Santa’s Super Sleigh and Other Christmas Novelty Classics

“Santa’s Super Sleigh” is the platonic ideal of Christmas novelty songs. It’s the platonic ideal because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fictitious song invented by Nick Hornby in his novel About a Boy, though in the book all the lyrics that Hornby provides are these:

So just leave out the mince pies, and a glass of sherry,
And Santa will visit you, and leave you feeling merry,
Oh, Santa’s super sleigh,
Santa’s super sleigh…

In the book and the movie based on it, the song exists in the same way that the shadows in Plato’s cave exist. They represent something that has a reality outside the cave of the story, but it never becomes part of the story itself, except as an explanation for why the main character, Will, never has to work for a living. His father wrote the song, left the rights to Will when he died, and now Will gets royalty checks every time somebody plays it. Which allows Will the twin luxuries of not having to work for a living and not really having to grow up. (There’s an actual boy in About a Boy, but the title refers to Will as well.)

In the movie version of About a Boy, where Hugh Grant plays Will, all we hear of the song’s melody is this extemporaneous version (with different lyrics from the ones in the book) that makes Will cringe in a way one suspects he has cringed many times before:

The fact that the song doesn’t exist beyond a few (somewhat contradictory) lyrics and the snatch of melody somebody devised for the film hasn’t stopped people from putting complete renditions of it on YouTube, some of them, like this, clearly professionally produced:

Where that version comes from is beyond the power of Spotify to tell me (and I’m not sufficiently motivated to do any detective work on Google, though readers of this post are welcome to do it for me), but it seems to me that it totally misses the point. Yes, it uses the lyrics from the film and a highly modified piece of the lyrics from the book, but “Santa’s Super Sleigh” isn’t supposed to be a lush Christmas ballad that could have been covered by Josh Groban. It’s supposed to be a Christmas novelty song.

What’s a Christmas novelty song? Amy thinks it’s a song that tells a story, usually about some newly invented Christmas character like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman who weren’t even in the Christmas canon until the songs about them became hits. That’s a pretty good definition, but I tend to define Christmas novelty songs a bit more loosely, the way some people define science fiction: A Christmas novelty song is what I’m pointing at when I say, “This is a Christmas novelty song.”

“Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are unquestionably Christmas novelty songs and I’m convinced they’re what “Santa’s Super Sleigh” was intended to parody. (I’m tempted to see if Nick Hornby’s on Twitter and ask him, just to settle the matter.) But there are other songs that skirt around the edges of Amy’s definition yet still seem to me to fall quite clearly into Christmas novelty song territory.

For instance, is “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” a novelty song? It’s become so hyper-familiar over the eons that it could almost be part of some ancient codex with a hand-drawn picture of St. Nicholas on it, but when it was introduced in 1934 did people see lines like “He knows when you are sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good/So be good for goodness sake” as a serious, if humorous, attempt to add a future classic to the Great American Popular Songbook (as it would later be called) or did they see it as, well, a novelty?

I suppose that question is rhetorical, given that novelty simply means “something new and unique,” which could describe almost any truly great song. But a novelty song is really a song that’s not so much intended to be good as it’s intended to be clever. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is so blatantly intended to be a novelty song that I’m almost tempted to exclude it from the category because it tries way too hard to be way too bad, but “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is also clearly a novelty song and it’s good enough that I don’t mind having it occasionally pop up as an earworm.

I think a certain silliness of intent more clearly defines — for me, at least — what a song requires to be a novelty song and “I Saw Mommy…” unquestionably has that. (So does “Grandma Got, etc.,” but it’s a really deplorable kind of silly. It does tell a story, though.) “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” is also quite undeniably a Christmas novelty song and it doesn’t really tell a story at all, at least no more than other songs do, but it has silliness of intent in spades (though I’d probably hate to have it turn up as an earworm and would possibly commit suicide if it ever does).

What other Christmas novelty songs are there? “The Heat Miser Song,” from the 1974 Rankin-Bass animated TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus, has a distinct silliness when heard played separately from the original context. Really, within context it’s even sillier because, let’s face it, the whole cartoon is a novelty if a little bit of a sad one. In musical theater terms, “The Heat Miser Song” is an “I Am” song, where a character uses music as a medium for monologuing about himself. And Heat Miser is a pretty darned silly character.

And Eartha Kitt’s 1953 hit “Santa Baby” is a Christmas novelty song, because it deliberately misses the true spirit of Christmas and goes right to what we’ve suspected was the underlying reason for Christmas all along: sheer, naked greed. These days it may be better known from covers by singers ranging from Madonna to Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift.

