#MusicMonday: Victorian Ghost Story Traditions in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice.

Have you ever been singing along and gotten to this line and wondered what it was all about?

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (all familiar to us now)
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago (not so much).”

What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween? Not so much during the Victorian era–an era that has inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions.

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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. But that one line about scary ghost stories has always made me curious. The answer can be found in the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And the telling of ghost stories on Christmas eve, such as A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

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A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era. In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

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Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://listverse.com/2016/12/23/10-strange-christmas-traditions-from-the-victorian-era/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

#MusicMonday: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser

By now, you’ve likely heard about the controversy over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this holiday season. Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. While not necessarily Christmas specific, the song is usually played in rotation with Christmas music over the winter holiday season.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where dialogue about consent, the #MeToo movement, and other efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think.

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted as the “no” that she was supposed to give even when her answer was yes.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

The song has been recorded by so many artists and there are so many versions. Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

Finally, a songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it?

#MusicMonday: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.

Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”

The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

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In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.

The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.

The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.

The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.

Full lyrics:

(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)

And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over, if you want it
War is over, now!

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas