Nunc Scio Considers: Weird Holiday Songs (#2)

Entry the second: A Spaceman Came Travelling

Most Christmas tunes tend to fall into one of two categories: solemn religious music written by dour men 150 years ago designed to remind us of how very serious Christianity really is, or fun-loving romps about bioluminiscent reindeer or Christmas trees that, for one reason or another, deserve to be rocked around. And then there are songs that fit into neither of these groups. They aren't fun-loving, but they lack the gravitas of a proper yuletide hymn. Some of them are just downright strange.

Such is the second selection in Nunc Scio's weird holiday songs list, Chris de Burgh's A Spaceman Came Travelling:


At first blush, A Spaceman Came Travelling doesn't seem like much of a holiday song at all. It's not about caroling, Santa, Christmas trees, winter wonderlands, figgy pudding or any of the usual festive fare. In fact, it doesn't even use the word 'Christmas'. Nevertheless, the song has insinuated itself into the holiday canon, largely because it tells the story of the Nativity. But it does so in a totally bizarre way:

A spaceman came traveling on his ship from afar 'Twas light years of time since his mission did start And over a village he halted his craft And it hung in the sky like a star Just like a star

He followed a light and came down to a shed Where a mother and child were lying there on a bed A bright light of silver shone round his head And he had the face of an angel And they were afraid Then the stranger spoke He said "Do not fear I come from a planet a long way from here And I bring a message for mankind to hear" And suddenly the sweetest music filled the air And it went la la la la la (etc.) Peace and goodwill to all men And love for the child

This lovely music went trembling through the ground And many were wakened on hearing that sound And travelers on the road The village they found by the light of that ship in the sky Which shone all around

And just before dawn At the paling of the sky The stranger returned and said "Now I must fly When two thousand years of your time has gone by This song will begin once again, to a baby's cry" And it went la la (etc.) This song will begin once again To a baby's cry And it goes la la (etc.) Peace and goodwill to all men And love for the child

Oh the whole world is waiting Waiting to hear the song again There are thousands standing on the edge of the world And a star is moving somewhere The time is nearly here This song will begin once again To a baby's cry

The upshot: 'Jesus' was actually a musical composition brought to us by an alien. And soon, we get to hear this kickass song again! Hallelujah!

Wait. What?

Leaving aside the extremely suspect interpretation of the New Testament for one moment, this song has two huge strikes against it. First, the line "'Twas light years of time since his mission did start". That's just a rookie mistake. As we all know, light years are a measure of distance, not time. Second, the song is sung by Chris de Burgh, which is the musical equivalent of being stabbed repeatedly in the ear by masked assailants, several of whom appear to be playing the alto saxophone. Not a good start.

And then there's the whole 'Jesus-as-alien-music' thing. Strange as it is, this is not necessarily an original idea. Fans of the band Styx (and there must be a few out there) will see an obvious parallel between A Spaceman Came Travelling and the "Holy Cow! The angels are really aliens!" insanity of their 1977 'hit', Come Sail Away. Still, you have to admire de Burgh's pure leaps of imagination. It's a nice idea: music so beautiful it makes everyone love each other. No doubt this a particularly attractive concept for de Burgh, whose recorded output has been known to cause grown men to pull their own heads off.

There are unfortunately several problems de Burgh's 'music as savior' formulation. For starters, say you're the woman and child the spaceman decides to visit. You live in a small village in the Middle East, 0AD. You're poor. You're hungry. There doesn't appear to be a man in the picture, so you're probably also a social outcast. All you want is a good night sleep. Suddenly, a spaceship appears out of nowhere, and some unearthly SOB inside wants to play you a song. I'm guessing the first, and completely understandable, reaction is to go out of your mind in terror. That's like the scariest thing I can imagine. Say nothing of the fact that the woman and child would have zero comprehension of space travel, a heliocentric solar system, or 20th century easy-listening adult contemporary music, thus lacking any mechanism to put their unearthly visitor in any kind of context.

Even if the woman and child can get past the face-melting terror of alien visitation, they're bound to be underwhelmed by the Spaceman's song. They can't eat it. They can't sell it. They can't use it to end the oppressive rule of foreign dictators. And perhaps more importantly, the song totally sucks. It consists entirely of an overdubbed de Burgh singing 'La la la la la...' over and over again, backed by swirling synths. It sounds like something the titular Spaceman made in his basement with a casiotone and a 4 track. The song is so laughably bad that de Burgh's insistence that people from miles around were drawn by the sound appears less like a religious metaphor and more like a case of tragic self-delusion.

The song also dates itself pretty severely. Apparently, the alien/Jesus song is supposed to begin again in 2000 years 'with a baby's cry'. In 2000, the top Billboard single was 'Breathe' by Faith Hill. That's a long time to wait for a crappy Faith Hill song. More to the point, if that's the song that's supposed to save the world, I'll take the doom. Sometimes death is the preferably option, especially when 'New Country' is involved.

All things considered, it's astounding that A Spaceman Came Travelling is still being played on the radio at all, let alone as a Christmas song. From its extraterrestrial interpretation of Christianity to its sheer stupidity, this is a song better left to the aliens. And yet there it is, every year, playing on 'lite' music stations around the world. By virtue of its incredible and baffling resilience, Chris de Burgh's new age Nativity story has earned its place in the gallery of weird holiday songs.