Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why I Hate "The Christmas Shoes"

I love the Christmas season, and have loved it since I was a child. I loved wearing a jacket for the cold weather, I loved the eggnog, I loved the carols, and I loved the gathering together with friends and family - but of course, the best part was the Christmas story itself, with the angels, shepherds and wise men announcing the arrival of Christ, the Incarnate Word. Yet there's a darker side to the Christmas season, and I don't mean the Grinch sneaking around stealing cars. I mean an evil side stemming from the marketing aspect of it. Every year there's at least one made-for-TV movie, one Christmas special, one song, or even a sermon or two that misses the whole point of the season, capitalizes off the more emotional parts, and ends up being nauseating.

One of the most timeless nauseating "classics," however, is NewSong's "The Christmas Shoes." It's about a man in a line at a store near Christmas, and in front of him is a little boy trying to buy shoes for his mom. The boy explains that his mom is near death, and he wants to get her something nice for Christmas. As the boy doesn't have enough money, the narrator pays for the shoes.

I first heard about this in 2006, and it was in a negative light. In fact, the vast majority of people I've spoken to since then say they hate this song. One old high school friend accurately summed it up nicely as "the Thomas Kincaid of Christmas music." Yet there are apparently die-hard fans of this song out there, and apparently it made NewSong plenty of money to warrant more album deals. None of this I can fully understand. Why?

First thing's first, let's talk about the background of the song. Did you know that this song is based off an email forward? You know, those goofy emails sent around, with themes like "Bill Cosby criticizes Qaddafi" or "Look out, most milk men spit in your bottle." Apparently "Christmas Shoes" is based off of one of those, which is already a bad sign. Don't believe me? Here's a source:
In 1999, the Christmas Shoes story began circulating on the internet. The touching story about a little boy whose mother was dying at Christmas, and his quest to find the perfect pair of shoes for her to wear in heaven, came to the attention of Eddie Carswell of NewSong. Eddie began writing a song inspired by the story. [source]
This makes perfect sense given that the song has all the traits of an email forward: a ludicrous scenario, unrealistic exchanges between people, an obvious bias slant, and a moral lesson forced upon all the previous. But before we continue, let's take a moment and review the lyrics of this song.
It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line
Tryin' to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes
Why is this little boy standing all by himself in a major store so close to Christmas? Where is his family? Did they just forget about him? Did he run away from home and they didn't go out looking for him? Aren't any of the store managers concerned about this little boy running around on his own? Most places of business dislike unaccompanied children because, if those children get hurt, they might get sued. It's a liability issue no one wants to deal with. Someone needs to seriously call Child Protection Services on this kid's parents stat.

Any way, the kid gets up to the register, and says the famous chorus of the song:
Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
So his mother is sick, probably bedridden...and he wants to buy her shoes? Why? She ain't gonna put them on! What is she going to do, sleep like the Stupid family? Why not something like a necklace, a wristband, a ring, something nice she can wear that doesn't impede with her rest? Why not a stuffed animal or something that can be put by her bed so she can see it as she lays there? That sounds much nicer, much more sweet, and much less expensive. Why does it have to be shoes? I can just hear some people saying, "You misunderstand, the kid just cares about his mom - it's the thought that counts." If it's "the thought that counts," then the gift is irrelevant - Q.E.D., buy something else.

Some might have also noticed I cut the chorus off at the last line. That's because it stands out for me:
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight
I'm sorry, this part of the song I can never take seriously. It reminds me of the famous exchange between Charles Bronson and a mugger in Deathwish 2 (warning, violence):

By the way, NewSong is a Christian group, and this is supposed to be a Christmas song, but this is the only mention of Jesus in the entire song. You know what I want my mom to wear when she meets Jesus? His white robe of righteousness, which He already paid for on the cross (Rev 3:5, 18, 7:13-14).
He counted pennies for what seemed like years
Then the cashier said, "Son, there's not enough here"
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me
Oh, great, he's a leech.

By the way, let's pause here to discuss the price of shoes. At most stores, you can get a fairly decent pair of tennis shoes for $20-25. A nice pair of women's shoes are a little pricier. So we're expecting that this kid is probably seeking about $30+ for a pair of shoes his mother might wear for a few minutes before keeling over.
He said Mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me Sir, what am I going to do,
Somehow I've got to buy her these Christmas shoes
Why? Buy her something else, kid! Why's it gotta be shoes? Why's it gotta be these stinkin' shoes? Go to the dollar store and find something simple but sweet to get her. The fact his mom is dying and it's Christmastime is emotionalism obviously meant to tug at our hearts and make us forget how silly the entire concept is.

