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Why “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” may be the most important Christmas song to share with your children

December 15, 2013

Something tells me most of the Western world, especially those who lived through the Eighties, will either meekly agree or angrily disagree with me on this. (Bob Geldof, who co-wrote the song with Midge Ure in 1984, now calls it one of the two worst songs in the world.) Either way, you might be right.

I’m a little ashamed that my digital copy of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is part of the mostly saccharine collection Now That’s What I Call Christmas!, five tracks after the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” and two tracks before Michael Bolton’s “Our Love Is Like a Holiday.”  I’ll probably catch H-E-L-L from my wife and a certain contingent of my Facebook feed for saying this, but I truly believe that this song 1) has been unfairly consigned to the Cheese shelf, and 2) is not only appropriate for children but may be one of the most important Christmas songs they’ll listen to.

Sure, the sentiment is simplistic and overbearing—much like another favorite of mine, John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (which is wedged between Band-Aid and Bolton on Now That’s What I Call Christmas)—but I think that’s why it’s so powerful: a child (myself at eleven years old, for example) can hear it, sing along, and at some point after countless reps of the refrain ask a couple of simple questions: Who are “they,” and Why don’t they know it’s Christmas? In this many, the song is the musical version of the storefront Salvation Army bellringers, only the Christmas bells are accompanied by extravagantly rich and famous, mostly British Eighties pop stars. Both use those bells to strike a common note in the listener, and remind us of “the world outside your window,” if only for a moment.

And that’s perhaps the greatest thing this overblown, musically dated song can teach us: that the greatest gift we can give another human is our empathy. A blog post is probably not the best place to decry the negative effects of our new electronic media landscape, but I do fear that the most damaging effect our social media have had on our children has been to make them a little less capable or willing to examine and understand the world outside themselves. Louis C.K. recently expounded on this in a rant on Conan O’Brien that many of you have probably seen by now, maybe even shared on your own social media (the irony of which I won’t touch here). I think the reason this clip resonates with so many of us is that it reflects many of our fears that we and our children are becoming too cynical. Hearing a song like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with fresh, unjaded ears can be a good first step in rejecting this cynicism.

I promise it’s worth it. Because perhaps most importantly, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” does what some of the best, most lasting Christmas songs—like A Fine Frenzy’s “Winter White,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Spotlight on Christmas,” Sufjan Stevens’ “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” (this live version has a five-minute narrative monologue at the beginning which elucidates most of the points I’ve made here), and spirituals like “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night”—do: it captures both the joy and sadness that comprise Christmas. These two things are inextricably mingled, coming from (if we’re fortunate) being together with the ones we love in what for many of us is a rare respite of peace and togetherness while so many in our city, our country, our world are hungry, depressed, and/or alone.

Here’s to you, raise a glass for everyone

Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun…

Anyone who know me knows that the Eighties were not my favorite decade, but this song might be the greatest thing to come out of it.