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

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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,

Continue reading

Ethics Alarms Encore: “Christmas Music Blues”

[The previous post reminded me of this one, from 2015. Here it is again, slightly updated and edited. It’s as accurate now as it was then, unfortunately.]

At the rate things are going, I am certain that before long no pop vocal interpretations of traditional Christmas music will be easily accessible on the radio. This is a cultural loss—it’s a large body of beautiful and evocative music—and someone should have, one would think, the obligation of preventing it. But I have no idea who.

I realized this when I felt myself getting nostalgic and sad as I listened to a series of “Christmas classics.” For one thing, they all reminded me of my parents, whose absence beginning in 2011 permanently kicked my enjoyment of the season in the groin. For another, all the artists were dead. Bing: dead. Frank: dead. Elvis: probably dead. Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, The Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, Elvis, Karen Carpenter, John Denver–dead. Long dead, in most cases. Christmas has become a serenade of dead artists. Except for the narrow range of country music stars for those who enjoy “O Holy Night” with a twang, living pop artists don’t sing these songs. OK, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban and Michael Bublé. Not many others. A few years ago, Sirius-XM was so desperate to find living artists that it was playing the Seth McFarland Christmas album. Seth can sing, but I’m sorry, but it’s hard to enjoy “Silent Night” while picturing “The Family Guy.”

Continue reading

Comment(s) Of The Day: My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Parts I and II

Lots of excellent comments around the blog this week, perhaps because the number of quality comments tends to be inverse to the number of posts I’m able to put up. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Tuesday’s Open Forum, which, I am told, contains many treasures.

I’m putting up two Comments of the Day that resulted from the two Christmas music posts. The first is unusually short for a COTD, but it made me laugh out loud, which is hard to do these days. Joel Mundt was commenting on a Christmas song from Hell called “Fairytale of New York” that Steve-O was kind enough to plant on our brains. The upbeat ditty’s lyrics:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

Joel earned Comment of the Day honors by writing,

“Fairytale of New York” still sounds better than “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime”, which is the worst song – Christmas-related or otherwise – in the history of humanity.

If there was a Christmas song with the title of “I Chopped the Presents Up With an Axe on Christmas Day Before I Kicked the Neighbor in the Head and Burned the Churches Down and Spit on the Mistletoe and Let the Dog Pee in the Egg Nog”…that song would still be better than “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime.”

And I LOVE Egg Nog…

A bit harsh, perhaps (my son, who is an afficianado of all pop music written after 1963 likes Paul’s Christmas song), especially when the competition for Worst Song Ever is so fierce. By all means, submit your nominees.

Joel’s COTD was in the Part II thread, about modern Christmas songs. Paul Compton’s Comment of the Day was in reaction to My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols.

His addendum about Bing Crosby’s star power compared to his disciples Frank and Dean also went straight to my heart… Continue reading

My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols

“O Come All Ye Faithful” is so stirring that it almost makes up for all other Christmas music botches.

This isn’t so much an ethics analysis as an expression of frustration. For a cultural holiday that relies so much on music, Christmas is wounded today by accumulated  incompetence on that front, as well as a lack of diligence. Just a little more attention and industry could make the traditional repertoire so much better. You know those AT&T wireless commercials about how “good enough” isn’t good enough? That’s the issue in a nutshell. We have to hear these songs year after year. Can’t they be cleaned up?

Let’s begin with the traditional songs and carols that weren’t written to avoid the origins of Christmas. These are the strongest and most evocative of all the season’s songs, in contrast to the”popular” Christmas music that came down to us from Tin Pan Alley. I have to ask, though: What the hell is “I Saw Three Ships” about?

I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,

I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,

    On Christmas day in the morning.

I assumed that there was an acknowledged and well-researched metaphor buried here, but no, there really isn’t. The nearest body of water to Bethlehem  is the Dead Sea, and it’s 20 miles away: Bethlehem is land-locked. Where were those ships coming from? How did Jesus and Mary end up on a ship, and why were three necessary? This is the fake news of Christmas Carols. The song makes no sense, so scholars and critics have been positing justifications for this nonsense, without any evidence at all other than, “It must mean something!” One batty theory is that the the three ships are references to the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Wikipedia concludes that the reference to three ships “is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.” Then the song has nothing to do with Christmas at all?  The entry continues, “Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms “Azure three galleys argent”. Ah! It’s a song about a coat of arms! Sure! THAT makes sense.  Then it goes on to a theory that I considered years ago along with everyone else, that the ships represent the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as “ships of the desert.” Continue reading

