“Do They Know it’s Christmas?” Turns Me into a Grinch

Do They Know Its Christmas Single Cover   1984

“Do They Know it’s Christmas?” Turns Me into a Grinch

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Put on your seat belts, kids, ’cause Kristen is about to get her rant on.  And it’s the sort of rant that might make some of you think that I’m a big old grinch who’s got nothing better to do than to complain about holiday songs intended to raise awareness about starvation and famine.

So that probably means I’m about to offend some of you.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS, ONE AND ALL!

(Don’t want to read my rant?  Then I urge you–urge you–to scroll down to the bottom of this post and consider donating to one of my many charitable organizations I’ve listed.  These organizations are doing a world of good, all year round, all over the world.  It’s enough to make my grinchy heart grow ten sizes.)

***

Here’s the thing:

Every year when I hear “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” on the radio, my inner Christmas spirit turns into complete and utter grinchy-pants rage.

That’s right.  A song that’s about the 1980s famine in Ethiopia–a song that raised millions of dollars in relief money for that famine–makes me grumpy and grinchy and ranty.

But whyyyy, Grinchy Kristen, whyyyy?”

Why?  Because the lyrics are filled with an ignorance and sloppiness and self-congratulatory tone that incenses me, that’s why.

Just read them for yourself (snarky commentary provided by yours truly):

It’s Christmas time

There’s no need to be afraid

At Christmastime

We let in light and we banish shade  (Take it easy on the dark/light metaphors, Bob Geldof.  NEED I EXPLAIN WHY?!)

 

And in our world of plenty

We can spread a smile of joy (Because we’re so wonderful!  Aren’t we wonderful?!)

Throw your arms around the world

At Christmas time

 

But say a prayer

Pray for the other ones (And by “other ones,” they mean “those brown starving people in the barren wasteland that is Africa.”  More on the barren wasteland part in a bit.)

At Christmas time, it’s hard

But when you’re having fun

There’s a world outside your window

And it’s a world of dreaded fear

Where the only water flowing

Is a bitter sting of tears  (Yes.  Absolutely.  Those of us who have the extraordinary privilege of having a warm/cool/safe/well-fed home should be reminded to look outside our windows and remember that the rest of the world–even the rest of our own neighborhoods–isn’t so privileged.  But I get uncomfortable when anyone characterizes anyone else’s home–someone else’s world–as having no redeeming value whatsoever.)

 

And the Christmas bells that ring there

Are the clanging chimes of doom

Well, tonight, thank God it’s them

Instead of you  (STFU.  REALLY?!?!)

 

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas (No, there won’t be snow in Ethiopia.  But there was, and is, snow on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is in Africa.  You see, Africa is a continent.  A gigantic f$%&ing continent.  A diverse gigantic f$%&ing continent.  Ethiopia happens to be one of the countries in that continent.  You’re welcome for the geography lesson.)

The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life.

Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow (Drought wasn’t the sole cause of the famine.  Major human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government–and, cough cough, other governments–also contributed significantly to the situation.  And again, people, STOP CHARACTERIZING AFRICA–you know, that gigantic f$%&ing continent–AS A WASTELAND HELLHOLE!  Next thing you know, people will start believing that Africa and/or Ethiopia are inhabited by people without culture, cuisine, or specialized knowledge.  Oh wait…)

swear to god, this is the real original cover art for the single.

 

 

Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?  (The approximately 60% of Ethiopians who are Christian and thus celebrate Christmas might have known it was Christmas.  Though, to be fair, I appreciate the sentiment that starvation and famine probably interrupted every affected person’s religious celebrations, whether they were Christian, Muslim, or a member of one of Ethiopia’s indigenous religions.  On the other hand, I doubt they knew that it was “let’s puke on the world with Santa-Rudolph-and-Frosty” time.)

 

Here’s to you

Raise your glass for everyone (Because we’re so wonderful!  Yes, we’re so wonderful!)

Here’s to them

Underneath the burning sun  (Yes.  Because all any starving person wants is a glass of booze raised to them.  IT’S A FRAT PARTY FOR THE FAMINE!  And, actually, the recording of the song does sound like it was quite the party.  For the starving.)

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

 

Feed the world,

Let them know it’s Christmas time and

Feed the world,

Let them know it’s Christmas time…(repeat)

 

In sum, I think the song’s lyrics are trite, exploitative, and fundamentally ignorant of the very cause that the song itself was trying to promote.

If that makes me a grinch, or an overly-critical liberal snooty-pants, then so be it.

 

And yes, I know, some of you object to my criticisms.  You might even think I’m far worse than a grinch for even daring to tarnish such a beloved holiday song.

