Turn up the Christmas music! It’s time for love, joy, compassion and—what did they just sing? Some of our classic holiday tunes have baffling and occasionally creepy lyrics. Ghosts, bullies, date rapists and goofy children all receive their due.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
“There’ll be parties for hosting/marshmallows for toasting/and caroling out in the snow…”
So far, so good.
“There’ll be scary ghost stories/and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
Wait, what? Ghost stories? Yes.
Scaring the crap out of kids with ghost stories on Christmas Eve was an honored tradition in the 19th century. In the Victorian era, people believed the veil between the living and undead worlds was at its thinnest on Christmas Eve, not Halloween. It was a night when ghosts could come back and haunt the living and everyone gathered by the fire to tell their scariest tales. The practice finally gave up the ghost at the beginning of the 20th century, although one, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ still haunts us to this day.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
“All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names/They never let poor Rudolph/join in any reindeer games.”
Wow, are all reindeer such jerks? Just because Rudolph has a big nose and horrible allergies is no reason to bully him. Yet we all sang this as kids and never thought twice about it. Only when Santa asks for Rudolph’s help does he finally get the respect of his bullies. Honestly, though, any nerd that’s been stuffed in a locker can tell you becoming the teacher’s pet usually doesn’t help. Santa, you need to get those reindeer into sensitivity training.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
“The neighbors might think/Baby, it’s bad out there/Say, what’s in this drink/no cabs to be had out there.”
Most of this 1944 song seems like a creeper’s anthem, but the drink lyric takes it to new date rape-y heights. The song is a back-and-forth conversation between a man and a woman, but today it sounds so wrong. Many have said it was a product of its time and meant to be progressive since the woman is bucking social norms to spend the night with a man, but listening to it in 2016 makes you want to immediately book a self-defense class.
“I simply must go/it’s cold outside/The answer is no/Baby it’s cold outside” says it all. She said no, dude. Drive her home.
Jolly Old St. Nicholas
“As for me, my little brain/isn’t very bright/Choose for me, dear Santa Claus/what you think is right.”
You may not hear that verse in the song, because at some point people figured it wasn’t a great idea to call kids’ intelligence into question while reciting a list of gifts for Santa to bring. At some point, the original 1881 version was updated to “Now I think I’ll leave to you what to give the rest/Choose for me dear Santa Claus/what you think is best.”
Although the dim-witted child aspect makes anyone cringe, there was some gender diversity going on in the original, which was watered down from “Johnny wants a pair of skates/Susy wants a dolly/Nellie wants a story book/she thinks dolls are folly” to “Johnny wants a pair of skates/Susy wants a sled/Nellie wants a picture book/yellow, blue and red.” Dear 1881 Nellie: you go, girl.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
“Now bring us some figgy pudding/and a cup of good cheer/We won’t go until we get some/so bring it right here.”
Nothing like answering the door for some carolers and ending up being mugged for dessert and drinks, right? Legend has it that in England, poor folks would go through rich neighborhoods, singing on doorsteps in exchange for Christmas goodies. This 19th century song drops the pretense, letting people know upfront they are there for the food. It’s like a Christmas trick-or-treat; if you don’t feed the carolers, they won’t shut up, move on and let you get back to scaring your family silly with bloodcurdling ghost stories.
“A gent was riding by/in a one-horse open sleigh/he laughed as there I lie/but quickly drove away.”
Don’t remember that verse? You haven’t experienced the complete song. ‘Jingle Bells’ goes on for several verses, basically turning into a horse-drawn version of The Fast and the Furious. Fast women and faster horses are the goal, and the narrative includes snowy sleigh wrecks and rivalries. Turns out this song wasn’t originally written for Christmas; it was a Thanksgiving ditty back in the 1850s and became a popular drinking song at parties. It was also considered too “adult” for children to sing. Think about that while you’re stuck at a school holiday pageant.