Encore: On the Importance Of Christmas To The Culture And Our Nation : An Ethics Alarms Guide

[As promised, here is the Ethics Alarms Christmas package, lightly revised, last posted three years ago]

I don’t know what perverted instinct it is that has persuaded colleges and schools to make their campuses a Christmas-free experience. Nor can I get into the scrimy and misguided minds of people like Roselle Park New Jersey Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who resigned over the city council’s decision to call its Christmas tree lighting a Christmas Tree Lighting, pouting that this wasn’t “inclusive,” or the  CNN goon who dictated the bizarre policy that the Christmas Party shot up by the husband-wife Muslim terrorists had to be called a “Holiday Party.”  Christmas, as the cultural tradition it evolved to be, is about inclusion, and if someone feels excluded, they are excluding themselves.  Is it the name that is so forbidding? Well, too bad. That’s its name, not “holiday.” Arbor Day is a holiday. Christmas is a state of mind. [The Ethics Alarms Christmas posts are here.]

Many years ago, I lost a friend over a workplace dispute on this topic, when a colleague and fellow executive at a large Washington association threw a fit of indignation over the designation of the headquarters party as a Christmas party, and the gift exchange (yes, it was stupid) as “Christmas Elves.” Marcia was Jewish, and a militant unionist, pro-abortion, feminist, all-liberal all-the-time activist of considerable power and passion. She cowed our pusillanimous, spineless executive to re-name the party a “holiday party” and the gift giving “Holiday Pixies,” whatever the hell they are.

I told Marcia straight out that she was wrong, and that people like her were harming the culture. Christmas practiced in the workplace, streets, schools and the rest is a cultural holiday of immense value to everyone open enough to experience it, and I told her to read “A Christmas Carol” again. Dickens got it, Scrooge got it, and there was no reason that the time of year culturally assigned by tradition to re-establish our best instincts of love, kindness, gratitude, empathy, charity and generosity should be attacked, shunned or avoided as any kind of religious indoctrination or “government endorsement of religion.”  Jews, Muslims, atheists and Mayans who take part in a secular Christmas and all of its traditions—including the Christmas carols and the Christian traditions of the star, the manger and the rest, lose nothing, and gain a great deal.

Christmas is supposed to bring everyone in a society together after the conflicts of the past years have pulled them apart. What could possibly be objectionable to that? What could be more important than that, especially in these especially divisive times? How could it possibly be responsible, sensible or ethical to try to sabotage such a benign, healing, joyful tradition and weaken it in our culture, when we need it most?

I liked and respected Marcia, but I deplore the negative and corrosive effect people like her have had on Christmas, and as a result, the strength of American community. I told her so too, and that was the end of that friendship. Killing America’s strong embrace of Christmas is a terrible, damaging, self-destructive activity, but it is well underway. I wrote about how the process was advancing here, and re-reading what I wrote, I can only see the phenomenon deepening, and hardening like Scrooge’s pre-ghost heart. Then I said… Continue reading

The Ethical Christmas Carol

Considering that Christmas is our culture’s ethical holiday, it is remarkable that only one traditional carol—and no modern holiday songs—celebrates ethical conduct. The one carol is “Good King Wenceslas,” and a strange one it is.

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.

For one thing, “Good King Wenceslas” has little to do with Christmas Day, and doesn’t mention Jesus or the Nativity. The Feast of St. Stephen is also known as Boxing Day, the 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. Continue reading

Christmas Music Blues

Who are those guys?

Who are those guys?

At the rate things are going, I am certain that before long no pop vocal interpretations of traditional Christmas music will be easily accessible on the radio. This is a cultural loss—it’s a large body of beautiful and evocative music—and someone should have, one would think, the obligation of preventing it. But I have no idea who.

I realized this when I felt myself getting nostalgic and sad as I listened to a series of “Christmas classics.” For one thing, they all reminded me of my parents, whose absence beginning in 2011 permanently kicked my enjoyment of the season in the groin. For another, all the artists were dead. Bing: dead. Frank: dead. Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, The Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, Elvis, John Denver–dead. Long dead, in most cases. Christmas has become a serenade of dead artists. Except for the narrow range of country music stars for those who enjoy “O Holy Night” with a twang, living pop artists don’t sing these songs. OK, Mariah Carey and Michael Buble. Not many others. Sirius-AM was desperate to find living artists that it has been playing the Seth McFarland Christmas album. Seth can sing, but I’m sorry, but it’s hard to enjoy “Silent Night” while picturing “The Family Guy.”

