by Will Padilla
The nexus of global expansion, growing economic disparity and advancing technology that was unique to the 1980s birthed a vast array of popular music. It’s not surprising then that this diversity was also found in the songs produced about an altruistic holiday during the “Era of Greed.” Here are The 12 Crazy Songs of 1980s Christmas.
1. “It’s Christmas in Heaven” by Monty Python (1983)
Although their TV program first aired in 1969, Monty Python is a favorite among kids of the 1980s. Armed with a dollar and a rental card, we devoured The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, learning hilarious alternate versions of Arthurian myths and Christianity. (Any 80s kid worth their latch key knows the Sir Galahad’s favorite color.) So, of course, the Pythons delivered an equally ridiculous take on Christmas songs in their final film The Meaning of Life. At the film’s conclusion, Graham Chapman—unrecognizable as a knock-off Tony Bennett—appears bestride more than a dozen dancing women clad in festive attire that reveals their naked (although clearly plastic) breasts. According to the DVD commentary, the women were to be topless until one dancer refused citing her small chest. The Bennett doppelgänger croons about the wonder of Christmas in heaven. Paradise, it seems, is replete with the joys of Earth-bound materialism, including Sony Walkmen and the “latest video games.”
2. “Christmas with Satan” by James White (1982)
And then I felt a strange exhilaration
I knew that I had absolutely nothing left to lose
And so I took a permanent vacation
To lose for once and all these Christmas blues
In the early 1980s, the brass at ZE Records directed their artists to each create a Christmas song for a compilation album. The result was 1981’s A Christmas Record, which included a holiday classic (see no. 12 below), but is otherwise unremarkable. When the LP was re-released in 1982, however, the producers replaced some tracks with new ones, including one that may be the worst holiday song ever created. The addition of “Christmas with Satan” by James White tells the story of a distraught man who commits suicide during the holidays and then the merrymaking begins. The lack of mirth in the lyrics, however, is not the reason this track is less successful than the Grinch at saving Christmas. (See song no. 5, for example.) The music is an oft-atonal cacophony of various holiday classics that was best described by hipchristmas.com as a "droll, blasphemous, nearly tuneless piece of skronk.” Skronk indeed!
3. “Santa's Beard” by They Might Be Giants (1988)
Once a year my friend puts on a red suit
And hangs around with me and my wife
Now I can't help but feeling jealous each time she climbs on his knee
While it may not be the first song about infidelity and Kris Kringle (see “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), it is the most overt. First appearing on Lincoln (1988), the track tells the tale of man who is troubled by his wife’s apparent enthusiasm for a friend who dons a red suit each Christmas. The seemingly unfaithful wife sits on the faux Santa’s knee, beckons him to stand beneath the mistletoe and “lately she’s been humming cheating songs.” The tune, which is that special brand of TMBG’s new wave, is pure 1980s catchiness. While the cuckold at the center of the tale laments that his friend-Santa is “breaking up his home,” we’re glad he showed up to inspire this song.
4. “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year” by Tiny Tim (1985)
Santa Claus has got the AIDS this year
And he won't be 'round to spread his Christmas cheer
Years after this song was recorded, Tiny Tim provided a naïve (albeit dubious) explanation for his controversial Christmas tune. According to Tim, he wrote the song in 1980 or 1981, a time when AIDS was a “very, very minor word” and was more associated with its homophone AYDS, an appetite suppressant. And while he insists the song was “not made for humor,” he also said the idea “sounded funny.” Yeah, both. But the track wasn’t recorded and released until 1985, when Rock Hudson and Ryan White put a face on the terrible virus. And if that doesn’t remove doubt that Tim didn’t understand the implications of the tune, Tim’s agent threatened to drop him, if he were to record it. (As further proof that Tim may have been craftier than he would admit, the flip side of AIDS is "She Left Me (with the Herpes).") Of course, Tim ignored his agent's warning, leaving us with a curious slice of 1980s nostalgia.
5. “F*** Christmas” by Fear (1982)
All the children on the street
Hope they get something good to eat.
But for me it's not so great.
To their credit, many of the Christmas songs on this list depict underrepresented holiday experiences. So it’s no surprise that Lee Ving’s contribution to the holiday is equal parts Charles Dickens and Sam Kinison. What is curious about the expletive-laden track, however, is that it was only the second single from Fear. While it was recorded during the sessions that produced their debut The Record, it was not released until months later. In addition to the uncensored original version, an identical “Beep Christmas” with censored profanity was released for radio airplay.
6. “What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)?” by Meco (1980)
What can you get a wookie for Christmas
When he already owns a comb
If the Star Wars Holiday Special is the Porkins of galactic Christmases, this song is the Jar Jar Binks. Meco, who brought us the lightyears-better Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, produced this collection holiday songs with a tenuous connection to Star Wars. Even if you are to ignore questions as to how Santa Claus or Christmas (or Jesus for that matter) exist a “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” you’re still left with awful music. This confounding track takes the madness a step further and has a group of droids pondering what to get Chewbacca for Christmas (even though wookies celebrate Life Day). What is most surprising is that the album is not some fan-made drivel that avoided copyright lawsuit. Instead, it was actually licensed by Lucasfilm. In fact, Anthony Daniels reprises his role as C-3PO to narrate the album. Okay, even more shocking is that “Wookie for Christmas” reached 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980 when song no. 12 did not chart at all.
Bonus Crazy Song of 1980s Christmas: "R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is not only a song that lauds R2 as a Santa stand-in, it also features the first professional recording of Jon Bon Jovi, who sang lead vocals on the song. At the time, Bon Jovi was sweeping floors at the recording studio where the album was produced.
