Crafting a winning Christmas single is always a tricky business, but it’s not just about pulling off a careful juggling act between keeping the traditionalists happy and finding new words to rhyme with “tree”. If it’s radio play and those toasty royalty checks you’re after, there’s also a fine line between conjuring up a bit of Christmassy sentiment and accidentally writing a piece of complete smut or morale-lowering misery. It’s probably a decent idea to steer clear of using any slurs, too.
Just look at this lot: over the years, all of these artists fell foul of radio DJs, the Catholic Church – and the people who do the playlists at Costa Coffee.
Elvis Presley, ‘White Christmas’ (1957)
Though Elvis is largely known for his hip-shakin’ rock’n’roll, his version of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ is broadly faithful to the cockle-warming original – along with the rest of the covers The King recorded for his 1957 Christmas album. Nothing to see here, or so you’d think.
Why it was banned: A year before the release of ‘White Christmas’, a judge in Jacksonville accused Elvis of “undermining the youth of America” and pearl-clutchers feared his music was morally corrupting our beloved children. And so, naturally, his fairly inoffensive festive album caused widespread outrage – a DJ in Portland was even fired for playing ‘White Christmas’ on his show.
Jimmy Boyd, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ (1950)
First performed by a 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd, this festive number unfurls like an chesnut-warming Disney classic – but don’t be fooled by its candy cane-sweet exterior. Telling the tale of an innocent young befreckled child who 1) witnesses his mum having an extramarital affair with Father Christmas 2) has his belief in seasonal magic shattered by the realisation that his dad’s dressed up as the big red legend, it’s actually a troubling vision of a tickling, snogging pair getting it on in the living room. How heartwarming.
Why it was banned: The Boston arm of the Roman Catholic Church kicked up a stink because the song mixed the sordid act of kissing with the sacred birth of Jesus Christ, which led to a series of radio station boycotts. Eventually Columbia Records sent Jimmy to personally plead with the Archdiocese, where he explained that the Santa referenced in the song is actually “daddy” in disguise – and the ban was swiftly lifted.
Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters, ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ (1951)
A bona-fide Christmas banger, ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ has every single ingredient for success – from the old-timey jazz hands vocals to the raucous bursts of ”hahahah!” right before the final chorus. Holly, carol singers, toys in every store, and absolutely no turkey shortages make for a truly utopian sight.
Why it was banned: Blame those dastardly children Barney and Ben, who, according to the song’s lyrics, use the season of gift-giving as a chance to ask for “a pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots”. Sure they’re probably talking about cowboy costumes, but that didn’t stop Mood Media – who create playlists for some of the US’ biggest shops – pulling it from their festive rotation in 2019. Their reasoning? “What you don’t play can’t hurt you,” they told CNN.
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, ‘Fairytale of New York’ (1988)
An Irish folk ballad with a leg-kicking céilidh dance-off in the middle, ‘Fairytale of New York’ begins with a night in a jail cell, and rapidly sweeps from the sentimental (“We kissed on a corner, then danced through the night”) to the downright dark (“Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed”) – with a lot of insult-slinging along the way. Despite taking a slightly macabre view on Christmas, it’s still the most-played festive song of the 21st century.
Why it was banned: For decades, the likes of Top of the Pops, BBC Radio 1 and MTV have censored different words from the second verse – which features both characters exchanging vitriolic insults like “old slut on junk” and “Happy Christmas your arse” as well as a homophobic slur. The yearly arguments about who has the right to sing “f*ggot” at the top of their lungs is possibly the most irritating thing about Christmas, and around a thousand times more annoying than the song itself. Last year, BBC Radio 1 banned the original version of the song, while BBC Radio 2 continued to play it.
As an aside: Kristy MacColl solved the problem when, as early as 1992, she started changing the line to “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” during live performances.
Frank Loesser, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ (1959)
Broadway composer Frank Loesser originally wrote a jaunty-sounding show tune ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ to perform with his wife at a party (they didn’t have karaoke in the ‘40s). Ultimately, the song ended up in the 1949 romantic comedy Neptune’s Daughter, with two separate renditions: in one version, José tries to persuade Eve to stay the night away from the cold; in a separate scene, Betty sings it to Jack. From there, it’s been covered by everyone from Tom Jones to Ella Fitzgerald.
Why it was banned: Some listeners have pointed out that the idea of staying the night outside of wedlock (gasp!) was a major taboo in the 1940s, and so ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ might well be a flirtatious song about blaming the blizzard. That said, certain lyrics – like “What’s in this drink?” and “the answer is no” – have understandably raised eyebrows around consent, and in 2018, a series of US radio stations stopped playing the song altogether.
