A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular, Final Chorus: Updates And Unfinished Business!

These songs each fall into a special category, so I saved them for last:

E. Creepiest totalitarian lyrics to a Christmas song that was already bad

That would be the 1977  duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” In Bing’s last (and posthumously broadcast) TV Christmas special, he sang “The Little Drummer Boy” while  Bowie sang something that sounded like John Lennon on a bad day about world peace blahtattty blah in counterpoint.  I found the song retchworthy when I saw it in ’77, but some people actually like it, perhaps because of the spectacle of the greatest American popular music auteur singing with a much younger pop music icon.

Here are the lyrics of Bowie’s section:

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Peace on Earth, can it be
Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can

I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again.

The couplet,

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care

is, I wrote in 1n 2018, ” insidious, creepy, totalitarian, arrogant, and redolent of what we are currently seeing in the schools, with various state and media-approved thought-control efforts…in lesson plans.” Yes, let’s make children care about peace, banning guns, banning fossil fuels, permitting abortion, LGBTQ rights. Make them care about what their programmers care about. I didn’t expect much out of Bowie, but it was Bing’s show, and he didn’t 86 those lyrics as he should have, perhaps because Bing, at least when raising his first family, was big on “making children care” about what he wanted them to care about by physical force if necessary.

F. Most unfairly maligned non-Christmas song played almost exclusively at Christmas

That is, of course, Frank Loesser’s controversial Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Last year, I wrote,

#1 on the political correctness hit list is the Frank Loesser naughty duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which I admit to calling “date-rapey” six years ago. I regret that, which is an over-statement, but not this post (#3 in a 2017 Warm-up) that expressed my annoyance at the song being treated as Christmas fare at all.

But I didn’t know until today that the song debuted in the Esther Williams watery 1949 musical comedy”Neptune’s Daughter” (which I have never watched), that it had nothing to do with Christmas in the film, and that the movie presented the song in two versions, one in which the man (Ricardo Montalban) is trying to get the woman (Esther) to stay over—neither of them can sing, incidentally—and a gender-flipped version later where an aggressive Betty Garrett (who can sing) is trying to seduce a reluctant Red Skelton (who can’t). Salon, of all places, featured a balanced analysis of the song last month, here.

I also didn’t know that  Loesser (who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls” among other shows) originally wrote the number to be sung as a duet with his wife, singer Jo Stafford. No wonder Steve and Eydie sang it. It’s always a good idea to know the context of a song before you knock it, Jack.

In 2019, John Legend co-wrote a politically correct version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wit certifiably god-awful lyrics like these:

Her: “What will my friends think…?

Him: I think they should rejoice…

Her: If I have one more drink?

Him: It’s your body and your choice!

Now he says the song was satire. Sure, John. If you say so,

A new analysis of the song was published this month, “The Complicated, Controversial History of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s not bad.

G. Christmas songs with lyrics I thought made no sense but would make sense if they had been written in the 19th Century

  • In 2019 I bitched,

The late Andy Williams’ Christmas standard, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,”  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…

Wrong, wrong and wrong, as  Rich in Ct informed me in a comment, with a link to this article. They really did used to tell “scary ghost stories”:

…Some of the modern traditions of Christmas borrow from old Norse, German & Celtic celebrations of the solstice, including the tree, lights, stockings, gift giving, Saint Nicolas, and that includes the telling of ghost stories. The night of the winter solstice is the longest duration of nighttime of the year, and early Europeans believed this marked the blurring of the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. It’s kinda like that line from Game of Thrones, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” Stories would be told ghosts and spirits haunting the night and thus a tradition was born.

 

Read More: Why Are ‘Scary Ghost Stories’ In A Christmas Song?

