I'm as sentimental about Christmas as the next guy, but after years of listening to the holiday carols and Christmas standards, I find some troubling messages embedded in those songs.
At the heart of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for instance, is a small herd of really nasty reindeer. The song was written by an advertising executive, which explains a lot about the culture of Santa's animals. You will recall that, because of Rudolph's shiny red nose, "all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names."
That was one sadistic bunch of antlered ruminants, a group of conformists who cemented their fragile sense of superiority by making fun of those who are different. But not only are these reindeer mean-spirited, like power-trippers playing office politics in advertising agencies, they're also a bunch of hidebound hypocrites. Just as soon as Santa, the boss, turns to Rudolph to lead the sleigh, the other reindeer immediately begin to suck up to the formerly "poor Rudolph." Donner, Blitzen and the whole lot all adjusted their attitude: "Then all the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you'll go down in history!" Sure they loved him. I wouldn't want to depend on friends like those reindeer, though, and Rudolph would be wise not to keep watching his back.
Suppose Rudolph's glowing red nose dims or fades out entirely. Then where would he be? The reindeer scrap heap, I'm afraid. Or cat food.
I've known a few people like those perfidious reindeer, co-workers who were ready at a moment's notice to alter their allegiances. The disappointing thing is that Santa, with a gazillion reindeer to choose from up there at the North Pole, selected a bunch of "yes" types. Apparently, his vetting process was wired to pick only the go-along-to-get-along kind found in any corporate structure.
Why Santa, a universally beloved figure, would need a bunch of "yes" reindeer serves to remind us that even the most powerful execs enjoy the constant approbation of toadies. (How Rudolph, a distinct individualist, got hired in that atmosphere remains a mystery.)
But Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn't the only song bearing seasonally spurious values. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to find the potential for childhood trauma in words like these: "You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town." That sounds intimidating to me, with Santa as the enforcer. Imagine a kid who's just skinned his knee, a kid who, against his will, gives in to a bout of crying. In the midst of those tears, here comes that song on the radio, and now not only does he have a skinned knee, but he's also in hot water with an enormous guy in a strange red outfit and huge boots.
If that's not bad enough, Santa is "making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty and nice." So, kid, you may have been pretty good for the past three months, but Santa's got you on file for that minor assault rap last spring, when you smacked your little brother for putting sand in your peanut butter sandwich.
This is one Big Brother of a Santa, too, because "He sees you 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!" So, someone is watching you, 24/7. You can run, kid, but you can't hide. Actually, this is an extortion racket, plain and simple. The song says that kids should be "good for goodness sake," but that's not the deal on offer at all. The deal is that if you're good, you'll get the goodies; if not, not. So it's not goodness for the sake of goodness we're talking about here.
To add to the fear quotient, buy the Toby Keith version. Santa is still keeping an eye on your every move, but if you're caught in a miscreancy in this version, watch out: The singer promises to come over and whack you in the rear in the name of Santa.
The next time you're walking through the mall and one of these Christmas ditties strikes your ear, listen well, and then be afraid. Be very afraid.
Jaime O'Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Magnolia, California.