Eartha Kitt, ‘Santa Baby’ (1953)
When the American singer and actor Eartha Kitt first heard ‘Santa Baby’, she was amused by its lyrical decadence: “The song says, ‘Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree,” she told A.V Club of the allusion to fancy fur. “Well, all the men who have done that with me never stayed with me.” Accordingly, Kitt saw the song as a statement of independence. “Everything that I want in life I have to pay for myself,” she added.
Why it was banned: In 1953, Kitt performed the song for King Paul & Princess Frederica of Greece while they were visiting New York, and politicians attending the banquet weren’t happy about a song with such “adult” themes being aired for royalty. Soon afterwards, a handful of radio stations in the Southern states of America axed it from their airplay, but it didn’t stop ‘Santa Baby’ from becoming a classic.
Becky Lamb, ‘Little Becky’s Christmas Wish’ (1967)
A fairly miserable spoken-word number narrated by six-year old Becky Lamb, ‘Little Becky’s Christmas Wish’ has to be one of the saddest Christmas songs of all time. Writing her first letter to Santa Claus, Becky’s Christmas wish is for the safe return of her big brother Tommy, a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War – but as his beloved records are packed away into the attic, it’s heavily implied that he’s died.
Why it was banned: According to a 1967 issue of Record World, ABC’s radio stations refused to play ‘Little Becky’s Christmas Wish’ because its “sentimental narration… has evidently been disturbing to families who have relatives in Vietnam.” It didn’t prevent the down-beat festive song charting at Number Two in the US.
Weird Al Yankovic, ‘Christmas at Ground Zero’ (1986)
Another contender comes in the shape of Weird Al Yankovic’s ‘Christmas At Ground Zero’ – the story of all-out nuclear obliteration destroying the world forever. No more time for last minute shopping,” Al sings atop chipper parps of horn that parody Phil Spector-produced festive numbers like ‘Frosty the Snowman’, “it’s time to face your final destiny.”
Why it was banned: Following the 9/11 terror attacks, the media began referring to New York’s destroyed World Trade Center as Ground Zero. So since 2001, it’s slipped off the radio playlists. Weird Al Yankovic stopped performing it live, too.
Cliff Richard, ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ (1988)
Though you might expect this to be an ode to ill-advised festive snogs after too many mulled wines, our Cliff’s seasonal special is a far more wholesome beast – a waltzing, slightly schmaltzy wash of angelic children singing Christian rhymes, and carollers spreading cheer from door-to-door. At first glance, this one’s not especially controversial, and yet…
Why it was banned: In fairness to Costa Coffee, who banned Cliff’s Christmas classic from all of their stores in 2013, at least they were honest about their reasons. Essentially, they worried it might put people off their gingerbread lattes. “We cannot deny our love for Sir Cliff, but sadly the people have spoken and his festive jingle ‘Mistletoe And Wine’ was voted the worst Christmas song of all time so we had to remove it from our playlists,” a spokesperson told NME at the time. “We’re sure he’ll take this in the good-nature it was intended.”
Bing Crosby, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ (1943)
Narrated by a soldier who hopes to come home to his family “if only in my dreams”, Bing Crosby’s ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ came out in 1943, during World War II – and became one of the most-frequently requested songs at the charity performances the United Service Organizations hosted for soldiers and their families.
Why it was banned: Though the song was mostly a hit with Americans – particularly the families directly affected by the war – the BBC didn’t agree, and banned ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ for the entirety of World War II because it lowered morale, and fell foul of their “policy of excluding sickly sentimentality”.
Slade, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ (1973)
Well, it’s one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time: the band have shifted approximately 1.3 million copies of the tune, earning around £512,000 per year. Fun fact: much-forgotten songwriter Jim Lea wrote ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’’s chorus, and so receives a tasty Christmas bonus each and every Yule. Although we all know the best bit is the lyric about your granny getting “up and rock’n’rollin’ with the rest”.
Why it was banned: Similarly to Costa Coffee, The Holiday Inn in Kensington, West London removed the song from its playlist after bowing to customer demand. A spokesperson told The Mirror in 2012: “When it became apparent that the Slade hit was not being well-received by such a large proportion of our guests, we decided the best way to keep everyone’s spirits up in the countdown to Christmas was to remove it from the playlist.” Proof, if ever you needed it, that you can’t please all the people all the time. Merry Christmas!