 
This still doesn’t explain why the already-dead tradition would be referenced in a song written in 1963, when virtually no one would get the reference. A desperate rhyme, perhaps?
  • I have mentioned many times my puzzlement at the lyric in “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” another wistful Christmas song written to evoke the loneliness and longing of American soldiers fighting abroad during World War II era Christmases, referring to “presents on the tree.” Many subsequent versions (it was another Bing Crosby song) changed the line to “presents ’round the tree.” But again, the lyric is accurate, just puzzlingly out of date: by WWII, almost nobody hung (tiny) presents on the tree anymore, but it was a common practice in the 1800s. Here is an excellent article about the practice, with this piece of Amercana:

One of the best examples of a box designed to hold treats on a Christmas tree – and still widely available today – is the Barnum’s Animal Cracker’s box, a favorite childhood memory for over one hundred years. In 1902, the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) launched the circus car box as a Christmas promotion, with the string attached so that the box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers could be hung directly on the Christmas tree. The string has remained a part of the package ever since then.

See?

And, finally,

H. The most ethical Christmas carol that has nothing to do with Christmas.

Only one traditional carol or Christmas song celebrates ethical conduct: “Good King Wenceslas.” 

The lyrics are by J. M. Neale (1818-66), and were first published in 1853. Neale is a superstar in the Christmas Carol firmament: he also is responsible for the English lyrics of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” both of which you hear much more frequently than “Good King Wenceslas.” One reason is that the ethical carol tells a story in ten verses, and if you don’t sing them all, the story doesn’t make sense. There are very few recordings of the song in which all the verses are sung. Ten verses is also a lot to remember for any song. My elementary school used to teach the whole carol to sixth graders for the Christmas assembly, but let them have crib sheets. This was before it was decreed that allowing children to learn, sing and listen to some of the most lovely and memorable songs in Western culture was a form of insidious religious indoctrination.

Here is the whole carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?

Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

 “Good King Wenceslas” is a Boxing Day carol, about he day after Christmas, December 26. It is a British Commonwealth tradition that never caught on in the U.S. In some European countries like Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, the day is celebrated as a Second Christmas Day. The term “Christmas-box” dates back to the 17th century, and refers to the tradition of giving tips, gifts, or Christmas bonuses, contained in a box, to postmen, tradesmen, errand-boys, and servants. It was the wealthy citizens’ treatment of servants that spawned the tradition: since servants would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, they were allowed to be with their families the next day, and each servant received a Christmas box to take home. Typically the boxes contained   gifts, money and sometimes leftover food from the Christmas feast. In the U.S., Christmas bonuses are a vestige of Boxing Day. The song, then, celebrates a king who was kind to his page.

Nobody is sure where the particular story came from.  Wenceslas I  (907 – September 28, 935), also known as Václav the Good, was the duke of Bohemia from 921, when he was 14, until his assassination in 935, when he was just 28.  Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, in part because of legends and tales relating to his generosity to the poor.

One historian, Cosmas of Prague (Good King Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czechs) writing in 1119, claimed,

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

It’s a strange story the carol tells. Why does the king think a poor man who lives by the forest needs wood? Is the main point of the story that he brings food to a poor man, or that he has the brilliant idea of letting his freezing page re-use his foot prints? And why would there be any warmth in the snow?

Nonetheless, the carol does extol kindness and charity. I’m troubled by lyrics’  promising a reward for ethical acts,  which are their own reward. It isn’t altruistic conduct if you expect to benefit personally. Wenceslas certainly didn’t: his reward was to reward was to be killed by his brother before he was 30.

 

18 thoughts on “A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular, Final Chorus: Updates And Unfinished Business!

  1. “I didn’t expect much out of Bowie,”

    You make Bowie sound like some young punk upstart but his musical career was already a decade-old at that point (and having already made some of the most critically-acclaimed music of his career) and he only cemented that reputation in the decades to come. He might not be your cup of tea, but he’s considered by many to be an auteur himself and, to my generation, his legacy outshines Bing’s. LOTS of current artists cite Bowie as an influence, while Bing is seldom remembered.

    A crime, perhaps. But memories (like words) change with the passing of time. If everyone forgets it, culturally it never happened.

