While I’ve felt connected to Sufjan’s Christmas music dating back to middle school, there was always one song that I felt especially attached to: “Get Behind Me, Santa!” And honestly my relationship with this song all stems back to one detail, a lyric in the song’s third verse that proclaims, “I don’t care what you say Santa Claus; you’re a bad brother breaking into people’s garages.”
I remember when I was young and still believing in all aspects of the holiday, I always felt a bit disturbed by the fact that there was a man sliding into our house through the chimney in the middle of the night, even if his sole goal was to deliver presents to us. It certainly didn’t stop me from loving the holiday, as I still do, but it was always a caveat that created a bit of skepticism for me.
Returning to the song though, it’s structured as a satirical conversation between Sufjan and Santa Claus about the intentions and reality of Christmas. While the swelling synths and horns that open the song and carry it through its nearly-four-minute runtime do an excellent job in creating an immensely energetic and jolly song, it is not without a deeper layer. It starts with the title, referencing the Bible verse Matthew 16:23 which reads, “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” Through this title, Sufjan analogizes Santa to Satan, which falls in line with his other comments on the subject, such as those he made in an interview with The Independent shortly before the release of the box set in which this song is included, where he states “The truth is I can’t stand Santa,” and, “We've taken a very sacred time and commodified it, so that there's a capitalist campaign to buy more, consume more, and then you have a conflict between the spiritual and the mundane.”
While Sufjan evidently has some pretty substantial criticisms of the modern, materialistic version of Christmas, it is not without a certain self-awareness as proven by Santa’s verses in the song which maintain that, even if the holiday has grown to be more consumerist, its traditional values of family, love, and gratefulness are still there to be found for all those who search for them. And ultimately, the holiday’s commercialism isn’t likely to change any time soon, so his anger toward that aspect of the holiday is doing little more than detracting from those traditional values that he is hoping to promote. Santa sums this up well in his first verse as he sings, “It’s a fact of life whether you like it or not, so put your hands together and give it a shot.”
All this said, I can’t help but agree with Sufjan on some of these claims. When my sister and I were younger, Christmas was a phenomenal time for our family to spend time together and grow even closer than we already were. However, as we grew older, we started to notice that the holiday would mostly unfold as us gathering around the tree to open presents, then soon afterward my sister and I would go to our rooms, and the rest of the day would be the same as any other. That feeling and energy of Christmas wouldn’t last the same way it did as when we were younger. As we noticed this, we changed our celebration of the holiday from a brief celebration of materialism to a family trip that we’d embark on a few days prior to Christmas and return a few days after. In this way, we were able to regain those wonderful feelings of family that Sufjan preaches of in this song.
The music itself in some ways stands in stark contrast to the satirical lyrics that accompany it. Those swelling synths and horns that I mentioned earlier aren’t tentative or reserved; they’re full-hearted and unapologetic in the same way that one’s love and pride for family, that essential pylon of Christmas, should be.
And with that, Sufjan offers this song to us as the complete package: whether you’re looking to dive charged and analytical into the true essence of Christmas, or whether you’re looking for a fun, bouncy, and mindless anthem to carry you through the season, Sufjan has got you covered!