It’s not that politics has no place in Christmas music. The problem is that the politics included in Christmas music is vague, bland — and sometimes, quite literally disastrous.
From the “Happy Holidays” greeting that infuriates the conservatives of today, all the way back to the story of a carpenter and his pregnant wife being refused a room at an inn, Christmas has sparked political debates between people for centuries. Christmas music in particular has been at the center of several of them. In the past few decades alone, there have been ongoing national conversations on whether or not carols should be allowed in schools and other public spaces, and about the ethics of performing a well-known Christmas standard with wildly outdated lyrics. The American public loves a holiday bop almost as much as it loves an argument.
Songwriters of newer Christmas tunes from the late 20th and early 21st centuries have occasionally taken it upon themselves to address controversial political topics in their music directly, but usually to mixed success. Christmas music that tries to tackle heavier subject matter often feels overly simplistic and sentimental, like a PETA billboard declaring that wool sweaters kill sheep. At best, these well-meaning attempts at social commentary might make a song a hit, even if the lyrics are a little…schmoopy. At worst — here’s looking at you, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — the final product might become a genuine disaster for the people it was trying to help.
Anybody’s first instinct might be to say that maybe this holiday and insightful social commentary just don’t mix well together, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Despite the frothy rants of any boomer with a Facebook account, the problem isn’t that politics has no place in Christmas music. Christmas itself has always been inherently political, and topical protest songs are a pillar of American-made music. Instead, the problem is that the type of political statement that’s most often included in Christmas music is almost always too generic and unclear to actually advocate for anything meaningful.
WHAT IS A PROTEST SONG?
Outside of the month of December, the protest song has been a mainstay in American pop culture since the country’s foundation. With its most frequent topics ranging from poverty to nuclear warfare, working-class hardships, and the Civil Rights movement, protest music was created to point fingers at corruption and injustice, and rally its listeners around a cause. When discussing the importance of this kind of music in America, famous 20th century folk musician Woody Guthrie was quoted as follows:
“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops — no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built — I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself, and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks, just about like you.”
Much like its parent genre, folk, protest music has a lot of variability. Some songs have more simple, repetitive lyrics to make them easier to sing as a group at actual protests, while others use flowery language that’s more conducive to a solo performance. All have incredibly different moods and tones, depending on their topic and the way they were written. The common thread that unites them, however, is the information they provide to the general public.
Protest songwriters identify an issue, explain what’s wrong about it, and oftentimes, they will offer a suggestion as to what their listeners should do to help. Even lighthearted subjects, like the plight of Charlie and the subway fare in “M.T.A.” by Jacqueline Steiner have a moral to them of sorts, almost like an Aesop fable (in Steiner’s case, she urges her listeners in the last verse of the song to “fight the fare increase” and vote for the Walter A. O’Brien, a progressive candidate in Boston’s 1949 mayoral race). These morals can be something as simple as “racism is bad,” or as complex as “unions are the only thing that protect working class people from being exploited, so here are instructions on how to start one,” (which, incidentally, is the centerpoint of the Almanac Singers’ “Talking Union”). By the time the song ends, a good protest songwriter has stated their case, provided their evidence, and can then share it with their listeners.
POLITICS AND POINSETTIAS
Although modern, secular Christmas music is mostly made up of pretty tame lyrics about Santa Claus, mistletoe, and magical snowmen, there are still many popular Christmas songs that deviate from these norms and address political topics the way a protest song would.
Because Christmas is typically celebrated as a day of worldwide peace and forgiveness, anti-war sentiments are a natural fit for the genre. “Peace on Earth, good will to men” is a common phrase that has been set to several different seasonal melodies, and even novelty songs like “Snoopy’s Christmas” tell stories about battleground ceasefires being made and enemies coming together to observe the holiday. Additionally, because of the story of Jesus’ life and his teachings on charity, other songs tackle poverty, with several focusing specifically on childhood poverty. Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” or NewSong’s infamous “The Christmas Shoes” both fit into the latter category. Most (though certainly not all) Christmas songs try to end a little more optimistically than usual because of the holiday, but the subjects and emotions they portray are quite similar to those in folk music’s protest songs.
The main difference that separates political Christmas music from political non-Christmas music, however, is the lack of commitment to the theme. Mainstream Christmas songs that attempt to address social injustice present much more watered-down opinions compared to their non-Christmas counterparts.
