Humbug: Top Five Worst Christmas Songs


Paul and Linda, “simply… having… yadda-yadda…”

And now that my temper is up, I may as well go on and abuse every body I can think of.
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Is that headline a contradiction in terms? Should it be, “Bottom Five?” Or would saying that, with “Worst” — which I feel compelled to use — be redundant?


But before I get to my list, allow me to complain that we are not in the Christmas season. This is Advent. Even though I was sick at home with a cold the first Sunday, and late the second Sunday, and therefore missed the candle-lighting ritual at Mass both times, I know this is Advent. You know how? I can read a calendar. Christmas starts on the 25th (remember how we used to call it Saturnalia, o fratres mei?), and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Silence kindly created this image of me as Scrooge to go with this post.

Silence kindly created this image of me as Scrooge to go with this post.

Oh, you say only the Church calls it that? Well, let me clue you in: The Church invented Christmas. In fact, Protestants refused to celebrate it for generations because it was seen as so Catholic. Even Santa Claus is a saint. So there.

Speaking of which, one category of song you won’t see represented here is the kind that isn’t really a Christmas song at all; it’s really a winter song. Take “Jingle Bells,” please. (OK, I don’t really hate “Jingle Bells;” constant repetitions of it when I was a small child conditioned me to associate it with festivity. It’s just an illustration of my point, so bear with me.) Does it say anything about Christmas? No, it doesn’t. OK, there’s the sleigh — but it’s not, specifically, Santa’s. It’s a run-of-the-mill sleigh. It’s drawn by one horse, not by reindeer.

Or, worse yet, “Frosty the Snowman.” Is there a single Christmas allusion in it, direct or indirect? No, there is not. It’s about winter. Ditto with “Let it Snow,” which was thrust upon me one morning this past week.

Moreover, it’s about winter as we in South Carolina seldom experience it. Oh, sometimes we get a dusting of snow — in February. I, having spent most my life in the South (or in the tropics), have never experienced a white Dec. 25th. Granted, we had a nice blanket of the stuff fall on the second or third day of Christmas in 2010, but that’s an exception that proves the rule.

Songs like that are about winter in a particular part of the world, which is not here. So where’s the relevance?

Mind you, it’s not that songs must contain Jesus, Mary and Joseph, much less the Three Kings (who in any case should not be heard from before Jan. 6) in order to make the category. I’m happy with Santa, or the elves, or the reindeer, or a Yule log, or a tree… something, anything, that relates it to the actual holiday.

But enough about what the list is not.

Here’s the actual list:

  1. The Little Drummer Boy” — OK, you’re thinking, how could anybody hate “The Little Drummer Boy?” Well, I have since I first heard it, sometime in the mid-60s. It had been around since 1941, but I first heard it in about ’65 or ’66 (I remember being puzzled by it when we lived in that old converted barracks in New Orleans) — and then heard it and heard it and heard it. Everybody covered it; it was in everybody’s special Christmas album, and seemed to turn up on every Christmas special on the tube. What’s wrong with it? Let’s start with this: Where did a drummer boy come from? I’m not demanding that everything have a biblical basis — after all, I’m a Catholic. But how does a drummer boy make sense? Maybe a shepherd boy with a lyre or Pan pipes, but a drum? Who brings a drum into a home — or temporary quarters — where there’s a newborn? Mary didn’t have enough problems with having to give birth in a shed, and having to lay her baby in a filthy feeding bin, and all these strangers tramping through the place? The song suggests Mary and the baby dug the drumming. Yeah, right. Had I been there, I’d have been the third shepherd, the grumpy one, raising his crook menacingly and saying, “Go ahead, kid. Say ‘pa rum pum pum pum’ one… more… time…”
  2. Wonderful Christmas Time” — You know, “Simply… having… a WONderful Christmas time…” The greatest offense against music ever committed by Paul McCartney. He is absolved by all his really great stuff, but this monotonous bit of tinsel should never be heard again.
  3. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” — Do I have to explain? Yeah, it’s satire. But I’m pretty sure I thought it was bad satire the first time I heard it. And every repetition grates a little more.
  4. Santa Baby” — When I was a young lad, they used to have these cartoons in the December issue of Playboy — in those days, as you may have heard, it was filled with interesting articles — that would feature these mostly or entirely nude, extremely pneumatic bunny girls in some sort of sexual situation with Santa Claus. And I always found that offensive. It felt like a form of libel of a beloved figure. Santa should be nothing if not G-rated. “Santa Baby” has always seemed like the musical counterpart of those cartoons. Not to mention the fact that it’s probably the most materialistic of all “Christmas” songs.
  5. Santa’s Super Sleigh” — OK, I’m cheating here. But I was having trouble coming up with a fifth — I’m really not as much of a Scrooge as I’m letting on to be here — and in tribute to Nick Hornby I always try to do Top FIVE lists. But I think this is OK because Nick himself invented this song for his novel About A Boy, and it was recorded for the film version. It’s a deliberately bad song that the protagonist hates to hear (even though it’s the reason he doesn’t have to work for a living). But I believe if the actual song marketplace had come up with it, rather than it coming from a novelist’s imagination, I would still dislike it.