But bear with me as I respond to what I thinks some of these objections might be:

 

But! but! the song unquestionably raised lots of money for a great cause.  How can you criticize that?

Let me start by making one of the least objectionable statements in the history of the world: working to end hunger and famine in a country that had been experiencing famines for nearly 25 years is a great cause.

I don’t want to undo any of the relief money that went toward the Ethiopian famine, nor do I want to belittle the impact of that money.

But that doesn’t mean that the song itself isn’t offensive/sloppy/based in ignorance/a celebration of Western cultural hegemony.

 

But! but! people who are starving probably don’t give a crap where the relief money and food comes from.

You’re right.

The crappy song did an astonishing amount of good, and the people who were the recipients of that good probably don’t give a crap about the crappiness of the song.

And yet, the crappiness is not erased by the good.

 

But! but! there are lots of other songs that are far more offensive than this one.

Yeah.  I know.

On the other hand, I think that there is something especially insidious about a song that is, on the surface, pure and good-natured but that, when submitted to critical thinking, is found to perpetuate a whole hell of a lot of ignorance.

 

But! but! this song (supposedly) inspired Bono and Sting and Bob Geldof to become the humanitarians that they are today!

Well, awesome.

I, for one, would also love to hear Bono and Sting’s current take on the song lyrics.  (Though I’m sure Bob Geldof wouldn’t like to see my take on the lyrics.)

 

But! but! whenever I hear this song, it makes me feel good and charitable and reminds me that there are others less fortunate than me at this time of year!

Great!

Because there is currently a famine is encroaching on Ethiopia yet again in 2011 (and devastating the Horn of Africa) at this very moment, and if this song is gonna exploit the hell out of our emotions and our love of “feeling good about giving,” then we should, you know, actually do some giving.

 

And so I challenge you to this:

I hate “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”  I have strong, sincere philosophical objections to its lyrics.

You might also hate it.  Or love it.  Or really, really love it and all that is “inspiring” and “feel-goody” about it.

Regardless.

How about each time we hear it on the radio, we donate money (small amounts, large amounts, whatever we can give) to a reputable charity that is working to improve conditions (and save lives) throughout Africa (and yes, I do mean the entire continent) today?

How about we consider donating money even if we don’t hear this song even once this December?

For even if this grinchy-pants is averse to ignorant song lyrics, I’m certainly not averse to giving

 

PLEASE GIVE HERE:

The Fistula Foundation – “We believe that no woman should have to suffer a life of shame and isolation for trying to bring a child into the world. We are dedicated to raising awareness of and funding for fistula repair, prevention, and educational programs worldwide to help eradicate fistula.”

Every Mother Counts – “Every Mother Counts is an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education and support for maternal and child health.”

Save the Children – “Save the Children serves impoverished, marginalized and vulnerable children and families in more than 120 nations. Our programs reach both children and those working to save and improve their lives, including parents, caregivers, community members and members of our partner organizations. We help save children’s lives, protect them from exploitation and assist them in accessing education and health care.”

Doctors without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres) – “Today, MSF provides independent, impartial assistance in more than 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. MSF provides independent, impartial assistance to those most in need. MSF also reserves the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols.”

CARE - “CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. Through our community-based efforts focused on empowering women, we work to improve basic education, prevent the spread of disease, increase access to clean water and sanitation, expand economic opportunity and protect natural resources. CARE also delivers emergency aid to survivors of war and natural disasters.”

UNICEF – “Our vision is to build a world where every child can grow up healthy, protected from harm and educated, so they can reach their full potential. Every day we’re working to make this vision a reality. No matter who they are or where they are born, we reach out to the most vulnerable children wherever and whenever they need us.”

The U.N. World Food Programme - “As the United Nations frontline agency in the fight against hunger, WFP is continually responding to emergencies. We save lives by getting food to the hungry fast.  But WFP also works to help prevent hunger in the future. We do this through programmes that use food as a means to build assets, spread knowledge and nurture stronger, more dynamic communities. This helps communities become more food secure.”

 



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29 Comments

  1. Molly
    Molly12-13-2011

    Kristen. You have got to be making this shit up. I swear I’ve never heard that song in my life, and we’re roughly the same age–could it be regional, or do I just have Really Good Filters?

    Mind blown.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      Sadly, I am not making this shit up at all. And congrats for successfully avoiding this piece of 80s garbage! (We turn on radio Christmas music every year when we go out looking at lights with the kids, and inevitably this song will come on in the 2 or so hours that we’re out.)

