I grew up with my mother telling tales about “Father Christmas,” which led me to alternately believe it was the greatest Christmas song ever, or something that was inevitably going to disappoint me down to my soul. Growing up as we did in the pre-Napster era, I had no ability to download a copy, or search it out on YouTube, or even check Amazon for a copy. For all intents and purposes it was a long out of print 45 that contained music I would never know. As I got older, and started being known for giving presents so good that your grandmother wishes I was her grandchild instead of you, it dawned on me: eBay now exists! Let me make this happen! Of course, that Christmas Eve, with the vinyl single sitting innocently below the tree, mom had to open one of her classic “family” gifts a day early, because she couldn’t wait any longer. These were always things SHE wanted, addressed to us because she thought we’d all appreciate the purchase. This particular one was a generic dime-store Christmas CD, except at the very end, there was that one song… the one I hadn’t even heard myself yet, as I was saving my virgin ears for the vinyl original. And thus began a tradition almost as long-standing as me giving awesome gifts: my mother buying crap for herself during the holiday season, and giftblocking my sister or I in the process.
That’s a story I love because it says much about my family in its own way, but it’s a somewhat warm and sentimental one to be associated with The Kinks’ addition to the holiday canon. Besides being probably the most rock-and-roll Christmas song ever written, “Father Christmas” breaks down the cozy bubble that surrounds the holidays. Even Band-Aid, as much as I love the iconic holiday single it spawned, relies on our nostalgia to create what I have recently heard described as “viral-generated emotional pornography,” not to mention how deeply it mines colonial pretension. Do they know it’s Christmas? They don’t fucking care, they aren’t even necessarily Christian. It’s sort of difficult not to hear some white guys patting themselves on the back without understanding that Africa is not The Western World. But I digress. The point is, even a song about the poor and suffering in Africa is imbued with a feeling of warmth familiar to anyone in the web age who ever shared a TED talk and then went back to being the same insufferably lazy person they always were (and I include myself here). “Father Christmas,” on the other hand, does the unthinkable from the first line: it crushes the myth. The narrator knows Santa is his father, but likes the myth anyway, and spreads cheer by presumably ringing a bell somewhere or sitting around a British mall (or, as they call them, lorries) dressed as fat red ol’ St. Nick. Even this myth of cheerspreading comes to an end quickly, as some jerk kids beat the narrator up and demand money (and also a machine gun at one point). Christmas Spirit Ruined!!!
But the core of the track is not that poor kids are thugs, but that poor kids are poor and kids, and that in the roughest of situations, kids grow up fast. What is a toy truck if you’re starving? Pretty damn pointless, and while I do think that toy drives have the potential to add some brightness to a kid’s holiday, it doesn’t help the family in the long run. The kids in the song know this. Don’t fuck with us, Santa, they say. If you have necessities (like the “little rich boys”) you can trifle with luxuries like toys. Give us the cash. Give dad a job. Give us protection, in the form of powerful guns, because our lives very likely may constantly be in danger, our situation may very likely be constantly threatened by other people who have reached a point of desperation. Give us something we can improve life with. Implicitly, I suppose, is “give us an education good enough that we can grow up with better opportunities than our family has, and eventually learn that Santa isn’t real.” Really think about that for a moment, how these kids know how hard life is, but still believe in a fat elf. Think about how sad it is to believe in something that simply is not real, to believe it can help you with your most desperate problems. God sits down with the American Dream and they cry together over poor kids who believe in Santa. It’s one more indignity for people who have been taught not to believe in anything, because nothing’s gonna come through anyway.
How do we know Davies, as songwriter, sympathizes with this little bunch of jackholes who want money and will resort to violence to get it? I think the key, if you miss it, is in the line about dad needing a job… it humanizes them, if not forgiving their actions, and it gives them a bit of backstory. Past that, well, the song breaks down to ask us to remember those who have nothing while we’re reveling in our excess. Not “don’t forget the Santas that die every year from attacks” or “don’t forget to send your local police force a holiday pie for the tough work they do every year protecting people from vandals and thieves.” The Kinks are more cerebral than you expect [that's what she said], and they expect you to realize that breakdown breaks down the whole core of the song. When he repeats “we’ll beat you up, so don’t make us annoyed” even after this, we’re not supposed to imagine that image of the beating. We’re supposed to think about what would drive someone to do such a thing.
A Christmas song that actually examines the human condition, and doesn’t just navel gaze about our own luck and the people we care about? Believe me, what I love about the holiday is the warmth I feel in it. I love being able to joke about gift snafus in my family, or past parties with my friends. I love the way a hug of greeting by someone you care about feels so much better straight from the cold. I love feeling like I am a part of something, however small, that is meaningful and reliable. The extra perks… the gifts, the food, etc… that’s all gravy, but even it traces back to that core of love and community, whatever we define that as. Still, especially if we consider ourselves Christian, and therefore have the most reason to feel connected to the holiday, taking time out of our lives to realize that other people have less, either at the moment or always, helps keep us a bit more grounded. It’s the antidote to the selfishness bromide, and just like the “make it last all year” message some ascribe to the Christmas spirit, it’s something we need to constantly accept as a problem we face. It doesn’t mean we need to scale back our festivities, or even donate to charity or gift drives or such. You do charity on your time, and it’s none of anyone else’s business if you do or not. All it means is, we don’t experience life like everyone else does. Accepting that people have it tougher than us is the first and most important step. It leads to the charity work, it leads to the social reform, and it leads to not being a total dick to those less fortunate. Taking a second to reflect on what we have, and realize many don’t, not only helps us keep perspective on how the world works, but it also makes that warmth of family and friends all the warmer. We have a lot. Instead of bragging, be grateful a bit more often.
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