December 3, 2013

Bowdlerizing Christmas songs

The other day at the supermarket, they were playing Christmas songs at one of those listening stations at the end of an aisle, where you can buy the CD that you're hearing. It was on "Winter Wonderland" when I passed by, and I thought I heard something weird -- "something something he's a circus clown..."

It took a few moments for it to sink in that those aren't the real lyrics. It's supposed to go:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say "Are You Married?" We'll say "No man,
But you can do the job while you're in town!"

The song was originally written in 1934, just one year into the falling-crime period of the mid-century. Farther into the shift toward Dr. Spock and smothering mothers, in 1953 they re-wrote the bridge so that children wouldn't be scandalized by marriage, or perhaps to remove the slightest reference to religion (mid-century Christmas songs are almost all secular):

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown.
We'll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman,
Until the other kiddies knock 'im down!

That's the patronizing version I heard the other day in the supermarket, a sign of the neo-Dr. Spock times. What kind of rhyme is "snowman" with "snowman" anyway? Do they think children are too dumb to appreciate the subtle cheesiness of "snowman" and "No man"? We all got it when I was growing up. By the '80s, the kiddie version had been retired -- what gives today?

I searched LexisNexis to see when this version began making a comeback. The Bowdlerized lyrics (along with the original ones) appear in non-American Anglo countries in 1999 and continue regularly through the 21st century, as part of a larger printing of Christmas song lyrics. A 2009 article in the Kerrville Daily Times (Texas) makes a guessing game of "which song has these lyrics?" -- and it only includes the "circus clown" version in the hint for "Winter Wonderland." Then a 2011 article in the Enid News & Eagle (Oklahoma) tries to make fun of how unacceptable some old Christmas lyrics would sound to today's ears, and it too only refers to the censored version (i.e., would knocking down the snowman run afoul of the anti-bullying agenda?).

The trend had probably caught on somewhat earlier at the grassroots level before it was noticed and reproduced in the mass media (that's typical for person-to-person transmission). So the change began sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, as helicopter parenting became the norm.

Bowdlerizing an already inoffensive song is the height of paranoid over-parenting, not to mention a blow (however minor) against traditions -- and in the name of what? Cutesy infantilized "progress." The first attempt was made nearly 20 years after the original, and our recent revival comes 70 to 80 years after. Not like they released two versions around the same time, a la the censored "radio edit" of songs with curse words.

All of these minor blows to tradition add up to a nearly unrecognizable Christmas season these days compared to even 20 years ago, and none of it for the better. We're not supposed to care that wholesome song lyrics etched into our minds are being scrubbed away as though they were profane graffiti. After all, these days we get to enjoy peppermint mochas, peppermint bark, and peppermint cream cheese frosting -- three cheers for diversity and progress!


  1. "mid-century Christmas songs are almost all secular"

    so much for the '50s being god-fearing.


  2. I had never heard the "circus clown" version.

    Here's a list of the biggest "hit" Christmas songs, noting the year each was released.

  3. I wrote up a more detailed look at the data on when new Christmas songs were introduced:

    Now I interpret the mid-century surge in new songs as part of the erosion of the sacred aura around Christmas. As though the traditional ones weren't good enough... A few here or there, OK, but they tried to replace the dusty old ones and usher in a shiny new era of better ones.

    Sorry, but none of those mid-century ones sounds like "Silent Night," "O Tannenbaum," or "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

    That review you linked to comes right out and says so about the deliberately secular and commercial motives for the mid-century crop:

    "The idea of writing new Christmas songs started when record companies realized the marketing potential for music during the holiday season. The problem was that the old traditional tunes were not up-to-date and many were too oriented toward Christianity. Although these songs are still hugely popular amongst carolers and are sung at concerts, a new breed of Christmas songs began to be written and recorded in the 1940s for the specific purpose of radio airplay and record sales."

    Christmas songs that were too oriented toward Christianity -- how backward!

    The effect on the listener is the same as all of this peppermint mocha stuff these days. We're not supposed to feel like something sacred is approaching, that we're all going to get to join in on. It's like, "Hey, look how pretty the snow looks," "Fuck yeah, chestnuts!" etc.

    They're fine for setting the mood of wintertime -- but not Christmastime.

  4. It's depressing that audiences today feel no resonance with the only sacred and uplifting new Christmas song, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" from 1962.

    Here's a great recording by the Carpenters. I believe Karen recorded her part in the late '70s or early '80s, before she died, and the rest of the band added their parts later:

    "Do You Hear What I Hear?" - The Carpenters (1984)

    Great warm bass-line here, totally '80s.

    I remember hearing this song every Christmas growing up (probably the Bing Crosby version). Where did it go?

  5. Though it isn't strictly a Christmas song "Baby It's Cold Outside" has been a wintertime favorite for generations. Listen to the lyrics carefully and it sounds an awful lot like a tribute to date rape.


  6. On the positive side, I am hearing the Coventry Carol more. Five years ago, I had never even heard of it.

  7. How long did it take between the date rape hysteria of the early '90s and the mass delusion / creep-out about "Baby It's Cold Outside" having to do with date rape?

    I googled the song title, rape, and a specific year, to see how far it went back. I checked the first 10 pages of the results.

    Here's the earliest known occurrence, from 2002:

    "Ah, they don't make songs like this anymore[1]...

    [1] Well, okay, if they made songs like this these days the guy'd be busted for attempted date rape but you know what I mean."

    It's in a footnote, he's not obviously pushing a feminazi angle in the post, etc. It just occurred to him.

    In 2003, there was a sarcastic off-hand remark to the effect of "So what's next -- 'Baby It's Cold Outside' is really about date rape? Jeez, just give it a few years..." He was prescient.

    By 2006, Urban Dictionary had an entry for "christmas date rape song" about it. And it only went more mainstream, and was debated as though it were a serious topic, from then on.

    There was a 1999 book by Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty, that mentions both date rape and the song, but doesn't discuss the idea that the two are linked, whether pro or con. She has a precis of the book in a 2001 journal article, and again she doesn't make the link either way.

    So, 2002 it is.

    Why did it take about 10-15 years after the date rape hysteria for the song to strike listeners as creepy? Why didn't the feminazis target the song right away in 1993?

    I think it has to do with being of the age where you're raising kids who would be old enough to parse the lyrics. If you were 15-20 in the early '90s, then you were 30-35 during the mid-2000s when this thing really took off.

    Unfortunately one of the few areas where Gen X has been consistently to blame -- fanning the flames of hysteria about date rape, structural racism, homophobia, etc. Millennials get even more wacko on those topics, but Gen X started it, escalated it, and keeps encouraging young people to whine and shout about it.

  8. "Coventry Carol" is great. I remember hearing the songs from A Very Special Christmas around the time they came out, but I don't recall if this one got a lot of airplay during Christmastime:

    "Coventry Carol" - Alison Moyet (1987)

  9. I'm not religious, but I definitely agree that the old-school Christmas carols are just more authentically warm and joyful, and the newer secular ones are mostly crap. Shit like Frosty, Rudolph, Holly Jolly Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Do They Know It's Christmas, and (for my money the worst of all) Feliz Navidad has played a part in turning the holiday into a retarded shopping-and-ugly-sweater pageant. I like the Nat King Cole take on The Christmas Song, but other than that 95% of my favorites are explicitly religious: I Saw 3 Ships, Angels We Have Heard On High, Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella, We 3 Kings, etc. Part of the point of holidays is participating in tradition, so give me something with roots, not this elevator music crap.


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