  2. Jillian
    Jillian12-13-2011

    THANK YOU! I’ve had these exact thoughts every time I’ve heard this song on the radio.. especially Bono’s belting of the “Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you!” line. Really?? Really??? The only one that drives me almost as crazy is Christmas Shoes.. though I may be more in a minority on that one.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      Christmas Shoes? I’m not sure I know that one…

  3. Lucy Juedes
    Lucy Juedes12-13-2011

    Great job! Only you could do this sooo well — both snarky and nice at the same time. :-)

    My family supports Doctors without Borders, and thanks to your request, we will support The Fistula Foundation too.

    Happy Holidays!

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      They are both fabulous organizations. Have you seen the documentary, “A Walk to Beautiful”? I highly recommend it. It was what first made me aware of The Fistula Foundation and all of the great work that they do.

      (And if I may sound self-centered on a post that is meant to be anything but, thank you for calling me snarky AND nice. If there are two things that I sincerely aspire to be in this world, snarky and nice certainly rank right up at the top. ;) )

  4. The Cornfed Feminist
    The Cornfed Feminist12-13-2011

    I effing hate this ethnocentric song so much it makes me want to puke. I told my husband about my feelings the first time we heard it together a couple weeks ago and he was saying how much he loved it. I flipped a little and ranted (not entirely unsimilar to the above rant) and he finally said, “Hmm. I guess you have a point.” And then he pointed out the Christianity percentage in Ethiopia and I was like, that’s what I’m sayin! Ugh. Stupid song. And that single cover artwork is not only super offensive but super creepy.

  5. Ali
    Ali12-13-2011

    One potential objection you didn’t cover – I actually enjoy this terrible, terrible song because it’s SO f’ing ridiculous (as is “Christmas Shoes,” Jillian! But “Do They Know” is much more catchy…) These are, in my mind, some of the hilariously worst lyrics ever composed (no argument at all about the sloppiness, ignorance, self-congratulation) – but it’s like Spinal Tap on my radio (ten times a day)…this liberal grinch has to laugh (and will be moved to donate, thanks to you, too).

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      You know, the night after we heard it on the radio, Tim and I watched “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog” for the first time. (I KNOW! HOW DID THIS JOSS WHEDON FAN TAKE THIS LONG TO FINALLY WATCH IT?!) And I was immediately reminded of “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” during some of the tunes–especially the ones that Captain Hammer sings.

      Long, meandering story short? I guess I can see what you mean. “Spinal Tap on my radio” is truly an apt analogy. (The bad thing is that I doubt there was any awareness on the songwriters’/singers’ parts about the Spinal Tappiness of it all…)

  6. Kathleen Ojo
    Kathleen Ojo12-13-2011

    Thank you x infinity for posting this. This song has always made me uncomfortable, but I’ve never actually read all the lyrics…. it’s far more terrible than I thought! As someone who lived for a while in Kenya and married a man from Nigeria, I am quite familiar with the good and the bad occuring daily on the African continent. Yes, there are many people in trouble over there, but the last thing they need is to be pitied. We need to stop treating African people as helpless children who spend their lives waiting for the Western world to save them. This song is dehumanizing to a scary degree, and I think it tells us a lot more about the insular mentality and superiority complex of America that it does about the lives and struggles of those the song is attempting to help.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      Amen, Kathleen. That whole superiority/pitying/infantilizing complex is so infuriating. I wish people viewed “aid” less as a matter of the West gallantly riding up on its moral high horse to save the day and more as a matter of either a) mitigating problems that the West has helped to perpetuate, or b) just helping other non-objectified HUMAN BEINGS out.

    • Marisa
      Marisa12-17-2013

      The superiority complex of America? This song was compiled of British singers/song-writers. I personally dislike the song not because of globilazation or the so-called patronizing mentality of members of westernized society, I dislike it because the artists are condemning of those who are a part of the middle and upper class. Just because I was born in a free nation does not mean I am obligated to give all of or a even a portion of my meager earnings to those who are impoverished. I am forced to give to the less fortunate through taxation and that is burden enough. The last thing I need every Christmas season is to listen to self-righteous, bleeding heart liberals who gross enough money to fund Ethopia without relying on the charity of the common members of society.

      • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
        BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-18-2013

        That’s right! Screw the poor, just like Jesus said! Merry Christmas, one and all!

        • Marisa
          Marisa12-27-2013

          I don’t mind being charitable to those who are in need, but I want it to be on my own accord. I don’t need nor want to be preached at by a bunch of out of touch musicians who have no true grasp on scarcity.

  7. Lisa
    Lisa12-13-2011

    YES, YES and YES!!