Now come on. Doesn’t “Santa’s Super Sleigh” belong in this list? Sure it does, even if the most complete version extant can’t seem to understand that. Nick Hornby invented a prototypical Christmas novelty song as a way of putting Will in the perpetual adolescent state that About a Boy finally resolves and, if nothing else, its sheer lack of existence makes it a novelty. But I think it was intended as a novelty song all along.

Now where’s Nick Hornby’s Twitter address?

Postscript: Amy pointed out that I’d missed an important Christmas novelty song. (Actually, I probably missed several.) But Gayla Peevey’s “I Want a Hippotamus for Christmas” deserves a high place on the list because it’s about as novel as Christmas novelty songs get without degenerating to the level of  “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” It was a hit in 1953, but totally vanished from radio airplay until uber-quirky-DJ Dr. Demento, as much of an expert on novelty songs as the airwaves have ever had, revived it on a novelty song anthology in the 2000s. Now it’s become inescapable, almost relentlessly so, but its sheer cuteness makes it bearable, maybe even loveable.

And I’d like to add the somewhat lesser-known “Chrissy the Christmas Mouse,” recorded God-knows-when by Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, that I didn’t start hearing on the radio until about 2003, which maybe coincidentally is the year Donald O’Connor died. It’s an attempt to create a new Rudolph the Reindeer-style story song about a previously unheralded Christmas character, an adorable mouse who “lives in the middle of Santa’s house,” that never got the traction (or tailwind) that Rudolph did. But it still gets played and like any good Christmas novelty song makes up in charm what it may lack in musical quality.

That about covers it, yes? Or are there other Christmas novelty songs lurking out there that actually get airplay (or streaming play) that I’ve missed? Suggestions are welcome.

I finally broke down and looked up “Santa’s Super Sleigh” on Google. The version for the film was written by composer Peter Brewis, but I’m pretty sure the full version on YouTube wasn’t anywhere in the movie. Maybe on the soundtrack album?

And now that I look back over Nick Hornby’s original lyrics, I’m convinced that, while he meant “Super Sleigh” as a novelty song, he meant it as a really bad novelty song. Is it possible that Nick “High Fidelity” Hornby hates Christmas music?

Maybe I won’t look him up on Twitter after all.

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Kardashian Khristmas Songs

Christmas songs are like the Kardashians. Some people can’t get enough of them while some people are repelled by the very concept. Me, I love them — Christmas songs, I mean, not the Kardashians. I’m not even sure why the Kardashians exist.

Kardashian Khristmas Kard

Have a Kardashian little Khristmas!

Even for those of us who love Christmas music, though, there are certain individual Christmas songs that have all the aural appeal of a buzz saw slicing through a Fraser fir. Several years ago I ran a poll on a forum I frequented asking people what Christmas songs they couldn’t stand. The results were no doubt skewed by the usual self-selection biases that affect Internet polls as well as my tendency to inject my own opinions into the conversation. But some very definite trends emerged. There are several Christmas songs that just make people see red. And I’m not talking about deliberately awful songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” but Christmas classics that, at some point, became more annoying than a barrel full of drunken elves.

Let’s call these Kardashian Khristmas songs, because they have no obvious reason for existing.

“Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney  was possibly the single most divisive Khristmas — er, Christmas — song in the poll. In fact, it was witnessing the derogatory comments lobbed in the direction of this song that inspired me to start the poll in the first place. Not that a large number of people hated it, but the ones who did utterly despised it.

Why the hate for Sir Paul? It may be the repetitious nature of the melody or those bouncy synthesizers boing-boing-boinging in the background. Or maybe it’s just the sense that McCartney didn’t spend any more time writing this song than it took him to sing it. But most likely it’s because the song is wildly overplayed on every shopping center audio system from Thanksgiving on.

I actually like the song myself and several other people rose to its defense. Not that the former Beatle needs defending. McCartney’s royalties from “Yesterday” alone have probably paid for several vacation homes, where he can have as wonderful a Christmas time as any Kardashian.

“The Little Drummer Boy” by a Lotta Different People grated on at least as many nerves as “Wonderful Christmas Time.” This is another song that suffers from ubiquity — those endless “pa-rump-pa-bump-bumps” are everywhere during the last month of the year — but “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole is just as ubiquitous and hasn’t worn out its welcome, at least not with me. There also seemed to be some question as to why the sound of a drum would be appreciated by a newborn baby. The main problem, though, may be the dirge-like nature of some arrangements, including the Harry Simeone Khorale — okay, Chorale — version linked above. Yet compare this to David Bowie’s weirdly sublime 1977 duet version with Bing Crosby.

