Messed up Christmas song lyrics nobody talks about

Love it or hate it, you can't escape Christmas music. Some stations switch over to an all-holiday-jams format as early as November 1 and maybe you can avoid it then, but once Santa parks his sleigh at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, it will be everywhere: grocery stores, shopping malls, TV commercials, people literally showing up at your front door and singing it at you, and so on.

Even if you love Christmas music, there's no denying it's inescapable at a certain time of year. Some people of a more Scrooge-ish or Grinch-esque disposition might find themselves inclined to tune it out, but many of the most popular songs can dig their way into your subconscious, and you find yourself humming or singing them against your conscious desires. And when these songs run through your brain, sometimes a word or phrase might strike you, making you realize, "hey, this is pretty messed up."

While there's no shortage of hugely terrible, disgustingly offensive, and actively harmful Christmas music out there — like "Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS" and "I Farted on Santa's Lap (Now Christmas Is Gonna Stink for Me)," which are both very real – this list looks at classics of the holiday canon by respected artists you have definitely heard of that just have a line or two that could use a bit of polishing.

Racial slurs roasting on an open fire

"The Christmas Song," frequently known by the subtitle "Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire," was written in 1944 by lyricist Bob Wells and the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Torme, as a way of cooling off during a particularly savage summer via the power of imagination. Although the most famous version of the song was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1961, according to BMI, "The Christmas Song" is, perhaps fittingly, the most performed Christmas song of all time. It's been covered by such notable artists as Bing Crosby, Garth Brooks, Christina Aguilera, Bob Dylan, and Aimee Mann. Sure, yes, you're probably thinking, "But what about Hootie?" and you're right, Hootie and the Blowfish did one, too.

And it's no surprise it's so popular: It's basically a perfect song for Christmas, evoking a series of sentimental holiday tableaux that can't help but kindle the spirit of the season in its listeners. But only basically perfect. To a modern listener, the line "folks dressed up like Eskimos" might be a little jarring. While "Eskimo" is not universally considered a racial slur, a sweeping generalization about an ethnic group is not a super cool way to kick off your holiday playlist. And for that matter, what about "frolic and play the Eskimo way" in "Winter Wonderland"? You wouldn't say "frolic and play the white people way" (probably), so maybe give that line a second thought.

Dreaming of a yellow and red Christmas

After the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, John Lennon began writing and performing songs with his then-new wife Yoko Ono. The seventh single released by the couple and their Plastic Ono Band was "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," a combo Christmas/protest song that has since become a holiday standard, covered by a broad variety of artists including Sarah McLachlan, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Jimmy Buffett, and the Polyphonic Spree. You've heard it, probably, gently accusing you of not having done enough with your year and culminating with the implication that global war continues simply because you, the listener, did not want it to stop enough. Yeah, that one.

Anyway, the song was part of an extended multimedia anti-war campaign by Lennon and Ono that began with billboards reading "WAR IS OVER! If you want it — Happy Christmas from John and Yoko" as a means of protesting the Vietnam War and promoting social unity and peaceful change via personal accountability. So it's probably safe to say that Lennon didn't know that wishing a happy Christmas "for yellow and red ones" would read as mega racist 40-some years later. While modern people still frequently use the terms "black" and "white" to refer to racial groups, years of negative associations have made it completely uncool to call Asian people "yellow" and Native American groups "red." But at least Lennon has the "it was a long time ago" excuse; why on Earth was this line left unchanged for the 2012 version from Glee?

A terrible listening time

Each of the Beatles eventually got around to recording a holiday song sooner or later after their breakup. John Lennon, of course, released the immortal "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" in 1971, George Harrison dropped his New Year's banger "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" in 1974, and Ringo Starr finally recorded an entire Christmas album in 1999 called I Wanna Be Santa Claus featuring a single of the same title. Paul McCartney's contribution to Beatles-adjacent holiday canon came in 1979. It's called "Wonderful Christmastime," and if you've ever been to a mall between Thanksgiving and New Year's, you have definitely heard it. Like many other popular Christmas songs, it has been recorded by a variety of artists, including Barenaked Ladies, Demi Lovato, The Shins, and Mac Demarco. Despite the ubiquity and popularity of the earwormy ditty, "Wonderful Christmastime" is frequently named as one of the most hated holiday tunes, with Esquire placing it atop their 20 worst Christmas songs ever list, calling it "the Beatles of terrible Christmas songs."

