It’s time to talk about the worst Christmas songs of all time. It’s time to do that because it is September, and I love Christmas, so we ain’t going to crap on Christmas any closer to the actual time of Christmas. Let’s get our holiday bellyaching out of the way now, while we’re cranky because, well, it’s not Christmastime right now.
Believe it or not, the shortest Christmas song is the most hated among certain Scrooges. I’m talking about We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I don’t understand these people. First off, one can make the case that it isn’t even a song. It’s more like an epilogue, a musical cadenza tacked on to the end of a program of other songs. Everyone sings it, and half of them sing some modified version of that little bridge tucked into the middle (“good tidings to you, and all your kin?” “wherever you are?”). We Wish You a Merry Christmas isn’t robust enough to be the worst Christmas song. Sorry.
I’m also sorry that Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer does not qualify. Novelty songs are restricted from this competition. That also goes for anything by a chipmunk of any kind, at any pitch or speed.
A top candidate for worst Christmas song has to be Christmas Waltz (lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jules Stine). Frank Sinatra supposedly called Cahn in the summer of 1954 and demanded a Christmas song. Well, he got one. I don’t think it was completely cooked, though. With lyrics such as “Santa’s on his way/He’s filled his sleigh with…things/Things for you, and for me,” Christmas Waltz is an uninspired, vague stinker. This broken candy cane of a song ends its chorus with a wet whimper: “And this song of mine/In three-quarter time/Wishes you and yours … the same thing, too.” I’ve never associated laziness with Christmas, but Christmas Waltz kind of forces me to do so. The result is something similar to moldy fruitcake, one that no one bothered to check on over the years. But hey, we can still use the tin for something.
Another contender is Do They Know It’s Christmas, written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. This tune has the amazing feature of being wrongheaded in two different and contradictory ways. Just remember, two wrongs don’t make a right. Written as a benefit song to raise money for a devastating famine in Ethiopia, this 1985 bit of mess is amazingly condescending, suggesting that we should donate because the poor benighted folks in Africa don’t even know about Jesus Christ. How can you celebrate Jesus’s birth and buy presents and drink egg nog if you don’t even know much about the commercialism that is only tangentially associated with JC? Let’s set a few things straigh. Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the 4th Century, a wee bit before England even came to be. Ethiopia is still a primarily Christian nation. Yes, the African country is 34% muslim now, but we can feel pretty sure that virtually all Ethiopians KNOW WHEN IT IS CHRISTMAS. Famine or not.
Paul McCartney’s Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time is a sugar cookie with lots of icing and virtually no cookie. But Paul can write insanely catchy melodies, even when he’s at his most treacly. In other words, I’d like to hate it, but I can’t.
I also can’t hate Misteltoe by Justin Bieber (more accurately, by Justin Bieber and his puppet masters). It will never live in my record collection, but I simply can’t get up the energy to hate on an autotuned piece of fluff. Similarly, the music of Pentatonix is less than thrilling, but the bile squirted by many at their version of Little Drummer Boy barely seems worth mentioning. Let Pentatonix just melt into the processed cheese spread of pop a cappella from which it came. Pay it no mind.
Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You brings out the inner curmudgeon in even the most determined Christmas lovers, but I’ll stand up for it. It has sweep. It has intimacy. It has energy, great production, and kitsch. (Don’t you dare suggest Christmas shouldn’t boast lots of kitsch. Before you say such a thing, take a walk through Hobby Lobby in any given November. Heckfire, take a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop during December. Be careful criticizing Christmas kitsch–you just might find yourself looking coldly at some of your most treasured Xmas decorations, traditions, and memories. Smarter people than me have failed to tease out the actual value or threat of kitsch in any arena of life. If you want to be overwhelmed by this question, investigate the ideas of Odd Nerdrum.)
Anyway, the kitschiest Christmas song is not Mariah Carey’s. The kitschiest is the infamous Christmas Shoes, which is so sappy that I can’t discuss it without risking diabetes. Here’s a link, but proceed with caution. Kitschy enough for ya? Christmas Shoes is a Thomas Kincaid painting of a Precious Moments figurine–covered in glitter. It’s so twee it could take down a horse, even one that has been acclimated to sentiment via multiple appearances in Hallmark movies, dragging a carriage through a quaint small town for the umpteenth time as the town custodian hangs a garland from the wrought iron streetlights. The horse’s trainer could put blinders on the beast to spare it the visual barrage, but do they make earplugs for quarter horses? Asking for an equine friend.
Some Christmas songs are accused of causing nausea, distress, and annoyance, but their crimes are much lesser, in the grander scheme. Jingle Bells has that plodding, simple melody, but it also has the word “upsot,” and that should count for something. Baby, It’s Cold Outside is often described as “rapey,” but I have never heard the song as one between relative strangers. I hear an established couple teasing each other. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is much more disturbing, but it gets a pass because it is so easy to parody that a seven-year-old can–and will–do so.
Here are a pair of tunes that are like two sides of a tedious coin, the yin and yang of bad Christmas songs. We have the overly caffeinated Carol of the Bells, beloved of retailers who wish holiday shoppers to spend in a fevered rush. Previously known (by no one) as A Very Espresso Christmas, Carol of the Bells is not refined enough to be a coffee drink. It is a Monster Energy Drink, a can of sugar and speed decorated and marketed with all the subtlety of an Axe Body Wash bottle. Its roots are in the Ukraine, circa 1914. It has spread like a red and green rash across the globe in 100 years’ time. Someone please stop the madness. If you build the time machine, I will go back to 1913 and teach Mykola Leontovych meditation so he can calm the eff down.
On the flip side is Coventry Carol, which is the slowest, saddest, seasonal song to ever inspire suicide among its listeners. How off-brand is this Christmas song? It centers on King Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Hey, here’s a cheery story for Rankin/Bass to animate for TV: It’s about all the babies who were murdered because they might have been Jesus Christ. Pass the egg nog!
So, who “wins”? Coventry? Bells? Do They Know? Christmas Waltz?
Yes, Christmas Waltz. Christmas Waltz wins for being the best at being the worst. Such promise! And in 3/4 time!
Incidentally, Silver Bells is the best Christmas carol.* It wins easily. O Come O Come Emmanuel is the best Old School Christmas carol. It’s so Old School, I never fail to feel like a 1st Century Jew on a dark, mysterious night in the Palestine every time I hear it. I love it unequivocally. The Advent longing is powerfully present. But Silver Bells marvelously mixes the modern with the traditional. It sidesteps the religious, which is sure to rankle some, but most importantly, it evokes the good feeling, the holiday cheer, of the city at Christmas time. We all know the feeling described in Silver Bells. It is straight-up magical. Yes, that bit about it being “Santa’s big scene” is a little New Yorky, maybe. A little Ring a Ding Ding. Swallow that phrase and the rest is well crafted and beyond reproach. Incidentally, William Frawley (Fred Mertz from “I Love Lucy”) sang it first before Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell did (in the 1951 film “The Lemon Drop Kid), and before Kate Smith had a hit with it in 1966. So there’s that.
Disagree? Put coal in my stocking. We need it for the fireplace.
*Silver Bells doesn’t have a chance against half or more of the songs on James Brown’s album “Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but that is self evident.