They rarely, if ever use satire or irony to illustrate a point, both of which are frequently used tools of typical political music. Their lyrics gravitate towards broad, overly-sentimental clichés that would be out of place in a song used to rally people to action. More often than not, they abstain from choosing one particular stance over another, too, maybe out concerns of causing a controversy.
Perhaps songwriters are afraid of selling fewer records, or perhaps the type of people that write Christmas music are simply different than the type of people that write protest music — but no matter the cause, the result is that the ultimate “moral” of a political Christmas song is often quite unclear.
There are several well-known, anti-war Christmas songs that suffer from this unfortunate lack of a point. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” for example, spends most of its three-and-a-half minutes wishing the world a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, but only really mention the war in the background vocals’ “War is over / If you want it.” Outside of this refrain, they make no further mention of the war, or why the war is bad. Similarly, in David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner’s hit “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” the singer sends a tongue-in-cheek request to Santa, wishing that “wars would never start / and time would heal all hearts / and everyone would have a friend / and right would always win / and love would never end,” but there is no further elaboration beyond that.
Both songs certainly mention war a handful of times, but to what end? In Foster and Thompson-Jenner’s case, it’s not immediately obvious as to which war they’re talking about and why (it was written in the early ‘90’s, so it’s possible they were just loosely referring to the Gulf War. But still, like, come on).
Lennon and Ono’s song, at the very least, was associated with the anti-Vietnam War protests at the time. Unlike “Christmas List,” “Happy Xmas” does try to be explicitly inclusive of a few different marginalized demographics of people, like the weak and the poor (they mention race too, although the “wokeness” of that is immediately undercut by him referring to “yellow and red ones” as races. Yikes). Even then, though, the song is a far cry from some of the Plastic Ono Band’s other works during that time period. After releasing one of the most famous political songs of all time with controversial lyrics advocating for peace, atheism, and communism just two months earlier, “Happy Xmas” feels a bit like a cop-out on their part. Lennon and Ono don’t really make any points their listeners haven’t heard from them before, and the newer song suffers from the same flaws as the older one did. If “Imagine” struggles to find substance amid its goopy emotions, then “Happy Xmas” has no substance at all.
Now, that’s not to say these songs aren’t good or worth playing from a listener’s perspective. Both still enjoy considerable airtime during the holidays and are cherished as Christmastime staples, depending on a person’s tastes and music preferences. As political music, however, they are undeniably bland — especially when compared to their non-Christmas counterparts.
Each song invokes a highly political topic and hovers around a decent point about it, but stops just short of actually making that point. Instead of writing about the specific issues related to war (or even general issues, like “think of the children”), the lyricists settle for a handful of platitudes about love and friendship that all could’ve just as easily been taken off of a throw pillow at a Hallmark store. Lightly referencing something as devastating as war, but then refusing to comment on it is a cheap trick to tug at the heartstrings and sell more records.
Especially in this modern era where fascist movements have been gaining popularity worldwide again, tepid wishes that everyone would just ~believe in their heart~ and ~feel the power of friendship~ in the face of conflict don’t really cut it anymore. Here, again, a lack of specificity from the author harms an otherwise decent message of peace. Are the lyrics advocating that everyone, even the protesters for human rights in places like Hong Kong and Chile, should back off and stop fighting, in spite of the atrocities being committed by their oppressors? Are they suggesting that Americans should try and befriend elected officials they don’t agree with, in spite of the recent increase of openly white-supremacist candidates running for office across the country?
A song needs to either remain apolitical on the sidelines, or enter the fray and speak out about an issue for real — it can’t have it both ways if it wants to say anything meaningful. By bringing up politics but refusing to pick a side or provide any useful information, any intended messages behind a song are lost. It makes the whole effort start to feel like just another a cold, corporate, Christmas cash grab.
A BAND-AID SOLUTION TO CORRUPTION
The most infamous member of the political Christmas music sub-genre is, of course, Band Aid’s charity hit, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” from 1984. The song was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, two late-70’s-early-80’s rockers from Ireland and Scotland, respectively. After watching a BBC documentary on the famine that had been devastating Ethiopia in the early ’80’s, Geldof was deeply moved, and wanted to write a song that could generate money to donate towards the relief efforts. A little less than a year after “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was released, Geldof and Ure also helped to organize the LiveAid benefit concert, which also raised millions of dollars internationally.
While there’s nothing wrong with the general intent behind this charity work — yes, famines are still a very real catastrophe for many people around the world, and yes, it’s a shame that the people of privileged countries tend to forget about the struggles of those in underprivileged ones — the execution of that intent was atrocious, from start to finish.
