While “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was widely considered innocuous in the mid-20th century—it even nabbed a “Best Original Song” Oscar for its inclusion in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter—the suggestive duet is now rather infamous. Some radio programmers have ceased playing it altogether, citing lyrics that many modern listeners would identify as clear examples of sexual harassment. The ongoing debate has given rise to a larger question: Which other problematic Christmas classics deserve a ban?
“Jingle Bells” entered the discussion in 2017, after Boston University professor Kyna Hamill discovered that minstrels originally performed it in blackface during the 1850s. And though Band Aid’s 1984 single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was created to fight famine in Ethiopia, its lyrics generalize the entire African continent in such an offensive (and factually incorrect) way that people have protested its inclusion on today’s airwaves.
These three examples may be relatively recent, but Christmas song controversies have existed for centuries. Here are seven holiday classics that have landed on do-not-play lists in years past.
1. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd
In 1952, a freckly 13-year-old named Jimmy Boyd introduced “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to the world in his high-pitched Mississippi twang. Though listeners were supposed to realize what the song’s young narrator does not—that Mommy is actually kissing Daddy in a Santa suit—many were still scandalized by the musical marriage of sex and Christmas. One Cincinnati churchgoer described it as a “mockery of decent family life as well as Christ’s birthday.” Boston’s Catholic archdiocese denounced the tune, and a West Virginia broadcasting company prohibited its radio stations from playing it (a company official even called it “an insult to Santa Claus”). Unfortunately for anyone who considers the song as annoying as Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey,” the efforts to erase it from holiday history didn’t last. The public protested against the West Virginia radio ban so forcefully that it was repealed after less than two weeks; and the archdiocese reportedly rescinded its opposition after Boyd met with Boston church leaders to explain that Mommy and Santa were actually husband and wife.
2. “Minuit, Chrétiens,” by Adolphe Adam and Placide Cappeau
Before “O Holy Night” became an English Christmas carol, it was a French carol called “Minuit, Chrétiens,” or “Midnight, Christians.” In the 1840s, a clergyman in the town of Roquemaure commissioned a new Christmas hymn from a local poet named Placide Cappeau (spellings vary), and composer Adolphe Adam set the words to music. The song debuted at a church service and soon began to spread across France. But by the 1930s, it was controversial, and according to the Oxford Companion to Music, “began to find itself excluded from the churches by one French bishop after another, on the ground of its ‘lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion.’” A 1934 article in The New Yorker added a wrinkle—that “People have been less pleased to know that [Cappeau] was a Voltairean atheist who wrote the anthem as a joke for a Parisian actress he was in love with.” While there’s little evidence for that claim, a general sense of religious unease was definitely present with the song: In 1933, the archbishop of Quebec noted (in translation) that the text was of “dubious theology” and should be replaced with songs like “Les Anges dans nos campagnes” (known in English as “Angels We Have Heard on High”), before finishing, “no one will be allowed to claim the authority of the archbishop of Quebec” to perform the song. Even today, some criticize the original lyrics on theological grounds and propose alternate French words to go with the melody [PDF].
3. “Christmas at Ground Zero” by “Weird Al” Yankovic
With lyrics like “We can dodge debris while we trim the tree / Underneath the mushroom cloud,” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1986 single “Christmas at Ground Zero” made light of the nation’s collective Cold War anxiety—and, as such, was quickly forbidden from airplay. “For some reason, [radio stations] didn’t think it was appropriate to have a song about nuclear destruction during the holidays,” Yankovic joked to the San Antonio Current in 2013. He phased it out of his live performances after people started using “Ground Zero” to refer to the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the Christmas song parody isn’t a syndicated classic, it did help Yankovic get his record label to stop pestering him for a full holiday album. “I was like, ‘Really, you want me to do a Christmas album? Here’s the kind of songs it would be full of,” Yankovic said. “After ‘Christmas at Ground Zero,’ they stopped asking.”
4. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues
Yankovic’s ill-fated spoof wasn’t the only contentious Christmas song born in the 1980s (thankfully, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is free from controversy). The Pogues’s folksy duet “Fairytale of New York,” featuring Kirsty MacColl, quickly became a UK holiday classic after its release in 1987. Through the second half of this fairytale-turned-sour, the singers hurl biting insults at each other, including a certain gay slur preceded by a line ending with maggot. In December 2019, BBC radio DJ Alex Dyke said he was cutting the song from his program. It wasn’t the first time the topic had come up—in 2007, the BBC censored the song by replacing the offending word with haggard. The move incited so much backlash that they scrapped the plan back then, but they announced that they were sticking with the censored version for Radio 1 in 2020. The Pogues’s frontman Shane MacGowan told Metro he thinks the change is “ridiculous.”
5. “White Christmas” by Elvis Presley
By the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley already had a reputation for corrupting American youth with his sexually charged rock ‘n’ roll music. So it’s not a complete surprise that some people took issue with his rendition of Irving Berlin’s chaste classic “White Christmas” on his 1957 Christmas album. Berlin himself spearheaded the movement to ban it from radio stations that year, which many did. Though not all DJs supported the embargo—one jockey in Portland, Oregon, was actually fired for broadcasting the song—some truly did consider Presley’s version far from family-friendly. “That’s like having Tempest Storm (stripper) give Christmas gifts to my kids,” Los Angeles DJ Dick Whittinghill told Billboard.
6. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Bing Crosby
A few bars of Bing Crosby’s baritone are enough to evoke nostalgia, and his 1943 hit “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” ups the ante by centering on the idea that some people—like soldiers—are only home for the holidays in their dreams. Worried that the song could damage British morale during World War II, the BBC refrained from broadcasting it altogether. “We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country,” the corporation said in a rather blunt statement.
7. “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt
In 1953, composer Phil Springer was skeptical when music executives asked him to create a Christmas song for a Broadway up-and-comer with an especially alluring voice: Eartha Kitt. “You don't write Christmas songs that are sexy,” he responded. “How are we going to do that?” As Springer told the Los Angeles Times in 2017, the execs advised him to “stick to the music” and “let [them] worry about whether this song is going to be sacrilegious or not.” To many, it was—some radio stations refused to play “Santa Baby,” and political officials expressed consternation after Kitt performed it at a dinner for the king and queen of Greece in November 1953. “Neither the king nor his queen were one whit disturbed by the chantress’s performance, nor by the song,” Billboard reported. “As for Miss Kitt … she has been quoted as saying it was ‘inconceivable that anyone would question the ingenious poetry of the song.’” That ingenious poetry (along with Kitt’s massive talent) made it the best selling Christmas song of the year—and a frequently covered classic to this day.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.