Christmas Songs That Aren't About Christmas

by Roger Catlin

Many of the most popular Christmas songs have nothing to do with Christmas. Here are some of the biggest Santa-free favorites.

Think of it as the inverse of the War on Christmas.

Rather than being downsized by supposed political correctness, Christmas is the aggressor, swallowing up land (mall parking lots), airwaves (all-Christmas music stations in October) and everything you see (enough with the Christmas commercials already).

The holiday has also annexed the meaning of a number of songs that would otherwise be about cold, winter, and snow activities. So even though none of these songs have anything to do with Christmas, you are conditioned to think they do because they've made their way to the Kris Kringle playlist.

As more and more Christmas albums come out every year, each using pretty much the same canon, it's natural that they pull some generic winter songs into the mix. Here are some of the most prominent Yuletide tunes with no trace of Santa, wise men, or any other Christmas references.
1. "Jingle Bells"
Oh, what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh

It may be the cheery, #1 kids' song at Christmas, but it has nothing to do with the season. Instead, the 1857 ditty by James Lord Pierpont, written for a Thanksgiving program in Savannah, Georgia, is about dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh and laughing all the way. Period.

The little-heard second verse talks about a ride with Miss Fay Bright that ends in a snowbank. An even less-heard third verse is about another mishap: falling in the snow and getting laughed at by a passing rider. The fourth verse is about getting a faster horse for the sleigh. It's a 19th-century song about land speed racing in which Santa never shows up.

Nevertheless, one of the most popular versions on YouTube (shown above), is loaded up with Christmas images.

2. "Winter Wonderland"
When it snows, ain't it thrilling
Though your nose gets a chilling

The 1934 song by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith is a fun one to sing and hear, but it isn't tied to any particular day in the calendar. In fact, it starts by harkening back to our previous non-Christmas song: "Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?"

A winter scene is described, as is the displacement of native birds for seasonal reasons ("Gone away is the blue bird").

It gets odd when it turns to the making of a snowman by unmarried people into a likeness of a prying Parson Brown ("He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, man'").

Subsequent verses talk of an indoor conspiracy meeting, which may or may not involve anything from Parson-revenge to jihad ("Later on, we'll conspire as we dream by the fire, to face unafraid, the plans that we made"). Instead of any violent activity, the Parson Brown verse repeats, although in some versions, the couple end up making a second snowman - in the likeness of a circus clown. Either way, Christmas never comes into the picture.

Lady Gaga risked a chest cold when she sang it with Tony Bennett at the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center.

3. "Sleigh Ride"
Let's go, Let's look at the show
We're riding in a wonderland of snow.

Riding on a sleigh was a big part of winter for a while, though certainly not in 1946 when Leroy Anderson wrote this tune during a July heat wave. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops recorded the first instrumental version, and after Mitchell Parish added the lyrics in 1950, the Andrews Sisters were the first of hundreds of artists to sing it. Recently, it appeared on Christmas albums by Renée Fleming, Pentatonix and Earth, Wind & Fire.

All this despite, you guessed it, having nothing to do with Christmas other than proclaiming "lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you" and "gliding along with the song of a wintry fairy land."

Some have altered the lyrics so that the soiree at the home of Farmer Gray that's "the perfect ending of a perfect day" switches from a birthday party to a Christmas party (though really, isn't Christmas essentially a birthday party?). Still, closing with pumpkin pie suggests it's happening closer to November.

4. "Let it Snow"
As long as you love me so
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

We turn now to the purely meteorological, as when Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne composed in 1945 this forecast: "The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful."

Since "we've no place to go," the singers stay in and pop some corn. They don't make Christmas cookies or string the popcorn for the tree. They eat the corn until the fire goes out, then they kiss and hug before they part. There is no mention of gift exchange.

Songs about snowing could conceivably play all through winter until March, but when they're lumped with Christmas, they don't.

5. "Baby It's Cold Outside"
I've got to get home...
Oh, baby, you'll freeze out there

Another declaration of weather in song came the year before, in Frank Loesser's 1944 duet, later used in the 1949 movie Neptune's Daughter with versions by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams and another by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. It won an Oscar for best song, and in 1958 was sung at the ceremony by Mae West and Rock Hudson.

