Christmas Unwrapped: Carols and Controversies

Perhaps no person is more responsible for the modern celebration of Christmas than Saint Francis of Assisi, and it is to him credit goes for music becoming such an important part of our holiday traditions. Prior to the 13th century, it was common for people to travel from home to home to share the good cheer of the holiday. Each home and inn commonly kept wassail, a thick broth that helped warm travelers before they continued their wintry journey. Although storytelling was common, music was not. Then, when St Francis began incorporating musical elements (hymns) into his worship services, music began to appear in other areas as people began to sing the songs they learned in church at home and in gatherings. Eventually, those musical elements became their own tradition. By 1582, they had become common enough outside of churches that the first book of Christmas carols was collected and published. Once that happened, the beloved songs were translated and shared around the world. European culture was divided by nobility, merchants, farmers, and servants who served the nobility in exchange for land to grow gardens, homes, and some level of protection. Since Christmas was seen as a time of generosity, it became common for the servants to visit each of the wealthier homes in their communities and sing for a sip from the common wassail bowl that was waiting, and hopefully a small cash gift that could be used to pay taxes or buy needed supplies.

In fact, a song written with much older lyrics during the 19th century tells of the tradition of sending children to ask for these gifts at Christmas.

“Here we come a wassailing

among the leaves so green [indicating evergreens decorations in Victorian homes at Christmas];

love and joy come to you,

and to you your wassail too [drink with me]

And God bless you and send you a happy new year…

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door;

But we are your neighbors’ children,

Whom you have seen before…

Call up the butler of this house, [butlers carried the household money to pay venders]

Put on his golden ring.

We have got a little purse,

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within…

[and] Bring us out a mouldy cheese

God bless the master of this house

And the mistress too,

And all the little children…

[but] Good master and good mistress,

While you’re sitting by the fire,

Pray think of us poor children

Who are wandering in this mire.

By the beginning of the 1600’s, Christmas carols were commonly heard.

Before moving on to some of controversies about other carols, we pivot to a song only related to Christmas by the melody. The mournful ballad Greensleeves has been falsely attributed in some history texts, which claim it was written by King Henry VIII for his then mistress, Anne Boleyn. Many modern imaginings of the executed queen consort even show her in green gowns, modeling her appearance on a false belief.

Greensleeves is written in a specific type of Italian style that did not reach England until well after King Henry’s death in 1547. The first version of the song, A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves, appeared in print almost one hundred years later. King Henry was a musician and a composer, but his work was almost all dedicated to his first and first cast-aside wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon.

The song tells the story of a faithless women, one who is shamed and disgraced for her sexuality. The connection to Anne Boleyn was likely made as she was labeled as a promiscuous woman in almost every historical record.

The lyrics of Greensleeves may not come into your mind easily, but the reminder that “This, this is Christ the King – whom shepherds guard and angels sing” has been sung around the world since William C. Dix recycled the tune for “What Child is This” in the mid-19th century.

Christmas hymns fall in and out of popularity, and some are viewed with additional criticism as times, beliefs, and values evolve.

For example, the often recorded and recycled “Baby. It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, but became famous after being featured in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter where it is shared in a scene where Ricardo Montalban uses it to seduce Esther Williams before it is turned around for a scene with Red Skelton being seduced by Betty Garrett.

Loesser’s daughter has repeatedly claimed that her father wrote the song to perform with her mother, Lynn Garland as the song to indicate to guests that it was time to leave their housewarming party. Over the next few years, the couple were invited to many parties to use the song in a similar way, until Loesser made his wife angry by selling it to MGM for the film. Loesser was known for writing songs that were suggestive and the first of his songs chosen for the film was replaced after the censors said it was too much. While some love the playful banter of the song, others cannot help but see it through the lens of a world where too many have been sexually coerced in Hollywood. In 2019, John Legend released an updated version on his Christmas special that seemed a fitting final answer to the debate..."it's your body and your choice."


The Pogues 1987 ballad about a feuding couple over Christmas is also judged harshly in a modern world where the slur used is one that is rightly banned in most settings. Fairytale of New York is the story of a couple who get drunk and fight on Christmas Eve, and the gritty voice of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues music producer’s wife, Kirsty MacColl made it an anti-anthem that is on constant replay in many bars over the holidays. Even though the song is still one of the most-common British Christmas songs, even the singers have been unable to ignore the complaints from the LGBTQIA+ community. MacColl followed the lead of the BBc and changed the lyrics to “You’re cheap and you’re haggard” when she performed it for television in 1992. MacGowan has defended his lyrics, saying; ““The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it, but she is not intended to offend!” This is a maneuver that is dismissed by some as “logistical jujitsu” and that requires “ignoring the pain the phrase can cause.” [1] “Fairytale of New York” is not the only song that has faced radio censorship and controversy. Weird Al Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero” was released a year before The Pogues’ song, and many felt it was not in alignment with the season to imagine a post-nuclear season during the last decade of the Cold War. The performer has said that the song was his response to studio pressure to record an entire holiday album.

Another anthem from the 1980’s that has faced modern criticism is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The song was recorded by a large group of musicians organized and led by Bob Geldof to raise funds for hunger relief in Africa. However, some modern listeners point out several issues with the song. First, it implies that Ethiopia and Africa are the same, not a continent filled with diverse people and places. Second, the song centers an all too familiar trope of a white savior swooping in as savior. Finally, it completely misses the truth that Africa, and Ethiopia specifically, has Christian communities that predate those in Europe – founded by the Ethiopian eunuch named in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The song has raised over eight million pounds for famine aid.

Bing Crosby’s 1942 anthem, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was banned during World War II by the BBC in London because they felt it was too depressing for wartime morale. Jimmy Boyd’s 1952 song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause” was one in a long line of childish voices reciting musical absurdities. However, some radio stations felt it implied an unfaithful wife and banned it. Eartha Kitt’s playful “Santa Baby” was dropped from airplay because it was so suggestive but went on to become the top grossing holiday single of 1953.