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“I Believe in Father Christmas”: One of the Darkest and Most Unusual Carols Ever Recorded

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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. 

Greg 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. 

For more information, visit Greg Lake’s official website and Wikipedia’s succinct yet useful historical account of the song.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Very nice, Kit. This and The Kinks “Father Christmas” are my two favorite Xmas carols.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks! I enjoy that Kinks classic, too; sometimes it’s nice to have some more “realistic” carols. :)

  • JANK

    It’s an excellent song and holds up very well. The inspired use of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite, the dark lyrics with the subtle message, the ARRANGEMENT of the verses plus Lake’s excellent voice (listen to when he sings ‘tinsel and fire’) ALL combine to make it one of my top Christmas songs. Played in the same set as The Pogues, Christmas in New York and Band Aid’s Do They Know It Christmas and you be all set.

  • http://raginggail.wordpress.com/ Jim Ryan

    Thanks for the YouTube link; I’d never seen the video for the song before.

    While there’s some Vietnam footage there, I spotted a lot of stuff from WWII as well, which makes me think the folks complaining cited only that part of the sequence because of how close the end of the war was to the release of the song. I’m not sure the video would have gotten the same reaction for using that if it were released today.

    Although, the guy in what looks like a Plaestinian Authority uniform greeting his kid might make some people squirm if tried today. Maybe there’s no way to provide images for this song without making people nervous…

  • http://www.rooftopsessions.com Susan Ryan

    I love this song as well…maybe because I’m a bit of a cynic about the holidays, too. While I’m definitely a sucker for “traditional” Christmas songs, this one and the Kinks, plus that ’80s New Wave gem by the Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping” are among my favorites…and all of these are either very cynical or rather tongue-in-cheek…

    Love the Greg Lake song, though — perhaps it’s because of the beautiful arrangement and his exquisite voice that you really pay more attention to what it’s saying.

  • Sue

    I always loved this song but haven’t heard it for years. I tried to purchase it several years ago and was told it was out of publication. The lyrics remind me of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “To Jesus On His Birthday;” “For this your mother sweated in the cold, For this you bled upon the bitter tree; A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold; A paper wreath; a day at home for me.”

  • Steve

    Actually, the lyrics are “The Christmas WE get WE deserve”.