Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Tom Waits: Jesus Is the Reason

Christianity created Christmas as a religious holiday focused on salvation and redemption. Secularism, on the other hand, gave rise to a consumerist, materialistic Christmas.

A Grain of Salt | ElbyJames
7 min readDec 6, 2023
Tom Waits and Shane MacGown
“Shane MacGowan’s torrid and mighty voice is mud and roses punched out with swaggering stagger, ancient longing that is blasted all to hell. A Bard’s bard, may he cast his spell upon us all forevermore.” Photo by

After two thousand years, Christmas has morphed into something unrecognizable. Christmastime has become a time that we decorate trees; red and green lights everywhere; and a jolly, chubby man brings gifts to all the good children. We’re celebrating the wrong ideals. The first Christmas didn’t look much like a Currier and Ives print.

The birth of Christ is the traditional Christmas story. It’s reprised each Christmas in nativity scenes. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.

The birth of Christ is romanticized, just like war, marriages, and the good old days. We sing songs about it (“Jingle Bells”). We make movies about it (It’s A Wonderful Life). We celebrate a poor family that didn’t have much to eat. We gorge ourselves on turkey, ham, and all the trimmings. How ironic.

The songs we listen to when celebrating the season don’t even mention Jesus’ name. Mariah Carey’s song, “All I Want for Christmas…” is the most-played Christmas song worldwide. It doesn’t mention Jesus. Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” no Jesus. And Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” no Jesus either. Not one mention of Jesus in any mainstream Christmas song. You will have to look long and hard to find a Christmas song that mentions Jesus, but rest assured there are a few.

The main point of this story is that Mary and Joseph were a poor family yet our celebration is far from that, it’s a time of year when we stuff our faces. They were insignificant migrants. They were oppressed by a powerful empire. Jesus came into this world as a fragile baby, without a home. The God of the universe chose to become human and live among us. He came as someone poor, homeless, and marginalized. Now try and find a song about the marginalized.

I realize there’s a secular Christmas in addition to the religious holiday. However, my issue isn’t how the secular Christmas overshadows the original Christmastime. Christianity created Christmas as a religious holiday focused on salvation and redemption. Secularism, on the other hand, gave rise to a consumeristic, materialistic Christmas.

When I first heard the down-on-his-luck crooner Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” years ago, I wasn’t a fan. I knew who he was, I just wasn’t a fan for no particular reason. I can’t say it was his musical stylings that steered me away from him. After all, I’m a fan of Wesley Willis and he isn’t exactly Bruce Springsteen. “Christmas Cards…” though turned out to be an annoying earworm stuck in my head much like when a piece of food stuck between my teeth that my tongue won’t stop probing.

Tom Waits has grown on me throughout the years though. I appreciate his sorrow-filled, whiskey-soaked gravelly voice. I appreciate that he gives a voice to those who are voiceless. He writes about people with compelling stories. Waits sings bourbon-soaked mini-operas about love and loss, romance and heartbreak, loneliness and longing, outsiders and outcasts. The songs are filled with bourbon and are sung in the late hours. The stars of his songs are down and out cocktail waitress’, the grimy private investigator, and the down-at-heel prostitute.

Red mug of hot chocolate with marshmellows
This is what Christmas is about, a mug of hot chocolate with marshmellows. This is a season delight. Photo by Raspopova Marina on Unsplash

Nowadays, it seems like every singer and band must have a Christmas album or two, or at the very least, they need a Christmas single that gets played nonstop during the holiday season. There’s the 1957 Christmas album Elvis’ Christmas Album, Sufjan Steven’s 2006 album Songs for Christmas, and Bob Dylan’s 2009 Christmas via Judaism’s Christmas in the Heart and Tom Waits is no exception.

Waits has no Christmas album but he does have a Christmas song, at least in theory and that would be “Christmas Cards…” However, no matter how many times I listened to his excellent album Blue Valentine, I couldn’t connect “Christmas Cards…” to Christmas.