Dinah Shore with Buddy Clark had a big hit with it in 1949, and over the years it's been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones, Brian Setzer and Ann-Margret, and Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. In 2014, Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles recorded a version that reached #10 on the AC chart; this same year Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé also duetted on the song, reaching #1 with their rendition.

Odd that it became so popular in 2014, since it was just a little too easy for South Park to use it to skewer Bill Cosby in a supposed duet with Taylor Swift. The male part of the duet, identified in the original lyrics as "the wolf," gets these responses from his prey:
"I really can't stay"
"The answer is no"
"Say, what's in this drink?" (no, we're not making this up)

Whatever it is, it's not eggnog and this ain't a Christmas song either.

6. "Marshmallow World"
The world is your snowball, see how it grows
That's how it goes whenever it snows

Another song of snow and its effects, this one is full of food metaphors. It was written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose. Bing Crosby made it a hit, but it was also performed by Darlene Love on Phil Spector's classic Christmas album (unheralded at the time, since it was released on the day John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963) and Karen O in 2014 Target Christmas ads.

It sounds more like it's something for Ben & Jerry's though, with phrases like "marshmallow world" and "a whipped cream day." Again, it's never specified as Christmas, only that "in winter, it's a marshmallow world."

Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra barely get through it in the 1967 TV special seen here.

7. "Frosty the Snowman"
He was made of snow but the children know
How he came to life one day

The biggest star of the season, behind Santa, Rudolph (and OK, baby Jesus), is this character from a song by Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson, written specifically in 1950 as a follow-up to Gene Autry's hit the year before, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Like its predecessor, it was both a perennial hit on the charts and the subject of a Bass-Rankin TV special that also gets played annually. It's a story more of witchcraft than Christmas cheer, with a mysterious silk hat making a snowman sprout feet and dance, laugh and play with the children. The approaching sun makes him feverish enough to run to the village with a broomstick in his hand, taunting the townspeople to catch him "if you can." The chase ends at a traffic cop ordering him to stop, which he doesn't (these days, it might have ended much more grimly).

But again, it's a story not about Christmas, and never heard past December 25th either.

8. "My Favorite Things"
Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles

This is a real oddity. Not even Rodgers and Hammerstein imagined this would be part of the holiday canon when they wrote it for The Sound of Music. But singers get so desperate for seasonal material, it was appropriated as one because of specific elements: "Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes," "Packages tied up with string" and a passing mention of "sleigh bells." That's it.

Every other one of "my favorite things" have nothing to do with the holiday, from raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, to schnitzel and noodles. But the packages, snow and sleigh shout-out were enough to make it land on more than three dozen Christmas albums, including Mary J. Blige's A Mary Christmas.

9. "Hard Candy Christmas"
it's like a hard candy Christmas
I'm barely getting through tomorrow

The penultimate ballad from the 1978 stage musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas became much better known when Dolly Parton sang it in the 1982 film version. It's a song about glumly considering options when things fall apart ("Maybe I'll dye my hair, maybe I'll move somewhere").

Its only relation to the holiday comes in the form of a metaphor comparing a disappointment to a holiday where all you get is the worst kind of candy. Still, Parton sang it on Christmas specials, and a number of artists used the song on Christmas albums.

10. "River"
I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and Im sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had

In a similarly mopey vein, Joni Mitchell paused on her Blue album to consider holiday depression:

It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees, they're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Clearly she wants nothing to do with the forced cheer of the holiday and spends the rest of the song talking about a painful breakup where she "made my baby say goodbye."

That she returns to the first verse to end it makes it seem like some perverse carol of the depressed. Nonetheless, it's become the second-most covered song in Mitchell's oeuvre and a staple of Christmas albums ever since it was used in the 2003 movie Love Actually.

The other thing that makes people think it's a Christmas song, of course, are those recurring notes that frame it, from "Jingle Bells." Which of course, isn't a Christmas song either.

