It’s December and that means, whether you like it or not, you’re hearing Christmas songs all day every day for the next few weeks. While a lot of our favourites are fun bops, traditional ballads or just repetitive ditties we can’t seem to get out of our heads, there are a few that have some deeply questionable origins and messages. You know, because for some reason a few of us think Christmas is all about seducing Santa into giving you Tiffany jewellery…
It’s not just the blatantly obvious ones either, some of the most seemingly innocent songs have sinister origins that will make you think twice when you hear them playing for the millionth time while you’re at the mall.
Whether you take these ones out of your Christmas rotation, or just retain this knowledge as a funny talking point at the next awkward holiday party you’re forced to attend, we just thought you should know.
“Baby It’s Cold Outside”
Okay, you’ve probably realized that the lyrics to this duet sound awfully date-rapey – some radio stations have even stopped playing it for that reason – but more modern versions of the song get even creepier. There’s an argument to be made that when the song was originally released in 1953, the woman had to play coy about her desire to stay the night or risk damaging her reputation. In that reading, all her statements have a double meaning and the overall effect is that she’s okay with everything that’s happening.
That doesn’t excuse Michael Bublé’s version. We all know he’s the King of Christmas Songs but in his duet with Idina Menzel, the two ad-lib a little exchange that just makes our skin crawl. About mid-way through their musical back-and-forth, Idina says, “You’re very pushy, you know?” to which Mr. Bublé replies, “I like to think of it as opportunistic.” Maybe we shouldn’t be perpetuating the idea that if men just push women hard enough, they’ll eventually consent?
This version isn’t helped by the fact that the music video features children as the couple. Why? Just, why?
“Do They Know it’s Christmas”
Much ink has been spilled on the controversies underlying the late 1980’s push of Band Aid, Live Aid and the like to raise funds and awareness for various charity efforts in Ethiopia, starting with the song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in 1984. All that mess aside, the song itself is condescending, pandering to Westerners who want to feel good about themselves at this time of year and willfully ignorant of actual conditions in Africa. A take-down of the song in The Washington Post after its re-release in 2014 to raise awareness for Ebola, calls it out for its white saviourism and for the factually inaccurate depiction of African countries (apparently there will be snow in Africa this Christmastime).
A few particularly demeaning lines: “There’s a world outside your window / And it’s a world of dread and fear / Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” and “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
Not quite as bad as completely misrepresenting an entire continent but “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” isn’t as innocent as it sounds. There are two main ways to interpret the song: 1) A child sees his mother kissing his father who is dressed as Santa Claus and he assumes the man is Santa rather than his father. Or 2) We take the child at his word and believe that his mother really is kissing Santa in the middle of the night while the father isn’t around (we’re not even getting into interpretations where the man is neither Santa nor the father).
Either interpretation has sexual undertones but they also both reveal a disturbing streak in the child – absolute glee at disclosing his mother’s infidelity to his father (“Oh what a laugh it would have been / If daddy had only seen / Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night”).
Entertainment blog The Main Damie, took the interpretation a step further by focusing in on the Michael Jackson version and pointing out that Joe Jackson had a long history of abusing his musical children, which puts an even darker twist on the concept of Michael reporting infidelity to him.
Whoa, that got dark fast.
Back when Eartha Kitt first recorded this hit in 1953 it was probably the height of female empowerment – look at this woman telling Santa exactly what she wants and taking control of her own sexuality. In 2018, that doesn’t quite hold up. The woman – whoever she may be – comes across as whiny and materialistic as she exploits her sexual appeal for gain rather than taking her own agency. It’s quite the smorgasbord of reductive stereotypes.
Newer versions of the song don’t do much better. Female singers don’t typically change the lyrics other than to update the items they’re asking for (Madonna wants an “out-of-space convertible” rather than a “’54 convertible”) and Michael Bublé’s 2013 version just serves to highlight forced gender binaries and stereotypes. It also veers slightly into homophobic territory by changing “baby” to other more platonic terms of endearment like “buddy” and “pally.”
