[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]
On what’s lurking beneath the cheery lessons of our holiday favs.
Rudolph isn’t like the other reindeer, but that shouldn’t make him an outcast or a pariah. That’s a pretty positive and important message, and I’d be very happy if my boys’ childhood favorite holiday tune were subtly teaching them that lesson every time they warbled through its lyrics. And I suppose it is, kinda sorta. But the problem for me—and when it comes to music I am, perhaps not surprisingly, obsessively analytical about lyrics; this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the post I am going to write—is that, while Rudolph’s status in his community does change when his peers’ perspectives on his identity and distinctiveness are likewise transformed, that transformation is itself caused by a very specific and troubling factor: the recognition of Rudolph’s usefulness to said community. It’s a foggy night, Santa needs some extra guidance, and then how the reindeer loved him, then they shouted out with glee that he’d go down in history. The end result is, again, a more inclusive and tolerant North Pole community, and I’m all for that, but I sure do wish it could get that way because of the inherent goodness of those values, and not because Rudolph happened to prove his practical worth.
The dual communities constructed in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” on the other hand, are flawed precisely because of the extreme imbalance in their respective contributions to the happy occasion (caroling, wassailing, whatever term you prefer) upon which they meet. The song’s speakers admit, in the opening verse, that what they bring to this occasion amounts to nothing more than “good tidings … to you and your kin, / good tidings for Christmas and a happy New Year.” It’s always nice to be wished well, of course, and I’m sure that I can speak for my kin in returning the good tidings. But the speakers will not be satisfied with such an exchange, demanding in the second verse—repeating the demand three consecutive times, no less—that we “bring [them] a figgy pudding,” and even adding “a cup of good cheer” to the demands in the third repetition. And lest we mistake this demand for a simple request, the speakers then threaten us with the consequences of refusal, noting (again three times for emphasis) that they “won’t go until [they] get some,” and so we had better “bring some out here.” I’m all for giving, as yesterday’s post hopefully made clear, but this is coercion at its worst, and all because of some good tidings that, I am forced to imagine, are likewise contingent on me and my kin giving in to these culinary demands.
Speaking of those kin, and coming back around to my boys, I was a big fan of any and all mechanisms through which I can help—okay, fine, coerce, but with good intentions—their mischievous youthful selves to behave well, and Santa Claus proved to be one of the most successful such disciplinary devices. To that end, I think that the bulk of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” expresses with admirable clarity and conciseness the need for children to watch out, not to cry or pout, and generally to be good (not, it must be admitted, actually for goodness’ sake, but for the sake of self-interest and future present-receiving, which is a more compelling argument to be sure) if they hope to stay on the nice list and have a merry Christmas morning. But then there’s the start of the final verse: “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Why? Why, in the name of all that is ho ho ho-ly, does Santa need to see and know those things? Why has he suddenly transformed here into an “Every Breath You Take”-like stalker, attending to my children’s every move, 24 hours a day? And how am I supposed to sleep on Christmas Eve now, knowing that this Big Brother wannabe with his ominously shaking belly will be descending down my chimney at any moment?
And don’t even get me started on Frosty. Next holiday song tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?