Special Report

Musical Humbug

Sleigh bells and snowmen and un-Christmas carols.

By 12.15.08

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Mike Huckabee was doing an audience-participation segment on his Fox News Channel program last week when he was asked to name his favorite Christmas carol. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," he answered. Then he asked his questioner to name her favorite Christmas carol.

"Winter Wonderland!" she answered cheerfully.

Huckabee smiled and said he liked the song, too. But surely the former Baptist minister must have been thinking the same thing I was thinking: "Winter Wonderland" is not a Christmas carol.

There is not a single reference to Christmas in the entire song. Snow, yes. Sleigh bells, yes. Christmas, no. Written in 1934 by Richard Smith and Felix Bernard, "Winter Wonderland" is a typical example of 20th-century "holiday" songs that have nothing to do with Christmas.

The same can be said for Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" (1949). Originally an instrumental hit for the Boston Pops, "Sleigh Ride" shares with "Winter Wonderland" the theme of a romantic outing in the snow. Romance is also central to another mid-20th-century holiday favorite, "Let It Snow!" Written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, it became a No. 1 hit for Vaughn Monroe in 1946, but for seductive insinuation, it's hard to beat Dean Martin's 1959 version.

Snuggling by the fireside might spark feelings of good cheer, but there's no mention of Christmas in "Let It Snow!" either. Yet it joins "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland" in the Top 10 of ASCAP's list of most popular holiday songs.

The insipid "Frosty the Snowman" (1950) ranks No. 16 on the ASCAP list, but says not a single word about Christmas. Neither does the word "Christmas" appear anywhere in the lyrics of Perry Como's 1954 hit, "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," ranked No. 22 by ASCAP.

These 20th-century pop concoctions belong to a genre of innocuous winter music created by James Pierpont, who in 1857 penned a tune he titled "One Horse Open Sleigh," better known as "Jingle Bells," another holiday classic that doesn't mention Christmas. (Nor, for that matter, is there any reference to Christmas in Bobby Helm's 1957 rockabilly hit, "Jingle Bell Rock.")

YOU CAN GO PRETTY DEEP into the seasonal music catalog without encountering anything that would offend an ACLU lawyer. Progressing beyond the sleigh-and-snow variety of what might be called "un-Christmas carols," we come to another cluster of tunes that focus on the Christmas season in a sort of festive holly-and-mistletoe way. "Silver Bells" (1951), "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1961), and "Holly Jolly Christmas" (1962) are of this variety, as is "The Christmas Song" (1944), famed for its opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire."

Next come a trio of favorites -- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944), "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (1943) and, of course, "White Christmas" (1942) -- which owe much of their sentimental value to their World War II-era origins, tugging at the heartstrings of folks on the home front as they remembered GI sons and sweethearts far away. If you want a "Greatest Generation" Christmas, those have to be high on your list.

A musical journey toward the heart of Christmas would not be complete without a nod to Santa Claus songs, the most famous being "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1948), "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947) and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (1934). The jolly old elf also features prominently in humorous holiday hits like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (1952), "Santa Baby" (1953) and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (1978).

Rock 'n' roll has made some catchy contributions to the season's soundtrack, including Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph," both from 1958. Owing perhaps to the music's blues roots, many rock Christmas tunes tend toward themes of loneliness and heartache. In addition to the Elvis Presley hit "Blue Christmas" (originally recorded by Ernest Tubb in 1948), there is also "Please Come Home for Christmas" (a previously obscure 1960 tune boosted to classic status by the Eagles' 1978 remake) and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" that Phil Spector had in mind for wife Ronnie and the Ronettes, but which ended up being recorded by Darlene Love in 1963 with Spector's famous "Wall of Sound" production style.

In their post-Beatles careers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney made their characteristic additions to classic-rock Christmas rotations. The Cute One's saccharine 1979 "Wonderful Christmastime" is bouncy and forgettable, while Lennon's 1971 "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" remains poignant, despite the background warbling of Yoko Ono.

Rock aficionados can also enjoy the innovative Yuletide instrumentals of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is to Mannheim Steamroller what Pink Floyd is to Neil Sedaka. Bob Geldof's 1984 "Do They Know It's Christmas?" serves mainly as a nostalgic souvenir for fans of British New Wave -- Duran Duran! Bananarama! Culture Club! -- while inspiring the rest of us with gratitude that Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Burl Ives never thought of famine relief as a holiday theme.

A couple of years ago, somebody noticed that there hasn't been a genuine Christmas hit written in the past three decades. Every once in a while, a clever remake -- Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" or John Mellencamp's version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" -- will carve out a spot in the radio playlists, but in terms of entirely new tunes, it's been a long time since America's songwriters added anything memorable to the holidays.

OF COURSE, THE MOST MEMORABLE Christmas songs -- if not necessarily the most popular on the radio -- are the old carols, including Huckabee's favorite "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," written in the 18th century by evangelist Charles Wesley. "Joy to the World" also dates to the 1700s, while "Silent Night" began as the German "Stille Nacht" in 1816, and "Angels We Have Heard On High" is an Anglican priest's 1862 translation of a traditional French carol.

"O Come All Ye Faithful," was originally "Adestes Fidelis," but don't let the Latin title fool you into thinking it possesses a particularly ancient pedigree -- written in 1751, it's of more recent vintage than either "Joy to the World" or "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." Still more recent are "The First Noel" (circa 1820), "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" (1850), "We Three Kings" (1857), "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1868),  and "Away in a Manger" (1885).

So if you want to have a really old-fashioned Christmas, what should you sing? Three tunes lead that list. "What Child Is This?" is sung to the 16th-century English folk tune "Greensleeves," although the familiar lyrics were written in the 1860s. The most ancient of well-known carols is "O Come, O Come, Immanuel," its lyrics translated from 9th-century Latin, its melody 15th-century French, and its original inspiration from the prophet Isaiah, 8th-century B.C.

We are now deep into Christmas tradition, far away from sleigh rides, dancing snowmen and Dean Martin crooning about popcorn by the fireside. For now we come to my personal favorite carol, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Its cheerful tune disguises the in-your-face lyrical aggression -- the very first word declares an evangelical intent to impose religious beliefs on the listener.

Best of all (and I'm surprised this fire-and-brimstone aspect didn't make it Huckabee's favorite) "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" reminds us that "Christ, our Savior" was born to "save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray." Satan, sin and salvation -- now, that is what I call Christmas tradition.

And so, to all you secular Scrooges and Grinches and Kathleen Parkers, on behalf of all us Bible-thumping right-wing holy rollers, I wish you a very "oogedy boogedy" Christmas.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.