December 15, 2014
More Song Writing

Comments: 19

  • Jimmy from TexasHow about Jingle Bell Rock
  • Checkmark from Phoenix, AzSome other non-Christmas songs that come to mind. John Denver’s “Aspen Glow”, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter”, “Walking in the Air” from The Snowman, “Skater’s Waltz”, “Auld Lang Syne”
  • Nancy from TexasIt sure seems like we need some of these songs saved for January and February.
  • Huskie_jon from Carol Stream, IlHere are two more non-Christmas songs I have seen on Christmas albums.

    Hazy Shade of Winter.
    Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.
  • Prayer Request from BangladeshThis is a real oddity. Not even Rodgers and Hammerstein imagined this would be part of the holiday canon when they wrote it for The Sound of Music.
  • Prayer Request from BangladeshDolly Parton sang it in the 1982 film version.... great content.
    Prayer Request
  • Dirk from Los Angeles“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys is a wonderfully beautiful song that has nothing to do with Christmas.
  • Holiday Depression from ColoradoJoni Mitchell's "River" most clearly mentions Christmas as is stated here, so it should NOT be included on this list.
  • Matthew from Blue Ridge, GeorgiaI've never understood why "A Few of My Favorite Things" from Sound of Music is a Christmas song all of a sudden. Can someone explain that to me?
  • Ginger from OhioLet's not forget Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah"
  • __________________ from Lake TahoeThis is very helpful for my preschool class since we can't mention Christmas
  • Kent from RaleighSorry, but "Need a Little Christmas" certainly IS a Christmas song, even if it takes place earlier. They are decorating and talking about the holiday. The songs on this list don't even mention anything Christmas-like, they're just about winter.
  • Makana from AnchorageSome further secular winter/holiday songs that don't mention "Christmas", "Santa", etc:
    December Time, Sweet Suzy Snowflake, Gingerbread Man, Purple Snowflakes, Snow, I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Over The River And Through The Woods, Snowflake, & The First Snowfall
  • Jeffrey Urbik from Sacramento, CaEven though Christmas is in the title "We Need a Little Christmas". Its not really a christmas song. Its from the movie musical "Mame" and the context is that the setting is early November and it's a plea against being deressed with the solution being to bumrush the christmas season. But still not a christmas song.
  • Robb from St Francis, WiHow about Jingle Bell Rock? And, there must be others. I would appreciate these songs be kept off of holiday playlists and played after Christmas, throughout our winter season
  • Patrick from Wahiawa, Hi"Valley Winter Song" by Fountains of Wayne isn't about Christmas, but about Winter in late December. For those who face deep snow and the darkness of Winter, this song points to the upcoming Summer to brighten the mood, just when it's needed most.
  • Patrick from Wahiawa, HiJim Croce's "It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" sounds like it fits into the category, since it starts off as "jump-in-the-river-and-die" Blue, then turns hopeful at the end. Plus the imagery provided by the lyrics set the tone enough to be a Christmas music staple.
  • K.c. from Nh@Bert, my daughter is a huge Elvis fan and has one of his Christmas albums. She has trouble listening to it, tho, because of that song. It bothers her to no end. She listens to the album once per season...that's it.
  • Bert Johnson from CaliforniaWhat about Elvis Presly "Mama Liked the Roses" from his 1970 reissue of the Christmas album?
see more comments

Editor's Picks

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss): A History Of Abuse Pop

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss): A History Of Abuse PopSong Writing

Songs that seem to glorify violence against women are often misinterpreted - but not always.

70s Music Quiz 1

70s Music Quiz 1Music Quiz

The '70s gave us Muppets, disco and Van Halen, all which show up in this groovy quiz.

90210 to Buffy to Glee: How Songs Transformed TV

90210 to Buffy to Glee: How Songs Transformed TVSong Writing

Shows like Dawson's Creek, Grey's Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the way songs were heard on TV, and produced some hits in the process.

Bill Withers

Bill WithersSongwriter Interviews

Soul music legend Bill Withers on how life experience and the company you keep leads to classic songs like "Lean On Me."

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien Songs

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien SongsSong Writing

The trail runs from flying saucer songs in the '50s, through Bowie, blink-182 and Katy Perry.

Randy Houser

Randy HouserSongwriter Interviews

The "How Country Feels" singer talks Skynyrd and songwriting.