    • I didn’t expect much of Bowie singing a 60s Christmas song, just as I wouldn’t expect much of Bing if he tried “Ziggy Stardust.” Fair in both cases. I once bought an album that included Bing’s cover of “Hey Jude.” Not good.

      By all reports, Bowie was unenthusiastic about the whole Xmas show project and kind of a dick on the set. He was a major star, but you do nobody favors by comparing them to Bing, with the possible exceptions of Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. Here’s Wikipedia’ intro to his biography:

      Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby Jr. (May 3, 1903 – October 14, 1977) was an American singer and actor. The first multimedia star, he was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century worldwide.[1] He was a leader in record sales, radio ratings, and motion picture grosses from 1926 to 1977. He made over 70 feature films and recorded more than 1,600 songs.[2][3][4]

      His early career coincided with recording innovations that allowed him to develop an intimate singing style that influenced many male singers who followed, such as Frank Sinatra,[5] Perry Como,[6] Dean Martin, Dick Haymes,[6] Elvis Presley,[6] and John Lennon.[6]

      Yank magazine said that he was “the person who had done the most for the morale of overseas servicemen” during World War II.[7] In 1948, American polls declared him the “most admired man alive”, ahead of Jackie Robinson and Pope Pius XII.[2]: 6 [8] In 1948, Music Digest estimated that his recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music in America.[8]

      Crosby won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Going My Way (1944) and was nominated for its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), opposite Ingrid Bergman, becoming the first of six actors to be nominated twice for playing the same character. He was the number one box office attraction for five consecutive years, 1944 to 1948.[9] At his screen apex in 1946, Crosby starred in three of the year’s five highest-grossing films: The Bells of St. Mary’s, Blue Skies and Road to Utopia.[10] In 1963, Crosby received the first Grammy Global Achievement Award.[11] He is one of 33 people to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,[12] in the categories of motion pictures, radio, and audio recording.[13] He was also known for his collaborations with his friend Bob Hope, starring in the Road to… films from 1940 to 1962.

      Crosby influenced the development of the post World War II recording industry. After seeing a demonstration of a German broadcast quality reel-to-reel tape recorder brought to the United States by John T. Mullin, he invested $50,000 in the California electronics company Ampex to build copies. He then persuaded ABC to allow him to tape his shows. He became the first performer to prerecord their radio shows and master his commercial recordings onto magnetic tape.

      Through the medium of audio recording, he constructed his radio programs with the same directorial tools and craftsmanship (editing, retaking, rehearsal, time shifting) used in motion picture production, a practice that became industry standard.[14] In addition to his work with early audio tape recording, he helped finance the development of videotape…

      You really don’t expect me to be impressed by the argument that recent generations are ignorant of major figures in the arts and entertainment, do you? Bowie was a great recording star, a song-writer and a singer. He had two movie credits; his reach and influence was huge, but not within miles of Crosby’s, which reached into singing styles, recordings, jazz, popular culture, comedy, movies, radio and TV. If Bowie is Michelangelo (which may be a bit excessive) Crosby is Aristotle, the foundation of much of what came after him. on Rolling Stone’s own list of the “greatest” 100 artists in Bowie’s genre, Bowie’s 39th. A similar list of Crosby’s ranking in his era would have him #1, with only Al Jolson and Sinatra credible competitors.

      • We can’t talk about David Bowie without first viewing this music video. I can only assume that Bowie needed cash. It’s no Liberace/Feeling Groovy, but I’d expect to find these two abominations in a single record collection.

  2. Jack,

    I know I’ve already commented once, but this was my father’s FAVORITE carol, and I will not let it’s meaning be tarnished:

    “Why does the king think a poor man who lives by the forest needs wood? Is the main point of the story that he brings food to a poor man, or that he has the brilliant idea of letting his freezing page re-use his foot prints? And why would there be any warmth in the snow?”

