The worst (and best) Christmas song

Michael Boylan's picture

Ask any of my fellow colleagues, past or present, and they will tell you that it just isn’t Christmas until Mike starts blasting “The Christmas Shoes,” several times a day, regardless of how many people cry, beg and plead for him to stop.

Have you ever heard this song? It’s the one about a person who is shopping at a store right before Christmas and this kid in line is buying some Christmas shoes for his dying mother. Here’s the kicker, the kid doesn’t have enough money and he starts telling his story and the person behind him is so moved that he or she gives the kid the extra money for the shoes.

I came to this phenomenon very late. Apparently, the song got its start on the internet in the mid to late 1990s and eventually a Christian group called NewSong recorded it in 2000. Since then, dozens of different groups have recorded a version. The best one, in my opinion, is from an album called Absolute Favorite Christmas for Kids. This is the version that I play repeatedly from right after Thanksgiving until right before we close the doors here for Christmas. The song is sung from the perspective of an adult narrator who is moved by this child’s story. In this version, it’s a kid, or an adult who sounds an awful lot like one, crooning about being an adult who is “not really in the Christmas mood” until he hears this awful story about a kid with a dying mother. Yep, nothing says “Christmas mood” like terminally ill mothers.

I don’t mean to make light of mothers with terminal illnesses, but when I hear this song I always picture Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge,” daintily coughing up blood into a handkerchief. I think this is because one of the “Christmas Shoes” fan videos on YouTube has an actress doing “the cough.”

It didn’t take me very long before I started to really get into the song (and torturing my co-workers who were less than enthusiastic about it). There is a lot of great detail that takes “The Christmas Shoes” so far over the top that it becomes a bit of a holiday rollercoaster.

“And his clothes were worn and old, He was dirty from head to toe.”

I take this to mean that the kid and his family are poor, which is meant to just ratchet up the heartbreak. If the family were better off, there might be health insurance that would cure Mama of her terrible bout of consumption. The fact that the kid is dirty from head to toe seems a bit much to me though. No kid has money. Did the kid have to be a guttersnipe? What, poor people don’t have sinks. They just go out in the world filthy? Is this supposed to tell us that Mama is so sick she can’t keep an eye on what her kid looks like when he leaves the house? I just feel like it’s too much. The fact that his clothes were “worn and old” tells me enough. “Dirty from head to toe” could just have easily been “shivering from the snow.”

In the chorus, the kid asks the cashier to “hurry, Sir, Daddy says there’s not much time...And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus, tonight.”

Ouch. The kid’s Mom is going to die before Christmas? He’s basically buying the shoes she is going to be buried in? Yikes. Kind of traumatic for a kid already enduring more than his fair share of trauma, don’t you think?

As a side note, what exactly are Christmas shoes? Are they like those goofy Christmas sweaters with snowmen and Christmas trees with puffy ornaments on them? Elf shoes with the curled up toes that bells hang off of? The kid wants his mother to be beautiful if she meets Jesus tonight, so one would think they would be kind of classy. Red heels with golden bows, perhaps.

The next verse has the kid and the cashier “counting pennies for what seems like years,” showing us once again that poor people are really poor - no quarters or dirty, crinkled dollars for him - and then the cashier says “son, there’s not enough here.” I always want to know how short the kid was. Are we talking five cents or five dollars? The kid searches his pockets “frantically, and he turned and he looked at me.”

Now, here’s where you have to wonder if the kid is scamming the person behind him. It’s not hard to imagine a kid getting himself extra dirty and raggy looking, throwing some pennies in a jar and then heading down to the department store, right before Christmas - when the lines are long and full of people in the Christmas mood - and then inventing this story to try and get his mother a present.

I know, it’s a cynical way to look at the song, but eventually it wins me back.

The kid gives the person behind him a little more of his spiel.

“Mama made Christmas good at our house. Most years she just did without. Tell me, Sir, what am I going to do? Somehow I’ve got to buy her these shoes.”

The person then succumbs to the kid and his plea, and so do we.

“So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out. And I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said, ‘Mama’s gonna look so great.’”

The song is about the power of giving. The kid wants to give his mama one great gift before she meets Jesus, possibly even tonight (gotta have that ticking clock, wouldn’t mean the same thing if she was going to make it to Valentine’s Day) and the man feels great giving the kid the money to buy the shoes. Even if the story is bunk, the man has bought it and is finally in the Christmas mood.

Our narrator even goes on to say, “I knew I caught a glimpse of Heaven’s love as he thanked me and ran out. I know that God had sent that little boy to remind me what Christmas is all about.”

Pretty powerful stuff. Now, in the midst of this nice message about the true meaning of Christmas, we get the melodramatic chorus several times, which is what drives people crazy and makes me love it more and more. I know, I’m kind of sick. For me, it’s all about the melodrama. It’s why I also like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’ll take the maudlin Christmas songs over “Jingle Bell Rock” every time.

If you’re still not convinced that “The Christmas Shoes” is the best (and worst) Christmas song, here is some more evidence that puts it clearly on both sides.

Reasons why it is the best

• You can’t deny that its ultimate message is of the power of giving, which is a very important message at Christmas.

• It may not be a sing-along carol like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” but if it comes on in your car, you know you’re going to sing along with the little boy as he makes his plea for his mama.

• There was a movie made out of this song. How many Christmas carols can say that? Well, lots of them actually, but it also makes them great.

• This song has so many versions that it can appeal to almost any music lover. Be on the lookout for a version with T-Pain any day now.

Reasons why it is the worst

• If you listen to the kid version, which I do, the voice, kind of like the voices of Alvin and the Chipmunks, starts to eat away at your soul.

• All it needs is the kid to be lugging around his baby brother in clothing inappropriate for the weather to make it even more heartbreaking (and derogatory of the poor - can’t forget that subtext).

• Go to YouTube and watch some of the homemade videos of this song. They are priceless.

• The movie that was made featured Rob Lowe. He was great on “The West Wing,” but he made some terrible t.v. movies including “Atomic Train” and the remake of “Salem’s Lot.” And really, did we need a five minute song blown up into a two hour t.v. movie?

If, by some crazy happenstance, you have never heard this song, I recommend downloading it today. It just won’t feel like Christmas without it.

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Submitted by letterman on Thu, 02/19/2009 - 7:17am.

If you listen to the kid version, which I do, the voice, kind of like the voices of Alvin and the Chipmunks, starts to eat away at your soul.

sniffles5's picture
Submitted by sniffles5 on Fri, 12/05/2008 - 10:30am.

Michael, I can help.

Just imagine "Momma" as a disease-infected crack-addicted prostitute, and "Jesus" as her Hispanic drug dealer, and you'll never hear the phrase "if Momma meets Jesus tonight" in quite the same way again. Eye-wink

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