Think of it as the inverse of the War on Christmas.
Rather than being downsized by supposed political correctness, Christmas is the aggressor, swallowing up land (mall parking lots), airwaves (all-Christmas music stations in October) and everything you see (enough with the Christmas commercials already).
It has also annexed the meaning of a number of songs that would otherwise be about cold, winter, and snow activities. So even though none of these songs have anything to do with Christmas, you are conditioned to think they do because they’re permanently on the Kris Kringle playlist.
As more and more Christmas albums come out every year, each using pretty much the same canon of songs, it’s natural that they pull some generic winter songs into the mix.
But some of the most prominent Yuletide tunes are Santa-free.
1. Jingle Bells.
It may be the cheery, No. 1 kids song at Christmas. But it has nothing to do with the season. Instead, the 1857 ditty by James Lord Pierpoint, written for a Thanksgiving program in Savannah, Ga., is about dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh and laughing all the way. Period.
The little-heard second verse talks about a ride with Miss Fay Bright that ended in a snowbank. An even less heard third verse is about another mishap, falling in the snow while walking while somebody in a sleigh laughs at him. The fourth verse is about just getting a faster horse for the sleigh. It’s an 19th century song about land speed racing in which Santa never shows up.
Nevertheless, this video is loaded up with Christmas images to make up for its lack of Santa.
2. Winter Wonderland
The 1934 song by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith is a fun one to sing, and hear. But it isn’t tied to any particular day in the calendar. In fact it starts off with call back of the previous non-Christmas song: “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”
A winter scene is described, as is the displacement of native birds for seasonal reasons (“Gone away is the blue bird…”).
It gets odd when it turns to the making of a snowman by unmarried people into a likeness of a prying Parson Brown (“He’ll say, ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say, ‘No, man’”).
Subsequent verses talk of indoor conspiracy meeting, which may or may not involve anything from Parson-revenge to jihad (“Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire, to face unafraid, the plans that we made”). Instead of any violent activity, they end up making a second snowman in the likeness of a circus clown. Christmas never comes into the picture.
Lady Gaga risked a chest cold when she sang it with Tony Bennett at the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center.
3. Sleigh Ride
Riding on a sleigh was a big part of winter for a while, though certainly not in 1946 when Leroy Anderson wrote this tune in a July heat wave. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops recorded the first instrumental version and after Mitchell Parish added the lyrics in 1950, the Andrews Sisters were the first of hundreds of artists to sing it. This year alone, it’s on new Christmas albums by Renee Fleming, Pentatonix and Earth, Wind and Fire. All this despite, you guessed it, having nothing to do with Christmas than proclaiming “lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you” and “gliding along with the song of a wintry fairy land.”
Some have altered the lyrics so that the soiree at the home of Farmer Gray that’s “the perfect ending of a perfect day” switches from a birthday party to a Christmas party (though really, isn’t Christmas essentially a birthday party?). Still, closing with pumpkin pie suggests it’s happening closer to November.
Here’s how Phil Spector had the Ronettes sing it.
4. Let it Snow
We turn now to the purely meteorological, as when Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne composed in 1945 this forecast: “The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.” Since “we’ve no place to go” the singers stay in, and pop some corn. They don’t make Christmas cookies or string the popcorn for the tree. They eat the corn until the fire goes out, they kiss and hug before they part and there is no mention of gift exchange. Songs about snowing could conceivably play all through winter until March. But when they’re lumped with Christmas, they don’t.
Here’s how Dean Martin navigated it.
5. Baby It’s Cold Outside
Another declaration of weather in song came the year before, in Frank Loesser’s 1944 duet, later used in the 1948 movie “Neptune’s Daughter” with versions by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams and another by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. When it won an Oscar for best song, it was sung at the ceremony by Mae West and Rock Hudson. Dinah Shore with Buddy Clark had the biggest hit of it in 1949. Over the years it’s been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones, Brian Setzer and Ann-Margret, Zoey Deschanel and M. Ward and this year, Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles in a version that reached No.10 this year on the AC charts. But reaching No. 1 was a version by Idina Menzel and Michael Buble.
