Naughty and Nice

This is the kind of post I think I had in mind when I started all this in 2010.  Yesterday, the words to “Santa Claus in Comin’ to Town” came to my mind and I noticed something I had never noticed before. [1]  There is a list of people Santa is keeping.  On this list are people who are distinguished by having two traits in combination.  They are naughty and nice. [2]

The song doesn’t specify just why Santa wants a list of these people.  A lot of bad books and even worse movies have been made about the combination.  You can imagine what the search for illustrations turned up!  The general sense of these books and movies would, if taken seriously, bring Santa’s character into question, so I will not pursue it further.

Moralists of every stripe—parents in particular, I suppose—have treated the crucial categories of this song as if they were mutually exclusive.  You can see why.  If the parents, who have a mysterious connection to Santa Claus, can define what  “nice” means and what “naughty” means, they have a great tool to affect the behavior of their children.  Carrots and sticks are well-known reinforcers of behavior.

I can understand the behavior of the parents.  Simple self interest would do it.  What I can’t understand is the resistance of so many of my friends as I showed them the text [3] and they persisted in believing that “naughty” and “nice” were shown in the lyrics to be opposed to each other.  As if, you know, there were two lists.

The song says there is one list.  There is a reassessment period where the data are rechecked, but only one list.  The list contains not the names of children who are naughty OR nice (wouldn’t that be everyone?) but the names of the children who are naughty AND nice.  Apparently, in the view of Messrs. Coots and Gillespie, these traits fall nicely together.  As they should, given their combination by “and.”  Still, it is hard to see the simple truth of the text when you are accustomed to seeing it as meaning something else.  And I don’t think all of this deficiency can be laid at the foot of the Trump era.  Some, but not all.

Well, it has changed my view of the song, for sure.  After all these years of believing the
commentators that this was a rewards and punishments song, I have now paid attention to the text itself (always a good idea) and have noted to my surprise that it doesn’t say what everyone says it says.  What is actually says is that there are dimensions to Santa Claus that have not yet been fully appreciated, even though the textual evidence has been sitting there in public for more than eighty years.  I am the only one I know who will be singing this song this year with a new and intriguing understanding of what it says about Santa Claus.

Unless, of course, you would like to join me.

[1] The song was written in 1934 for J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillispie so it is a few years older than I am.

[2]  Etymologically “naughty” can be traced to “having nothing” and “nice” to “knowing nothing.”  So these would be poor and ignorant children.  It shows the limits of etymology, doesn’t it?

[3]  Really, if you search hard enough, you can find later versions where the “and” is replaced by “or.”  You see this all the time in contested biblical texts where it is referred to as “scribal amendment.”  I am not sure who does that work for pop singers, but it seems unlikely that it was the inconsistency of the two categories that bothered them.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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