This year’s battle in the War on Christmas is being fought over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” According to some, the song’s lyrics promote date rape. According to others, including a radio station in Kentucky playing the tune on continuous loop, it’s a harmless ditty and a Christmas classic. Commentators on Fox News, who look forward to the War on Christmas more eagerly than children await actual Christmas, put the controversy in heavy rotation on their airwaves. “Do we get to a point where human worth, warmth, and romance are illegal?” Tucker Carlson wailed on his television show.
In some ways, the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” squabble is as contemporary as it gets: an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement on the one hand, and of the right’s anti-PC hysteria on the other. But it also fits into the long history of censoring and scrutinizing Christmas songs, and the much larger debate over who gets to control the holiday.
Like so many early Christian rituals, singing carols was a holdover from the winter feast celebration of Saturnalia, when people sang and danced in a ring. Now celebrants danced and sang around nativity scenes, though often with the same drunken abandon that had been a part of the pagan festivities. Because of those origins, some church leaders tried to prohibit carol singing while others sought to tame and solemnize it. In the year 129, for example, Bishop Telesphorus of Rome exhorted believers to gather inside churches to sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” on Christmas Day. Centuries later, both St. Francis of Assisi and later Martin Luther emphasized carol singing as central to Christian worship at Christmastime.