Everyone has their favorite Christmas carol, those chestnuts that we play every year — “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley… the list goes on and on. But every year I would hear a unique carol on the radio, a tune that evoked visions of wandering minstrels from the Renaissance. The lilting tune contrasted with the cynical lyrics: “They sold me a dream of Christmas/They sold me a Silent Night.” Every year I wondered who wrote and performed this unusual song; I figured it must be a folk singer. However, a few years ago a friend compiled a “classic rock Christmas” CD and included the carol. Subsequently I learned that the song was “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the progressive rock band? The same group that performed “Lucky Man,” “Still… You Turn Me On,” and “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2?” I was shocked but intrigued, so I researched the classic to find out its origins. “I Believe in Father Christmas” is technically not an Emerson, Lake & Palmer song; its writer, Greg Lake, released the song as a solo single in 1975 (interestingly, the B-side to the 45 was “Humbug”). It became a surprise hit, reaching number two on the UK charts, making it Lake’s biggest solo success. The song reappeared on Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1977 album Works II, and the entire group rerecorded the single in 1995. Thus the performing credit current reads as “Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” although the definitive and enduring version belongs to Lake.
Featuring some delicate acoustic guitar work, the tune begins as a pretty homage to Christmas, but soon turns dark: “They said there’ll be peace on earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the virgin’s birth,” Lake croons. As the track progresses, it’s clear that the narrator believes that the “dream” or image of Christmas rings false: “And I believed in Father Christmas… Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn/And I saw him and through his disguise.” Yes, “Deck the Halls” this isn’t.
The final verses take an even darker turn; after wishing the listener love, peace, and happiness, the song comes to a crashing end with these two lines: “Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell/The Christmas you get you deserve.” While this sentiment may send a shiver down the spine, Lake has stated that this was not his intention. According to a sound clip on Lake’s website, Lake stated that it sometimes brings some strange reactions. Some people have said it’s anti-religious… but in reality it’s really about objecting to the commerciality of Christmas and trying to remind people basically ‘the Christmas you get you deserve.’ It’s all about giving; it’s the joy of giving. That was the real intention of the song.
“I Believe in Father Christmas’s accompanying video stirred more controversy. At first it depicts Lake sitting in the desert (specifically locations in Palestine and Jordan, according to Wikipedia), strumming the guitar and singing the lyrics. But immediately after the final verse, images of the Vietnam War flash across the screen. While this juxtaposition of images disturbed some, cross-referencing Christmas and war is nothing new; John Lennon made use of it in his single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” although not as explicitly as in the Lake video.
Interestingly, the song has been reinvigorated this year with two new covers. Sarah Brightman recorded the tune for her album A Winter Symphony, while U2 covered it for Bono’s (Red) Wire product campaign to fight AIDS in Africa.
Despite the single’s dark imagery, “I Believe in Father Christmas” has gone on to become an unlikely Christmas classic. I enjoy hearing it every year as a welcome alternative to the relentlessly cheery carols or the sappiness of newer songs such as “The Christmas Shoes.” Perhaps people respond to its appeal for remembering the true Christmas spirit and not surrendering to commercialism. Considering the country’s current economic crisis, we may need to relearn that lesson. In any case, that message will resonate for generations to come.