Permit me, for just one moment, to have some sympathy for the Grinch. For as much as he needed to have that change of heart, he also had a grain of legitimacy in his gripes that I can relate to — and not just the problem in finding shoes that fit. No, I refer to the complaint about the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise. Specifically the stuff that comes in over the airwaves. Now, I like Christmas music as much as the next guy — I’ve got about 11½ hours worth on my computer. But there’s no denying that there are some songs that, despite their ubiquity, aren’t so much classics as songs that make one sick.
So, in the interest of having a little chance to vent at these inexplicably replayed songs, I’m presenting my top 12 least favorite Christmas songs (if I miss any of yours, mention them in the comments). Now, there are a few rules I set down for myself while putting this list together. First, no comedy or novelty songs — humor is so subjective that what one person is amused by will aggravate another instantly. While any list of this sort is inherently subjective, any entry from those songs would basically boil down to “I’m just not amused”, and that makes for a boring entry. So no “Dominic the Donkey”. Second, it had to be something I was familiar with; no fair looking up terrible songs, and there had to be a reasonable chance most people have encountered it in some form. Third, no complaining about covers. There are any number of cases where somebody butchers a good song, but that’s not the song’s fault. I want to single out the cases where nobody can do a good job because the song just isn’t any good to begin with. And fourth, I’m not talking about the most overplayed version. Any song gets tiresome the 537th time you hear it in a month.
I’m not going to link the songs because I don’t want to subject myself to hearing them again while looking for valid YouTube videos or other links. Also, consider it a kindness if you have avoided these yourself. If you really want to hear them, though, they’re pretty easy to find.
#12: “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
On the face of it, this song isn’t all that bad. I even like all the various parodies of it. But while any song can get tiresome if it’s repeated ad nauseum, this is one song that usually wears out its welcome before it’s even finished. Most of the time I’m tired of the song well before the singers get to day 12. There are a few exceptions — I can enjoy the John Denver & the Muppets version, for example. And Nancy Sinatra’s rendition is pretty good, and is helped out by her cutting it short and making snarky comments about what kind of person gives all those things for gifts anyway. But generally speaking, any time this song turns up on the radio, it’s going to feel even longer than it really is.
#11: “Winter Wonderland”
This is one of those songs that is perfectly fine as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics. Then you realize it was written at about a third-grade level. “Gone away is the blue bird, here to stay is the new bird.” New bird? Really? That’s the best rhyme you could come up with? What new bird is that, anyway?
“In the meadow we can build a snowman, and pretend that he is Parson Brown, he’ll ask ‘Are you married?’, we’ll say ‘No, man! But you can do the job while you’re in town.'” Putting aside the fact that “No, man!” is hardly a respectful response to a parson you expect to marry you, “no man” is the second-laziest possible rhyme for “snowman” that could have been used.
The laziest, of course, is used during the “circus clown” verse when the lyricist rhymes “snowman” with “snowman”.
#10: “I Saw Three Ships”
Like “The Twelves Days of Christmas”, this is a song that simply wears out its welcome before it’s finished. If you ever take a creative writing course that deals with poetry — or if you’re just given a little bit in grade school anyway — you’re familiar with the concept of a “rhyme scheme”. In the case of “I Saw Three Ships”, the scheme is A-B-A-C… only it’s not a rhyme scheme so much as a whole line scheme. The B and C lines repeat through every verse; the A line changes each verse, but is always stated twice in the verse. It’s a nice little shanty tune, but when you’re listening to nine verses, it gets a little wearisome.
It doesn’t help that the concept doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Ships don’t have much, if anything, to do with Christmas. And the song states the ships, bearing Mary and Jesus, are sailing into Bethlehem. Bethlehem is not a port city.
#9: “Must Be Santa”
For most of the traditional — or semi-traditional, as this one only goes back to 1960 — songs, the complaint is the repetitive nature of them. The same applies here. “Must Be Santa” is in the style of a drinking song, with people repeating things back to the singer, and the list of repeats growing longer every verse. It’s both repetitive, and it’s not that great a tune musically either. That it easily lends itself to being converted into a polka doesn’t help matters much.
#8: “Mary, Did You Know?”
With this entry, we start getting into songs that are identified with particular singers. These songs are often covered by others anyway, but where the originators of some of the traditional songs are lost to the annals of time (or just the laziness of not wanting to look them up), these songs are indelibly associated with the people who first made them famous. In this case, although it was first recorded by Michael English, it was Kathy Mattea’s version that made it big.
As a song, it’s not terrible, but it has a glaring problem with its fundamental premise. The song asks, at length, whether Mary knew what was in store for her with the child she was pregnant with. The answer is “yes, yes she did.” According to the gospel story, that was the very first thing anybody was told about Christ’s birth — an angel came down, told Mary she was pregnant, and with whom. I can certainly respect a religious Christmas song — it is, after all, a religious holiday — but if you’re going to write one, it is important to be familiar with the story you’re basing your song on. In this case, it seems like lyric writer Mark Lowry didn’t even read the first 1% of the story in question.
#7: “Mele Kalikimaka”
Hey, I like Bing Crosby, he’s created more than a few Christmas classics. But “Mele Kalikimaka” isn’t one of them. I can even understand how this would have become a popular Christmas song in Hawaii; they can certainly enjoy Christmas as much as anything else. I just can’t figure out how it became popular anywhere else. There’s absolutely nothing for people outside the islands to relate to in this song, and musically, it’s not up there with Bing’s best.
