A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [Third Stanza: The Good, The Bad, And The Creepy]

The New York Times has an article about the competition to create a new Christmas music standard, or at least a hit song for streaming.  The piece’s “Rules of the Game:

No. 1: The public prefers the old classics, and isn’t too interested in new songs.

No. 2: Singers shouldn’t wander too far from the melody.

No. 3: “You can’t be too corny at Christmas. You totally get a free pass.”

Corny is fine, but what about creepy?

D. Dark Christmas Songs

1. Traditional Carols

The problem with “The Carol of the Bells” isn’t the lyrics, it’s the music. The thing is affirmatively creepy; my mother hated it, and compared the tune to “The Hall of the Mountain King.” No other Christmas music has been so frequently used darkly. It came, then, as no surprise when the TV horror mini-series “Nos4A2,” based on a novel by Stephen King’s son, used the carol as its theme music. The show is the tale of a damned man who kidnaps children and takes them to “Christmasland” where they are kids forever, and also become little vampires. The music, which is by a Ukrainian composer, is unquestionably ominous. Why it has remained in the Christmas canon is a mystery to me.

Another carol in a minor key is “We Three Kings,” which contains this cheerful lyric in Verse 4, sung by Balthazar:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Merry Christmas!

And why would you give that stuff to a baby?

I’m going to call I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” a traditional carol since its lyrics are more than a century old. It’s not creepy, but it is a sad song, and sadder still when one knows its origins. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, December 25, 1863. He was in despair: his son had been wounded fighting for the Union the month before, and the poet feared he would die. The author of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Evangeline” and other famous poems also was still mourning his second wife, who had died horribly in a fire two years earlier. He was not in a good state of mind when he wrote,

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Longfellow’s son didn’t die after all, and Henry waited more than a year, after Charles had finally recovered from his wounds, to publish it. The poem was first set to music in 1872  by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, using a melody he had written in1848. In 1956 composer Johnny Marks,  like Irving Berlin a Jew who composed great Christmas songs, set the poem to a new melody. (Marks also wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”) Marks omitted, wisely, the fourth and fifth verses, which not only set the song in the Civil War period but are also too gloomy for a Christmas song.

2) Modern Christmas Songs

While we’re on the topic of Christmas songs with dark subtexts, let’s consider the champion of all modern Christmas music, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” The Bing Crosby version is still the best selling American single of all time; according to Irving Berlin’s transcriber, after completing the song, the composer/lyricist said that it wasn’t only the best song he had ever written, it was the best song anyone had every written. And he may have been right, though Berlin reportedly didn’t expect “White Christmas” to be a big seller: he was sure wrong about that. Nevertheless, when you consider the origins of the seasonal classic, you may never hear it quite the same way ever again. Nevertheless, when you consider the origins of the classic, you may never hear it quite the same way ever again.

In their memoir about their famous father, Berlin’s daughters revealed that their Jewish family celebrated Christmas, but that Berlin and his wife always disappeared for an hour or two on Christmas day. Only when they were adults did his daughters learn that they had a brother who had died as an infant on December 25 before they were born. The Berlins didn’t want to spoil Christmas for their daughters by revealing the family tragedy, so they secretly visited their son’s grave every December 25th, creating both a family tradition and a mystery.  The song, heard in that context, is one of pure longing: Berlin is wishing everyone else a merry and bright holiday, while stating that his Christmas would be in shadows forever, and he would never have a joyful, carefree December 25th again. Once I knew this background, up-beat versions of the song—I just heard one— are grating. It is not a happy Christmas song, and Christmas is a bittersweet occasion for nostalgia and memories of better times for many (like my mother, who was an emotional wreck at Christmas every year).

Another Christmas standard nearly became so gloomy no one would have wanted to hear it. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, who wrote the  song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” 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…

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 in the bridge 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.

