The Accidental Christmas Standard: Wherein I discover the true meaning of 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'

As the story goes, the frequently-belligerent Irishman/slightly successful rock singer Bob Geldof saw a report on the BBC about ongoing famine in Africa and became so incensed that he immediately took action, rounding up a passel of British rock and pop stars, writing a song, recording the thing and having it out by Christmas, wherein it immediately became the biggest-selling single in English music history. It has since been surpassed by that dreadful Elton John recycled-Diana-tribute “Candle in the Wind.”

The song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, has now passed into the realm of classichood, which is odd, since it was written on the fly and never really intended to enter the annals of Christmas music history. Children now know this song without knowing anything of its history due to its inclusion on Christmas music packages and being on “Glee.” It’s a part of Christmas music programs all over the country.

The song itself is an odd piece of business. How many Christmas carols contain words like bitter, doom, afraid, shame (OK, I know it’s shade but I always hear it as shame and think “That song was written by an Irishman!”) Sir Bob, or St. Bob as he’s mostly unaffectionately known in England, has been widely mocked for suggesting that people in Africa don’t know it’s Christmas or that “nothing ever grows” there—indeed, “no rain or rivers flow.” It’s a little weird, especially considering he could have, say, consulted an encyclopedia while writing the song to discover that things do grow in Africa, and in Ethiopia in particular, the majority of the population is Christian. So yeah, they did, and do, know it’s Christmas.

Nonetheless, the Band-Aid project is an important part of my Christmas preparations. Every year when I’m up wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, I watch the “Making of Band-Aid” documentary. I used to watch this a lot with my friend Justine, who had an early VCR. Later, it was our preferred Christmas vacation hangover viewing. So much so that when I discovered it on YouTube many years later, I could still quote many of the lines. In fact, there are a lot of moments in this “making of” special that describe specific types of moments in a language that few people—maybe two?—could possibly understand. Here are a few examples:

“I can’t get the laugh right, Bob.” Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood is on the phone with Sir Bob and all he has to do is say “Feed the World” and laugh maniacally. “Ha ha ha ha ha.” This is something he should be able to do in his sleep, but he’s having performance anxiety. An 'I can’t get the laugh right, Bob?' moment is when you need to do something that is easy for you because of your unique talents, but you choke.

“It was supposed to be a day off, but I thought, you know, ‘Good cause.’” George Michael gloats at his showing up, sparkling like a magical, frisky pony. This phrase comes in handy when externally celebrating your own largesse.

“Mumble, mumble, Germany (trailing off).” Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor is trying to converse with a member of Duran sidekick band Spandau Ballet. The other guy mentions Germany, which leads Andy down some kind of rock memory lane, the upshot of which is that everyone who goes to Germany knows what I’m talking about. As someone who has been to Germany, yes, I do. This phrase comes in handy when you’re a little befuddled and maybe about to pass out and then you remember other times when you partied your brains out or possibly had them fried by chemo. I have these moments a lot, lately.

“Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you.” Bono sings the be-You-Know-Who out of this line, giving the song its heart. When he has to lip-sync it while standing in between Sting and Simon Le Bon, he almost injures them with his dramatic Irish elbows. Clearly, he hoped that the irony of the line wouldn’t be lost of everyone who heard it, but I think he’s probably wrong.

I remember watching this show in Religion class before Christmas break one year and one of my classmates quoting Bono and saying that we should thank God it’s them instead of us, because, like, people were starving and stuff and we all had it pretty easy. We all nodded. I rolled my eyes inwardly, but perhaps this has been Band-Aid’s lasting legacy in my mind. The “Tonight Thank God It’s Them Instead of You” moment. Try it sometime. No matter how bad I think things might be for me, there’s always someone who’s worse off. There’s no better arena for TTGITIY than a chemo lounge. It’s a moment of selfish gratitude, in a way. Paradoxical, that one. Point: Sir Bob.

1984 was a simpler time. The pop stars gathered are all in regular clothes. Everyone’s hair looks by and large terrible. Except for George Michael, who was the only person who apparently bothered to take a shower. Everyone looks horrible. It’s like some kind of adult acne epidemic was breaking out in London. John Taylor, bassist of Duran Duran, wears a Duran Duran sweatshirt, which is a move that can rightly be described as "naff" in the extreme. There aren’t that many women on hand, and three of them, the “group” known as Bananarama, do nothing but scowl and whisper mean things about the other people in each other’s ears. I loved them.