#6: “Santa’s Beard”
Some musical subgenres don’t work particularly well as Christmas music, and surf rock is one of them. The Beach Boys could have supplied several entries to this list, but I decided to keep it to one. The most irritating of the Beach Boys’ contributions to the season is “Santa’s Beard”, in which a young boy is disappointed by a mall Santa. It could have been heartwarming, it could have been funny, but it’s not either of those things, it’s just kind of pathetic. And it’s incredibly repetitive, with the refrain “I want to meet Santa, the real real Santa” (or very close variations thereof) taking up over 70% of the lyrics (I checked). The actual verses aren’t a lot better, as some of the lines don’t even scan right — at one point the Beach Boys sing “he’s only five and a half going on six”, and the “and a half” clearly doesn’t fit the cadence of the song. Considering the “going on six” makes the “and a half” redundant (while being redundant itself, we can count, you know), why not just drop those words?
#5: “Wonderful Christmastime”
I’ll give Paul McCartney credit for one thing: this is an unabashedly cheerful song. Christmas is a time of joy, which all too many songwriters seem to forget. McCartney gets that much absolutely right. Unfortunately, this song has one of the oddest rhythms possible. Were it not for the synthesizer background, it would practically be spoken-word for everything but the refrain, which doesn’t mesh with the verses. I’m pretty sure McCartney could write a good Christmas song, but this isn’t it.
#4: “Last Christmas”
Wham! has much to answer for. This song has been covered to death in recent years, but even the original is pretty much insufferable. I may give some leeway in my categorization when I pick films for “Christmas Cinema” that are more on the lines of action films or comedies set at Christmas, but the truth is Die Hard is not in any way, shape, or form a Christmas movie. And “Last Christmas”, despite the title, is not in any way, shape, or form a Christmas song. It barely even references Christmas outside the title; it could just as easily have been “Last Tuesday”. It’s just another sappy little broken-heart song, and not a particularly novel one at that. Also, “the very next day you gave it away”? How do you give someone else’s heart away? “Hey, Janet, this guy really likes me, but I think you’d be a better match for him; take him off my hands, won’t you?”
#3: “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)”
The Vietnam War protest song thinly disguised as Christmas music. Somehow this completely escapes the numerous people who cover it every year, who sing it without a trace of irony in their voice. This isn’t a happy song. This isn’t even a Christmas song. It’s essentially an anti-Christmas song (despite John and Yoko wishing their kids happy Christmas at the beginning), cutting into the listener for not stopping war. “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” “War is over if you want it.” The implication is that it’s the listener’s fault that war still exists, a very simplified view of things at best. But like the song “Imagine”, which preaches that we’d be better off without the differences that make us individuals, it’s interpreted as being a happy and hopeful song rather than the vaguely misanthropic guilt trip which it is. John Lennon came across as a pretty happy guy in his songwriting for the Beatles, but afterwards, there’s always this bitter undercurrent that the commercial music market doesn’t seem to pick up on.
And if all that’s not enough, he lets Yoko sing, too. You can’t tell me that was done with good will toward man.
#2: “The Christmas Shoes”
If you listen to Christmas music on the radio at all, you knew this song would be making an appearance. Remember what I said earlier about Christmas being a joyful time, and “Wonderful Christmastime” getting that right? Well, where Paul McCartney did well, NewSong misses the mark entirely. “The Christmas Shoes” is about a young boy who is begging for money so he can buy a nice pair of shoes for his mother, so she can look good when she goes to meet Jesus that night. She’s dying of cancer you see. Cheerful! This maudlin premise apparently comes from an urban legend in a chain letter email passed around during the early 1990s. So it’s not just an overwrought melodramatic piece of massively depressing music, it’s an overwrought melodramatic piece of massively depressing music based on spam.
All of a sudden “We wish you a Merry Christmas and please buy our beer” doesn’t sound half as crass.
#1: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
This song was performed by Band Aid, which ought to be a pretty big warning sign in and of itself. There has never been a good song that was put together by an assemblage of stars for a cause. When it comes to bad qualities of bad Christmas songs, this one has it all. It’s musically deficient. It attempts to manipulate guilt — which is pretty reprehensible, in my opinion — by making the listener feel bad that they’re not as poorly off as other people. And it’s lyrically stupid. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” As they’re predominantly Eastern Orthodox in Ethiopia (the country the song was created to benefit), yes, they probably do. They’re poor, but they can probably figure out dates just like everybody else. Don’t need high technology for that. The rest of them, being mostly non-Christian otherwise, probably don’t care if it’s Christmas.
It also features the brilliant line “there won’t be snow in Africa this year”. Putting aside the peaks of Kilimanjaro and other high mountains, this is true, but not in any way notable. There are lots of places that celebrate Christmas that don’t get snow, and they don’t view it as a sorrowful thing the way this song does. Hawaii. Florida. Even in western Oregon you’re more likely to get your wish if you dream of a wet Christmas instead of a white one.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” features all the problems that make the other songs on this list hard to listen to, all in a single song. It’s an easy choice for the worst Christmas song.
And a partridge in a pear tree….