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The words “naughty or nice” actually only appear once in the popular Christmas song “Santa Claus is Coming (or Comin’) to Town,” which observes its 80th season to be jolly this year. It’s a secular little ditty. No mention of the Birthday Boy in this tune, no siree. No references to the Nazarene. It might be Baby Jesus’ big day but you’d never know it from this number. The word “Christmas” only appears once in the last bit of the song and that is the part that is never sung. That makes it perfect for malls and elevators or wherever the songs of the season blast and bray.

Just a holly jolly song that anyone can enjoy. Right? “Naughty or nice” promises the sauciness of an old Vargas drawing, a harmless pinup. A wink! The song is perfect in a time when so many worry about giving offense. Probably not. But the actual words of “Santa Claus is Coming (or Comin’) to Town” bear examination.

Consider the ominous opening: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”

That’s a little scary if you think about it—and it gets us off to an alarming start. Someone is singing that to a child? A child who believes in Santa Claus? This is plainly some sort of warning. A threat. If you just read these words—as opposed to hearing them sung—they’d give you a scare, I think.

“He’s making a list?”

What’s that sound like?

“He’s checking it twice?”

Do I have to spell this out for you?

“He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

How’s he going to do that? Mmmmm?

Oh, don’t you worry about how. But he IS going to find out one way or another—and, when he does… That’s left to the imagination, which I imagine could be running wild in the mind of an impressionable child.

There is something decidedly not-so-jolly about that language. Father Christmas? Saint Nicholas? Or Big Brother?

Speaking of which, I once read a writer invoking George Orwell in musing on these lyrics. But Orwell had not begun his classic novel “1984” when J. Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie composed this number in 1934. Perhaps Coots and Gillespie inspired Orwell?

Eddie Cantor was the first singer. Their song was an immediate hit. Still is.

Entertainers from Frank Sinatra to the Partridge Family to Barry Manilow, Dolly Parton, Kenny G, Rod Stewart, the Jackson 5 and Dora the Explorer have all covered it. Tommy Dorsey and the Andrews Sisters, too. Plus, Gary U.S. Bonds and Merle Haggard and Bing Crosby (no surprise there). And don’t forget about Justin Bieber. Actually, please do.

I like the Drifters version, it’s a little eerie. Or you can try the Jamaica All-Stars, Liberace or some festive fellow called DJ Klaus Noel. I think that’s house music?

You’ll hear this song a lot this holiday season. At first blush, it seems safe and secular. Of course. Just a playful holiday jingle. Couldn’t possibly offend.

Understandable, though, for someone to make that Orwell connection. That’s no stretch. “Santa Claus is Coming (Or Comin’) to Town” is certainly a Santa for a dystopia—an Orwell or Huxley Santa. A Santa for “1984” or “Brave New World.” Not so much fa, la, la, la, la as auto-da-fe.

“He sees you when you’re sleeping.”

He does? Yikes! 

“He knows when you’re awake.”

Is this the North Pole or North Korea? Where’s Edward Snowden when we need him?

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.”

Or what? And how does he know these things? Cell phone records?

This is a Christmas song? I don’t think so.

But let’s face the facts, shall we? Santa Claus IS coming to town. Anyone can tell you that. We’ve been aware of his pending arrival since sometime in late summer when Santa’s little helpers at the CVS started hauling out the Christmas stuff.

The actual holiday is really only one day, if you think about it. But it’s also a season. A whole season. And a long one, too. There’s nothing you can do but accept it and decide to keep Christmas in your own way. I suppose in the privacy of your own home you might even use the word “Christmas.” But whatever you do, I urge you to listen closely to the lyrics.

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