What makes it so bad? Is it the repetitive nature? The corny Casio instrumental track? The fact that it sticks in your head no matter how you resist? It might be the goofy and lightweight lyrics. Consider this: "the choir of children sing their song, they practiced all year long." Cool, sounds great. What were they practicing? "Ding dong, ding dong." Wait, for real? They needed twelve months to polish that one up? Unless maybe they were performing a cover of George Harrison's New Year's jam? That would explain it.

Adultery is hilarious to children

While each year sees a revival of the tiresome discourse surrounding "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "Santa Baby," there's much less discussion about another entry in the (disgustingly large) canon of "sexualizing Santa Claus and/or Christmas in general" songs: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." While you're probably most familiar with the versions by the Jackson 5 or John Mellencamp, or even the ones by Jessica Simpson or Amy Winehouse or Reba McEntire (why?), the original version of the song was recorded in 1952 by literal 13-year-old human child Jimmy Boyd. It's terrible! Not every child is Brenda Lee; stop putting them on your novelty Christmas songs.

Anyway, the premise of the song is that the child narrator (or the adult Reba McEntire) sneaks downstairs on Christmas Eve and sees Mom getting rutty with Santa and thinks it's mega hilarious. The punchline is "what a laugh it would have been if Daddy had only seen Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night." The joke, of course, comes from the dramatic irony wherein we, the older, more mature listening audience know that in this case, "Santa" actually is just the kid's dad in a suit and beard and all this canoodling is within the bounds of wedlock. But the kid doesn't know that! This child is fully delighted at the idea of his mom doing an adultery with an immortal gift-bringer on the eve of the child Jesus' birth. True story: This song was formally condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston until Boyd explained the joke to them.

Mom and Dad can hardly wait to regret their decision to have kids

"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" is a well-known and much beloved classic tune of the Christmas season. And no real surprise: It was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson, the Academy Award-nominated writer and composer of Broadway smashes The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It has been recorded by such juggernauts of the holiday music scene as Bing Crosby and Perry Como, although the most played version now might be the one by Johnny Mathis, thanks in part to its appearance in Home Alone 2.

Lyrically, it's a pretty solid one. "Take a look in the five-and-ten, glistening once again, with candy canes and silver lanes aglow"? Dope. "The sturdy kind that doesn't mind the snow"? Possibly the best ever one-line description of an evergreen tree. "The prettiest sight you'll see is the holly that will be on your own front door"? A succinctly put and sincerely felt sentiment, Mr. Wilson, great job. Setting aside some gender essentialism regarding the toys desired by each child that doesn't necessarily hold up to modern standards, this is a pretty rad contribution to the holiday canon from the guy behind eternal showtune banger "Seventy-Six Trombones."

But one line stumbles under scrutiny: "Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again." Hilarious on the surface, but the premise of the song is that it's only just now starting to be Christmas-esque. Are the kids even out of school yet? Do you hate your own children so much that you're dreaming about the spring semester on December 1?

Grandma got run over by a conspiracy to murder

Remember that episode of The Good Place where the demons have a party and the most torturous way they can think of to celebrate is having Bad Janet blast an airhorn while alternating playing Puddle of Mudd's "She Hates Me" and Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"? There's a reason that latter song would be a favored method of torment by actual demons from kinda-sorta Hell, and that's because it is an absolute circus fire of a song that should be stricken from human memory but nevertheless remains a perennial hit.

The song is a mess from top to bottom, including such groan-worthy puns as "incriminating Claus marks on her back" and tired jokes clowning on an old lady's blue hair, and worst of all, impugning the reputation of Santa Claus with the claim that he "plays with elves," which … yikes, dude. But the real kicker is the revelation that Grandpa is taking the death of his wife extremely well: "See him in there watching football, drinking beer and playing cards with Cousin Mel." Sounds like an innocuous enough coping mechanism, until you see the video and realize that Cousin Mel is an attractive younger female cousin and suddenly the whole thing comes into focus: Grandpa got his own wife drunk and sent her off in the snow to die so he could hook up with (his own?) Cousin Mel and then he blamed it all on an ineffably good spirit of generosity who wouldn't be around to defend himself.

