We sticklers are in fine fettle (cliché!) this holiday season. One guy hates “’Tis the season,” and he’s right: ’tis overused. I get pedantic about the placement of the vocative comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” The song is not a suggestion to “merry gentlemen” to rest but an imperative to gentlemen to “rest merry.” Someone on Twitter admonishes those who claim that the spelling “Xmas” takes the Christ out of Christmas: X is not just a soulless abbreviation (say, for Xanax) or the unknown quantity in an algebraic formula (Let x equal what you will) but the Greek letter chi, which looks like X, which is rendered in English as “Ch,” which is the first letter of the Greek spelling of “Christ” and therefore Christ’s initial—Christ is the X in Xmas. So shut up.
Christmas carols are coming in for more than the usual punishment, in this our second Xmas A.D. (after Donald). Alexandra Petri, a columnist for the Washington Post, compiled a list of no fewer than a hundred Christmas songs, ranked from least to most heinous. Naturally, “The Little Drummer Boy” comes in at No. 100. (Petri has a special prejudice against any song with lyrics that imitate musical instruments: “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum”; “ding dong, ding dong.”) Frank Loesser’s duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has been banned on some radio stations for its retroactive associations with the #MeToo movement. If you are inclined to defend “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” get in line behind William Shatner.
Carols offer prime examples of what linguists call mondegreens: misheard words. In “Silent Night,” Round John Virgin is the classic lurker at the Nativity. Listen closely to the children as they invoke another beloved character in “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” inviting “O Gumby, O Gumby” to Bethlehem. Christmas carols are always primed for parody. I first heard the lyrics to the one about the Three Wise Men as sung by my wise-ass older brother: “We Three Kings of Orient are / Smoking a Havana cigar.” Years later, following family tradition, my younger sister, the fabulous Baby Dee, wrote her own lyrics to two holiday classics, “Rudolph the Disgruntled Reindeer” and “Frosty the Manic-Depressive Snowman.” Cover the children’s ears—these songs are X-rated, in the irreligious sense of the word.
My abiding holiday gripe is actually a year-round one: the trend among cashiers, when they are ready for the next customer, to call out “Following guest.” I’m not sure which offends me more, “following” or “guest.” “Following” suggests that the customer (note: not “guest”) lacks initiative, like a sheep standing in line to get fleeced. And we like sheep, as Handel says repeatedly in “The Messiah,” but we don’t want to be one. “Guest” is the stores’ way of trying to fool us customers, whether buying cat food or panettone, into thinking we are held in high esteem, when really the cashiers just want to get our money and get us out of there. What was wrong with “Next,” Santa?
My favorite in the Christmas canon is “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” with its hearty chorus of “Love and joy come to you, / And to you your wassail, too.” I never had a clear idea of what a wassail was. Sounds like something you wave when you’re happy, as a dog its tail, and that’s about right: “wassail” is from an Old English expression meaning “be thou well,” uttered while holding aloft a cup of mulled wine (or ale or punch). The word came to refer to the drink itself, and then became a verb: to go a-wassailing is to go from house to house wishing the occupants good health and collecting a little cash on the side, perhaps to spend on . . . wassail. It’s a Christmas carol that doubles as a drinking song. The wassail of my choice this year is a giant bottle of stout bottled in Wisconsin under the label “For Whom.” All in favor of “whom” are invited to step up. Next!