87 thoughts on “Humbug: Top Five Worst Christmas Songs

  1. Silence

    Brad – I did the work for you already. You left out The Chipmunks Christmas Song (Christmas Don’t be Late) which should be included here.
    Also the classic from 1984 Band Aid – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is God-awful.

    I remember being SO sick of “The Little Drummer Boy”. When I was in high school I worked at a supermarket and it played probably twice an hour, so maybe 16 times per shift from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Ugh.

  2. DanM

    Here are four more:

    My Grown Up Christmas List
    I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
    Do You Hear What I Hear
    I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas

    Can’t think of any bad Advent songs.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Jingle Bells was written as a Thanksgiving song.

    Christmas has become a secular holiday as well. For example, federal offices close for it. Sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you wish, but Winter Wonderland, Sleigh Ride and the like are also inapt for us down here, too.

    What say you start a campaign to stop municipalities from erecting Christmas trees and other displays until Christmas Eve, at the earliest? How would Fox News like that.

    Personally, I avoid shopping during the Christmas season since most pop Christmas songs are annoying.

    What for Christmas we get, we deserve.

    1. DanM

      I agree with much of what you say. I would have no problem with public Christmas decorations and displays being put up just before Christmas and taken down on January 6. And my wife and I avoid all shopping centers after Thanksgiving (unless we were forced at gunpoint to go), not only for the musical dreck but the maddening traffic.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Jingle Bell Rock
    Any rock or pop singer’s rendition of a traditional song
    Baby, It’s Cold Outside (the date rape song)
    Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree, an Episcopal favorite
    In the Bleak Midwinter (does it snow in Bethlehem in April, which is when Jesus was mostly likely born?)
    Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day (another weird Anglo fave)

    My favorite is Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus Natus Est

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, when you say, “Any rock or pop singer’s rendition of a traditional song,” are you counting silly Santa Claus songs as “traditional,” or do you mean traditional carols?

      Because I really like Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” even though I’m not really a Springsteen fan.

      I also sort of like Chuck Berry’s “Run, Run Rudolph,” although that doesn’t fit the category you bring up because it was original to him. So never mind…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I despise the Springsteen version.
        I despise 50s and early 60s pop/rock n roll, too, so, that knocks out Chuck Berry’s anything.

        The Beach Boys are generally okay, but Run, Run, Reindeer, or whatever it’s really called grates, too….
        Bach, Palestrina, Handel, now you’re talking!

        1. Norm Ivey

          Love Springsteen’s Santa Claus
          Tolerate Berry’s Run Run Rudolph
          Despise Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick

      2. Scout

        I love Weezer’s covers of traditional carols. O Come all ye faithful, O holy night, the first noel, hark the herald angels sing, and silent night. They also do We wish you a merry christmas, but I guess that’s more in the secular vein.

  5. Abba

    Thank you, Brad! I have disliked The Little Drummer Boy since I was a child, too, mostly because of the influence of my sweet mother, who thought the idea of a drummer boy at the manger was ridiculous. I absorbed her lessons well and can’t shake them now. I also agreed with her that the rum-pum-pum-pum refrain (over and over and over again) was annoying and not the least bit musical. I have never understood why so many folks like it. Give me silly novelty songs that don’t pretend to be religious over this one any day.

    1. barry

      As a 25+ year trumpet player (just back from a Monday night orchestra practice), it’s one of my favorites.

      It’s loosely based on a 12 century legend. The idea of a “dummer boy at the manger” isn’t ridiculous at all to me.

      “rum-pa-pum-pum refrain (over and over and over again) was annoying and not the least bit musical”

      It’s as “musical” as anything else- and quite good when trying to describe what a drum sounds like.