"Oh no, I don't have enough money! What am I going to do?" Get a job, kid! Earn those shoes! I can't buy all the nice gifts I want for my family, you don't see me going around begging people for the money to do so.
So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out
I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
Mama's gonna look so great
Yes, teach the kid at a young age to rely on other people's money for all his benefits.

By the way, you know what I would immediately think if I was in this situation? I'd think the kid was being suckered in by his parents to commit some kind of scam. Don't believe me? There are panhandlers who do this sort of thing for a living. In fact, panhandlers can give much more convincing stories than a mother on the verge of dying and hence she needs shoes. I'd probably contact the store manager and let him know kid is accosting his customers for shoe money.

Here's the worst part of the song, in my opinion:
I knew I'd caught a glimpse of heaven's love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about
Are you serious? I mean...ARE YOU SERIOUS? YOU'RE SAYING THIS IS WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT? Buying some kid shoes?! You mean the birth of the Incarnate Word, the Eternal Son taking on flesh, the infinite taking part in the finite, the Messiah who would absolve men of their sins through His death and resurrection...that doesn't strike a chord with you? What's more important than that? Wait...buying gifts for people? Ah yes, good, commercialization is much more important than that baby in the manger.

Some might jump in here and immediately accuse me of not liking the song because it's not a musical catechism. On the contrary, I'm not looking for a deep theological discussion on the mysteries of the incarnation that would make Athanasius dizzy. I can name plenty of Christmas stories that have a better grasp on the Christmas message than this song without heavy religious overtones - A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and the original A Miracle on 34th Street are a few that come to mind. Even A Christmas Carol, which isn't all that Christian when you think about it (there's no "Ghost of Christmas Past" in the Bible) and whose author wasn't the most Christian of men, displays a far greater tie to the true meaning of Christmas. Scrooge's final repentance and regeneration says a lot more than shoes. Even It's a Wonderful Life, ignoring its use of a guardian angel, presents a nice message that one of the greatest gifts is the life God has given us.

But I'm sorry...buying a kid a pair of shoes his supposedly dying mother needs? That's supposed to compare? The worst part is the lead singer is belting this out like it's some great epiphany, as if he just discovered the meaning of life and we're all supposed to drop our jaws.

If that's not enough, let's look at the music video, which features NewSong with shots from the movie cutting in every now and then. For starters, each shot has the lead singer lip syncing with every other member looking away or down for some unknown reason. It's like they're embarrassed to be with the guy. Observe the two most used shots:

It gets even more clear in some of the shots where you can see the other band members closer. Check out the pic below - the guy has a look on his face as if he's thinking, "Remember the paycheck...remember the paycheck...remember the paycheck..."

The video also abuses the dissolve transition. It reaches a ludicrous mark near the end, where the editor decided to dissolve between these three shots:

The middle shot is literally on screen for maybe like one second. It looks like an editing mistake they forgot to fix. Even if it was intentional, what was the point? Sergei Eisenstein you are not. Need another example? Look at the last three shots of the video, each one being separated by a dissolve.

Good thing they showed both those shots of the band again. I was worried that the second shot was NewSong in an alternate universe, and if they hadn't had shown them again, I would have assumed they had been stuck in space-time purgatory. By the way, see how foggy it looks in that second shot? That's not JPEG scarring, that's literally how it looks before it cuts away - they don't even finish fully dissolving to the shot before dissolving to the next shot. To quote Tom Servo: "Just because you can edit doesn't mean you should."

The final bit about the video I found weird was what the kid was wearing while out shopping. Take a look at the picture to the right. That boy is walking through what can only be 15-degree weather with snow pouring down, and he's wearing a light collared shirt with a shirt underneath, jeans, tennis shoes, a jeans jacket, and no gloves. Good job, kid - your mom is going to die this year, but now you'll catch pneumonia and die next year. Man, these are gonna be the best two Christmases his father ever had.

No wait! Wait wait wait! Since people are trying to capitalize off this song, I have an idea! Let's make a sequel! The Christmas Shoes 2: The Revenge. This time, it's the kid's dad who's dying around Christmas! And so, the young boy knows what he must do! Contact family and friends? Dial 911? Make sure dad's will and life insurance policies are in order? No...he's gotta go out and buy MORE SHOES! He's gotta buy the best pair of shoes for his dad! But oh noes, he forgot his money...aha! But a plucky young man steps in and pays $100 for that pair of jack boots the kid just has to have, and the boy returns home triumphant, not realizing that he made a total stranger just spend all his food money for the next few months, leading his family to starve in the cold. And so, returning home, the kid puts those boots on his dad a few seconds before his father passes, and then he can throw them away...

...and that, my friends, is the true meaning of Christmas.