Every December, people around the US finally allow themselves to listen to Christmas music, joining the few of us who believes in the extension of the beautiful season. Yet with the introduction of this wondrous genre to public radios comes the airing of one particularly degrading song.
“Do They Know It’s Christmastime,” a well-meaning song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure and sung by a variety of British artists in 1984 under the name BANDAID, redone several times by contemporary musicians on behalf of different causes, plays consistently on every variety Christmas station. While originally meant to address a famine in Ethiopia, it gives no further thought to the lives or beliefs of Ethiopians.
The song does not consider that maybe this country where Orthodox Christianity has existed for thousands of years, before the Anglophone world had heard the good news, does indeed know and celebrate Christmas. They follow this calendar and celebrate it on 07 January.
Perhaps if Geldof and Ure had taken time to speak with Ethiopians or the other Africans the song “covers” and ask the question in the song’s title, they could have written a better song that did not degrade so many humans while intending to help.
The original lyrics read,
…But say a prayer, pray for the other ones
At Christmas time, 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
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you
Well, that’s grim. “Dread and fear,” “doom.” Thanks for highlighting the growing African economies in nations such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Rwanda. Thanks for praising the countries that had gotten on their feet after colonists like Britain itself finally gave them independence a mere two decades before the release of this song. Thanks for giving a shout out to the music industries that were beginning to take hold in places like Kenya. Thanks so much.
And “thank God it’s them instead of you”? That strikes me as heartless. But let’s continue.
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
You’re literally lumping what is now 55 different countries into one and saying the geography and situations are all the same. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have a lot of jungle, for example. And lakes. A massive river. An ocean port. Farms and corn and fruit trees. And mountains – with snow (though that’s the only place you’ll find it in DRC, which sits on the equator).
Also, why is snow a necessary indication of the holiday? Christmas originated as a celebration of King Jesus being born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine. Though snow plays a role in many Anglo-phonic songs about the holiday and indeed in my own life as someone originally from northeastern USA, it was not originally part of the picture.
Moreover, “they” do know it’s Christmastime. In Congo, a 95% Christian country, we don’t celebrate in the same commercialized way the US or probably Great Britain does. It is more minimal, in that we don’t tend to give gifts and don’t propagate the Santa story. But we do expect the holiday to come every December. We have our own Christmas songs that church choirs do. We go to church on the holiday to celebrate and hold all-night prayer vigils. So to answer the question once more, yes, “they” know it is Christmas.
In 1984, the songwriters were addressing the Ethiopian drought but then sweeping the rest of the continent under the mat of their ill-spoken words. You can’t do that. There’s too much diversity on the continent and even within the countries that compose it. And to only show the “dread” and “doom” of a place or places is not a healthy way to call people to your cause because it denies the humanity and life within those places.
Not to worry, though. Maybe this was just written…and sung by over 40 artists initially…and redone four times, most recently in 2014… simply because everyone was too cold and grumpy. Check out a solution for this below and consider some better ways to communicate your cause here. Finally, petition your local radio to stop playing versions of the BANDAID song and others like it. Peace.