  6. Abba

    Since Kathryn brought up her favorite, I’l mention that my favorite Christmas carol is The First Noel – the chorus is particularly lovely. My favorite Christmas choral piece is For Unto Us a Child Is Born, from Handel’s Messiah. The rest of the Advent/Christmas portion of Messiah is not bad either.

      1. Karen Pearson

        “Un flambeau, Jeannette Isabella”? Are you sure we want people running around a straw filled place with torches when there’s a newborn and mother in there? And if Jesus was born in a shallow cave (used as a stable) as they claim in Bethlehem, you could quickly add possible asphyxiation to the dangers of that torch.

    1. Norm Ivey

      Never really cared for The First Noel or We Three Kings. They’re sort of in between being triumphant (Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing) and being serene (O Little Town of Bethlehem, It came Upon a Midnight Clear). I don’t turn them off or skip them, but I’m really waiting for the next song.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’m contemplating a Top Five favorites list, to balance out the negativity of this one…

    I should probably do a Top Five Advent song list first, but honestly, I can only ever think of two — both of which I LOVE:
    1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
    2. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

    Here’s a thought: Are there any secular Advent songs — you know, ones that are about Santa or fruitcake or something but are about anticipation, rather than the thing itself?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And are peaceful and contemplative… “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is about anticipation, but the tone isn’t right to qualify it as a secular Advent song…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I like the Enya version above, but here’s a nice version of “Veni, Veni” in the Latin.

      But you know what continues to bug me about Church Latin? The fact that I learned Classical in school, and didn’t hear the church version until I was grown. So pronouncing “Veni” with a modern “V” sound bugs me. It should be more like a U, or a W, which in this context amounts to the same thing.

      For instance, I learned to pronounce Caesar’s famous line as “Wenee Weedee, Weekee,” instead of “Venee, Veedee, Veechee.”

      The fact that Spanish doesn’t have a V sound as we know it makes it sound extra wrong to me.

      I do like what church Latin does with the “Cs,” though. Makes me feel like I’m speaking Italian.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        “But you know what continues to bug me about Church Latin? The fact that I learned Classical in school, and didn’t hear the church version until I was grown. So pronouncing “Veni” with a modern “V” sound bugs me. It should be more like a U, or a W, which in this context amounts to the same thing.”

        You mean like this?

      2. Kathryn Fenner

        I think the convention of Church Latin, which is to pronounce it like Italian, vs. Classical Latin, which is to pronounce like German, makes more sense historically, no?

    3. DanM

      Here are several other Advent hymns I like:

      Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending
      The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
      Creator of the Stars of Night

    4. Kathryn Fenner

      Silver Bells, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

  8. Doug Ross

    We Three Kings – nothing brings out the holiday spirit like this dirge-like plodder
    It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
    Ding Dong Merrily On High
    Good King Wenceslas

    Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses

    I have to admit a fondness for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – it’s fun to try and imitate Boy George, George Michael, Bono, etc.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Ding Dong Merrily–I’m a sucker for Glorias, Also Angels We have Heard on High

      Whoa, Holy Night, (the Cher version) is frightening

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    Deck the Halls is arguably an Advent song. Wassail songs? When did they wassail all over the town?

  10. Kathleen

    You get an Amen on The Little Drummer Boy, partly because I was treated to a diatribe from my mother every time we heard it. Maudlin and sacrilegious were her favorite descriptors.
    Church Latin also bugs me. My Latin teacher informed us of the classical pronunciations and regularly reminded the Romans in our class that church Latin wasn’t always correct. However, a papist herself, she couldn’t seem to manage to sustain the v as w except for wane wede. It’s a good thing I never had to speak Latin outside her classroom; a disaster it would have been.
    Run Run Rudolph always brings a smile to my face. After all, it’s CHUCK BERRY!
    And a Happy Christmas to all, when it gets here.

  11. susanincola

    My favorites are “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year?” by Rosie Thomas, and “Jesus, Jesus, Oh What A Wonderful Child”.

    The Pogues “Fairytale in New York” isn’t that Christmas-y, but it does take place at Christmastime, so I’ll mention that one, too.

  12. Brad Warthen Post author

    When I do my faves list, it’s going to be tough to whittle it down to five.

    There are way, way more Christmas songs I like than ones I don’t.