… and 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.
In the case of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” knowing the origins of the song makes it more powerful. As I wrote in a long post in 2018, Noel and Gloria Regney collaborated on the song in October of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They had planned on writing a holiday song, but the idea of the song came to them at a time when they were afraid they wouldn’t live to see it recorded. It isn’t the simple children’s song it seems to be, for “Do You Hear What I Hear? was a desperation prayer for hope and peace by a couple who feared neither was likely. Gloria said later that they couldn’t sing their new creation because it made them both break down crying.
A list of alarming Christmas songs wouldn’t be complete without deploring the sinister lines in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” :
He knows when you are sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good, for goodness sake!
Nice. Santa Claus as Big Brother. The lyrics come uncomfortably close to being a threat, and they spawned  the nightmare-inducing “Elf on the Shelf,” which Ethics Alarms discussed here.
Not quite through yet: there is one more Stanza to go…


18 thoughts on “A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [Third Stanza: The Good, The Bad, And The Creepy]

  1. “And why would you give that stuff to a baby?”

    Gold, frankincense and myrrh were valuable commodities that might have financed Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt.

    Gold was pure and highly prized
    Frankincense was used in the Israeli meat sacrifice.
    Myrrh was used to anoint priests and kings and in embalming the dead.

    All the gifts represented some aspect of Christ’s purity, deity, kingship and his sacrificial death.

      • Too many unknowns here to answer correctly. Depending on where in Egypt Joseph and Mary settled, there may have been a market for spices like these. We don’t really know how the economy worked.

        For all we know, they didn’t sell them at all. It’s one possible use for the Magi gifts that some have speculated might have been helpful beyond their symbolic meaning. Mary very well could have kept them all in a curio box with a lock of Jesus’ hair and his bronzed baby booties.

    • Exactly right. We don’t even know if there were three magi/wise men/kings/whatever, only that there were three gifts. I never thought of them as possibly financing the Holy Family’s time abroad while staying clear of Herod, but that does make sense. The symbolism also is well known: gold-a king, frankincense – a high priest, myrrh – a healer and a mrartyer. As for how Balthazar would have known about this, well, the magi are supposed to have read of Christ’s coming in the stars, maybe it told the whole story, including that ultimately He would die to redeem the sins of man.

      • I’ve heard the speculation that there would have been some cultural memory of the Exilic prophets who were in Mesopotamia. Many of their messianic prophecies would have been composed there. If they had any respect in the community, schools of “wise men” and “seers” would have grown up around them. If this speculation were accurate, then the Magi of the East would have been interpreting the signs of the heavens in light of any passed down knowledge from the exiled Jewish prophets about a coming king who would suffer and die as the ultimate sacrifice for the Israel, bringing blessing to the world. Knowing the dark future of the birth of this king, the 3 gifts are all appropriate for the cosmic events foretold even if given to a toddler.

        • I never thought of that, but it IS possible that there may have been some influence from the “ten lost tribes” of Israel who vanished into the east due to intermarriage after the fall of the North kingdom.

  2. I’m going to defend a couple of the contenders here, but first some context about Christmas: it is a joyful holiday, but it is not a “happy as a kid in a candy store” one. There is remembrance for the ones who did not make it (when I was younger this was more of a New Year’s thing, but that is now more of a party and getting someone to kiss at midnight). There is solemnity in its religious significance (more about that later). There is recognizance of one’s luck and fortune and consideration for the less fortunate. And now to present my defense…

    Carol of the Bells. First of all, the lyrics for this one are now secondary: the music is iconic by itself. I’d put its melody up there with Canon in D for representativeness and listener recognition. Creepy? It is only as dark and foreboding as the arrangement makes it. The TSO one shows how it can start as a quiet Christmas melody and end up as the background for an epic adventure. It can be a traditional choir singing it during the Christmas Eve service at church. Heck, it has been used as background music for a racing videogame (original Forza for the Xbox for those keeping score). In its favor, it is also relatively easy to perform to some degree of competence without having to be a music virtuoso. And no matter what it is perfectly recognizable as a holiday song. Just don’t play it on tubular bells, Mike Oldfield has already made those creepy forever.

