Ah, the holidays. It's the one time of the year when we all collectively listen to some truly bizarre and creepy music. Seriously, is there any other time of year when we would tolerate a nonstop barrage of songs about date rape, dying mothers and other wholesome topics?
Many songs we consider holiday standards have been around for so long that their lyrics have become uncomfortably dated. Then there are the songs whose dark themes (adultery, alcoholism, death by reindeer trampling) are buried under layers of holiday treacle. Grab a mug of cocoa (make sure there isn't anything questionable in it first) and join us for a look at the Most Disturbing Christmas Songs of All Time.
While Eartha Kitt's classic rendition of this holiday standard is undeniably sexy, Madonna's cutesy-pie Betty Boop version from the '80s takes the song to new stomach-churning heights. No matter who sings it, this is still a song where a grown woman tries to seduce gifts out of Santa Claus. (Enjoy the Pussycat Dolls' version below, which might as well be called "Santa Is My Sugar Daddy.")
"I'll Be Home for Christmas"
This song has been around for so long that everyone forgets that the lyrics are from the perspective of a World War II soldier writing a letter home. We hear the lines about mistletoe and presents by the tree and think about how nice it will be to gather with the family on Christmas Eve. But then the kicker hits you like a ton of bricks: "I'll be home for Christmas ... if only in my dreams." What we've been hearing are the thoughts of a soldier as he sits in a foxhole eating cold beans and dodging enemy fire. Chances are this soldier died a sad and lonely death far away from the roasting chestnuts and figgy pudding.
"Do They Know It's Christmas?"
It's a testament to the ego on display in this classic '80s charity single that the most shocking thing here isn't Boy George's hair. While we can't knock the song's intention of raising awareness for the plight of starving Ethiopians, we can knock the famously smug line that Bono belts out. Here's a better question for songwriters Bob Geldof and that dude from Ultravox: Do they know that the line, "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you" is really condescending?
Released in 1981, A Christmas Record was an "alternative" holiday compilation from the ZE Records label that featured contributions from acts like Was (Not Was) and Suicide. (It also gave the world the Waitresses' peppy holiday classic "Christmas Wrapping.") A 1982 reissue featured jazz-punk icon James Chance (aka James White) performing his bizarre anti-holiday ditty about spending the yuletide season with Ol' Scratch instead of Saint Nick. Strange stuff, but also oddly catchy!
"Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
It's kind of surprising that this tiresome novelty song about the heartwarming subject of senior citizen murder hasn't been updated for our "don't text and drive" times. Maybe something along the lines of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer While Liking Her Grandson's Photo on Facebook." Or perhaps "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer Because Santa Was Playing Words With Elves."
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"
Nothing says the holiday season like a little casual adultery, right? Yes, we get the joke that mommy's actually kissing daddy in a Santa costume. But the kid still thinks his mom is making out with an obese man under the mistletoe while pop snoozes upstairs none the wiser. Plus, the kid assumes that dad will be all for mom getting all up in Santa's rugged, Kenny Rogers-esque beard. What's going on in this household? Are mom and dad planning a big New Year's Eve key party? To add a layer of crass commercialism to an already creepy message, the song was actually written to promote Saks Fifth Avenue's 1952 Christmas card. Happy holidays, consumers! Why not mend your adultery-ravaged marriage with a nice necklace? (Listen to the Jackson 5 version below and try not to think about little Michael spying on Joe and Katherine Jackson.)
"Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas"
There's nothing like a little John Denver to put us in a holiday mood. Except you're likely to spill your egg nog skipping this sad little ditty when it comes up on random. "Please daddy, don't get drunk this Christmas," Denver pleads. "I don't want to see my momma cry." Perhaps daddy's hitting the sauce a little hard this Yuletide season because he saw what Mommy was doing with Kris Kringle under the mistletoe. (Enjoy the Decemberists cover of the song below, which is somehow more upbeat than Denver's rendition.)
You might recognize the horn part in Clarence Carter's 1968 track from the sample used in Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis." Well, that song is like 'Silent Night' compared to this double-entendre-filled filth-a-thon. Lines like "I ain't like old Saint Nick / He don't come but once a year" and "I make all the little girls happy" ensure that this one never gets played on Lite FM stations between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
At this point, it's almost cliche to point out that this holiday/winter standard is more than a tad date rape-y. But sadly the lyrics point to a far darker and more systemic problem at the heart of male/female relations. While ostensibly a flirty duet when it was written by Frank Loesser back in 1944, the "Say, what's in this drink?" line is where things start to take a dark turn. (There's also the issue of the man's part being written as the "wolf" on the score while the woman is "the mouse.") Where things get even sadder is when the female singer starts to worry about her reputation ("The neighbors might think") but ultimately realizes that the very fact that she's alone with a man on a snowy evening paints her as a harlot in the eyes of the townsfolk so why bother fighting off his advances ("Well, at least I'm gonna say that I tried"). Basically what we have here is a portrait of the difficulties facing women in '40s society disguised as a bouncy holiday tune. (Listen to the version from the Elf soundtrack below and try not to think about Leon Redbone and his creepy mustache putting the moves on Zooey Deschanel.)
This song from the Christian group NewSong gets routinely picked on every year around this time (there's a great Patton Oswalt bit about it), so it almost seems unfair to pile on more derision. But then we listened to it again, and remembered that it's one of the most mawkish, manipulative songs ever written. The worst part isn't the lines about mom "being sick for some time" or how the poor kid is scraping his pennies together to buy her a nice pair of shoes so she can look beautiful in case "momma meets Jesus tonight." No, the worst part is that the song is told from the point of view of some grump in line behind the kid at the store who isn't in a holiday mood. The poor kid's ordeal is nothing more than a passing Christmas lesson for some random holiday shopper. (Just try not to shudder when the angelic chorus of children's voices kicks in after the line "I knew that God had sent that little boy to remind me what Christmas is all about.") Sorry your mom's sick, kid! Here's a couple bucks so you can buy her some sassy pumps so she can look foxy at the pearly gates of Heaven. Sigh, that was a nice lesson for the holiday season. Well, off to the food court for an Orange Julius!