Unconventional Christmas song subgenres (2020 repost edition)
Unconventional Christmas song subgenres
Originally posted by Chris Lang on December 21, 2013 at 5:30 PM
As a followup to my previous article about Christmas song subgenres, I’m going to name a few of the less conventional Christmas song subgenres, and give a few examples of each of them.
First off, there’s the ‘socially aware’ Christmas song. These are songs that intend to encourage us to channel the feelings of peace and good will that the holiday season represents into doing something about such social troubles as poverty and war. There’s ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’ by John Lennon (which has been covered by Carly Simon and a few others), ‘Some Day at Christmas’ by Stevie Wonder, and ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’ (performed by Amy Grant, Kelly Clarkson, and a few others). And even though it has no words, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve – Sarajevo” also qualifies, as it’s inspired by a cello player’s efforts to prove that humanity and good will still endure even in the midst of destructive conflicts such as what happened in Bosnia.
All of the above songs are, I think, good ones, though every now and then we hear an ineptly done example of this subgenre, such as “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and ‘The Christmas Shoes”.
Moving on from the songs that want the Christmas spirit to inspire people to do good for their fellow human beings, we have the anti-Christmas song. The anti-Christmas song is where the singer expresses disdain or disinterest in the holiday, or where it focuses on the darker aspects of the holiday. It often showcases people who are NOT having a happy time during the holiday season.
Examples of this include “Don’t Believe in Christmas” by the Sonics (“Don’t believe in Christmas cause I didn’t get nothin’ last year.”), “Merry Christmas You Suckers” by Paddy Roberts, and “The Bah Humbug Song (Chipmunks Roasting)” by Lauren Mayer. While those songs may have their humorous aspects (thus overlapping with another subgenre I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs), there are a lot of anti-Christmas songs that are grim, serious, and sometimes downright heartbreaking.
There’s ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ by the Pogues, which, though the music has its cheery moments, the lyrics tell of a man and a woman who’ve really made a mess of their lives, their previously optimistic views of Christmas and New York undermined by how miserable they’ve become at least partially due to alcohol and substance abuse. The male main character spent Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, and his wife, due to drug problems, has been spending the holidays in the hospital, and in the middle of the song they get a little upset and insult each other for a moment.
But this is cheery compared to things like “Lonely Christmas Call” by George Jones, where a man sings about the wife who left him and the kids the previous year (“You left a year ago this Christmas, and I’m wondering if you miss us”), or songs like John Prine’s ‘Christmas in Prison’. Then there’s ‘Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas’ (“Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas. I don’t want to see my mama cry”) which becomes downright horrifying in its implications in the last verse.
There’s “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” by the Everly Brothers, which details the struggles of a man trying to hitch a ride on Christmas Eve. (“The saddest part of all is knowing if I switched with him, I’d leave him stoned and ragged by the road. I’d ride that highway to the arms of my sweet family, and forget about the stranger in the cold. And Christmas Eve can kill you when you’re trying to hitch a ride to anywhere.”) You really have to hear this one to appreciate it.
And then there’s ‘Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas’ by the Staple Singers, and ‘Christmas Spirit?’ by the Wailers, both of which are about people noting how people are forgetting all about the meaning of Christmas. The former discusses how some seem to trivialize the birth of Christ, while the latter complains about the commercialism that threatens to overshadow the ‘peace and goodwill’.
A compilation CD of anti-Christmas songs was released many years ago, entitled ‘Bummed Out Christmas’. In fact, many of the songs I’ve just named are included on that CD.
But let’s move on to lighter things, okay? Another unconventional genre of Christmas song is the comedic or humorous song. These songs parody, satirize, send up, or just have fun with various aspects of the season, or various Christmas song subgenres that I mentioned in the previous blog post. I can’t hope to name them all. Way back in 1991, Dr. Demento declared that if he were to even attempt to play all of the comedic/bizarre holiday songs he’s heard, he could fill a whole years’ worth of radio shows with them. Similarly, we’d be here all day if I tried to describe even a third of the comedic Christmas songs I’ve heard.
So I’ll just list a few well-known ones and a few favorites. Of course many are familiar with Elmo and Patsy’s ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer’. Despite it having a sort of dark and twisted premise, this song remains popular and gets plenty of airplay whether you like it or not. But as far as dark holiday humor goes, it’s tame compared to the likes of “Weird” Al Yankovic’s ‘Christmas at Ground Zero’ (written in 1986 just at the tail end of the nuclear war fears) or his later “The Night Santa Went Crazy” where Santa Claus snaps and goes on a destructive rampage.
On a lighter note, we get comedic examples of the ‘gimme’ song (there’s admittedly a lot of overlap between humorous Christmas songs and ‘gimme’ songs). The two best known ‘gimme’ songs, Alvin and the Chipmunks’ ‘The Chipmunk Song’, and Eartha Kitt’s ‘Santa Baby’ (which has been covered by Madonna and Taylor Swift, but those versions can’t hold a candle to Eartha Kitt’s original) certainly have their humorous aspects. Of course, we get strange Christmas wishes, such as Gayla Peevey’s ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’, Spike Jones and ‘All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth’, and ‘The Pretty Little Dolly’ by Mona Abboud (where a little girl sings about a very unusual doll she wants for Christmas).
