Regrettable Christmas songs

(It’s Christmas Adam today, as several friends have pointed out: the day that immediately precedes Christmas Eve. Yeah, yeah, guffaw, guffaw.)

The world of Christmas songs (other than standard hymns and carols) can be roughly divided into three parts, according to content and purpose:

Jesus-y Christmas songs, in which the Christmas Child plays a central role (more on these below);

well-meaning non-Jesus-y Christmas songs, emphasizing family, friends, and warm feelings about the season, but making no commitment to the birth of Christ or indeed to his existence (“White Christmas”; “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…)”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, etc).;

gag Christmas songs, which are basically meant to be awful but entertaining (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, “All I Want for Christmas Is a New Front Tooth”, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”, etc.)

Aesthetic judgments work differently in these three domains, as well as in the domains of standard hymns and carols; even if you consign all gag Christmas songs to Music Hell (as I would certainly do) and run screaming from them when they appear in public places, you might still want to make discriminations in the other categories. Some instances are more vicious than others.

In particular, there is plenty of room to view some Jesus-y Christmas sings as thoroughly regrettable, despite their earnest pretensions. This brings me to “The Little Drummer Boy” vs. “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, in a tight and hard-fought competition for  Most Regrettable Jesus-y Christmas Song.

Endless numbers of people have fallen to the floor in apoplexy over the maddening “Drummer Boy”, with its

pa rum pum pum pum

refrain. From Wikipedia:

“The Little Drummer Boy” (originally known as “Carol of the Drum”) is a popular Christmas song written by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. It was recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. This version was re-released successfully for several years and the song has been recorded many times since.

In the lyrics the singer relates how, as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the nativity where, without a gift for the infant Jesus, he played his drum with the Virgin Mary’s approval, remembering “I played my best for Him” and “He smiled at me”.

Other candidates for Jesus-y annoyance: “I Wonder As I Wander” (link), especially if John Jacob Niles himself is singing, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky / How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die”; “It’s Christmas Day”, written recently by Scottish songwriter Dougie Campbell for children’s choir (where the kids earnestly chirp the chorus, “It’s Christmas Day all over Earth / Let the bells ring out for Jesus’s birth”); and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, whose textual problems begin to make an appearance in the Wikipedia entry:

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a Christmas song written in October 1962 with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne. The pair were married at the time, and wrote it as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

… The song describes how word of the birth of the baby Jesus is relayed to higher upon ever higher authority. The message originates with the Night Wind, which whispers it to a small lamb. The lamb reports the message to his shepherd boy, who in turn conveys the news to the king. The king eventually spreads the message to the “people everywhere.” In each verse, the message is slightly modified, in a similar fashion to the game of Telephone.

The song diverges from the Biblical account in one particular. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great (king at the time), far from welcoming news of the child’s birth, ordered Jesus killed, forcing Jesus, his mother Mary, and Joseph to flee. At the same time, it is never specified in the lyrics that Herod is meant to be the king in question, nor that the events are necessarily taking place in Judea. Also, it is never stated that the shepherds saw a star, only the magi.

Quinn Cummings (hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfierld Zwicky here), in her 12/6 blog posting on the song, is forthright:

Listen to What I Say

It’s taken a while, and Saint Nick knows there were a few contenders, but in the end, there is only one Worst Christmas Song:

“Do You Hear What I Hear”

She goes on to do a line by line analysis of the song, looking at every detail of the text (similes, capitalization, the whole thing), finding the entire song wanting. It’s wicked(ly) funny.

16 Responses to “Regrettable Christmas songs”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    The Rum Pum Pum Song is the worst – depressing tune, depressing text, and an earworm. Dave Barry wrote the definitive column about the Little Drummer Boy:

    My next unfavorite is “Silver Bells” with its shitty sidewalks. Not sure where it fits in your taxonomy of Yuletide drivel.

  2. Doug Harris Says:

    All this blather about the best or the wurst of holiday songs sails serenely over the obvious: The most overlooked, these days, is one of the best:

    (And, as I noted elsewhere yesterday, I have considerable concern for that ‘one-horse orphaned sleigh’.)

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ned Deily on Facebook:

    We sang LDB, DYHWIH, and IWAIW repeatedly in high school and junior high school xmas programs (yes, they were still xmas programs back then). It’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for them. Fortunately, the Mannheim Steamroller version of LDB is just a click away (link). Carol of the Bells, anyone?

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Robert Coren on Facebook:

    Even if I were otherwise to find IWAIW tolerable, the third line sets my incompletely-reformed-prescriptivist teeth on edge.

    Pronoun case for rhyming purposes, a somewhat desperate lyricist’s move. Surely not natural in JJN’s childhood variety, but later in life Niles developed an assortment of affectations (according to my first father-in-law, who was a Kentucky acquaintance of Niles and his wife).

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    Nick Fitch on Facebook:

    Possibly the most complete library of regrettable festive music — fully playable in-browser for the suicidally inclined — is published every year at Regretsy (link).

    The title of the posting is “Merry Shitmas”.

  6. Tané Tachyon Says:

    My main association with DYHWIH is the way it serves as comic relief during a horror battle scene in the movie Gremlins.

  7. Alex Says:

    “Carol of the Bells” is interesting in that it is a captured carol forcibly impressed into Christmas service. The original Ukrainian song was meant to be sung on New Year’s Day and is about a little bird who flies into a rich farmer’s home and says, “Look at how rich you are! You will make even more money in the new year! Also, your wife is hot! Yay for you!”

    The idea of New Year’s Day as a day to celebrate material prosperity just doesn’t exist in the US (outside of maybe New Orleans), so it became a Christmas carol with totally new lyrics that don’t have anything at all to do with the original.

  8. bratschegirl Says:

    Carol of the Bells (the English version) is truly awful, with the sole exception of the performance by the Sweeney Sisters (recurring SNL characters from some years back played by Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn). I believe their take on the lyrics included the phrase “those god-damn bells,” which pretty much encapsulates my response to that song.

    Of course, this time of year I am usually more concerned with hiding from Nutcracker excerpts…

  9. arnold zwicky Says:

    More from Ned Deily on Facebook:

    Once a year I play my special “X*** Bells* playlist (that’s its real title). Besides many favorites it includes two albums that are there just to remind me what can happen when musicmakers follow the Dark Side: Mannheim Steamroller’s “A Fresh Aire Christmas” and – now playing – Richard Clayderman’s “Christmas”. The Moonlight Sonata *is* a holiday carol, isn’t it?

  10. arnold zwicky Says:

    KFJC in Los Altos Hills (Foothill College) often has a segment of deranged Christmas music on Christmas Eve, but this year they’re just using the usual schedule and hosts, but with the hosts asked to focus on Christmas music, so that 10-2 on the Eve was “Down on the Farm”, with Sally Goodin playing country music of all sorts (today it was blues).

    Goodin admitted early on that she’d never done a Christmas music program before, but pressed on. After a while, she noted that the music she was playing was awfully *slow* as well as pretty sad. Christmas time is a downer in Country Land.

  11. 12/30/2012 Let Christ Be in You | ForeWords Says:

    […] Regrettable Christmas songs ( […]

  12. richie Burrell Says:

    Fresh from airstrip one.

    “Santa’s on the register” (Don’t fist us this christmas)

  13. richie Burrell Says:

    Ha ha.

    A little context perhaps for those not in the UK

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