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.