Tis the season, friends.
For holly, for blustery cold winds, for frantic trips to the mall to shower ourselves in consumerism, for cups of cocoa, and for lizzie to start blogging again.
Okay, i’m not really that much of a cynic when it comes to the month of December and all that unfolds with it. I adore It’s a Wonderful Life as much as the next sucker for Jimmy Stewart, will consume entirely too much eggnog on Christmas Eve, have spent hours laboriously selecting each Christmas/Hannukah present for my friends and family, and i’m known to covet the light-up snowman sweaters for sale across the mall (though, oddly enough, i don’t own an embarrassingly bad Christmas sweater (adds to the list)).
There is, however, one thing i cannot STAND about the month of December. It’s something that, for a long time, i totally lapped up and partook in. Now, however, that i’m a little older, my opinions on the subject have changed.
I cannot stand cheesy Christmas music.
I’m not talking about carols – i adore old hymns (particularly (yes, without irony) when sung by choirs), play Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” on repeat, and even am known to dance around the house listening to Holiday Mixes while stringing the fake-greens around the banisters. So i guess saying that i don’t like cheesy Christmas music is a bit of a lie.
I shall rephrase: i am extraordinarily picky about my Christmas music.
I can’t stand Bing Crosby (no, really.), i’m of the opinion any beautiful composition can be ruined by too many sweeping violin lines, and if i hear one more country version of ‘Mary Did You Know’ i might puke up all those chesnuts cooked over an open fire.
Amidst all the roasting nuts, though, one particular tune stands out to me as something to be despised. No, rephrase: there is one particular ‘Holiday’ tune that i think transcends the level of a poorly digested Christmas Roast. It embodies everything despicable about post-colonialism and patronizing charity practices.
This tune is, as you’ve most likely inferred from the title, ‘Do They Know it’s Christmastime’ by Band Aid.
For those of you fortunate few to have never heard this tune, consider yourself hand-picked by Old Saint Nick as a lucky member of the Christmas Music Elite. While i appreciate that Band Aid was meant to raise money for people enduring a horrific famine in Ethiopia, the lyrics are just flat out disgusting.
For example, the first verse and chorus are as follows:
It’s Christmas time,
there’s no need to be afraid.
At Christmas time
we let in light and banish shade
And in our world of plenty
we can spread a smile of Joy
Throw your arms around the world
at Christmas time.
But say a prayer,
Pray for the other ones.
At Christmas time it’s hard
but when you’re having fun…
There’s a world outside your window
and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is
the bitter sting of tears
Where the Christmas bells that are ringing
are the clanging chimes of Doom
Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life.
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Bells of Doom? Really? REALLY?
I’m sitting here, trying to find a place to commence my unpacking of this particular Christmas present, and my initial reaction is one of stunned disgust.
To begin with the obvious: my experiences in (THE WHOLE CONTINENT OF? REALLY PEOPLE?) Africa have shown me that there is a considerably higher population of church-attending Christians than in the United States. I did, after all, work for the Church of Uganda. And, sorry to sound like a proselytizing born-again (i’m not) but Christmas is, ultimately, a holiday in the Christian faith. I am aware it is strategically well-placed to coincide with the winter solstice and pagan traditions, but still. Just because some Ugandans (or Malawians, or residents of Côte d’Ivoire, or wherever) don’t worship consumerism and deck the halls the way Christmas is advertised in the States does not mean they don’t know WHAT IT IS.
So, yes. The People whom i’ve encountered, known, and befriended in AFRICA know what Christmas is, when it comes, and many celebrate it. There’s even snow year-round in the Rwenzori mountains, seasonally in South Africa. So for some people, there will be snow – snow that provides drinking water (not only the ‘bitter flow of tears’).
What gets to me the most about this song is the utter lack of realization that the people who face dire material poverty (which is not all of Africa, contrary to the suppositions made by this song) are, after all, people. People as complex and ridiculous and intelligent and beautiful as you. Some of the most incredible, inspiring, and self-motivated people i’ve met are African. Such a patronizing song diffuses all the work done in grassroots capacities all across this vast, vast continent. The words – and the broader mentality behind this song – encapsulate an attitude that gives no space for voice contrary to those in material power.
Seriously. This song seems to paint a picture for me of a pot-bellied, snot-running-down-her-face little baby girl in the dirt, looking totally helpless at the camera. The lyrics literally say “the other ones,” making the establishment of the ‘us’ and the (poor, incapable) ‘them’ as distinctive as can be. Every facet of post-colonialist, “let’s help make those people better by giving them more money” mentality is so succinct in this work of deliciously politically incorrect piece of music. There is no motion to see what can be learned from people who live with AIDS, much less any kind of indication that the voices of the people the song is meant to ‘help’ are being given agency. It’s a song meant to make people who donate money to charity feel good, pat themselves on the back, and live into the cheer of the holidays.
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from donating to NGOs or purchase fair trade products (etc). It’s not the cause – it’s the attitude. And i know, i know, this song is not meant to be anything profound. I’m also aware it was written in 1984, but the fact that it is still so widely played on holiday music stations speaks to its continued cultural significance. The song was written so a bunch of celebrities could tell you to take a second to think about someone beyond your social network in the midst of a season of giving. And maybe to give a few bucks to the cause. I know. In many ways, this song has the best of intentions.
But lyrics like “it’s a world of dread and fear” only enhance this falsified idea of what AFRICA looks like. My personal experiences (which, let’s be perfectly clear, i may have lived in Uganda for a summer, but this by no means makes me any kind of expert) have been that people are resilient and willing to overcome extreme odds. Not everyone – not every story is one that will make the headline news of CNN. But such sweeping statements about what life is like “in AFRICA” perpetuates an incredibly skewed perception of poverty, globalization, aid, and the USA’s role in empowering communities to empower themselves – on their own terms.
Okay, rant over. Back to the Cadbury Cocoa and ring-a-lings of bells.
If, however, you’re anything like me and you’re seeking an alternative to the little Drummer Boys, the Band Aids, or just an excuse to sneak away from Aunt Petunia and her tasteless Christmas pies, i have a solution for you!
Next week, from 4 to 6 PM EST, i’m thrilled to announce that Juxtaposition’s Second Annual Alternative Christmas Music Special will be airing live! You can listen locally at 91.5 FM WMHC South Hadley, or globally by clicking here. There will be the slightly irreverent, the quirky, the outright bizarre, the underplayed but beautiful, and the special guest of Alex Day! There only thing there won’t be is Bing Crosby. (There is more information on the Juxtaposition Website).
yeah. you want to be there.
So i’ll see you then, folks. Happy Holidays, and stuff.
current jam: ‘you’re the voice’ john farnham (yes, still….)
best thing in my life right now: hermione granger. and the above picture.