I must have listened to Blue Valentine a thousand times. I knew every word of “Christmas Cards…” but I still couldn’t find a connection. The song’s title is the only mention of Christmas, and the season isn’t explicitly referenced. The only connection to the season was in the televised live performance I saw on Austin City Limits rerun years after the fact. In the late ’70s, Waits improvised a spoken word version of “Christmas Cards…” in a video. The video also includes a boozy cover of “Silent Night” as both a prelude and coda. He drops into Little Anthony and The Imperials’ modest 1964 R&B hit “Goin’ Out of My Head” when the lyrics call for it.

Waits’ performance in “Christmas Cards….” highlights a clear and subtle Christmas theme.” When the expectant Hooker proclaims that her Old Man tells her “that he loves me, even though it’s not his baby. Says that he’ll raise him up like he would his own son,” the awkward position in which Joseph finds himself in the Nativity story immediately springs to mind.

The underfed, seedy underbelly of American lowlife are chained to a life of imprisonment by way of payday loans and predatory lending. A socioeconomic life of despair draws the attention of the Divine at Christmastime. Joseph’s embrace of Mary and her Son was brave exactly because of their socially precarious position. “Christmas Cards…” gets at the heart of what the sacred version of Christmas means, and Waits’ song helps us do that.

No song by Mariah Carey or Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or the gawd awful Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” can ever reflect the sacredness of the real Christmas. These songs as well as the rest of the Christmastime canon — with a few exceptions — can only drive consumerism to heights never reached before, except for last year’s sales.

After I found the connection to Christmas in “Christmas Cards…” I dug a little deeper into Tom Waits’ catalog and was surprised at what I found. I saw a theme of finding beauty in misery and suffering.

Finding grace in the midst of suffering is the supreme image of Christmas. Suffering helps you understand what’s important, feel more for others, and be closer to God. Grace doesn’t mean that we will hurt less or that our suffering will make more sense. It doesn’t mean that the source or cause of our suffering disappears.

In Tom Waits’ 1985 album Rain Dogs, stories of people trapped on the outside of society and wrought with mental illness are the stars of the songs. The track “Singapore’’ deals with workplace stress and about suicide in “Tango Til’ They’re Sore.” In the final track, there’s “Anywhere I Lay My Head” which is about accepting loneliness. These are the people Grace is intended for.

Loneliness is a common theme not just for Tom Waits songs but for the Christmas season itself. In Waits’ first album Closing Time, he sings about loneliness in the aptly titled track, “Lonely.” It’s a very specific loneliness of which Waits sings. It doesn’t matter if you’re with someone or not, it’s internal. Loneliness is the most beautiful of human emotions and sadness is part of the equation.

What suffering [and loneliness] does is add textures to our lives so that God’s grace has places to stick. You are not alone when you suffer. God’s presence changes how you suffer. God does not merely and passively sympathize. God’s empathy is transforming.

Grace doesn’t reduce or eliminate suffering. Grace conquers and transforms suffering. In other words, grace adds character.

In “Down There by the Train,” Waits expounds on the extravagant generosity of God’s grace. “There’s a place I know where the train goes slow/Where the sinner can be washed in the blood of the Lamb.” The passengers waiting for the train include “All of the shamefuls and all of the whores/And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord.” God’s grace is expansive enough to include anyone who will “meet me down there where the train goes slow.”

But, what about the hooker’s proclamation of, “I’m pregnant. And livin’ on 9th Street. Right above a dirty bookstore, off Euclid Avenue” turning out to be lies. By the end of the song the hooker comes clean, “if you wanna know the truth of it. I don’t have a husband. He doesn’t play the trombone.”

Waits’ Hooker still looks beyond the ruined present. The song ends with as much hope for the future as can be expected in her circumstances: “Hey. I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.” The story of Christmas is that we are all imprisoned but our parole is almost within our grasp. The beauty of the story is its perpetual hope for something yet to be realized.

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2023© ElbyJames



A Grain of Salt | ElbyJames

ElbyJames is an American disabled combat vet exiled in the UK & a free speech absolutist. He’s an occasional Top Writer