Sunday, August 1

Cracked Christmas Carols — A Yuletide Musicological Post Mortem

Now that Christmas is over -- unless you celebrate Christmas from the first Sunday of Advent through and including the Feast of the Epiphany -- it might be a good time to examine the political and ideological questions raised by Christmas carols ... which I do in this week's "Skeptic's Collection" column in hopes of increasing the "woke-ness" level for Christmas of 2019. No reason to thank me ...


Recently, the cultural outrage factory, never short of work, has managed to evoke a sense of high dudgeon about the allegedly sexist lyrics, amounting to an advocacy of date rape, attaching to the well-known Christmas carol “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. Before following the controversy on Facebook, I would have thought that this kerfuffle was just that:  a kerfuffle surfing a wave of synthetic outrage. Well … I was wrong. As we would say today, I am “woke”. As we would also say today, given my newfound insight about this once-oh-so-innocent song, I now find other well-known hymns, once considered no less innocent, virtual Petri dishes breeding hella-sexist pathogens of micro-aggression, latent racism, and incipient sedition. A few salient examples will illustrate my point.

o “Baby It’s Cold Outside

This, of course, is the grand-daddy and progenitor of them all.  It is obviously sexist, if only because the man repeatedly refers to the woman as “Baby”. But more than this, the man wants to take care of her, and to do so in terms of the most arrant paternalism -- “I'll hold your hands they're just like ice” – as if the woman is incapable of warming her own hands, and is in need of a man to warm them for her. (And we may be forgiven, at this point, for wondering just what else about her the man intends to warm up.) The woman becomes suspicious of the man’s intentions and in one place pointedly asks “Say what's in this drink?” In our more cynical age, of course, we would reflexively answer “Probably a roofie” or whatever Bill Cosby used to reduce his victims to meat dolls before having his way with them. Shortly after this point, the man asks “Mind if I move in closer?” to which the woman replies “At least I tried”. Obviously, the entire song is mere slow-motion lechery, the kind of scenario Jean-Paul Sartre refers to in Being and Nothingness when he describes almost the same exchange in a restaurant between a woman and a man determined to seduce her. The man places his hand on the woman’s thigh, but the woman continues to deny that what she knows is happening really is happening. A later age might call this "self-gaslighting". But Sartre has his own technical term for such reactions. He calls them instances of mauvaise foi:  “bad faith” – pretending not to know that which, in fact, you know all too well. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a ballad of bad faith.

Or maybe it’s not. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is equally describable as a feminist manifesto valorizing a woman’s autonomy, her ability to determine how to dispose of her own body in the presence of a man of whose lecherous intentions she is quite aware. As Chris Willman insightfully says in his Variety review of the song:

[I]t would be sad if “Baby” got put in a cultural corner for the rest of time, not because of overfamiliarity or the surfeit of awful contemporary recordings of the tune but because it’s “rapey.” It’s not. This is really the ultimate pre-Walk of Shame anthem, with no actual shame involved on either duet partner’s part. The song is deeply filthy, of course, by 1949 standards, and even today it should never become a school holiday chorale staple — which is why the video for the Bublé/Menzel version in 2014, which featured kids lip-synching the lyrics, is one of the creepiest things of all time. But, returning the tune to the adult company where it belongs, it should be and generally is understood that this is a dialogue between who both very much want to get it on… but only one of whom, in the song’s period setting, has the freedom to explicitly say so.

It is that asymmetry that sets the song apart from other faux Christmas carols – and I say “faux” because, as  Willman notes, it is not really a Christmas carol, but a hymn to the erotic possibilities of winter.

But … who knows … the hermeneutical possibilities are endless, as befits an interpretation in the era of deconstruction and bricolage. So, since there is no transcendent Signified, as the deconstructionists assure us, what the hell … we can always opt for the bourgeois alternative:  maybe it is just a Christmas song.

o Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

What makes this carol so insidious is that it is ambiguous as to its target:  is "Rudolf" intended to emphasize the alleged superior competence of competent Communist meteorologists, or is it, alternatively, intended to allege a similarly superior competence prevailing among meteorologists who are Trump supporters? No doubt, one could discover all manner of machiavellian, byzantine connections of this carol with either the Mueller investigation or the opponents thereof. Consider ...

