As a small child I knew that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday, but till the age of eight I had never been a part of any Christmas celebration.
My first Christmas was in 1962 in Lagos when my father was posted there as India’s first high commissioner to the newly independent Nigeria. It was there that I saw department stores decorated with lights and sat on the lap of Santa Claus and got a warm hug and a gift. Except in Nigeria, he was not called Santa but Father Christmas.
I still remember the excitement of decorating my first Christmas tree with beautiful fairy lights, coloured balls, a golden star and lots of fluffy cotton to make it look like white snow. My mother dressed me up as Father Christmas in a bright red coat and trousers. She even put a small pillow under the red coat to make me look portly. She pasted a soft, white, flowing beard and told me to speak in a gruff voice so my three-year-old sister would think Santa had come to give her presents.
But my sister’s reaction was to scream with fear and she could not be persuaded that Father Christmas was a good, kind person. She calmed down once she realised he was in fact her older sister and we all settled down to a good dinner.
My memories of Christmas remained full of warmth, joy and innocence.
It was in Lagos that I first heard of the Nativity plays depicting the birth of Jesus and even took part in one in my school. That was when I had a glimpse of the fact that all was not alright with the world. Even though we were in independent Nigeria, the main roles such as Mary, Joseph and the angel Gabriel were all given to the white girls. I remember feeling somehow discriminated against because I would have loved to be an angel with lovely big wings.
I grew up thinking White Christmas was the real thing. It was quite natural to put cotton wool on the Christmas tree so that it resembled snow, to send Christmas cards with pictures of European winters, and to depict Jesus with blue eyes and blonde hair even though he was born in a part of the world that we know as West Asia, where people usually have brown eyes and black hair.
So, it is not surprising that the highest earning Christmas song ever recorded was called White Christmas. The song was first recorded 20 years before I celebrated my first Christmas but recently it has become a subject of controversy.
A few years ago, a petition was passed around the students of a college in America asking for White Christmas to be banned from being played on the radio, describing the song as an offence to all coloured people in its insistence on “white” being associated with the good and the beautiful. The petition said the song perpetuates the idea that white is naturally good and that white supremacy is everywhere, even in your holiday songs.
Within one hour, 18 students had signed the petition, before it was revealed that it was a hoax by MRCTV reporter Dan Joseph. But the controversy over the song and the meaning of White Christmas has not died down.
On December 8, a news report appeared in The Rochdale Herald titled “BBC bans racist song White Christmas – The Rochdale Herald”, which began with the following paragraph:
“The BBC working on advice from Institute for Cultural Correctness has announced that the song, White Christmas is to be banned.
Spokeswoman for the perpetually offender, Rita Right-on told us, ‘When you analyse the lyrics you realise that it’s reinforcing white privilege. Bing Crosby is an example of a rich white man singing about dreaming of a white Christian Christmas. It denigrates the memory of the original nativity as nobody white would have been there. It’s airbrushed the contribution of other races right out of the story. This isn’t about censorship, it’s about reclaiming the Christmas story for everyone.’”
The Rochdale Herald a satirical website founded in June 2016. Many people read the story and thought it was real news even though the site’s tagline is “The World’s Worst Local Newspaper”.
Of course, the BBC did not ban White Christmas and there is no “Institute for Cultural Correctness” or a “Rita Right-on” and the whole story was meant to be satirical. But the fact remains that some people are beginning to feel uncomfortable about Christmas being universalised in the image of a white Jesus in a cold Western country.
Then there are the Christmas songs that have been censored for being inappropriate. I must be honest that I did feel uncomfortable when I heard what has been called the “most sexual Christmas song of all time”. The song is called I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. The first stanza goes like this:
“I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus
Underneath the mistletoe last night.
She didn’t see me creep
Down the stairs to have a peep;
She thought that I was tucked
Up in my bedroom fast asleep.”
The song was written by Jimmy Boyd and recorded in 1952, 10 years before I celebrated my first Christmas. Boyd’s record was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston on the grounds that it mixed kissing with Christmas. Boyd was photographed meeting with the archdiocese to explain the song. After the meeting, the ban was lifted.
But the controversies over the song have become even sharper: some people argue that the song is inappropriate because it alludes to an affair between Santa (who is a married man; Mrs Claus lives in the Artic) with mom while dad is away, or is Santa really dad dressed up as Santa – just like my mother had dressed me up as one?
However, the song that has been taken off the air by several radio stations was written even earlier. This Christmas song, according to some, promotes date rape.
Here are the lyrics from the 1944 version of the now controversial song Baby It’s Cold Outside. The song begins with:
“(I really can’t stay) But, baby, it’s cold outside
(I’ve got to go away) But, baby, it’s cold outside
(This evening has been) Been hoping that you’d drop in
(So very nice) I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice
(My mother will start to worry) Beautiful, what’s your hurry?
(My father will be pacing the floor) Listen to the fireplace roar
(So really I’d better scurry) Beautiful, please don’t hurry
(Well, maybe just half a drink more) Put some records on while I pour.”
There are some Christmas songs that have roused controversy but not enough to merit a ban. For instance, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer:
“Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas eve
You can say there’s no such thing as Santa
But as for me and grandpa we believe
She’d been drinking too much eggnog
And we begged her not to go
But she forgot her medication
And she staggered out the door into the snow
When we found her Christmas morning
At the scene of the attack
She had hoof-prints on her forehead
And incriminating Claus marks on her back.”
This song is, according to the critics, anti-feminist. Sung from a male perspective, its lyrics cast “Grandma” as a woman who in life and death impedes the celebration of her family members. She is killed in a hit-and-run for which Santa faces no consequences.
Finally, there is the song that may be inappropriate but may have a special appeal for the thousands of men, women and children who will spend their Christmas at the boundary between the United States and Mexico. The song is by Kevin Fowler, Santa Got Busted By The Border Patrol:
“Santa was down in Juarez on Christmas Eve
Trying to take the toys to kids in need
Slid down the chimney, there was the strangest smell
He landed in the house of the local cartel...”
My favourite Christmas song used to be Good King Wenceslas. It reflected the spirit of giving, charity and compassion. But now I know charity and compassion are not enough; we need solidarity and collective action. I wonder how many men, women and children will die in the wars, disease, cold and poverty on Christmas day?
The song that reflects my mood this Christmas is called When Santa Went Crazy by Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic, an American singer-songwriter, record producer, satirist, film producer and author.
Here is the first verse with Santa arriving drunk and with a gun in hand:
“Down in the workshop, all the elves were making toys
For the good Gentile girls and the good Gentile boys
When the boss busted in, nearly scared them half to death
Had a rifle in his hands and cheap whiskey on his breath...”
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer.