Some of our favourite Christmas songs, including East 17’s Stay Another Day and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, have incredibly dark back-stories, from suicide to infant death and even a war
Christmas songs might sound cheerful, but some hide horrifyingly dark secrets.
Like nursery rhymes, they often have a hidden back-story that can be deciphered in the lyrics.
So while we’re all gathered around with our families belting out the tunes while Christmas dinner is in the oven, we are unknowingly touching on immense tragedy.
From East 17’s Stay Another Day to Bing Crosby’s Do You Hear What I Hear, let’s take a look at the dark secrets behind festive hits.
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Stay Another Day is about suicide
While many argue East 17’s hit Stay Another Day isn’t a Christmas song, it’s constantly played on the radio in December and features on most festive playlists.
The song actually tells a heartbreaking story, as it was written by the group’s lead songwriter Tony Mortimer about his brother’s suicide.
Speaking to the Big Issue, he said: “It’s so odd that it’s a Christmas song.
“I wrote it about my brother’s suicide – so it’s about the end of a relationship, and missing someone.
“That’s what it’s based on, and I think people like that. It might have been a hit because people felt sorry for me or whatever, but it’s also a very nostalgic song for Christmas, for looking back over the year and times gone by.”
He also admitted he struggled when the song became a huge Christmas hit.
“I got over hearing Stay Another Day all the time at Christmas – I’ve accepted that,” he said.
“There was a time when that song just didn’t go away, it was a nightmare. Now I’ve got over it.”
White Christmas is about the songwriter’s dead son
TV Times/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
White Christmas, which has been covered by several huge artists including Bing Crosby over the years, was originally written by Irving Berlin.
In it, the narrator reminisces about an old-fashioned Christmas setting with snow falling.
It was written for the musical film Holiday Inn, which was released in 1942.
Irving was Jewish and didn’t tend to celebrate Christmas, but the time of year became a tradition for him to visit his child’s grave.
His beloved son had died at just weeks old, and the sad-sounding song was partially dedicated to his memory.
The song’s melancholy was particularly poignant at the time because America had just entered World War II.
Film critic Richard Corliss explained the song “connected with GIs in their first winter away from home”.
“To them it voiced the ache of separation and the wistfulness they felt for the girl back home, for the innocence of youth,” he said.
The playing of White Christmas over the radio also later served as code for American soldiers to evacuate Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Do You Hear What I Hear is about the Cuban missile crisis
Bing Crosby popularly performed Do You Hear What I Hear, and it was also covered by Whitney Houston.
But it was actually written by Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It reflected the horror they faced amid the Cold War at the time, and was a plea for peace.
“In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated,” Noël once explained.
“En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling.
“This inspired the first line of the song, ‘Said the night wind to the little lamb…’
According to The Atlantic, the lyric ‘a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite’ is usually thought to be about the Star of Bethlehem – but it’s also meant to evoke a nuclear missile.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written directly after a brother’s funeral
Songwriter Haven Gillespie was asked to write a Christmas song for children in 1934, but he was heartbroken at the time and flat out refused.
He’d arrived at the meeting having come directly from his brother Irwin’s funeral.
Haven was eventually persuaded, and he started writing the huge hit Santa Claus is Coming to Town, inspired by all the happy memories he had with Irwin.
The song was initially released by Eddie Cantor and was huge hit, later covered by the Jackson 5.
But Haven couldn’t bear to listen to it because it brought back his grief.
Coventry Carol is about a children’s massacre
Coventry Carol tells the haunting story of a jealous king who brutally murders children.
The carol was written for the Feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated on December 28.
It speaks about King Herod, the Bible character who notoriously murdered of hundreds of children, hoping to kill Jesus.
Coventry Carol is believed to have been taken from a play written in the 16th century, though the actual origins are unknown.
It’s spookily supposed to sound like a lullaby for the dead children and the screams of their mothers as they were slain.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.