For an English professor, the holiday season’s many pleasures—from raucous parties to quiet nights beside the fire—are always overlaid with the less pleasurable task of grading exams. My exams usually feature “sight passages”: short poems (or other texts) for the students to analyze.
I don’t know if it’s the sight passages, or just the fact that we English profs have a hard time turning off our critical faculties at the best of times, but during this time of year I always find myself writing little essays in my head about the Christmas songs I hear.
Last year, as readers of this space may recall, I found myself deeply troubled by the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This year, it’s that cutest of holiday classics: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
The song is very short and the speaker is clearly a child young enough to still believe in Santa, so the lyrics don’t allow us to determine what precisely is being described. And that’s what’s so interesting, yet frustrating about the song. What exactly does our young speaker witness?
There are at least three possibilities, beginning with the innocuous but quickly spilling over into the deeply troubling.
1. It’s Daddy. Most casual listeners probably assume that what the child sees is actually her father, dressed as Santa and enjoying a cup of spiced snog with Mommy while the little one is supposed to be dreaming of sugar plums. Our little insomniac however, in her innocence, neither realizes that it’s Daddy nor realizes that if it weren’t, Daddy might not have found it very funny.
But even if we accept this reading, a question remains. Why is Daddy dressed as Santa Claus? Perhaps because he’s been playing Santa for the family or for some other event, but there’s nothing in the song to suggest that he has. So we must be open to the more interesting possibility that Daddy has dressed as Santa for Mommy’s sake. Mommy has been dancing and prancing in her negligee for Père Noël, and that the child has, rather awkwardly, walked in on a bit of Yuletide foreplay.
2. It’s some other guy. Since the child does not recognize “Santa” we can’t say for certain that the man Mommy is kissing is Daddy at all. It might be someone else dressed as Santa (Why? See above). In this case, we can be fairly sure that Daddy would definitely NOT be laughing were he to walk in on his wife and her lover. Perhaps he would be magnanimous considering that they were under the mistletoe, but I doubt it.
3. It really is Santa. This is the most disturbing possibility of all, that Mommy is having an affair with Kris Kringle, perhaps on an annual basis. It’s disturbing because, when you think about it, the whole idea of Santa Claus is pretty creepy. This old man sneaks into your house in the middle of the night while everyone is sleeping? If anyone really did that, you’d call the cops.
Plus, isn’t Santa a married man? No wonder that old elf is so jolly.
Now, why do I have to go and ruin a perfectly nice little song? Don’t blame me: I didn’t write it. If songwriter Tommie Connor wanted it to be clear, he should have written another verse. I wish he had. As it is, I have to listen to the damn thing every year and wonder…
Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.