A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [First Stanza]

Ethics Alarms barely touched on the wide and deep topic of Christmas music last year, relegating it to a “warm-up” intro and a re-post from 2015, so in the interests of tradition as much as anything—and the holiday season is all about tradition, after all—Here comes an ethics post, here comes an ethics post, right down Ethics Post Lane!

1. Unethical Lyrics

A. There are several sub-categories here. One which only fits the single Christmas song  I just referenced, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which is a lyric that violates the unwritten but important Christmas Music Separation Clause, which holds that a song can be about the religious holiday or it can be about Santa Clause and the secular holiday, but mixing the two is forbidden. Early in the song, one that Gene Autry wrote and sang, children are told to say their prayers, suggesting that if they don’t, Santa will not drop by, and then the song ends:

He’s a miracle come to all if we just follow the lightSo let’s give thanks to the Lord above, ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!

I bet you thought I was going to complain about “Santa Claus Lane,” didn’t you?

B. Insulting lyrics. The ethical value being trashed in these songs is respect. Any time a Christmas song lyric makes the listener think, “Wait a minute, does the singer think I’m an idiot?” the lyricist has crossed a line. In this ugly category:

  • “Little Saint Nick,” a Beach Boys effort by Brian Wilson, contains the lyric, “Christmas comes this time each year.” This annoyed me the first time I heard it, and has ever since. Yeah, Christmas comes at Christmastime. When else was it going to come? Mike Love actually sued to be given joint credit for this song.
  • “Holly Jolly Christmas,” the Burl Ives ditty by Johnny Marks, contains another statement of the obvious:

Ho ho the mistletoeHung where you can see

If you can’t see the mistletoe, it serves no purpose. Who would hang hidden mistletoe? As with all of the insulting lyrics, the lyricist was lazy, and just filling space. Then generations have to hear tautologies and statements of the obvious.

  • I have come to believe that the most insulting lyrics of any Christmas song belong to the thing Andy Williams had grafted onto Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holidays” from “Holiday Inn,” a song called “It’s the Holiday Season” for what was called the “Happy Holidays/The Holiday Season Medley.” It hits peak dumb almost immediately with

It’s the holiday seasonAnd Santa Claus is coming ’roundThe Christmas snow is white on the ground

As opposed to what other color? But I could forgive that; it’s this that really insults our intelligence:

It’s the holiday season So whoop-de-do and dickory dockAnd don’t forget to hang up your sock‘Cause just exactly at twelve o’clockHe’ll be coming down the chimney, down

Not only are “whoop-de-do and dickory dock” the laziest lyrics imaginable—what do they have to do with anything, other than filling up a line that will rhyme with clock?—the claim that Santa will arrive at “exactly at twelve o’clock” is so ridiculous that it would make any child over the age of seven skeptical about the whole Santa Claus bit. How does one guy come down millions of chimneys at the exact same time? And the lyricist was so determined to have that line in that he stretched all the way to a nursery rhyme about mice running up a clock for “dickory dock.”

Apparently the author of that garbage went into the Bad Lyricist Protection Program; I can’t find a name anywhere. Wikipedia cruelly credits Irving Berlin, which is libelous: he wrote the “Happy Holiday” lyrics, but not the rest of Andy’s medley.

  • The champion Christmas song that insults everyone’s intelligence in macro fashion has to be “The Little Drummer Boy.” What an unbelievable story! What’s a kid with a drum doing hanging around the manger? Who thinks drum music is appropriate to play for a newborn child? I assumed there was some legend somewhere about a drummer boy showing up with the Magi, but there isn’t. The crazy scenario was just dreamed up for the song. Did they even have drummer boys in Bethlehem? After the song had been permanently inflicted on the Christmas canon, Rankin-Bass made one of their stop-motion animated specials that contrived a tale to justify the song: Bitter Aaron the Drummer Boy’s lamb is a victim of a hit-and-run by a Roman Chariot, and the kid brings the wounded animal to Baby Jesus to be healed, paying the child back with drum music. The lamb is healed, and Aaron is bitter no more.  Okaaaay…
  • I guess I’ll put Jingle Bells in this category, though it also would fit in the Incompetent Lyrics group coming up, and it’s not really a Christmas song, since it doesn’t allude to the holiday in any way. You know the lyric, don’t you? Second verse:

A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we, we got upsot.

Upsot? I always thought that the word was intended as a gag, which some lyricists use intentionally, calling attention to a desperate forced rhyme. In “Lady in the Dark,” Ira Gershwin rhymes “irrelevant” with “Gilbert and Sellivant,” for example. Since Ira was a great lyricist, he can get away with this and have a listener know it was intentional rather than desperate. James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893), who wrote “Jingle Bells,” warrants no similar benefit of the doubt. I recently discovered that “upsot” was a real word when the song was written, though an archaic, obscure and seldom used one. I bet most people though it was a desperate rhyme even in 1857. And we still have the “we, we” problem. “We we got upsot” sounds like some kind of baby talk. I know, I know, the song is fast and you slide right into the chorus before the line registers. I still always felt like an idiot singing it.

In the next section, we’ll explore incompetent and sinister Christmas song lyrics.

