Subversive Carols: Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” by Johnny Marks
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
It’s the best time of the year
I don’t know if there’ll be snow
but have a cup of cheer
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
And when you walk down the street
Say Hello to friends you know
and everyone you meet

Oh ho
the mistletoe
hung where you can see;
Somebody waits for you;
Kiss her once for me
Have a holly jolly Christmas
and in case you didn’t hear
Oh by golly
have a holly
jolly Christmas this year

Johnny Marks wrote “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” in mid 1960’s. He is famous for many other Christmas songs as well,, i.e. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silver and Gold . Ironically Johnny Marks practiced Judaism, yet stayed true to his tradition in that he never wrote songs that mentioned Jesus, only the time of year. I consider “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” one of those universal Christmas carols that anyone can sing on spot. The most famous version of this song was performed by: Burls Ives in 1965.

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described ethics as “a call without a caller.” We act toward and treat others, keeping their well-being in mind as we act in the world. The same could be said for this song.

Winter can be a miserable time of the year especially for those with season affective disorder. Christmas also can bring to mind horrible memories of Christmases past. Religious groups every year hold Blue Christmas services to mourn our past loved ones. Polls have shown that people feel the saddest and loneliest around the holidays. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” subverts the individualism of Christmas and demands a new communal existence.

The opening lyrics are ripe with hope in the face of disappointment. Every year we sing carols romanticizing having a  snowfall for Christmas (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”). These songs place a desire within us that if not filled, we become disappointed. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” helps as our holiday therapist, letting us know that even if it doesn’t snow, we can still have an enjoyable time with a “cup of cheer.”

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” calls for us to see the humanity in others. In the second part of the first verse, whenever we leave our homes we should greet our friends with gentle welcome. Friendship is good and important, but if the verse stopped here, it would keep the status quo of relationships. Yet, the song takes it a step further and calls us to greet everyone we meet. In other words, we are asked to speak to everyone. This is an act of radical hospitality! We see the humanity within strangers and acknowledge them with love and respect.

Lastly, the mistletoe is the universal sign for loving physical contact. Thankfully, the gendered language in recent years has changed to “em,” short for them. Under the mistletoe one voluntarily escapes the world and is transported to the arms of another with great affection. This is a hiccup to the very system of consumption and replaces it with the reality of love and affection. 

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” wants us to engage with neighbors, known and not-yet-known. It posits a new ethical life and grants us public spaces for affection. Our communal ethic stretches us to be as human as possible–without technological distractions and emphasizes hospitality.

Holly Jolly Christmas!


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