    We Three Kings. In particular the mention of myrrh. The snarky response: “It is called foreshadowing.” The slightly less snarky and probably more theologically correct response is that myrrh was given as a gift to signify that Jesus was fully human, including the capability (and destiny) to die. The song is just making explicit what is taught in Sunday school and I assume most schools until late last century. Again goes with the Christmas is joyful but not only for the superficially upbeat themes. In this case, it’s a reminder that without death and resurrection there is no point in Jesus’s birth.

    • On the 4th verse: That makes sense, I guess, except why would you want to foreshadow the solemn and tragic end of a savior’s life at the beginning? And why would a celebration of the dawning of new hope and enlightenment for mankind need a reference to the “bleeding and dying” at the end of the story? I must have sung that carol over a hundred times (it’s one of my favorites), and no teacher, minister, choir master or musician ever explained that Balthazar’s gloomy verse was a reference to the death and resurrection. And how would Balthazar know what was coming?

  3. I always enjoy when some kid makes us dust off “Coventry Carol” with its third verse – also in a minor key –

    Harod the king, in his raging; charged he hath this day: his men of might, in his own sight, all children young to slay. Then woe is me, poor child, for thee; and ever mourn and say: loo lay thou little tiny child, bye bye loo Lee, loo lay.”

  4. Worst than listening to “The Choir of the Bells” is listening to it being played by a blue/grey-haired bell choir. Another song, that we will soon frequently hear, is Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah”. The title means praise to Yahweh but the stanzas are an ode to self-centeredness. Many self-centered performers will melancholically sing the refrain. Many listeners will be duped into believing it is a profound religious refrain. I much prefer Handel’s Halleluyah chorus from his oratorio The Messiah. Unfortunately, it will be sung in this Christmas season but it is in the Easter section of the famed opus.

    • Actually I think it ends Part the Second, which is the Passion part of Messiah, while Part the Third is Easter proper. It also gives rise to the legend that King George was so moved by it that he stood up, compelling everyone else to stand and starting the tradition that remains today. Some say that he was afflicted with piles and right then and there they became too much and compelled him to stand, but I am more inclined to believe the story that he thought that the piece was ending and stood up because it was almost time to go.

      • Actually, history contains no direct evidence that the King ever attended any performance of Messiah, so I have just passed on a legend. Whoops.

  5. Carol of the Bells

    There might be something deeper to your angst over Carol of the Bells.

    A 13th century church chant the “Dies Irae” (Latin for Day of Wrath) opens with 4 notes. Not the “Dies Irae” of These 4 notes either naturally felt “doomy” and “dark” *OR* over the years in the Western Art tradition were consistently used to portray those emotions musically because of their first association with Dies Irae. Regardless of how it entered our modern musical lexicon, those four notes are oft associated with negative emotions and gloomy outlooks or somber occasions.

    Just so happens, those 4 notes are also the 4 key notes that are repeated over and over again with minor variation in Carol of the Bells.

    Fun fact, those four notes find their way into all sorts of movies in, you guessed it, dark and foreboding scenes. For example: from Alexander Ludwig who has observed a lot of the 4 note motif’s use in pop culture.

    For further discussion, click on “transcript” to read the podcast or listen to it here: 20,000 hertz. This is completely worth listening to.

      • Listen to the podcast. Dies Irae finds its way into It’s a Wonderful Life. Amusingly, the original Ukrainian composer of the tune that becomes Carol of the Bells doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to knowing Dies Irae. That he came up with that motif independently is possible. But still invokes darkness to western ears even when the Ukrainian composer used it in a song about hope and abundance.

  6. If you think I’m tough, here’s conservative pundit Stephen Kruiser’s top 15 “secular Christmas songs” he thinks “deserve the death penalty.” (He objects to all non-religious Christmas songs):

    15: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
    14: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
    13: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
    12: Frosty the Snowman
    11: Last Christmas.
    10: Jingle Bells
    9: Jingle Bell Rock
    8: The Christmas Song
    7: Deck the Halls
    6: Let It Snow.
    5: Do They Know It’s Christmas
    4: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
    3: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
    2: Feliz Navidad
    1: Winter Wonderland

    I’ll give him #4 and #3.

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