17 thoughts on “A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [First Stanza]

  1. I never liked The Little Drummer boy, having learned it first in the Spanish translation. When I heard it English it was even worse. How many ropopompoms do you need fill the dead air (between the composers ears)? At least those had limited appearances in the version I first learned.

    • I never cared for it myself. The constant ostinato becomes very boring very fast. The story and the idea behind it is ok – the drummer boy has nothing to offer the king of kings so he offers the one thing he has – his music, similar to how the clown juggled before the statue of the Madonna and child. I agree that the stop motion special was at best uneven, despite Greer Garson’s dignified narration. When you think about it, it’s actually some pretty heavy stuff for kids to deal with – Aaron’s parents get murdered, he gets kidnapped by a stereotypical Arab impresario and made to perform, and his animal friends get sold and almost killed.

    • The most insulting Christmas song of all, not just to the listener but to an entire continent of people is the Ethiopian famine relief fundraiser, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — which includes the lyrics:

      And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
      The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
      Where nothing ever grows
      No rain nor rivers flow
      Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

      — simultaneously suggesting that all Africans live in a waterless desert and that they are too stupid to grow food or read a calendar.

      I always wanted to scream, “Of course they know it’s Christmas, you idiots! If they’re Christians, they know it’s Christmas; and if they’re not, they don’t care.”

      • There’s snow in Ethiopia* most winters, on the high ground anyway, so very possibly at Christmas too. The Nile doesn’t flood properly in the thaw when there isn’t – and then there’s the water there as well.

        * Also in Kenya, Tanzania and North Africa, and perhaps others I have overlooked. I would add South Africa, but their winter is a southern hemisphere one.

    • I didn’t mention it because my particular taste in songs isn’t the point, but I HATE the song, and especially the Harry Simeone recording of it. I literally rate my Christmases by how many times I have to listen to the damn thing.

      It makes a repeat appearance in the “sinister lyrics” category, with the inexplicably popular Bing Crosby/ David Bowie duet.

  2. “The Little Drummer Boy” is the first song I learned to play on the piano.

    The issue you highlight with “Here Comes Santa Claus” is one I felt but could never pinpoint. I’ve heard the Elvis cover of that song dozens of times and every time he sings those lyrics, it has made me squint. Now I know why.

    I’m really excited with where these posts will go. I have given little thought to the ethics of a musical category, so I’m going to be a sponge here. I wonder if there will be a reference to Crow T. Robot’s classic “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas.”

  3. Glad I’m not the only who finds “It’s the Holiday Season” incredibly annoying. In addition to what you mentioned, I cringe at the filler words “just exactly” and the extra “down” at the end of the line. It’s not even rhymed with anything! It just adds a syllable so the line can end on a strong note! Who writes a line and then sticks a copy of one of the prepositions on the end, on? I find the lyrics infuriatingly lazy. Luckily there are other Christmas songs that are pleasant.

    For “Jingle Bells,” I read that as “And we? We got upsot!” Even so, that’s a disappointing second stanza. It’s not grand or sentimental, but neither is it particularly amusing. What is amusing is learning that all those “Jingle Bells” parodies are actually parodies of a song that was trying to be humorous in the first place.

  4. I guess I’ll be the heretic and say that I LIKE “Little Drummer Boy”, especially the Manheim Steamroller version. I picture the boy tapping out a soft rhythm with his fingers, instead of banging hard with drumsticks.

    And I always thought the “Jingle Bells” lyrics were “the horse was lean and LAME…he got into a drifted bank and we ALL got upsot.”

  5. I’m generous, and parse the mistletoe line as:

    “Ho ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see [that] somebody waits for you. Kiss her once for me.”

    It’s a stretch, but it did take me most of my life to realize that Silent Night is “All is calm, all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child.” The “’round yon virgin” seemed like some weird old timey was of saying “see” or “come around” until I put it together with the previous lines.

  6. I was forced to sing these moronic songs with various choirs through my pre-teen years. In my very young years, these were always interspersed with the ‘sacred’ numbers, which always posed a question for me: Jesus gets a Santa? What deity is assigned to the Easter Bunny, for example? He’s magic too, isn’t he?
    I do understand the need for popular music (I think) to round out the sacred songs, primarily because they can actually be sung by one or two people, and of course, for to promote gift sales. But Andy, et.al., do not get me in the Christmas spirit, if that is the objective. And knowing how much money he/they make on this is another disincentive.

    Confession is required here: I love Christmas because of the family time, the decorations, the generous and loving attitudes it engenders, the setting-apart of this season against the others. Though I am an agnostic, I very much appreciate the beautiful sacred songs and those who created them. They mean more to me as examples of the fabulous abilities of the human mind, rather than praise for the birth of a human individual who truly changed the world (You say deity, I say human…).

    Confession #2: I stopped believing in Santa Clause when I was eight. Even at that age the logistics of it boggled my young mind.

    So pick away at the lyrics, and I will agree for the most part. I don’t listen, sing, or hum them anyway.

  7. “which holds that a song can be about the religious holiday or it can be about Santa Clause and the non-secular holiday”

    Is this supposed to say “which holds that a song can be about the religious holiday or it can be about Santa Clause and the secular holiday”


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