk of being repetitive (I’ve know I mentioned many of these before), here are some Christmas song lyrics that could be, and in some cases, should be, fixed.

  • What’s a drummer doing by the manger, with a baby sleeping? This has bothered me since the first time I heard “The Little Drummer Boy.”
  • Speaking of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”: I get the wind talking to the lamb, and I’ll even accept the lamb talking to the shepherd boy, but I’ve never understood how the boy had a chance to meet the mighty kind, much less tell him to bring the child “silver and gold.”
  • Listen to Bobby Helms sing his 1957 hit  “Jingle Bell Rock,” and then tell me he doesn’t keep singing “feet” when the lyrics obviously are “beat.” Amazingly, some covers of this song also seem to be singing “feet.”
  • Dumbest Christmas lyric of all time: The Beach Boys’ repeated (In “Little Saint Nick”) “Christmas comes this time each year.”
  • I’m tempted to nominate “see the kids bunch” from “Silver Bells” for the second worst. That requires  assuming that “then we got upsot” in Jingle Bells is an intentional howler.
  • The lovely and wistful World War II Christmas ballad “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” refers to “presents on the tree.” Who hangs presents on a Christmas tree? How would you do that? Many recent versions substitute “”round” for on. Good.
  • The late Andy Williams’ Christmas standard, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he lists ‘scary ghost stories” as a feature of Christmas. I know the song is referring to “A Christmas Carol,” but that’s a single ghost story. Andy makes Christmas sound like Halloween…

Finally, here’s an example of how attention to tone and craft improved a Christmas song and allowed it to become, deservedly, a classic.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is certainly somber, but having been through some sad Christmases, it’s an essential part of the canon, and a wonderful song. It almost was too sad, however. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, who wrote the  song ” for Judy Garland’s 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, originally had the lyrics…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last…
Next year we may all be living in the past…

Yikes! Judy Garland and others insisted on a revision, and the songwriters ultimately settled on …

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light…
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight..

Another gloomy lyric that was vetoed:

No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more..

Nice. That one became,

Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.
MUCH better.

69 thoughts on “My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part II, The Modern Christmas Songs

  1. This one I and the rest of the choir at St Mary The Virgin’ s church at Twyford in the Royal County of Berkshire sang every year. This mob are vastly better in the solo, but I think we might have come close to matching them in the chorus.

    Also we were in Ruff and Surplice – High Anglican, basically pre Vatican II Catholic without the Pope.

    Rather a contrast from the Baptist church I attended before then. Always got top marks at Scripture at Sunday School, and never believed a word of it, as I actually *read* the KJV Bible, all of it.
    Including Judges 19-20. Not suitable for children..

    Anyway, Merry Christmas, and for unbelievers like me, the music is still sublime, and stands on its own.

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