    Maybe I should qualify it — “Top Five Secular Christmas Songs that Mention the North Pole,” or “Top Five Traditional Carols that Dickens Would Have Known…”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      For a second, I thought of “Top Five Christmas Songs by Jewish Composers,” but all I could think of was Mendelssohn…

      Oh, wait! “White Christmas!” There are probably a lot of others…

      Difference is, Mendelssohn was a convert, and therefore only of Jewish heritage, whereas Berlin was devoted to his original faith…

  13. Brad Warthen Post author

    It just struck me that, were I more skilled with Photoshop, I could have illustrated this with a photo of me with my “Pride and Prejudice” muttonchops, scowling Scroogelike with a nightcap on…

    But I’m not. I can marginally improve the light balance and contrast on a photo, but I’m not that great at doctoring them…

  14. bud

    The 12 days of Christmas is quite annoying after about the 3rd day.

    Actually Christmas was a pagan holiday that the Christians adopted. Nothing wrong with that but we pagans can enjoy the festivity of the season and feel very smug that it’s rightfully a non-religious holiday at it’s core.

    1. Scout

      What? you don’t think the pagans had religion. The pagan midwinter festivals that the monks conveniently layed christmas atop of for the ease of converting them, were every bit religious to the pagans – it just wasn’t Christianity.

  15. Chris Burnette

    “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a wonderful song that always puts me in a charitable mood. “Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time!”

    My vote for worst Christmas songs of all time would be any Christmas carols Justin Bieber has recorded.

  16. Norm Ivey

    I like Little Drummer Boy and Santa Baby. My affinity for LDB is probably because it’s one of the earliest songs I remember knowing from start to finish from memory. Santa Baby does a better job of capturing the way we really celebrate Christmas in this country than pretty much any other song out there. Everything else romanticizes what we wish Christmas would be. Wonderful Christmas Time is hokey, but it wasn’t meant to be anything heavy. If anything it was meant to serve as a counterpoint to Happy Xmas.

    I don’t like your rules–limiting what constitutes Christmas, and then limiting what constitutes a Christmas song. The Christmas season in the period between Thanksgiving and December 25th, though I personally tend to start a little earlier. And a Christmas song is any song that is heard only seasonally during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You make your rules; I’ll make mine.

    My Worst Five (Turn off the radio when I hear them):
    Grandma Got Run Over
    I Want a Hippopotamus
    Don’t get Drunk for Christmas (John Denver)
    My Two Front Teeth

    Five I’ll Tolerate once a Year:
    Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
    I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
    Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
    Merry Christmas Darling
    12 days of Christmas

    6 Best Non-Secular Christmas Songs:
    O Holy Night
    O Little Town of Bethlehem
    It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
    I heard the Bells on Christmas Day
    Away in the Manger (Waylon Jennings does this best)
    What Child is This (While not my favorite, Jethro Tull has a version called Greensleeved that’s really good)

    Best Secular songs is a list that changes with my mood, and nearly impossible to limit….

    4 Songs I don’t hear enough:
    Art Carney’s Night Before Christmas
    Elvis–If I Get Home on Christmas Day
    The Friendly Beasts
    Cool Yule (Louis Armstrong)
    Thank God It’s Christmas (Queen)

  17. Bart

    Secular, non-secular, pagan, non-pagan, pagan adapted to fit Christian beliefs, or whatever, the one song that delivers the best message is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. It is uplifting and celebrates the season and the day with words that convey what it is supposed to be all about.

    Yes bud and MAB, most of us who are believers do know and understand that the Christmas celebration does not necessarily cooincide with the actual date of Christ’s birth and the christmas tree was adapted from a pagan celebration as many Christian festivities do. We are not stupid, ignorant, intolerant, narrow minded, holier than thou hypocrites. Of course, feeling smug in this case is a false positive – as usual.

    Anyway, in keeping with the spirit of the season, MAB and bud, merry x-mas!

  18. barry

    As I expected, disagree with Brad.

    Love Little Drummer Boy. It’s my 10 year old son’s favorite Christmas song – and has once again become one of my favorites.