Current pop stars are, understandably, looking for new Christmas hits that will be identified with them, and those have always been hard to come by. Bing Crosby made annual recordings of terrible entries in the Christmas song market—I just heard a station play a few of them. Gene Autry too: many of his efforts were bombs, though I rather like this weird one:

Continue reading

On the Importance Of Christmas To The Culture And Our Nation : An Ethics Alarms Guide

christmas-hero-H

I don’t know what perverted instinct it is that has persuaded colleges and schools to make their campuses a Christmas-free experience. Nor can I get into the scrimy and misguided minds of people like Roselle Park New Jersey Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who resigned over the city council’s decision to call its Christmas tree lighting a Christmas Tree Lighting, pouting that this wasn’t “inclusive,” or the  CNN goon who dictated the bizarre policy that the Christmas Party shot up by the husband-wife Muslim terrorists had to be called a “Holiday Party.”  Christmas, as the cultural tradition it evolved to be, is about inclusion, and if someone feels excluded, they are excluding themselves.  Is it the name that is so forbidding? Well, too bad. That’s its name, not “holiday.” Arbor Day is a holiday. Christmas is a state of mind. [The Ethics Alarms Christmas posts are here.]

Many years ago, I lost a friend over a workplace dispute on this topic, when a colleague and fellow executive at a large Washington foundation threw a fit of indignation over the designation of the headquarters party as a Christmas party, and the gift exchange (yes, it was stupid) as “Christmas Elves.” Marcia was Jewish, and a militant unionist, pro-abortion, feminist, all-liberal all-the-time activist of considerable power and passion. She cowed our pusillanimous, spineless executive to re-name the party a “holiday party” and the gift giving “Holiday Pixies,” whatever the hell they are.

I told Marcia straight out that she was wrong, and that people like her were harming the culture. Christmas practiced in the workplace, streets, schools and the rest is a cultural holiday of immense value to everyone open enough to experience it, and I told her to read “A Christmas Carol” again. Dickens got it, Scrooge got it, and there was no reason that the time of year culturally assigned by tradition to re-establish our best instincts of love, kindness, gratitude, empathy, charity and generosity should be attacked, shunned or avoided as any kind of religious indoctrination or “government endorsement of religion.”  Jews, Muslims, atheists and Mayans who take part in a secular Christmas and all of its traditions—including the Christmas carols and the Christian traditions of the star, the manger and the rest, lose nothing, and gain a great deal. Christmas is supposed to bring everyone in a society together after the conflicts of the past years have pulled them apart, What could possibly be objectionable to that? What could be more important than that, especially in these especially divisive times? How could it possibly be responsible, sensible or ethical to try to sabotage such a benign, healing, joyful tradition and weaken it in our culture, when we need it most?

I liked and respected Marcia, but I deplore the negative and corrosive effect people like her have had on Christmas, and as a result, the strength of American community. I told her so too, and that was the end of that friendship. Killing America’s strong embrace of Christmas is a terrible, damaging, self-destructive activity, but it us well underway. I wrote about how the process was advancing here, and re-reading what I wrote, I can only see the phenomenon deepening, and hardening like Scrooge’s pre-ghost heart. Then I said…

Christmas just feels half-hearted, uncertain, unenthusiastic now. Forced. Dying.

It was a season culminating in a day in which a whole culture, or most of it, engaged in loving deeds, celebrated ethical values, thought the best of their neighbors and species, and tried to make each other happy and hopeful, and perhaps reverent and whimsical too.  I think it was a healthy phenomenon, and I think we will be the worse for its demise. All of us…even those who have worked so diligently and self-righteously to bring it to this diminished state.

Resuscitating and revitalizing Christmas in our nation’s heart will take more than three ghosts, and will require overcoming political correctness maniacs, victim-mongers and cultural bullies; a timid and dim-witted media, and spineless management everywhere. It is still worth fighting for.