Then of course there’s songs like Heywood Banks’ “You Ain’t Gettin Diddly Squat”, where the singer tells certain little kids “You Ain’t Gettin Diddly Squat cause you really messed up this year.” And there’s ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (“I”m getting nuttin’ for Christmas, Mommy and Daddy are mad. I’m getting nuttin’ for Christmas. Cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad.”) where a kid tells of all the pranks and naughty stuff he’s done that year. It’s been covered by several, but Stan Freberg’s is the best, with a fun twist ending.
Of course, Santa Claus gets plenty of songs making fun of him. There’s ‘I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus’ by Brenda Lee (of ‘Rockin Around the Christmas Tree’ fame) telling of a kid who doesn’t think Santa’s been generous enough so that kid’s going to steal Santa’s sack and give the toys to all who don’t have any. There’s Bob Rivers’ “I am Santa Claus” (sung to the tune of “Iron Man”) and “There’s Another Santa Claus” (also by Bob Rivers, it’s a parody of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ revolving around the overabundance of street Santas in big cities). There’s ‘Santa’s Lament’ by Father Guido Sarducci (in which an Italian accented Santa complains about how he gets no respect from the children, his elves, or even Rudolph), and “Santa’s Movin’ On” by Homer and Jethro (one of the earliest examples of a song describing Santa Claus being put in humiliating and undignified circumstances). And there’s even a few songs about Santa being arrested, sometimes for breaking and entering, and sometimes for driving his sleigh while intoxicated.
Then there’s satirical looks at Christmas, such as Tom Lehrer’s ‘Christmas Carol’ which send up the commercialization of Christmas. And, while not exactly a song (though it does contain a number of short little song pieces), Stan Freberg’s satirical ‘Green Chri$tma$’ is a wonderful satirical sketch about how advertisers tying their products into Christmas can sometimes go too far and lose sight of the fact that Christmas has a meaning beyond all the commercialism. It is, as Dr. Demento stated, a merciless indictment of those who would let the profit motive overshadow the true meaning of Christmas.
Of course, there are plenty of parodies of traditional Christmas songs. The Christmas song that’s been parodied the most is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, and it’s easy to see why. Let’s face it: we can’t easily relate to people who give doves, geese, swans, various types of people (nine ladies dancing, lords a leaping, and so on) and such to their true loves anymore (about the only gift in the original song that people are still likely to give others for Christmas is the five golden rings). So of course there are tons of parodies of the song in which different gifts replace the seven swans a swimming and the eleven pipers piping.
Among others, we’ve got ‘Redneck 12 Days of Christmas’ by Jeff Foxworthy, the Shrek twelve days of Christmas, the Sinatra family’s ‘Twelve Days’, Allan Sherman’s parody, the Mackenzie brothers’ parody, and way too many to list here. There’s also Bob Rivers’ ‘Twelve Pains of Christmas’, where various people complain about holiday season annoyances.
Of course, there’s also the subgenre of comedic where Christmas celebrations go a bit awry. One of the earliest was “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” by Yogi Yorgesson, where the guy isn’t sure what to get his wife. Then when Christmas day arrives, he trips on the toys, and his relatives get in a fight at the dinner. But it concludes with him saying “But I still have lots of fun. Just the same as you, I enyoy it too. Merry Christmas, everyone.“
Lesser known, but a favorite of mine, is ‘Gridlock Christmas’ by the Hollytones, where a man has spent Christmas Eve at the office tying up loose ends. He is on his way home when he gets stuck in traffic on the freeway. Since he and the other drivers are clearly going to be stranded for hours and their turkeys are probably not going to last long enough to get home, they decide to have a Christmas celebration right there. (“I’m having Gridlock Christmas, with people I don’t even know. Though friends and family can’t be here, we’ll have good old Christmas cheer, and carols on the car radio.”). It describes how the people bond together, warm up the turkeys in the mobile home’s microwave, and generally make the best of a bad situation.
All in all, Christmas songs have many subgenres, and some of those subgenres have their own subgenres (sub-subgenres?). I’d say the comedic/humorous subgenre probably shares some of the same subgenres as the more conventional Christmas songs, especially.
But all in all, no matter what type of holiday music you enjoy, and no matter what holiday you celebrate, here’s wishing everyone a happy holiday season.
Special thanks to Jim Bevan and BigBlackHatMan for inspiring me to write this article.
This article received the following comments:
5:30 PM on December 21, 2013
My favorite Christmas song, “I Want A Hippomatus For Christmas” certianly falls into the humorous category. I think I like it just because of how silly, the idea is.
Anakin 11:30 AM on December 24, 2013
Hi Chris Lang. Fantastic follow up article, my friend. BOB RIVERS! THAT’S WHO I WAS TRYING TO REMEMBER in my comment on the first article LOL! Great job on this. Peace.
5:44 PM on December 21, 2013
Thanks for the shout-out. This was a great follow-up article, and gave me a lot of cool new songs to check out.
My personal favorite Christmas songs are “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg, mainly because of how heartfelt and moving it is, and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen, mainly because I love the idea of Snoopy and the Red Baron celebrating the holiday in the midst of war.
8:52 AM on December 22, 2013
Thanks for the shout-out from me too. I enjoyed the follow up. Good work