Culture Music

The (sometimes dark) histories behind our favorite Christmas songs

Some conversation starters for when you’ve had enough eggnog
Paolo Vergara | Dec 24 2018

You’ve probably felt it during idle musings at downtime, that there’s something off with the 1934 jingle “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It does sound pretty Orwellian. Just switch all instances of ‘Santa Claus’ to ‘Kim Jong-un’ and you be the judge. “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.”

A couple of head scratches and Google searches later, it hit me that the history of Christmas is wrought with wars, tragedy, and intrigue that walking through a winter wonderland suddenly becomes a scene right out of Game of Thrones or Vikings. It’s only fitting then that some Christmas songs have themes that likely involve more than just yuletide merrymaking.

 

The Twelve Days of Christmas (traditional)

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Hearing the whimsical opening notes of this classic often puts one in a festive spirit, even if it’s hard to recall which bird goes which day, and how many birds sit. It makes sense as this song was traditionally part of a memory game played at English yuletide parties.

It was also likely a secret code, with each item, bird, and day of Christmas pointing to catechetical themes for a time when Catholics were persecuted in England and by extension in Ireland, starting when Queen Elizabeth was declared a heretic by Pope Pius V. The 12th day represents either the apostles or the points in their creed. Those two turtle doves? The Old and New Testaments. The partridge in the pear tree apparently is Jesus Christ. And the ‘true love’ giving you new things every day is none other than God. Claims and counter-claims have been made, but each claimant sure spent more than twelve days thinking about this.

 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Written by Frank Loesser, 1944

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Public opinion over this sexy, secular classic duet piece in recent years hasn’t exactly been favorable. This year, more radio stations in North America have banned the song (as polls reveal that listeners want it back). All this is in the spirit of the ongoing #MeToo reckoning where some people have pointed out that the song describes a scene of tantamount to harassment, date rape even.

On the other hand, it’s also been pointed out that no, actually, the song is a paean to female empowerment that subverts the mores of the time. In short, in the context of 1940s convention, the woman isn’t so much saying “no,” but is playfully teasing, leading the man on (to a happy ending or disappointment, who knows?) with “maybe just a cigarette more.”

 

Go Tell It on the Mountain (traditional)

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A “vanilla” version of the song performed a cappella by Pentatonix

 

One might recall this hymn as the closing song for Christmas masses. (“Go tell it on the mountain / that Jesus Christ is born.”) A staple in African-American churches and has been around likely since 1865, various scholars note how the song represents the sentiments of many plantation slaves of the era. According to theologian James Cone, “that is why the slave wanted to ‘go tell it on the mountain.’”

Over the decades, the song has taken on many versions with specific verses, some openly criticizing politicians of the day, others subtly hinting at pride for African-American heritage. Check out this verse added during the Civil Rights movement:

I wouldn’t be Governor Wallace,

I’ll tell you the reason why,

I’d be afraid He might call me

And I wouldn’t be ready to die.

 

Or better yet, black activist and philanthropist Fannie Lou Hamer’s spin:

Go tell it on the mountain,

That freedom is coming soon

 

Christmas bonus
Performed by Aegis (2000)

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This is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me on this.

There’s a good chance at least one group of employees has sung this during last week’s company Christmas parties. Labor laws have made its verses more of a tongue-in-cheek parody on Christmas materialism rather than sloganeering. Still, one can’t but wonder why a law is needed in the first place to ensure the financial security of our nation’s laborers.

Lawyer friends might point out that the Christmas bonus law was enacted no less than by Ferdinand Marcos as a presidential decree in 1975. Depending one’s political views, it’s up for debate whether Marcos was looking out for the people or simply trying to gain political favor.

 

White Christmas
Written by Irving Berlin
Performed by Bing Cosby (1941)

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The premiere version of the song, radio static and all

 

Airing for the first time weeks after the infamous attacks on Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into World War II, the ballad performed poorly perhaps as the nation was still reeling from the shock of taking part in another global conflict. Come 1942, however, the song was a chart-topper for almost three months, and has since been an annual staple.

Crosby’s nephew Howard recalls his uncle sharing a story of how he performed the song in front of Allied soldiers in the Ardennes, days before many were killed in the ensuing German offensive. Looking at the songwriter’s biography, however, suggests a tragedy closer to home. Irving Berlin lost his son on Christmas day in 1928, and he and his wife would visit the grave every Christmas.