In his lyrics for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, Geldof outlines a patronizing and inaccurate narrative that people in Africa won’t have won’t have snow, water, gifts, or even an understanding of Christmas at all this year, but at no point do they make a case for what should be done about it. There is no information on what was happening in Ethiopia (no real information, anyway), and there was no rallying cry to the song’s listeners as to what action should be taken about an issue so pressing, both Boy George and George Michael needed to sing at everyone about it.
Obviously, no one expects protest music to be just a handful of jargon-filled political statements from the songwriter. It’s supposed to be a song, not a manifesto, and there will always be room for simple poetry and metaphor to keep it interesting and enjoyable. But even if one accounts for some artistic license being taken, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” still never makes a solid point. As the song begins to wind down, Geldof and Ure ask their listeners to “raise a glass for everyone” and then the whole ordeal fades out on their catchy “feed the world” outtro. But is that really the best they could do?
The song is finally supposed to be delivering its moral, and instead of choosing “disadvantaged countries deserve our support” or “end the imperialist racism that led to these inequalities in the first place,” or even “feed the people of Ethiopia, because we’ve been singing about them for the past two and a half minutes without even mentioning the name of their country,” they decided to make it just a very bland “feed the world,” repeated over and over again.
Unfortunately, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and its lousy lyrics ended up having much more sinister repercussions than the average soft rock Christmas song would have. In a cruel twist of irony, the money that was raised by the song and the LiveAid event ended up making the crisis in Ethiopia worse. Although droughts and other natural disasters can cause food shortages in east Africa, the true cause of the famine in 1984 was the corrupt government. Ethiopia’s genocidal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was systematically napalming his own country’s crops to prevent the distribution of food, and murdering innocent civilians in the process. With the money raised from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Live Aid, he only grew more powerful.
It’s unclear exactly what, if anything, Geldof understood about the dictatorship’s effect on the famine. For the 30th anniversary of Live Aid in 2015, Spin founder Bob Guccione Jr. republished the magazine’s 1985 exposé on the charity efforts and wrote a brief foreword, alleging that Geldof had been warned by relief organizations about the dangers of donating directly to Mengistu’s government. Even if he hadn’t, Guccione Jr. believed that Geldof could’ve easily discovered the truth for himself if he had done the research. He wrote:
“Every year Ethiopia experiences some degree of drought, the worst ones bringing famine. But the country historically dealt with this. Some years were worse than others. In 1984 the famine […] the cause was less nature than cynical genocide. A fact apparently so easy to discover that an editorial assistant* barely out of college did so in a matter of hours at the library.”
*(Guccione Jr. is referring to Bob Keating, who wrote Spin’s original LiveAid article as a young journalist in 1985)
Geldof and Ure successfully identified a major instance of political injustice in the world, and they had enough connections and star power behind them to create music for a global audience, but when it came time to write a protest song, they choked. If they had put the time into learning about the cause they wanted to support, they might have created something truly great. A song calling attention to the famine in Ethiopia had the chance to decry government corruption, make a call to action to tens of thousands of listeners, and spread the information in an easily-digestible, musical format. Instead, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was created, and now every radio station in December makes us listen to Bono asking that we “thank God it’s them, instead of you” as we try not to pop a blood vessel.
Thankfully, not all political Christmas music has such high stakes attached to it — and not all of it is terrible, either. Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” strikes a warm-and-fluffy tone similar to the other anti-war Christmas songs, but although simple, the message of it is much more clear. Wonder’s pointed references to racial equality, as well as the realism of the lyric “maybe not in time for you and me, but someday” give the song the touch of down-to-earth sincerity that the others lack. David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s rework of “The Little Drummer Boy” has a few interesting moments in Bowie’s new countermelody as well. While the lyrics are still a little vague and mushy about what “peace” should look like, they do include one decent suggestion: “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man.” Bernie Sanders would be proud.
It’s a bold choice to break with tradition and include any political commentary, no matter how slight, in a Christmas song in the first place. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement. Political music written and performed outside of the holiday music canon is often clever, empowering, and deeply healing for the activists that write and perform it. From old-school classics like Woody Guthrie’s famous “Tear the Fascists Down” to modern contenders like “Make America Great Again” by the famous Russian activist band Pussy Riot, protest music shines a light on injustice among the powerful, and spreads information to the people who might just go out and do something about it. Christmas music doesn’t need to shy away from including meaningful statements like these just because it’s Christmas music — all it needs to do is commit to them. ◆