    Also really like Santa Baby.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Hey, there’s something for all tastes in Christmas. And I suspect more people like those than dislike them, which is why we hear them so often. Heard “Santa Baby” again this morning…

      I’m just glad that I found a couple of people who agreed with me on “Drummer Boy.” It’s nice not to be alone. And they seem to have the same problems with it I do. So I’m not completely crazy. Or not alone in being completely crazy…

      1. Scout

        I always liked it from a very young age. I never thought about it from an analytical perspective of it not making sense for there to be a drummer boy there. Thinking about that now -I admit that is odd. I think I liked it before my analytical skills were online. I liked it because I was a little kid like the little drummer boy and I liked that he found a way to participate. Also if you’re a little kid, pa rum pa pum pum is kind of fun to sing, I think.

  19. Kay Packett

    Well, it’s not Christmas without Robert Earl Keene’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.” My personal favorite.

  20. Brad Warthen Post author

    In recent days, I’ve been hearing about various end-of-year lists. Someone on NPR said something about a release being one of the “best new albums of the year.” And I got to thinking how low that bar might be, since I haven’t been impressed by ANY new music in the past year, so a best list would be tough to compile.

    But this was taken to an extreme this morning when I heard a feature (also on NPR) about “the season’s best Christmas music,” as in THIS season’s.

    OK, think about this… How many Christmas compilations, out of your whole life, do you think of as particularly memorable? Not many, I’ll bet.

    Well, Marc Myers of the WSJ listened to 150 albums to come up with a list of six records. Steve Inskeep stopped him right there, and suggested doing something like that would make most people “want to jump out of a window.” Myers acknowledged that “a large percentage of them are not really very good.”

    How did he come up with six good ones? Well, he cheated. They’re not all from this year. I mean, they may have been released (or rereleased) this year, but one album is Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and another is Judy Collins…

    You can listen to some of the songs if you follow the WSJ link

  21. Abba

    If you haven’t heard the Barenaked Ladies’ CD “Barenaked for the Holidays,” you should give it a listen. Some of the songs are quite good and traditionally done, some are interesting, and some are just fun. It includes Christmas and Hannukah songs. The lyrics to Deck the Stills (sung to the tune for Deck the Halls, of course) are simply “Crosby Stills Nash and Young” over and over, with the syllables falling wherever they fall.

    1. Scout

      Is God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings on there – done with Sarah McClachlan. It’s on my best christmas playlist in my ipod. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is definately one of my favorites in general. But they do a good version.

  22. Phillip

    I don’t think anybody has mentioned The Christmas Waltz yet, one of my favorites, especially as recorded by Peggy Lee:

    I echo Kathryn on a favorite hymn: In the bleak Midwinter.

    And for sheer weirdness, I offer you the saddest, most depressing Jingle Bells in history, courtesy of the Jackie Gleason Big Band:

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, ya wanna talk weird…

      I went and listened to the Peggy Lee song — very nice (although I like her singing it more than the song itself) — and YouTube suggested that I listen to the same song sung by Anthony Perkins. Which I did.

      And… it sounded exactly like him… It was like, Coming to you live, from the ballroom of the Bates Motel…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ah! You mean, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”…

      Talking music with Kathryn always makes me feel like a regular fella who is in touch with popular culture…

  23. bud

    Maybe we could have the 12 days of Plutocratmas:

    Day 1: A Ponzi Scheme as big as can be
    Day 2: Two Big Mergers
    Day 3: Three Leaking Pipelines
    Day 4: Four Nuclear Powerplants
    Day 5: Five Golden Parachutes
    Day 6: Six Big Pharma Ripoffs
    Day 7: Seven Unions Busted
    Day 8: Eight Privatizations
    Day 9: Nine Polluted Rivers
    Day 10: Ten Libertarian “Think Tanks”
    Day 11: Eleven Corporate Ripoffs
    Day 12: Twelve New Billionares

  24. Brad Warthen Post author

    Y’all, I heard a song yesterday that should have topped this list…

    It was “There’s Still Christmas,” by the late Clarence Clemons. Truly, truly awful.

    Some of y’all who have better musical ears than I, help me out: Is he singing the wrong notes much of the time, or is the song just that bad?

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      He occasionally makes it near the pitch. He’s flat and/or fairly pitchless. Sort of a talk-sing in places (parlato for the technical minded), and he switches registers awkwardly. It’s a vocal hot mess, and a lame song, to boot.

      Who is Clarence Clemons, one wonders, but not enough to Google him?

  25. Brad Warthen Post author

    Two years after writing this post, I heard “Oh, by gosh, by golly; it’s time for mistletoe and holly” this morning…”


    But looking at my Top Five (or Bottom Five, if you prefer) list again, I don’t think it’s quite bad enough to make it…

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