But this special puts me in a Christmas mood like nothing else. And, about the title of the song—well, I’ve rethought that too. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is racist at best, but maybe we can step back and think about it more as a general question. Do we know it’s Christmas? Do I know it’s Christmas? There have been many years where I didn’t know it was Christmas even though I was dressed up and unwrapping presents. I haven’t known it’s Christmas even sitting in Mass. Putting aside everything horrible about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” I have to say that finally, I can answer this question in the affirmative. I do know it’s Christmas and I all I can say is: thank you.

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david power
6 years ago

When Bob Geldof wrote that song with Midge Ure they connected the idea of Africa and Ethiopia to be one thing.


In Ireland we always gave money to the "black babies" without any real knowledge of the differing countries.Only missionaries had that type of knowledge.

Do they know it's christmastime at all? Is of course a question .

The famine was originally believed to have been caused by a drought as it had in previous famines in Ethiopia.

The best thing we can give Africa is education.Money is an absolute waste.It has been proven that 95% is wasted.Organizations like the Peace Corps set up by Sgt Shriver(Saint?) can do great things there and if most young Americans and Europeans spent a year or two planting our knowledge there we could be on the road.

The Ides of March with George Clooney floats the idea of National Service and having seen the Germans do it I think it is fantastic.      

Jeanne Doyle
6 years ago
This article made me laugh out loud. I really loved the descriptions of the performers. I have never seen the video but will look for it now. I guess I have always thought when they asked, "Do they know it's Christmastime at all?" that they meant, do they experience love and giving? Do they know generosity? I felt like it was a call to help. I like your uidea of asking, Do we know it's Christmas? Do we know how much we have? At least the song gets us thinking of people outside of our own private bubbles.
I also like the idea of National Service. Keep learning, keep serving. How else will we ever know?
6 years ago
Your article reminded of a West Wing quote from Toby Zeigler to Will Bailey: "...when you use pop-culture references, your speech has a shelf life of twelve minutes."
But I had a similar theological reflection upon watching the MUPPETS movie over the holiday. It was the first time my family (I have a 5 year old) had gone to see a movie together since my kid was in a car seat. And it was her first time to make it all the way through an entire film.
MUPPETS was directed at two groups of people: those that grew up with them and those who never knew them. For both, the challenge was to make Muppets relevant again because they have "the world's third greatest gift...laughter."
This reminded me very much of the post-vatican II generation of mildly active church goers who managed to raise a generation of children mostly out of the declining sphere of catholic schooling. And now, as we revisit our prayer life with our own latest Missal translation, I find the Assembly similarly making its way through the spectacle and hungering for the relevant punchline about the sacramental life of the Church and God's greatest gift: Emmanuel.##
Vince Killoran
6 years ago

"slightly successful rock singer Bob Geldof"?!


The Boomtown Rats were a HUGE success in Britain & Ireland.

Des Farrell
6 years ago

Any chance we can put Dr. Midge back into the story, since he wrote the melody and produced the work through the night? I don't know how many words he added but it wouldn't have happened without him too.

I know that's not the point of your article but it seems that this working class Scot gets written out a bit.

David Smith
6 years ago

"Children now know this song without knowing anything of its history due to its inclusion on Christmas music packages and being on “Glee.” It’s a part of Christmas music programs all over the country."

It's depressing how little I know of what everybody all over the country knows.  Here we are listening to old carols and hymns while the rest of the country are singing “Tonight Thank God It’s Them Instead of You”.  Sigh.  So much to learn, so little time.

J Cosgrove
6 years ago

A couple comments:



It is an inspirational song but seems to need the visual to get the full effect.


There is enough food in the world to feed everyone but often political pressures interfere with the distribution.  Also some have pointed out that the distribution of free food can interfere with the normal supply of on going food sources since people prefer free food to that which they have to pay for.  This hurts local farmers and food distributors.


Another song that has an inspirational Christmas message was written by a woman I know.  It is called "Decorate your heart for Christmas" and has a very appropriate message for Christmas.  Christmas is now gone for a year but hopefully the song and message will get traction in the future.


A Jesuit said

"It is beautiful!  I felt as if it were Christmas again! Thanks so very much for sending it along and please thank the talented and faith-filled composer! "


A Philadelphia diocesan priest said

"the author’s message is certainly “spot on. I am sure that many people will both enjoy and benefit from its spiritual message.  The need to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas is imperative if people are going to enjoy the peace which God wishes to give to those who ask Him. "


A nun who taught me in grade school said

"it IS surely beautiful.  Thanks for sharing and I'll try to spread the word."


A Christian Brother who graduated with me from high school said

"The hymn you sent is beautiful, worthy of circulation."



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