Tone it down, Bono

You know what they say about good intentions? They say the road to Hell is paved with them, and maybe they fill the potholes in that road with melted down 7" vinyl copies of the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single. The song was released in 1984 by Band Aid, a one-time supergroup of some of the biggest names of 1980s rock and pop music in the U.K., including Boy George, Sting, George Michael, U2's Bono, and Duran Duran's Simon LeBon. The charity single was written in response to a famine that affected Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. The writer of the song was Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, an Irish band whose best known song is about a school shooting, which maybe should have been a sign about the turn this holiday jam session would take.

Just a pro tip: If you're trying to improve a starving person's spirits at Christmas, maybe don't sing about "a world of dread and fear where the only water flowing is the sting of bitter tears" or how the "bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom." Also definitely do not have super-millionaire Bono scream "thank God it's them instead of you." Anyway, fun fact: Christianity was declared the official state religion in Ethiopia in the fourth century C.E., and the majority of Ethiopians in the 1980s identified as Christian. So yes, Bob Geldof, they have for sure heard of Christmas.

A button nose and two eyes filled with the heartbreaking knowledge of one's impending death

While many traditional Christmas characters like Santa or the Three Kings or the Krampus (if you're nasty) go back hundreds or even thousands of years, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are two more modern figures that have been indelibly imprinted on the popular holiday imagination. Part of the reason for that was that Frosty was specifically designed to follow Rudolph's example. The "Rudolph" song had been a huge hit for singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949, and so the next year "Frosty the Snowman" was written to be his big follow-up, and it was a smash success, likewise being recorded by dozens of other artists and getting adapted into a beloved Rankin/Bass animated special.

"Frosty" is, on the surface, a pretty sweet wintertime romp, with children witnessing magic firsthand and the product of that magic being a rulebreaking friend who embraces and indeed embodies the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday season and undermines the authority of the local police. All good there. But … he dies at the end, right? Like the winter snow and childhood itself, this innocent avatar of childlike play will melt away under the rays of adulthood's sun. Worse, Frosty knows his end is nigh: "Frosty the Snowman knew the sun was hot that day, so he said, 'Let's run and we'll have some fun now before I melt away.'" Suddenly this children's song is the bittersweet tale of a guileless snow golem confronting and accepting his own mortality. Heavy stuff.

Please, Daddy, don't play this song this Christmas

John Denver was one of the best-selling artists of the 1970s thanks to monster hits like "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads." He also has a pretty strong connection to Christmas, thanks to multiple Christmas albums and starring in and hosting multiple TV Christmas specials, perhaps most notably John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, in which Denver and a host of Muppets perform possibly the only listenable recorded version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" as well as the genuinely moving "Alfie the Christmas Tree."

Unfortunately, not everything can be as stirring as "It's in every one of us to be wise, find your heart, open up both your eyes." On his 1973 album Farewell Andromeda, Denver dropped the holiday classic (?) "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)," which he apparently liked a lot because he also put it on two other albums. It is, indeed, what it sounds like: the futile pleas of an 8-year-old begging his father not to, as he has in past years, come home in the middle of the night stumbling drunk, falling down under the tree, and subsequently abusing in one way or another the child's sobbing mother. Considering that Denver had a problem with alcohol, got multiple DUIs, and attempted to choke his first wife and cut up her furniture with a chainsaw, this song might have had a personal significance for Denver. Still: messed up, dude.

Frolic and play the intramarital way

Just to flip the script a little bit, here's a song that's maybe not quite as messed up as it may sound on first listen. "Winter Wonderland" was written by by composer Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard B. Smith while Smith was being treated for tuberculosis in a Pennsylvania sanitarium, having been inspired by seeing snow covering the ground in the park in his hometown of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. First recorded in 1934, the song has subsequently been recorded over 200 times, many of which rearrange the original lyrics, adding verses, deleting others, moving things around.

One thing basically every version has in common is the verse in which the narrators build a snowman and pretend it is Parson Brown. The imaginary preacher asks if they are married, and they say, "No, man, but you can do the job when you're in town!" It turns out it is a surprisingly common interpretation of this song that the narrator wants to bone down with a snowman. You know, like "do the job"? Wink wink, lascivious eyebrow waggle. But, like, nah, man. The narrator is part of a couple ("we can build a snowman") and the preacher is asking if the two of them are married and they tell him not yet, but he can perform the ceremony ("do the job") while he's in town. These are the plans they have made (to get married by a snow person) that they will subsequently face unafraid, conspiring by the fire.

The real mystery here is, who's this new bird? Is it … a penguin?