This version is marvelous, a Christmas song for the ages and not even remotely a Kardashian, but it also cheats. Bowie, along with the producers of the Christmas special where it originally appeared, added a counterpoint track, “Peace on Earth,” that replaces the monotonous drumbeats with a lovely, flowing melody. Halfway through you barely remember what song you’re listening to.

I have no problem with “Little Drummer Boy” in any version because it makes me think of my childhood, of tiny manger scenes covered in pine needles and sprayed-on snow, of eggnog served next to the radio. But I suspect even I’d be tempted to rip the speakers out of a department store ceiling the 19th or 20th time they played it during a single visit.

Other songs mentioned in the poll included “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, a well-intentioned charitable relief effort weighed down by the same monotony and ubiquity as “Little Drummer Boy” (though I’m pretty sure nobody ever sings “pa-rump-pa-bump-bump” in it); “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Miss Piggy and others, a one-joke song that doesn’t get any funnier the 500th time you’ve heard it; “Feliz Navidad,” which is pretty much just José Feliciano singing “Merry Christmas” over and over in Spanish; and “anything by Mariah Carey.” I’m pretty much on board with all those choices.

There was, however, a clear winner in the poll. Okay, it didn’t help that I made it obvious from the start how much I despise this particular song. I even posted a YouTube link to make sure the lucky people who’d never heard it could experience firsthand how bad it was. It’s a song that’s manipulative, crass, smug and fuzzy on its poorly thought-out religious notions. It’s the Kardashian Khristmas song to end all Kardashian Khristmas songs. In fact, I’m not sure even the Kardashians deserve to be compared to this song. They at least help make supermarket checkout lines bearable.

I am referring, of course, to “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong.

If you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen, though I advise a stiff drink of eggnog first, preferably with more rum than nog. Note that the video above contains clips from the Rob Lowe TV movie made about the song. Yes, this song has even had a TV movie made about it. The movie came out the year Lowe left The West Wing and he must have been really desperate. I hope he changed agents.

The song is about a man — we’ll call him Rob — standing in line shopping for Christmas presents, presumably shoes, and having a lot of trouble getting into ye olde Christmas spirit. Rob is apparently a bit of a jerk, which is no doubt what gives the TV movie its character arc, and then the young boy in front of him starts trying to pay for a pair of women’s shoes with a handful of change.

At this point most jerks would go ballistic and start shouting loudly about how many damned times they’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” on the audio system, but no. Rob actually listens to what the boy is saying. It turns out that the boy’s mother is dying — on Christmas Eve, which really puts a damper on the holiday — and the kid wants to buy her a new pair of shoes so she’ll look good for Jesus.

It’s possible that you already feel manipulated by just that brief description, but it gets worse. Rob decides to buy the boy the pair of shoes so his mother can go to heaven in style and — guess what? — his heart is suddenly filled with the true meaning of the holiday, which apparently involves giving shoes to a woman who’s more in need of chemo.

The execution of the song is perfunctory in a country-western-lite sort of way, with the requisite children’s chorus (a gimmick that actually works in some Christmas songs) coming in on cue. I suppose taken strictly as a piece of music it’s no worse than one of the lesser songs from the Kenny Rogers oeuvre (something I don’t mean as a compliment), but it’s the song’s message that churns my stomach. The lyrics imply that God is taking the life of the boy’s mother in order to give Rob the Christmas spirit!

I’m not religious, not even remotely, but even I can see what a craven, exploitative message that is. Worse yet, Wikipedia tells me that NewSong is a Christian vocal group, which presumably means they’ve run this concept past their personal Jesus and he gave it his holy okay. The best spin I can give it is to assume that the woman was dying anyway and God decided that this made her son the perfect candidate for spreading Christmas cheer. Yeah, I’m sure those shoes really cheered mom up, assuming she came out of her coma long enough to put them on. I’ll have to watch the TV movie and find out.

Other respondents in the poll were even more cynical about this song than I was. How do we know the kid’s not running a scam, reselling expensive shoes to a fence in an alley behind the store? Or maybe he’s a closeted crossdresser, who’s ashamed to admit that he just wants to wear the shoes to a Christmas party that evening, possibly at the Kardashians house?

I’m sure the Kardashian ladies would appreciate the shoes even if they wouldn’t appreciate the song. Which is as good an excuse as any to post this picture I took in Las Vegas three Christmases ago:

 

Kardashian store in Vegas

Kardashian Khristmas store with Khristmas Tree!

Ah, Khristmas in Vegas! I’m pretty sure the audio system was playing “Little Drummer Boy.”