The older I get, the more that Christmas becomes a mix bag. The food makes me fat, I get anxious about buying presents, and I never get enough Christmas cards. But I do love Christmas music. I even grudgingly tolerate the songs that others abhor (Paul McCartney’s “A Wonderful Christmas Now”, Wham’s “Last Christmas”, and “The Little Drummer Boy.”)
There are, however, a small group of Christmas songs that drive me up a wall, either because they’re not really “Christmas songs” or are contrary to the spirit of Christmas. To that end, here’s my take on the five worst Christmas songs.
5. My Favorite Things – I know that hardly anyone has seen “The Sound of Music” so let me set the stage for this song: when the Von Trapp kids are scared by a summer thunderstorm Maria distracts them with a ditty that consists primarily of unimaginative rhymes (poodles/noodles, mittens/kittens) that have nothing to do with Christmas. Can we posit that merely mentioning sleigh bells in one verse and snowflakes in another doesn’t make a song seasonal? I’m sure the estate of Rogers & Hammerstein is thrilled that this continues to appear on Christmas albums, but it does nothing to raise my Christmas spirit. While we’re at it, check out this video by Lorrie Morgan in which she portrays a homeless woman who breaks into magnificent mansion that she apparently lived in as a child. She’s soon channeling her inner Julie Andrews, fantasizing about dancing with a handsome dude while flashing back to memories of being a scared girl upstairs in her old bedroom. It’s all pretty creepy and sad and inappropriate for a Christmas album.
4. River – This is a great Joni Mitchell song from her massively depressing album “Blue.” The thrust of the piece is that the unstable narrator has dumped her nice boyfriend, regrets it and wishes there was a river she “could skate away on.” How this ended up as a Christmas song is inexplicable. Presumably it’s because the opening lyrics are: “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer /And singing songs of joy and peace/Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning music critic to understand that the point of that verse is to contrast the happiness she should be feeling at Christmas with her inner sadness at losing “the best baby I ever had.” Don’t people even listen to the lyrics of songs before they put them on Christmas albums? This reminds me of how Leonard Cohen’s despairing “Hallelujah” has been appropriated as an all purpose memorial dirge, although it’s anything but. As for “River”, here’s Lea Michele from “Glee” trying to turn it into something as memorably morose as “ Have Yourself a Memory Little Christmas.”
3. Santa Baby – The anthem for sluts and gold-diggers everywhere. The song itself is mildly witty and at least it’s completely honest in its advocacy for the transactional nature of Christmas. You can’t complain about the subtext of the song since it’s all text: the dame wants a sable, a convertible, a diamond ring, decorations from Tiffany’s, etc. She claims to deserve it because she didn’t hop into bed with anyone except her main sugar daddy for an entire year. This version by Madonna is particularly wrong because she’s imitating Marilyn Monroe, who had a sly knowingness about her own manipulativeness, something that Madonna lacks completely, kewpie doll singing notwithstanding.
2. Baby It’s Cold Outside – If you type “Christmas rape” into Google, this song comes up. Once again, I don’t understand how this particular tune came to be associated with Christmas. The holiday isn’t mentioned at all – just snow and freezing temperatures. I’m hardly an advocate for politically correctness but any song about a man trying to coerce a woman into sex doesn’t really capture the Christmas spirit. The song apparently originates from the movie Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 MGM musical comedy starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett. The clip below is from the movie and what’s interesting about it is that there’s a second “seduction” scene in which the woman forces herself on the man. This is an interesting twist, to be sure, but it only amplifies the coercive nature of the interaction.
Need more convincing? Check out this funny video (“Baby, It’s Date Rape Time.”)
1. Christmas Shoes – This is probably more famous for being the worst Christmas song of all time than it is for being a Christmas song on its own. It describes how a guy goes shopping on Christmas Eve and comes across an impoverished boy who wants to buy shoes for his dying mother — because when you’re dying the thing you really want is for your kid to blow all his money on some shoes you can be buried in. In any event, as noted, I’m not the first person to have identified the particular horror of this song, the whole point of which is to make your feel guilty about every minor complaint you might make at any time during the holiday season. The comedian Patton Oswalt did a hilarious riff on this song, so we’ll close with that. Season’s greetings everyone!