More than five years ago, Ethics Alarms laid out a battle plan to resist the anti-Christmas crush, which this year is already underway. Nobody was reading the blog then; more are now. Here is the post: Continue reading

Jack and The Christmas Gasoline Can

gas-can

OK, it’s not exactly “The Homecoming,” but the way they’re scraping the barrel for cable Christmas movies, you might see this one on LMN yet. I just hope I’m not played by Wallace Shawn

Everything was going swimmingly this Christmas morning. We had opened presents, and now Grace and I were making our contributions to the family dinner later today at my sister’s house. A main feature was Grace’s mother’s recipe for a holiday salad that was part of her family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for decades, and now ours. The recipe:

Two bags of cranberries, chopped

2 chopped navel oranges, with peel

2 chopped Red Delicious apples, also unpeeled

2 cups of chopped walnuts

2 diced celery hearts

1-2 cans of cranberry juice concentrate

Sugar to taste, or not (we leave it out.)

All was well until I cored the apples, bought supposedly fresh yesterday at Harris Teeter. They went “squish,” despite being all shiny and crisp on the outside. This would not do, so I was dispatched to the store to pick up suitably fresh apples, without which grandmother’s famous salad just wouldn’t be right.

I jumped into our car (the one that replaced its predecessor that  had burst into flames for no apparent reason in a mall parking lot—one of the many delightful events of our 2014). The gas-tank-low light was on, as it had been the day before. The gauge now said that I had five miles left, and the nearest station was only a bit more than two away. Well, these things aren’t perfect: my car stopped about 200 yards from the exit to the station, and in the middle of the street.

I called home, and my wife and son prepared to take his car to the station to get enough gas to let me drive the last leg of the journey, but his car, as is its wont, was dead. Meanwhile, I tried to push mine out of the middle of the street on my own, realizing too late that cars in neutral tend to pick up quite a bit of speed going down a grade, and are remarkably hard to steer and brake from outside the vehicle. I was barely able to stop the car from plowing into a parked Volvo by turning it to roll over the curb onto someone’s lawn. I was loath to leave it there untended while I hiked to the gas station, and I didn’t feel like paying fifty bucks or more for roadside assistance, but I was running out of options. Also time, if I was going to find fresh apples while a grocery store remained open.

I hadn’t seen a single car on the road, until an SUV stopped next to me. The driver, a woman in her thirties who was accompanied by her two teenaged sons, asked it I needed help. I explained my plight, and the two young men assisted me in rolling my car off the lawn into something approximating a legal parking space.

“Stay here: we’ll be right back,” the woman said. She was as good as her word, for she soon reappeared, with one of her sons carrying a festive red plastic gas can filled with fuel. The older son helped figure out how to work the damn spout, which had to be assembled. “See, here’s the flaw,” I explained. “The device solving this problem should not require more intelligence to operate than someone getting into this stupid situation is likely to have.” He agreed, politely. Then he poured all the gasoline into my empty tank.

I prepared to reimburse this family of Good Samaritans, but they refused. “Just pay it forward,” the mother said. “We’re glad we could help out.” I shook her sons’ hands, and hers, and wished them all a Merry Christmas. Then I got the apples, and the salad was perfect.

In the Marshall household, this will forever be known the Miracle of the Christmas Gas Can.

Let us sing!

(to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas” :

1. Jack’s wife said “You must go out.
We’ve an apple crisis!”
Never would he dare refuse ;
Better to fight ISIS.
So he set out in his car,
Though t’was low in fuel
Til it sputtered to a stop
(Boy was he a foo-oo-el!)

2. Shifted into neutral then,
It rolled t’ward disaster.
Jack would soon be chasing it,
As the car rolled faster.
Pulling hard with all his might,
He changed its direction
Rested then on somebody’s lawn
Waiting for collection.

3. Up now rolls an SUV
Driven by a stranger
“Trav’ler, tell us, how can we
Help you stave off danger?”
Her sons helped him move the car;
There would be no ticket.
Jack composed a secret wish,
As if he could pick it.

4. “Find a can, and bring me gas
This would be a blessing.
Yet I’d be a total ass
Their Christmas to be messing.”
Suddenly they all drove off,
Telling him to stay there
Still he doubted they’d return
Heeding his mayday there.

5. Damn! The time was running out,
And the stores were closing.
Should he not get gassed up soon
Hope would be foreclosing.
Hark! The SUV returns,
With a gas can brimming
Welcome sight more lovely than
Firs with all their trimming.

6. “Let me pay you,” Jack implored.
For I owe you greatly.”
“No, my friend, just pay it for’d.
That’s what’s right innately”
Therefore learn the lesson well
Be you high or lowly
If we all are ethical
Every day is holy.