When the nights are long and the days short, there is some solace in the familiarity of classic Christmas songs. But stuffed with pigs-in-blankets and addled on mulled wine, festive pop lyricists seem particularly prone to fallacy. What better way, then, to teach errors in reasoning than to dissect these Xmas classics? Humbug!
When the snowman brings the snow…“I wish it could be Christmas every day” – Wizzard
Not content with traumatising children and multiplying z’s beyond necessity, Roy Wood’s Wizzard offered up I wish it could be Christmas every day in 1973 to universal revulsion yet eternal radio airplay. This song’s fundamental premise is deeply flawed, overlooking the problem of diminishing returns. Immanuel Kant, too, surely would dispute Wizzard’s claim that one can “wish it could be Christmas every day”. We surely cannot wish for constant Christmas for everyone. For then, it would lose its lustre – while all the world’s systems and economy crashed down around us. It could be Christmas every day, but that would be terrible. Perhaps Wood would have been better to claim: “I wish it could feel like Christmas every day”.
But it’s the line “When the snowman brings the snow / Oh well he just might like to know / He’s put a great big smile on somebody’s face” that prompted the creation of this list. This is a straight-up dose of reverse attribution of causation. Yes, snowmen and snow are often observed together. But the snowman doesn’t bring the snow. The snow brings the snowmen. One cannot make a snowman and expect it to start snowing!
Not content with creating this (ahem) *abominable* lyric, Wood then has a chorus of children chant the line over and over as the song reaches its conclusion, thus both giving us a classic argument from repetition, along with an attempted indoctrination of the youth of the 1970s…
There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time …
Where nothing ever grows“Do they know it’s Christmas?” – Band Aid
No rain nor rivers flow
Charitable intentions don’t excuse fallacious reasoning – or straight-up ignorance. Bob Geldoff may have recruited a horde of celebs, but they still fell victim to a failure of imagination and hasty overgeneralization. There are some areas of Africa that rarely experience snowfall at all. A white Christmas is particularly unlikely in the south of Africa – given that south of the equator, Christmas falls at the height of summer. But I can promise there will be snow in Africa this Christmas time: at the very least, the tip of Kilimanjaro is a permanent glacier. But the effects of climate change are taking their toll on this snowy peak, so maybe soon this lyric will see a new and more accurate meaning. There’s a whiff of mistaken attribution of causation here, too, as if Bob feels that it’s the snow that makes Christmas festive, rather than the association with festivities that has rubbed off on the white stuff.
As for “nothing ever grows” and “no rain nor rivers flow”, we know that Band Aid wanted to draw attention to crop failures and famine conditions, but the idea that Africa is barren and desertified is disturbing and reductive. We could call it a fallacy of composition, in which the properties of a part of a thing are mistakenly applied to the whole, but really it’s a case of extreme negative stereotyping backed by a colonial mindset. Bob presumably was yet to hear of the Congo or the Nile. Do they know it’s ignorant at all?
You better watch out!“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – J. Fred Coots & Haven Gillespie
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town.
While Band-Aid were well-intentioned but disturbing, the moral philosophy of most Christmassy classics is utilitarian at best. There’s a rich vein of naturalistic fallacy in the Christmas canon, with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” making this list (and checking it twice). ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ is a declarative statement of fact, while the urgent warnings “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout” are clearly imperatives. This is fallacious, and I’m telling you why: you can’t substantiate an ‘ought’ from ‘is’ statements!
Coots and Gillespie had another moral fallacy in their lyricbook too: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake!” Set aside the creepy vibes of “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake”, this is a moral epistemic fallacy. The knowledge of whether you’ve been bad or good shouldn’t affect the motivation to do good. Strangely, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good”, but “He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice” – it seems that badness or goodness must be insufficient to determine naughtiness and niceness, or else Santa would surely have no need to find out who’s naughty or nice. What additional criteria beyond bad and good behaviour does Santa apply? The song is sadly silent on the matter: perhaps we must wait until he gets to town to ask him.
Christmas time, don’t let the bells end“Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)” – The Darkness
Only writing this song to make an under-recognised dirty joke, The Darkness nonetheless give us an illustration of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Justin Hawkins laments that his lover has “got your career”, and “went away upon boxing day”, and thus clings to the hope that if the bells don’t end, neither will Christmas day. But like Wizzard before him, Hawkins has got his causation backwards. Campanologists don’t have the power to halt the Earth in its spin. The bells ending doesn’t end Christmas day, the two are merely correlated. Hawkins is in the dark on that one.
Got on a lucky one“Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl
Came in eighteen to one
I’ve got a feeling
This year’s for me and you
A variation on the Gambler’s Fallacy is at work in The Pogues’ fairytale, as Shane MacGowan believes that one lucky break will beget others, when in fact a successful bet on the horses doesn’t affect future probabilities. More commonly seen when a gambler believes a series of failed bets make it more likely that the next one will be a winner to redress their rotten luck, MacGowan also makes the mistake of neglecting the base rate, failing to consider the many other gamblers and many other times that an eighteen-to-one bet didn’t come off. There’s no Christmas magic in the air in the New York City drunk tank – the win is only unlikely when considered from Shane’s perspective alone.
I can hear people singing“2000 Miles” – The Pretenders
It must be Christmas time
When it is Christmas time, people sing. But it doesn’t follow that when people sing, it is Christmas time. The Pretenders are affirming the consequent here: If P then Q doesn’t tell us that if Q then P. I like this song though, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that line.
But it’s not all humbug in the Christmas collection. Let’s end the year with that rarest of lyrical gems, the triple pun, courtesy of Slade. So here it is:
Do you ride on down the hillside in a buggy you have made?“Merry Xmas Everybody” – Slade
When you land upon your head then you’ve been Slade/slayed/sleighed