I have a confession. Many of you will be offended; some of you will support me to the end. With Christmas less than a week away, I need to admit. I only started listening to Christmas music a few days ago. I know, I know, I'm missing out.
There's something I've learned about Christmas music, though. Growing up, I just assumed that every song was about either Santa, baby Jesus, or generic goodwill to all. That assumption has since been shattered for me – now it's my turn to pass on the favor. Here are four of my favorite Christmas songs whose meanings are often lost in the holiday cheer.
1. Joy to the World
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This is one of the most-sung Christmas songs, especially in church. It’s understandable - what’s not to love about a joyful anthem celebrating the coming of Christ? Here are the opening lyrics:
Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing
There’s only one small problem: "Joy to the World" was originally meant to be a song about the second coming of Christ. Christmas is a celebration of his first coming. To be fair, the church season of Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) is meant to both reflect on the first coming and prepare for the second. So, it’s not really that misguided to sing this song throughout December. Still, Isaac Watts, the writer of this classic hymn, wrote the song about Christ’s glorious return, not his birth in a manger.
2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
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Don’t worry, this one actually is a Christmas song, but it hasn’t always been used as the happy well-wisher it is today. Hugh Martin wrote the song for "Meet Me in St. Louis," but only after changing his original lyrics at the request of the film’s director and actors, who thought they were too depressing. I think Martin may have been a bit too aware that things don’t always work out at Christmas, as evidenced by his original lyrics:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past…
From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
A merry little Christmas, indeed.
3. I’ll Be Home for Christmas
[rebelmouse-proxy-image https://media.rbl.ms/image?u=%2Ffiles%2F2015%2F12%2F20%2F6358623601387995151555804891_christmas-vacation-misery.gif&ho=http%3A%2F%2Fcdn1.theodysseyonline.com&s=589&h=86a4037bb0c3477c2581cdea3bfa6662279acb46b768c27efe4d14c88d13afa8&size=980x&c=650467446 crop_info="%7B%22image%22%3A%20%22https%3A//media.rbl.ms/image%3Fu%3D%252Ffiles%252F2015%252F12%252F20%252F6358623601387995151555804891_christmas-vacation-misery.gif%26ho%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fcdn1.theodysseyonline.com%26s%3D589%26h%3D86a4037bb0c3477c2581cdea3bfa6662279acb46b768c27efe4d14c88d13afa8%26size%3D980x%26c%3D650467446%22%7D" expand=1]You may or may not know the story behind this song, but just like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," it’s actually quite sad. The song is meant to be sung from the perspective of a soldier who wants to be home with his family. The title "I’ll Be Home For Christmas," then, is a bittersweet reminder that not everyone can be home for Christmas. Not exactly the best carol to cheer up the neighborhood.
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
This is a very meaningful Christmas song, but it really doesn't fit the happy tone that often accompanies it.
4. Baby, It’s Cold Outside
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The neighbors might think / Say, what’s in this drink?
I ought to say no, no, no, sir / At least I’m gonna say that I tried
As for the part of the “gentleman”:
Mind if I move in closer / What’s the sense of hurting my pride?
Beautiful, please don't hurry / Put some records on while I pour
Huh. Go listen to the song again and think really hard about what you're hearing. When this song was first released in the ‘40s, it was considered something of a liberation anthem for women, because, in the song, she stays at his house despite what the neighbors will think. Modern interpreters, however, don't seem to be putting it on their "Feminist Christmas" playlists. I’ll let you decide for yourself what's really going on here.
These are just a few of my favorite examples. A closer look at many classic Christmas songs reveals a batch of tunes that are, at times depressing, sexist, or not really about Christmas. Ah, but who's keeping track? We'll all be back to singing Adele in a few weeks anyway.