Yes, it’s jazzy and fun, but at what cost?
“Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”
Yup, we’re going to ruin this one too. On the surface, it’s about a woman being killed by Santa and her family’s jolly mourning. Morbid? Yes. Controversial? Not yet, but we’re getting here.
A deep-dive into the song with input from two University of Alberta pop culture and music experts points out that the time in the 1980s during which the song was becoming popular was also the height of second-wave feminism. They suggest that the wide popularity of the song – which depicts fatal violence against a woman – may be part of a negative cultural reaction to that feminism.
“We were moving into a period of extreme backlash against feminism. It makes sense the song would come out around then and that Grandma is positioned as someone who gets in the way of male fun and so her death is something to celebrate,” U of A’s Cristina Stasia argues.
“The fact that it was a novelty song, a party song with a polka beat to it, doesn’t make it less offensive,” Kathleen Danser adds. “It sounds lighthearted, but that’s in direct contradiction to the lyrics. We should have brought more of a critical analysis to it at this point in our history, but we haven’t yet.”
“All I Want for Christmas is You”
Putting aside the reductive fact that all this woman (i.e. Mariah Carey) wants for Christmas is a man, this song is a pretty fun bop. However, things get weird fast when you take a look at the “SuperFestive!” version. Oh, you didn’t know there was a “SuperFestive!” version? Allow us to enlighten you.
When mid-puberty Justin Bieber came out with his own Christmas album in 2011, he recorded a version of the Mariah Carey classic with the icon herself — pretty big deal. What’s weird is that by making the song a duet, the implication is that the two individuals are singing it about and to each other, meaning that in this case, a 41-year-old woman is singing it to a 17-year-old boy — a 17-year-old boy whose voice is evidently still in the midst of dropping, we might add.
On top of all that, they also released a video where Justin ogles Maria who is wearing a revealing Santa-inspired two piece and dancing up against a wall. Sure, it’s a teenage boy’s dream, but couldn’t we wait until he wasn’t a minor?
“The Christmas Shoes”
Now, this one has to be one of the most hated Christmas songs of all time, but there is also a passionate section of the population that would defend it to the death – it must have been a subsect of that group that turned the story into a book and then a TV movie starring Rob Lowe.
Not only is the song emotionally manipulative, it kind of undercuts its own point at the end by making the whole thing about the narrator rather than the little boy and his family. The song is trying to make a number of points – focus on the true meaning of Christmas, remember the less fortunate, put your family before materialism – but most of them fall flat. They mention Jesus, but nothing about the Christmas story (which is kind of the point) and the boy’s whole mission boils down to wanting to buy his mom a material object (sweet, but kind of the opposite of the point they’re trying to make with the narrator).
And of course, the narrator is the most frustrating thing about the whole song: the lesson he takes from the whole encounter is that God sent him that little boy to remind him what Christmas is all about. Yes, sir, this is all about you. That woman is dying and leaving behind a grieving son and husband so you can remember what Christmas is about.
Give us a break.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Sure, Rudolph is the coolest reindeer on the block – his nose lights up for crying out loud! – but we all know the little guy doesn’t have the happiest of stories. You might remember Rudolph’s origin tale began with some bullying for the colour and vibrancy of his nose but when Santa and the other reindeer needed a light in the darkness, Rudolph was gracious enough to put his unusual skill to work and help them out. After he helped them out all the reindeer loved him and shouted that he would go down in history. Great, right? Well…
If we’re drawing from the 1964 stop-motion movie, the song is way too simple and joyful to address the years, possibly decades of mental abuse Rudolph endured both from the other reindeer and from Santa himself (who literally tells Donner, Rudolph’s dad, that he should be ashamed of himself for having a son with a red nose).
In the end, everybody loves Rudolph, which isn’t really a great lesson. No one learns that they shouldn’t have treated Rudolph differently because he looked different, they just decided that the way he was different was okay because it was useful to them – not exactly a great lesson at any time of year.
If you want an even weirder version of the song, check out Dean Martin’s drunken recording where he calls Rudolph “Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer.”