John Jacob Niles, the composer of the popular Christmas carol “I Wonder as I Wander,” wrote the song at the height of the Great Depression. It was inspired by a “tousled, unwashed” little girl Niles encountered in the woods in North Carolina, who sang him a few lines of a song. Niles gave her a quarter and asked her to sing the rest of the song, but the little girl just kept singing the same three lines. Niles used the melody to write “I Wonder As I Wander.”
What seems like a heartwarming tale about holiday cheer quickly turns sinister. In the song, a man is standing in a busy store line behind a little boy, who reveals he’s trying to buy a pair of beautiful shoes for his terminally ill mother.
First, as the kid counts pennies on the counter, the jerk of a store clerk tells him he’s short the dough to buy the shoes. Then, the narrator drops this line: I knew that God had sent that little boy to remind me just what Christmas is all about.”
Right, so God made this poor kid’s mom super sick at Christmas and put him in a line at a store with a clerk who has no concept of empathy, just to show you how not to be such a scrooge. OK.
We all know this one: The classic tale of a lovely lady trying to leave her date’s house to his increasingly persistent disdain. With lines like, “Say, what’s in this drink?”, this is really more of a sex offender anthem than a Christmas song.
Plus, this is hardly even a Christmas song. It doesn’t mention the holidays even once in the lyrics, so we’re just not sure how a song like this got mixed up with decking the halls and jingling the bells.
“Wassailing” has its origin in feudal Europe. At Christmastime, the serfs who worked the fields for their much richer lords would go wassailing, or begging for a beer and some coins. The lords would grant the meager handout in the hopes that it would prevent the workers from rebelling in the coming year.
Why on earth would we want to celebrate the holiday season with an upbeat jingle about Grandma’s brutal death at the hooves of a reindeer? A blog post by Alan Edwards reveals an even more sordid truth to the song: that it’s based on a 1964 murder of an old woman.
The story says the woman was found brutally beaten in the snow outside her home, surrounding by deer tracks in the snow. Her husband and grandson were questioned about the incident, and both insisted she had been run over by Santa’s reindeer, not murdered. According to the story, they were found innocent of any crimes.