Deconstructing The Lyrics To “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Exactly a month before Christmas Day in 1984 a group of 37 pop and rock stars from England and Ireland entered the studio to record the charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? The song and charity which was the benefactor of the funds raised was created to raise money to provide food and water to those affected by the famine of 1983-1985 in Ethiopia.

Being a fan of acts such as Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, The Police, U2, and Wham!, and enjoying many of the hits from Bananarama, Marilyn and Paul Young at the time meant that that the release of the single in early December in the lead up to Christmas was an exciting thing.

Not all of the artists made the official photo.
Not all of the artists made the official photo.

Like many Australians, we bought a copy of the single which helped it reach the number one position on the charts for a couple of weeks and although it had been available less than a month, it ended up being the 19th highest selling singles of 1984 down under.

As much as I love the song and will sing along when I hear it, and as much as I think it was a great idea to release the song to raise money to “feed the world,” as the years have gone by I have often cringed when thinking about the lyrics of the song.

First of all, before I pull it apart, I want to acknowledge the fact that Bob Geldolf was inspired to write the song and produce the charity single after seeing a BBC news report on the 23rd October meaning that the song only really had a month to be written and rewritten, and if he was working tirelessly in the background to make it happen as soon as possible, over thinking the lyrics may not have been the main thing on his mind. So, with that in mind, screw it, I’m going to decontruct the song anyway.

deconstructing-the-lyrics-to-do-they-know-its-christmas

Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Lyrics)

It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime

I was ten years old when the song was released. Even as a teenager, in the following years I always thought it was strange that the thing the Ethiopians were fearing the most, that being their death through famine should be forgotten about because, well, it’s Christmastime. Although the hug that is mentioned in the fourth line is a metaphorical one, it represented the outpouring of donations that (the future) Sir Bob was hoping to receive and distribute.

But say a prayer to pray for the other ones
At Christmastime, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears

I can never remember the exact point I went from thinking that God and Jesus were plausible to them being mythological beings created by man, but I do remember it was around this point that I started to question the power of prayer. Surely, if we prayed hard enough we wouldn’t have to give more money as God would answer our prayers for rain. But if it worked like that, the Ethiopians wouldn’t really need our help as they were able to pray themselves.

And the Christmas bells that ring there, are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

I know that I’m not the only one who thought that Bono’s iconic line was the biggest slip in the face. In later versions of the song his line went from “well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” to “well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.” If the song was supposed to promote God’s grace in any way, shape or form, Geldolf was way off the mark. In fact, if anything, I think that this song could have been the catalyst for the decline of Christianity in the as studies by the British Social Attitudes Survey have shown since 1983 when the survey first started.

The decline of Christianity in the UK. By <a href=
Source: Time series from the British Social Attitudes Survey showing the religion to which people consider themselves to belong.

Although Bob Geldolf is an outspoken atheist now, his use of the “thank God” line cannot be ridiculed because of his non belief as this is the same thing that is implied whenever a Christian musician or actor accepts an award and thanks God or Jesus, or a Christian sports’ star attributing their win the one of the big men upstairs. If God is on your side, it would appear that He is not on the side of the “losers.” And that, by it’s very definition is not a display of anyone’s grace.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Not having snow at Christmas is not the biggest issue ever faced. I’m days away from celebrating my 42nd Christmas without snow. I often hear friends and family from the northern hemisphere state “Christmas is just not the same unless it’s cold and snowing,” yet for us Aussies, it’s not something that we feel is an integral part of the festivities. Sure we love to sing along to the seasonal classics such as Winter Wonderland, or Jingle Bells with it “dashing through the snow” opening line, but we are generally singing along whilst sitting amongst hundreds or thousands of carollers on a barmy summer’s evening with temperatures of 30ºC 86(ºF) the norm for us.

Here’s to you, raise a glass for ev’ryone
Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Sure, that glass may contain a non-alcoholic drink, but with an estimated 33-45% of Ethiopians being of the Islamic faith, raising a traditional glass of bubbly or wine is probably a slap in the face to those who abstain from liquor. Besides, it’s another slap in the face to them that we can raise a glass containing any potable liquid whereas they were hard pressed to have their fair share thanks to the drought conditions, Muslim and Christian Ethiopians alike.

And there is another thing about this that always irked me; notwithstanding the fact that almost half do not care that the Christian “saviour” is being celebrated, those that ARE of the Christian faith would be happy to have one square meal a day, nevertheless a feast to celebrate some guy who almost 2,000 years before was happy to feed thousands from a few loaves and fishes, and who promised to return to bring joy to the world, yet somehow He didn’t think anywhere between 1983 and 1985’s famine were worthy of His return.

Feed the world
Feed the world

Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again

Really?

Now I know that I’m probably 32 years too late to criticise the song, and as I stated, I really enjoy singing the song and am in awe that it was followed up by the Live Aid concerts that raised millions to help our our Ethiopian friends, helped by the fact that a team of 44 of the biggest international recording stars gathered together by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to record We Are The World raising even more money.

With more time up their sleeves, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie composed a better song.
With more time up their sleeves, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie composed a better song.

And so, with that in mind, I will finish up by sharing part of the write up that the popular weekly music newspaper Melody Maker shared when the song was first released.

“Inevitably, after such massive publicity, the record itself is something of an anti-climax, even though Geldof’s sense of universal melodrama is perfectly suited to this kind of epic musical manifesto. Midge Ure’s large-screen production and the emotional vocal deliveries of the various celebrities matches the demonstrative sweep of Geldof’s lyric, which veers occasionally toward an uncomfortably generalised sentimentality which threatens to turn righteous pleading into pompous indignation. On the other hand, I’m sure it’s impossible to write flippantly about something as fundamentally dreadful as the Ethiopia famine.”

That is very true. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the lyrics said, the song was only ever intended to sell units to raise money, not to be pulled apart by a hack writer like myself. And I know that. And that’s just another reason why a staunch atheist like me is happy to celebrate the holiest day of the Christian calendar. Also, I may have bought the 20th and 30th anniversary re-recordings to raise more money for the associated charities.

 

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