You know the song. How could you not? It has become a staple of Muzak holiday playlists and playlist-leaning radio stations for — wow…thirty-something years? As inescapable as it is — and it indeed is, as I found out while sequestered in a convenience store this week — one cannot discredit it easily. Not like, say, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Those songs invoke a visceral, immediate reaction, whereas “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” first forces you to decide if you’re going to openly criticize a song that implores people to help feed starving children in Africa.
I don’t have a complaint about the song itself. It is a thoroughly serviceable melody featuring some of the biggest stars in ’70s-and-’80s era British rock and pop. It was formulated by The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldhof who was absolutely sincere in his desire to do good and have his very famous cohorts spread that message. But that’s where my impression of the song takes a sharp right turn, not because the message isn’t still relevant in our modern era. Shame on us, it’s that much more pertinent a statement than ever. The fact is, that’s not why all these outlets are still playing this song. They’re playing it because a gang of people are singing the word “Christmastime” a bunch of times, regardless of every statement that surrounds the term.
It’s not an outlier. Plenty of Christmas songs aren’t intrinsically about Christmas. “Sleigh Ride” and “Winter Wonderland” get passes for being seasonally-adjacent, but never actually invoke the holiday in broad, unmistakable terms. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is actually about a sense of longing on the battlefield, away from home, during what is supposed to be a time where families bind together, not when they are separated. These tunes are still more appropriate for the playlist than “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” because even when the threads of purpose for these tunes are worn super-thin to almost nothing, I don’t believe they ever had a greater purpose in mind than to entertain or comfort.
Geldhof intended very much for his song to advocate, so it is weird that such advocacy has been washed away and the song now has all the subtext of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It is just three more minutes of “holly jolly” even though holly is never mentioned and only a few sick folks would find the notion of starving children at all jolly.
What to do about it? I’m not saying that the song shouldn’t be played. On the contrary, during the month and some odd days that comprise this holiday season I think the occasional grounding in reality is thoroughly necessary, provided we actually invoke that reality. My proposal is that after the song is played, wherever it is played, have one of the celebrities that sang on the original song (or, heck, any UK musical celebrity at this point) say something like, “Hunger is real for so many, regardless of the season. You can make a difference in their lives. You can text a small donation of funds to…or make a food donation to your local food bank. Let them know you haven’t forgotten them this Christmastime.”
Pretty short. Pretty simple. A little call-to-action, a wee bit of guilt. But if that was accomplished, Bob Geldhof’s original intent — to make a crisis known — might continue on, and the song would have residual value. As it currently stands, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” simply acts as another thing, kind of like the thing before, and kind of like the thing after.