    THANK YOU! Finally, somebody put it into words…

  8. Leandra
    Leandra12-13-2011

    I am no expert on prayer by any means and know that we all have our own way, but the “tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you” is the most bizarre way to approach prayer I’ve ever heard of. This song and that line in particular have bothered me for years…and they just won’t quit playing that song! Great ranty-rant, Kristen =)

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-13-2011

      l love your diplomacy, Leandra. :) And that line seems to be the one that bothers people the most–even the ones who kinda like the song! (And yes, I do wonder what Bono thinks of it today. He’s the one who sang it!)

  9. Kate
    Kate12-14-2011

    So, in a timely fashion, while baking cookies last night and watching the latest episode of Glee – the Christmas episode – getting into the holiday spirit after they covered my VERY favorite Christmas song (Jonie Mitchell’s “River”) I found myself scowling at my television as they went and ruined it all by singing “Do They Know its Christmastime?” and just to make it extra-special tacky with a twist of elitist attitude and ethnocentric grandiocity (not sure all of those are even words, but I am an Oganowski after all:) they sang the song in a… wait for it…wait for it…homeless shelter. That is right – they belted out “Thank God its them, instead of you” to homeless children and their parents. Boo Hiss, Glee! Kristen, you have once again found a way to put into words (thoughtful, insightful words at that) the thoughts many have been having for years with no platform. Thank you!

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-14-2011

      IN A HOMELESS SHELTER?!?!

      Oh no. Just…no. Couldn’t they at least have changed that line?!

      (And now for me to be COMPLETELY selfish: I can’t WAIT for those cookies!!! :-) )

  10. Brenton
    Brenton12-16-2011

    I agree, it’s outrageous that they weren’t able to capture the complexities of the Ethiopian famine and general poverty in much of Africa in a 4 minute pop song. Surely it should have had a thesis and supporting evidence and explored the various theoretical underpinnings of the situation.

    Also, the line you are all so upset about, the “Thank God it’s them, instead of you” line, is playing on the very idea of affluent white guilt.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-16-2011

      Wait, so you think that the line itself is an ironic nod to affluent white guilt?

      Hmm.

  11. alittlebitograce
    alittlebitograce12-21-2011

    You’ve captured my thoughts almost perfectly! I detest the lyrics, but love the musicality, which makes it even worse! As a member of a multi-national organization that serves the poor, the sheer ignorance is appalling!

    I like your ideas about giving whenever we hear this song. :)

  12. WriterBec
    WriterBec12-21-2011

    SO glad you said it. I’ve never read your blog before and might not have come across it in my daily Web doings except for the fact that I just heard the kids on “Glee” sing this song in their Christmas episode (this time, condescendingly, to a room full of homeless people), and once again it made my skin crawl. So I immediately Googled the topic to see if there was anyone out there in the wide Web world who agreed with me. Hurrah! Thanks for breaking it down line by line and helping me further justify my hatred of this terrible, terrible song. I shall continue to proudly change the station every time it comes on.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas12-21-2011

      I’ve been heartened to see I’m not the only person who feels this way about the song. I was totally prepared for people to think that I was engaging in some sort of Christmas blasphemy for daring to criticize it!

      And that Glee scene just makes my skin crawl. I have NO IDEA how the writers thought that this song would be okay to do at a homeless shelter. Or in any setting.

  13. Katelove
    Katelove12-26-2011

    You might appreciate Tim Minchin’s Guilt Song http://www.tsrocks.com/t/tim_minchin_texts/the_guilt_song.html

    He first performed it at the Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala which raises money for Oxfam (hence the reference to ringing the 1800 number).

  14. Jay
    Jay12-31-2011

    So glad to finally read something where this song is not considered “great but arguably offensive” or some other crock. You know what? I don’t think you went far enough!

    “The song raised so much money for a great cause.”

    Not really. $14 million is very little money when compared to the negative impact of this song. WorldVision and Food for the Poor, both of which do similar work, each raised more than $1 trillion last year.

    “But the starving people don’t care where the money comes from!”

    What about the hard-working Africans who can’t find jobs, in part, because stereotypes about Africa limit foreign-direct investment even in a favorable economic climate (continent-wide, Africa’s GDP grew by an average 6% last decade, second to Asia and way above the US or Europe…yet Africa receives just 3% of the world’s foreign direct investment. Wonder why…

    “There are lots more offensive songs!”

    Given the facts I just mentioned, I don’t really think so. Give me Eminem’s violent misogyny over this crap any day.

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas
      BirthingBeautifulIdeas01-02-2012

      Ab-so-lute-ly. Thanks for coming by to share your thoughts–I agree wholeheartedly on all counts. (And, you know, it doesn’t take that much to agree with FACTS.)

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