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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.

Some were even left out of radio airplay because of the performer, not the music or the lyrics. Shortly after his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show that is still shown with his recognizable hip thrusts, Elvis Presley recorded the song “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin. Many radio stations felt that he was an adults-only performer, and his music had no place during a family holiday. Of course, that view forgets that Presley began singing in church and recorded multiple Gospel songs.


On the other side of things, some songs have not been as controversial and perhaps should have been. A 2017 research project by Kyna Hamill of Boston University revealed that “Jingle Bells” was first played and sung by white performers in blackface during a minstrel show in Boston in September of 1857 when it was called “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Hamill did not set out to ruin enjoyment in the popular song, but to settle a dispute between Savannah, Georgia and Medford, Massachusetts who both claimed the song was first written and performed in their community.

“Pierpont capitalized on minstrel music and entered upon a ‘safe’ ground for satirizing black participation in northern winter activities,” said Hamill in her academic paper. Like the origins of the Disney anthem “Zippity Do Dah” which was used in their popular ride, Splash Mountain, “Jingle Bells” history and connection to whiteness and racist beliefs were lost over the decades. The Disney song came from Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” which the studio has since pulled from any future releases, but like the Christmas carol it is connected to Minstrel performances.


Other popular songs have also had lyrics, meaning and origins questioned.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson and is reflective of the strong gender roles in the United States at that time. It was recorded twice that year, once by Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters and then a month later by Bing Crosby. Wilson wrote for Broadway and included the song in his 1963 musical “Here’s Love” which allowed it to continue to grow in popularity. It seems fair to ask if a song that defines Christmas wishes following now outdated views on gender by claiming “A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots, is the wish of Barney and Ben. Dolls that'll talk and will go for a walk, is the hope of Janice and Jen” still deserves a place in our holiday playlists. And that is before we consider if the song feels like salt in the wound in the United States, where school shootings have become tragically common.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” starts out just fine, although the love might feel overwhelmed by so many birds. But on day eight, the song takes a disturbing turn into giving people as gifts. We have a name for that – slavery. However, the original song might be redeemed. It first appeared in 1780 in a children’s book called Mirth with-out Mischief, as a challenge song for rote memorization. That version had colly birds, bears-a-baiting and ships-a-sailing instead of people given as gifts. In fact, some historians theorize that all the verses indicate birds through names, sound, or appearance clues with the five golden rings being markings on a pheasant. The version we know was written in 1909 by Frederic Austin.

Two other facts are often falsely claimed when discussing the song. First, the 12 days do not end on Christmas, they start that day. The song reflects the period leading up to the day remembered as the arrival of the magi in the biblical story, which is called Epiphany or Three Kings Day. Second, the song is not a roadmap to being a good Christian. Snopes has an excellent article describing why, which you are encouraged to read (and it also mentions the equally false story that “Ring Around the Rosy” was written about the Black Plague.

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the story of a poor reindeer born different, teased, and ridiculed by all until his difference helps save Christmas. But some modern listeners point out that bullying is always wrong and that both Santa and Rudolph’s father are emotionally abusive. However, many LGBTQIA+ people have connected with the song and with the Island of Misfits from the 1964 animated classic, recognizing in them a form of created family that is like the ones they had to create after they were rejected by their own family for being different.

The song predates the movie by twenty years, and the character predates it by thirty years. Rudolph was created by Robert L. May in 1939. May made his living as a catalog writer for Montgomery Ward stores. For centuries, catalogues were how consumers found goods and things they needed. The thick volumes had to have accurate descriptions to entice people to buy the items, and that was what May wrote. Montgomery Ward gave books for children who visited their stores at Christmas while their parents shopped and May created Rudolph for one of those books. The reindeer was based on his own childhood and his experiences with being bullied for being younger and smaller than his classmates. The song was recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry, the “singing cowboy.” The drawing above is the original Rudolph, from that book. The classic song and the character May created helped him take care of his daughter as a widowed single father. While the claims of how Rudolph is treated are not inaccurate, in the end the song makes Rudolph the one who models the love and hope for a better world.

Finally, a mention of a song that became famous and beloved in English, but was written and then mostly banned in the French language. “Minuit Chrétien” is the French version of “O Holy Night.” It was written by Placide Cappeau in 1847 with music by Adolphe-Charles Adam. The French version opens by stating, ““Midnight, Christians! It is the solemn hour when the Man-God came down to us!” It is one of the most religious of the Christmas songs, and the problematic and progressive theology it follows made it problematic for the French Catholic churches.

Cappeau believed that Christ came to liberate, and he denied the idea of original sin. For the first seventy years after the song was written, that was enough to cause it to be banned by French churches. Then in 1923, as another wave of anti-Semitic thought was rising across Europe, an accusation was made that Adam was Jewish. In one of their earliest alliances with fascism, the Catholic church helped advance that unfounded rumor until the journal Action Francaise called it Jewish music. The song is still challenged by the French church, and in 1990 opera singer Jessye Norman was told she could not sing it in Notre Dame cathedral.

The Minuet arrived in North America in the 1850’s in French-speaking Quebec, where it quickly became an honor to be the soloist asked to perform it during Christmas Eve worship services. John Sullivan Dwight translated an English version, but it lacks much of the power of the French song which states that the pathway to release, joy, and hope is to bow to the power of this manger-born God-king.

In a side note, there was a recent rumor empowered by an internet meme that claimed the English song was translated and banned as an anti-slavery anthem. Cappeau was a socialist and while his lyrics might have been interpreted by Unitarian Minister John Sullivan Dwight to refer to bondage and slavery in the United States, something central in the minds of all people in the United States in the decade preceding the Civil War, there is no evidence to suggest that Dwight’s view of the song was true. Here are the verses of Placide Cappeau’s beautiful poem, in the original French with the English translations. [2] Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous, Pour effacer la tache originelle, Et de son Père arrêter le courroux. Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance, À cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur. Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur! Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour When God as man descended among us To expunge the stain of original sin And to put an end to the wrath of his father. The entire world thrills with hope On this night which gives us a savior. People, on your knees, behold your deliverance. Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer! Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!

De notre foi que la lumière ardente Nous guide tous au berceau de l’Enfant, Comme autrefois une étoile brillante Y conduisit les chefs de l’Orient. Le Roi des rois naît dans une humble crèche; Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur, À votre orgueil, c’est de là que Dieu prêche. Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur! Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur!

The ardent light of our Faith, Guides us all to the cradle of the infant, As in ancient times a brilliant star Conducted the Magi there from the orient. The King of kings was born in a humble manger; O mighty ones of today, proud of your grandeur, It is to your pride that God preaches. Bow your heads before the Redeemer! Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave, La Terre est libre et le Ciel est ouvert. Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave, L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaînait le fer. Qui lui dira notre reconnaissance? C’est pour nous tous qu’il naît, qu’il souffre et meurt. Peuple, debout! Chante ta délivrance. Noël! Noël! Chantons le Rédempteur! Noël! Noël! Chantons le Rédempteur!

The Redeemer has broken all shackles. The earth is free and heaven is open. He sees a brother were there was once but a slave; Love unites those who restrain the sword. Who will tell him our gratitude? It is for us all that he was born, that he suffered and died. People, stand up, sing your deliverance! Christmas! Christmas! Let us sing the Redeemer! Christmas! Christmas! Let us sing the Redeemer!

What about you?

What are your favorite songs during the holidays you celebrate?

Next week – the third of our Christmas Unwrapped series.

[1] [2]

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