Date: 18/11/2019
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Christmas Carols VIII

As I wrote in yesterday's post I consider the distinction between Christmas Carols and Christmas songs to be rather artificial. Many of our modern Christmas songs mention a certain Santa Claus – a semi-magical being that brings presents at Christmastide – and some would argue that such songs cannot be carols.

The character of Santa Claus, as you know, is based on a real life Saint called Nicholas who lived in what is now Southern Turkey but in his day and age it was Greek territory. He was born towards the end of the third century, we don’t know the precise date, and he died on December the 6th. AD343. He was a very generous man and a frequent giver of gifts and help to anyone in need, so it’s easy to see how the myth of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and magical reindeer arose as memory of the deeds of the generous Saint became mixed up in the minds of the laity as the centuries went by. You can find a short biography of Saint Nicholas at this site and the Wikipedia entry is here.
Why am I mentioning St. Nicholas today when, for most Christians, his Feast Day was back on December 6th? That’s because in my particular tradition inside the Church of England we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas today (the 21st. of December). I don’t know how that came about but I suspect that it’s something to with the Julian as opposed to the Gregorian Calendar, and because the Saint is in my mind I thought it would be good to have a look at some songs about him. (Today is also the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle for those of you who follow the American Episcopalian tradition and the Feast of St. Peter Canisius if you follow the Roman Calendar.)
There are two Christmas songs about Santa Claus that I really like. The first is this one (you can hear this first one here):
[‘I just got back from a lovely trip
along the Milky Way
I stopped off at the North Pole
to spend a holiday.
I called on dear old Santa Claus
to see what I could see
He took me in his workshop
And told his plans to me, so...’]

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.

He's making a list
and checking it twice.
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.

He sees when you're sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.

With little tin horns and little toy drums,
rootie-toot-toots and rum-a-tum tums.
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.

Curly head dolls that toddle and coo,
elephants, boats and kiddie cars too.
Santa Claus is comin' to town.

The boys and girls in toyland
will have a jubilee.
They're going to build a toyland town,
all around the Christmas tree.

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.
The second one is this (and you can hear this second one here):
I saw Mommy tickle 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. 
Then, I saw Mommy tickle Santa Claus 
Underneath his beard so snowy white; 
Oh, what a laugh it would have been 
If Daddy had only seen 
Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night.
So, what’s significant about these songs (and many others about Santa Claus too)? Well, the first one is a teaching song just as many of the ancient Carols are. It’s very simple and it isn’t great poetry for it’s aimed at children. Look at it closely, however, and you’ll see that it contains just the right amount of our common culture about Christmas for young minds to grasp. It contains the Santa Claus myth; it has the concept of reward for virtue (being good) and the lack of any reward for being bad; and it references the tradition of evergreen decorations at Christmas by mentioning the Christmas tree. The song is very simple but it has enough of the elements of Christmas in it to fall firmly into the mainstream, ancient tradition of Christmas singing. Is it a Carol? Some would argue not, because it makes no mention of Christ and His Nativity but one has to remember that it’s aimed at the very young who probably wouldn’t understand such a mention anyway. So maybe it’s a young children’s carol.
The second song is probably not a carol even in my opinion, but it is a Christmas teaching song. Why is it a teaching song? Because it’s reminding parents that one day their little innocent child will be grown up and will understand about Christmas as they do and that nothing lasts forever. It’s also, indirectly, about the love between two good parents and I hope you noticed the symbolic evergreen creeping in there in the second line – the mistletoe (and there’s a Christmas evergreen that really is all bound up with our ancient pagan past!). Even this song is firmly rooted in the ancient traditions of Christmas.
Just because it’s Christmas Here Comes Santa Claus sung by the late Gene Autry:
Here Comes Santa Claus
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane
Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer
Pullin' on the reins
Bells are ringin', children singin'
All is merry and bright
Hang your stockings and say your prayers
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane
He's got a bag that's filled with toys
For boys and girls again
Hear those sleigh bells jingle jangle,
Oh what a beautiful sight
So jump in bed and cover your head
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane
He doesn't care if you're rich or poor
He loves you just the same
Santa Claus knows we're all Gods children
That makes everything right
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus lane
He'll come around when the chimes ring out
That it's Christmas morn again
Peace on earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
So lets give thanks to the lord above
That Santa Claus comes tonight!
Now this third song has bells, G-d, Prayers and even an exhortation for peace on earth. In the antepenultimate and the penultimate lines of the final stanza there is even a quite overt reference to the Christ. In fact, the last six lines of the last verse is nothing more than reference to the Watchnight Services which we all attend. This Christmas song is definitely directly in the mainstream tradition of Christmas Carolling.
These modern Christmas songs may not be the traditional Carols which we all know and love but they are well within the meaning of, the spirit of and the tradition of, Christmas. Even when they are ostensibly only about the myth of Santa Claus they reference that lovely, generous Saint – Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and may G-d bless him and keep him.