    1) Because he saw him gathering winter fuel (firewood) in the cold (when no one would do so unless they were desperate) suggesting he was low or had none. Thus, the King was saving him the trouble of further collection in the harsh weather.

    2) Both. The footprints are an analogy for Christ and following his generous example. Thus, we should give generously to the needy and, as the page trod in his masters steps, so must we all.

    3) It was a miracle.

    In other news, I hope you’re well and having a Merry Christmas season!

    • Boy, when you decide you want to bitch about something, facts really don’t matter. I designated Karl’s favorite as the most ethical carol, all by sing its praises literally, and you still complain.

      Re 2) Thin. Sounds like a contrived analogy, particularly since the source of the lyrics and legend are unclear. to me. Though we all know Jesus was always wandering around in the snow. If the carol was about following in Jesus’s footsteps, you might think there would some hint of that message, rather than an outright exhortation to bless the poor.

      • Regarding Most Wonderful Time of the Year, in the 60’s, there would be people alive that grew up with scary ghost stories, who may well have told tales of the glories of their childhood Christmases long ago.

      • As someone who has only ever heard the first two verses of this song (I avoid Christmas music, which inexplicably irritates me greatly), and is seeing the rest of the lyrics for the first time right now, the footsteps in the snow part immediately struck me as a saintly miracle.

        The song exhorts you to be generous to the poor, just like the king. In other words, follow in his footsteps, and you will be blessed by God, a metaphor that echoes in the last verse.

    • Also, in the mideval tradition, the woods and all the animals in it would have belonged to the king. Poor people were only technically supposed to gather either fallen twigs or dead boughs from the lower parts of the tree. I’ve always taken Wenceslas’ command to bring wood to be bringing fine firewood, cut from the hearts of the trees, which would produce a far warmer and heartier fire than mere twigs or dry tinder. Although if he was such a generous king, that kind of law seems to be simple to change. Still, points of kingly proclamations seldom make good carols, unless they’re about killing babies.

      • … Although if he was such a generous king, that kind of law seems to be simple to change …

        Unfortunately, that was not generally the case. Kings couldn’t change old customs that easily in those days, not within the bounds of their authority, and not safely if they exceeded their authority; see what happened to the Emperor of Brazil after he ended slavery, less than two centuries ago. Like other bleeding heart hand waving, it wouldn’t have helped that peasant that night anyway.

        Back to the original post:-

        … Why does the king think a poor man who lives by the forest needs wood? …

        Ah. There are at least two possible reasons, overlapping with others’ observations, both of which might have applied:-

        – This was less about the availability of wood than about the work of getting it.

        – There were often customary and/or legal restrictions on access to wood. The poor wood cutters in stories would first have had to have the right to cut wood. Also, there may have been restrictions in Bohemia like those in England, that only allowed commoners the right to collect fallen wood, and then only in those forests that were part of their particular common – hence the term “by hook or by crook”, referring to how far you could go to get wood to fall by artificial means. (The practical reason for the restriction was conserving the forest resource for other uses.)

        Either way, a whole log was more substantial than loose wood, and probably drier too.

        … And why would there be any warmth in the snow?

        Well, that’s the Saint’s miracle, the effect of his footprints, isn’t it? But it would have made sense anyway, from the better shelter from the wind.

  3. G: I knew about presents on the tree. When I was a kid, I read the “Little House on the Prairie” books. In one book, there is a church Christmas party with presents hanging on the tree, some wrapped, some not. I thought it was weird, but so was much of what they did back then.

  4. Went to choir practice last night and we sang through the pieces for our upcoming annual “Lessons and Carols” on Sunday afternoon. While the various choral works that will be sung by the choir (interleaved with Bible readings – i.e. the Lessons”) were a joy to practice, what truly inspired me and many of my fellow choristers was practicing the traditional Christmas hymns – in 4-part harmony accompanied by a talented organist. While the parts & words are very familiar, that doesn’t subtract from their significance and meaning. Can’t wait until Sunday!

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