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer could be re-read as "Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear," thereby implying that Communist weather forecasters are superior to their Western counterparts, at least vis a vis the prediction of the probability of precipitation in any given forecast. Or the title could also be read as asserting the same superiority among "red" voters, i.e., supporters of President Trump.

The sub-text seems to be that if you want an accurate weather forecast, listen to the meteorologists -- especially those named "Rudolf" -- on Russian, formerly Soviet, state television ... or, equally so, on Fox News.

o Silent Night

In particular, consider the line "Round yon Virgin Mother and Child." Well ... indeed! ...

This is an obvious and exceptionally egregious example of lipophobia and fat-shaming. What relevance does the Virgin Mary's body type and girth have on the birth of the Christ-Child? Oh, of course, a strategically placed apostrophe renders the above line 'Round yon Virgin Mother and Child". But other citations of this verse omit the apostrophe, thereby explicitly emphasizing the allegation that the Blessed Virgin was rotund, or, in other words and to speak plainly, fat, thereby rendering Her a fit target for all manner of body bigotry and diminishing simple respect for her among Protestants and reverence (in the technical sense of hyperdulia) for her among Catholics. The most extreme case of such lipophobia could even call into question the Divinity of the Christ-Child Himself.

o Good King Wenceslas

This carol is quite arguably the most seditious of all, both religiously and civilly.  Consider the lyrics carefully as to their spiritual and social consequences:'

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."

The "good" King Wenceslas, in a manner chillingly consistent with the tactics of the Deep State, now has breached the privacy of the poor man, and, using his (King Wenceslas') servant as a covert agent, has ascertained the poor man's location. Then the "good" King proceeds to reduce the poor man to craven dependence on government largesse by supplying him with food and fuel for the poor man's fire, thereby depriving the poor man of any incentive to work -- which he was doing assiduously at the beginning of the carol by independently "gathering winter fuel". But now, the government having intervened, the poor man has no incentive to gather winter fuel -- or anything else -- and is reduced to slavery and is unable even to freeze and starve to death as a free man because of paternalistic government intervention.

"Good King Wenceslas" is the most succinct description yet of the way government induces people to turn the safety net into Speaker Paul Ryan's "hammock of idleness".

o Jingle Bells

Yet  another paean to rape-through-paternalism in the venerable tradition of "Baby It's Cold Outside". If anything, "Jingle Bells," though, is even more insidious because the inducements to seduction are even more recondite. To wit ...

"The horse was lean and lank, misfortune seemed his lot ... "

So the man driving the sleigh -- please note:  it is, as usual, a man in the driver's seat -- has, we can only presume deliberately, chosen a horse to draw the sleigh that is distinguished only by his (the horse's) clumsiness and lack of agility. Thereby tee-ing up the mishap that follows:

"We got into a drifted bank, and we, we got upsot."

This is a perfect situation for the man to exercise his paternalistic and chivalrous prerogative to rescue the woman, no doubt after some thinly veiled erotic floundering in the snow -- again, recall the faux chivalry displayed by the man in "Baby It's Cold Outside". I say "chivalrous" deliberately because, though usually suppressed in popular accounts, the cultural foundation of chivalry and codes of conduct founded thereon was the tradition of courtly love. That tradition presupposed the erotic attraction of someone, almost always a knight, for the wife of the knight's liege lord, i.e., a cult of adultery, fornication, and seduction -- always concealed under an elaborately woven concealing cloak of gallantry. So the "we" who got "upsot" was only the woman, whereas the man's being "upsot" was an act designed to afford him access to a woman rendered helpless by a sleigh accident. From that point on, as in "Baby It's Cold Outside," the social norms of faux gallantry assume control of the encounter.

Now that we have all sung these Christmas carols one more year -- and others I could mention but will not -- I trust we all feel appropriately guilty and self-reproachful. Have a great 2019!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"Cold Outside" ... MENI from ASO! ... CC by 2.0
Rudolf ... Torley ... CC by SA 2.0
Santa Claus ... Pixabay ... Public domain
Creche ... Pixabay ... Public domain
King Wenceslas ... Arthur Gaskin (1862-1928) ... Public domain
Paul Ryan ... US House of Representatives ... Public domain
Sleigh bells and Santa cap ... ... Public domain
Bahraini kids caroling ... US Navy photograph ... Public domain


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