Odd that it’s so popular this year since it was just a little too easy for “South Park” to use it to skewer Bill Cosby in a supposed duet with Taylor Swift. The male part of the duet, identified in the original lyrics as “the wolf” gets these responses from his prey: “I really can’t stay” “The answer is no” and, we’re not making this up, “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Whatever it is, it’s not eggnog and this ain’t a Christmas song either.
Here’s Colbie Calliat dueting with Gavin DeGraw.
6. Marshmallow World
Another song of snow and its effects, this one is full of food metaphors. It was written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter De Rose. Bing Crosby made it a hit, but it was also performed by Darlene Love on the classic Phil Spector album and Karen O in this year’s Target Christmas ads.
It sounds more like it’s something for Ben & Jerry’s though, with phrases like “marshmallow world” and “a whipped cream day.” Again, it’s never specified as Christmas, only that “in winter, it’s a marshmallow world.”
Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra barely get through it in this 1967 TV special.
7. Frosty the Snowman
The third biggest big star of the season, behind Santa, Rudolph (and ok, baby Jesus), is this character from a song by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, written specifically in 1950 as a follow-up to Gene Autry’s hit the year before with “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Like its predecessor it was both a perennial hit on the charts and subject of a Bass-Rankin TV special that also gets played annually. It’s a story more of witchcraft than Christmas cheer, with a mysterious silk hat making a snowman spout feet and dance, laugh and play with the children.
The approaching sun makes him feverish enough to run to the village with a broomstick in his hand taunting people to catch him “if you can.” The chase ended at a traffic cop ordering him to stop, which he didn’t (had it been written this year, it might have ended much more grimly).
But again, it’s a story not about Christmas, and never heard past Dec. 25 either.
Leon Redbone and Dr. John combined to sing it in this 1990 video.
8. My Favorite Things
This is a real oddity. Not even Rodgers and Hammerstein imagined this would be part of the holiday canon when they wrote it for “The Sound of Music.” But singers get so desperate for seasonal material, it was appropriated as one because of specific elements: “Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,” “Packages tied up with string” and a passing mention of “sleigh bells.” That’s it.
Every other one of “my favorite things” have nothing to do with the holiday: from raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens to schnitzel and noodles. But with packages, snow and a sleigh shout-out were enough to make it land on more than three dozen Christmas albums.
It was on Mary J. Blige’s “A Mary Christmas” album last year.
9. Hard Candy Christmas
The penultimate ballad from the 1978 stage musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” became much better known when Dolly Parton sang it in the 1982 film version and on a single that reached No. 8. It’s a song about glumly considering options when things fall apart (“Maybe I’ll dye my hair, maybe I’ll move somewhere”).
Its only relation to the holiday comes through comparing the disappointment to a holidays where all you get is the worst kind of candy. Still, Parton sang it on Christmas specials, and it was picked up by others such that the still pretty lovely melody has been put on a number of Christmas albums, most recently by Tracey Thorn formerly of Everything But the Girl.
Here’s that Tracey Thorn version.
In a similarly mopey vein, Joni Mitchell paused on “Blue” to consider depression that just happened to occur during the holidays. “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
Clearly she wants nothing to do with the forced cheer of the holiday and spends the rest of the song talking about a painful breakup “I made my baby say good bye.”
That she returns to the first verse to end it has made it seem like some perverse carol of the depressed though, and it’s become the second most covered song in Mitchell’s oeuvre and a staple of Christmas albums since it was used in “Love Actually” in 2003.
The other thing that makes people think it’s a Christmas song, of course, are those recurring notes that frame it, from “Jingle Bells.”
Which of course, isn’t a Christmas song either.
Here’s the author’s version, from a 1970 performance at Royal Albert Hall.