Face the music

Some of your favourite Christmas songs are problematic

20th December 2017

This week, after what’s proved to be one of the, let’s say, “un-good” years of living memory and no signs that 2018 will be any better, we woke up to headlines declaring a beloved, if pretty annoying, Christmas song is racist.

That’s right, festive favourite Jingle Bells was originally performed in blackface and sung like that up until the 1930s, according to Boston University professor Kyna Hamill. Hamill stresses that the song itself is not racist – just the way it had been performed in the past (but try telling that to news sites).

So, you can’t really hate on Jingle Bells, unless you’ve got a problem with mentions of the now illegal practice of tail docking on horses (did you ever wonder what “bobtails” are?).

But here are some Christmas songs that you can, and should, take issue with.

1. Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Where do we start with this one? This song is tragic in all the wrong ways – raising money for desperate people trapped in Ethiopian famine, while painting a pretty slanderous picture of the whole of Africa. It does a great job of backing up your mum’s “starving Africans” trope, which neglects the fact that Africa is a continent with distinct countries, each with their own people, climate and political situations. And that’s without getting started on the white saviour stuff.

There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime

There absolutely will. Lots of African places, particularly mountainous regions, have snow all year round, while others have seasonal snow.

Where nothing ever grows

Nothing ever grows on the entire continent of Africa? Someone tell Bob Geldof the UK imports 5% of our food from the continent, more than any other place outside the EU.

No rain or rivers flow

Seems like the Band Aid crew are in de-Nile and about the world’s second-largest river. (Let me have that one, it’s Christmas after all.)

Well tonight thank god it’s them, instead of you

Erm, what.

It’s no wonder that for the 2014 version, called Band Aid 30, they changed almost all the lyrics to the song. It’s still awful but it’s much less offensive.

2. Back Door Santa

While the original is a genuinely excellent funk tune, this one isn’t as popular these days, partly because it’s now associated more with its numerous awful lazy cover versions, but more also admittedly thanks to the unfortunate modern connotations of “back door”, which means it can’t be put on a playlist without the office creep making comments all the way through. But the words “back door Santa”, which refer to the jolly Christmas practice of going around sleeping with women behind their husband’s backs, aren’t the only dodgy lyrics.

I make all the little girls happy

While the boys are out to play

Again, let’s put this down to historical differences and what was probably supposed to be a clever juxtaposition between Santa and sex. He probably means young women who are above the age of consent and not that different in age to himself. Probably.

3. Fairytale of New York

Let’s start with the caveat that everyone’s favourite Christmas song was never supposed to be a Christmas song in the traditional sense – and certainly was never meant to be on the Christmas CD that plays on a loop in Argos.

The overall message of Christmas not being a slushy, Santa-filled extravaganza for everyone is one we can all stand by. But there’s no ignoring that it’s out of date and offensive (sorry).

You’re a bum, you’re a punk

We can forgive this – even if “punk” in this context is more sex slave than Sex Pistols.

You’re an old slut on junk

Again, it’s a fucked up thing to say about someone but nobody comes out well in this song – that’s basically the point.

You cheap lousy faggot

Bingo – that’s the contentious line that gets everyone riled up. It’s either bleeped and “PC gone mad”, or it’s left in and offends people.

Should you listen to the song? Firstly, if you’re denying “faggot” is a slur, then you’re wrong. It’s a slur – it’s offensive because it’s used to oppress and demean people. So one thing you shouldn’t do, especially if you’re straight, is take great joy in shouting “you cheap lousy FAGGOT” at the top of your voice when that line comes around. But as there are diverse opinions, even within the LGBT community, it’s really up to you. Perhaps it might help to know that it seems like Kirsty MacColl herself disowned the lyrics in the 90s, opting for “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” instead.

4. Walking in a Winter Wonderland & Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

We’ll frolic and play, the Eskimo way


Folks dressed up like Eskimos

While people do refer to themselves as Eskimo, it’s generally considered derogatory as it is usually used to refer to people who are not Eskimo. Generally, the word people are looking for is Inuit, but there are other groups too. If you’re struggling to get your head around it, it’s a bit like calling all people who look East Asian “Chinese”. So, while these songs could have been referring to the specific culture and traditional attire of the Eskimo people, it’s more likely they were thinking of every group of people who lives in snowy areas as Eskimo, as people tended to do at the time.

5. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer

A quick honourable mention for this one. It’s obviously in jest, so we were going to skip talking about how it’s not funny to talk about women being killed, given that between 2009 and 2015, 936 women were killed by men, according to Women’s Aid, for fear of being feminist killjoys.

But then we looked at the lyrics.

You can say there’s no such thing as Santa
But as for me and Grandpa, we believe

The grandpa killed her.

Now we’re all so proud of Grandpa
He’s been takin’ this so well
See him in there watchin’ football
Drinkin’ beer and playin’ cards with cousin Belle

The grandpa killed her.

I’ve warned all my friends and neighbours
Better watch out for yourselves


And two we thought were fucked up – but are actually not…

Baby it’s Cold Outside

This one has been talked about in depth, with lots of people insisting that the man in the song is up to some shady business. On first listen it sounds like the woman wants to leave and the man is coercing her to stay overnight. Some of her lines are alarming as fuck.

Say what’s in this drink?

Yeah, at this point he’s sounding like an actual rapist who has roofied her.

But, there’s another way of looking at it, which a Tumblr post from a former English teacher last year explains. She says that “what’s in this drink?” was a pretty standard joke at the time and referred to people doing something they shouldn’t be doing and blaming it on what they were drinking (the joke usually being that there was little or no alcohol in the drink).

At the time, the social norms were that women were supposed to refuse a man’s advances even if they were interested, and certainly shouldn’t stay overnight unchaperoned. So the song is about how she’s concerned people would judge her if she decided to sleep with him, even though she wants to.

Tumblr user teachingwithcoffee says: “That’s the main theme of the man’s lines in the song, suggesting excuses she can use when people ask later why she spent the night at his house: it was so cold out, there were no cabs available, he simply insisted because he was concerned about my safety in such awful weather, it was perfectly innocent and definitely not about sex at all!”

That theory makes a lot of sense and certainly fits with some of the other lines, especially when they sing together:

But baby, it’s cold outside

It definitely makes us feel better to know we can enjoy the song shame-free, as they’re both conspiring for her to stay for a night of consensual sex, and we don’t have to pretend to enjoy those awful gender reversal versions (which, if you think the song is about rape, doesn’t make the problem go away).

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

It’s your dad in a Santa suit, kid.

20th December 2017