7. “Christmas at Ground Zero” by Weird Al Yankovic (1986)
If a lesson can be gleaned from “Christmas at Ground Zero,” it’s this: Never tell Weird Al Yankovic what to do. The final track on Polka Party, Yankovic created this song only after his record label insisted that he record a Christmas album. Once he presented this tune about celebrating the yuletide while fleeing nuclear annihilation, however, the higher-ups at Scotti Brothers withdrew their demands for a holiday LP. And when Yankovic wanted to release the track as a single, the label likewise refused. Determined to spread his brand of Christmas cheer, Yankovic self-produced a music video for the song using mostly Cold-War era footage of atomic bomb explosions and people performing the impregnable duck-and-cover position. The studio eventually relented and released the track. Following the tragic attacks of September 11, however, airplay of the song evaporated. And Yankovic is no longer able to perform the song live any longer because "too many people misunderstand the connotations of Ground Zero. It’s not a reference to 9/11, obviously. It was written…when 'ground zero' just meant the epicenter of a nuclear attack.”
8. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy Trigg Shropshire (1982)
First self-released in 1979 to little fanfare, the Shropshires re-recorded and re-released this song in 1982 as a single. And since then, just like Grandma with Santa’s reindeer, we can do little to escape it each year. A song about the horrifying demise of an elderly woman at the hooves of beloved caribou, however, is not without controversy. In 2016, an expert on gender and pop cultural studies noted that “Grandma is positioned as someone who gets in the way of male fun and so her death is something to celebrate.” Grandpa is quick to return to “watching football, drinking beer and playing cards with cousin Mel.” The song was also not without controversy when it was first released. According to Elmo Shropshire, while appearing at a club, the Grey Panthers picketed the duo’s performance calling the song ageist, sexist and violent. The attention only served to highlight the song and usher onto the charts. Ultimately, the song was picked up by Epic Records in 1984 and—according to Shropshire—outsold ‘Thriller’ in December of that year. For his part, Shropshire says his signature song is more about proving Santa exists than Grandma succumbing to a hit-and-run reindeer.
9. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” by Ramones (1989)
I loved you from the start
'Cause Christmas ain't the time for breaking each other's heart
Sure, it’s the same 1-4-5 chord progression used in their more popular hits like “Blitzkrieg Bop.” And sure, Joey deftly unfolds the simple phrase “Merry Christmas” like a multi-syllabic accordion. But that’s exactly what we want from the Ramones. Released on 1989’s Brain Drain, which also includes “Pet Sematary” and “Palisades Park,” the song finds Joey pleading with someone to avoid conflict on Christmas. And although he’s singing to his “baby,” it’s easy to imagine the lyrics are a subtle message to bandmate Johnny with whom Joey was often at odds. (Also see “The KKK Took My Baby Away.”) And as is true of other songs on this list, the classic punk sound Ramones sound has us singing a tale many of us can relate to during the holidays.
10. “Santa Claus is Watching You” by Ray Stevens (1985)
You'd better kiss and hold me tight.
An' give me good lovin' every night.
'Cause you'll be sorry if ya make me blue
'Cause Santa Claus is watchin' you.
(He's everywhere, he's everywhere.)
Ray Stevens is quite the accomplished artist. A Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter, Stevens is equally known for classics like his moving cover of “Misty” (1975) and over-the-top comedic tracks like “The Streak” (1974). Here, Stevens recreates the sound of 1950’s oldies like The Coaster’s “Yakety Yak” to warn his sweetheart about dangers of unrequited love. Stevens leverages what we already learned to fear about Santa from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” to create a new caveat to our pact with Kris Kringle. In addition to not pouting or crying, Steven’s love must also give him “good lovin’ every night” or “be sorry.” While the lyrics seem different when viewed through the prism of today’s advancing social norms, the music video for the track sees Stevens carted away by the police and Santa canoodling with Steven’s lover. The protagonist’s threats, it seems, went too far.
11. “Santa’s Rap” by The Treacherous Three (1984)
Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas my foot
I'ma tell you what Santa really put
Under my so-called tree but in reality
Looked like nothin but a decorated pole to me
Although there have been many hip-hop Christmas tracks over the years, none is better-known than Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” But other classic holiday songs featuring rapping also debuted in our favorite decade. (Also see song no. 12.) Appearing in Beat Street, The Treacherous Three raps honestly about their urban holiday experience. The grievances aired here make it clear that Santa—portrayed by a pre-solo Kool Moe Dee—fails to deliver each year. The biggest disappointment characterized by the rappers is actually the highlight of the song: a beatbox performance by a young Doug E. Fresh. While some of the lyrics are pure 1980s-we-should-have-known-better-but-didn’t, the song is a more cynical and therefore authentic Christmas carol.
12. “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses (1981)
In 1981, as noted earlier, ZE Records asked each of its artists to record a Christmas song for a compilation album. While the 1982 re-release of A Christmas Record included the worst Christmas song ever recorded (see “Christmas with Satan” above), the original version of the LP features one of the best. Intended to be a spoof of Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” (1979), the music is a bouncy convergence of early 1980s new wave and late 1970s hip-hop funk. Listen again and you’ll note the song is rapped by Patty Donahue. Songwriter (and founder of The Waitresses) Chris Butler assembled the track from unused riffs and finished the lyrics in a cab on the way to the recording studio. The tale of a woman’s dislike of the holiday was born of Butler’s own hatred for Christmas. “Everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends,” said Butler. “It wasn't about joy.” Although the song is ubiquitous during the holidays today, it failed to chart in the United States (although it did reach no. 45 in the United Kingdom when first released).
Let us know your favorite off-beat 1980s Christmas song on this form or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to hear our take on these and other crazy Christmas songs from the 1980s check out this episode.