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6 Not-So-Jolly Christmas Carols

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You can always tell when Christmas is just around the corner. The radio starts playing cheery holiday favorites like Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" and Eartha Kitt's version of "Santa Baby." Bands of merry carolers wander the streets harmonizing Christmas classics like "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells." But there are some Christmas songs that don't get a lot of attention because they're dark, even by non-holiday song standards.

1. Weird Al Yankovic's "Christmas at Ground Zero"

Weird Al's first crack at a Christmas tune took a decidedly darker turn than one might expect from the king of pop music parodies. According to the liner notes in his first box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box, Yankovic's label had been dogging him to do a Christmas album ever since "Eat It" had turned him into a parody zeitgeist. So he came up with a Christmas song for his 1986 album Polka Party! that people might sing if they knew World War III was just around the corner. Apparently, some radio stations were so put off by the song's dark humor that they banned the album altogether.

2. Eric Idle's "F&^$ Christmas"

The most musical member of Monty Python (not counting Neil Innes, of course) also jumped on the anti-Christmas carol bandwagon in his solo career. During his "Greedy Bastard" tour, Erik Idle just came right around and said "F@#$ Christmas"—although he didn't use the grawlix to say the "F-word." He also spared no one or nothing involved with Christmas, with lyrics like "F#$% Santa," "F#*$ holly and f#*$ ivy and f#*$ all that mistletoe" and "F#$& Rudolph and his stupid f#*$& nose." So if you haven't figured it out by now, the song performed in the video has some very naughty words.

3. The Pet Shop Boys' "It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas"

The electronic pop duo's stab at a Christmas song might have a happy beat, but its lyrics are anything but—especially at Christmas. Christopher Lowe and Neil Tennant's holiday tune bemoans all the usual complaints of a typical dysfunctional family trying to make it through another holiday, complete with "families fighting around a plastic tree" and "now it's all about shopping and how much things cost." Then it launches into a lyric loop that brings it home with "it doesn't often snow at Christmas, the way it's meant to do, but I'll still have a glow at Christmas, because I'll be with you."

4. Dwight Yoakam's "Santa Can't Stay"

Dwight Yoakam's Christmas song is probably what you'd expect a super sad country song to sound like: There are drunk husbands, presents being used as weapons, and good ol' fashioned heartbreak on Christmas Eve. The song's about a boy who learns that Santa won't be visiting because Momma told him to leave. Little Bobby notices "the plate where cookies still lay" and that "a car just like Dad's pulled out and drove away." It's so sad that it'll either break your heart or make you grow one big enough to break all over again.

5. The Arrogant Worms' "Christmas Sucks"

This Canadian comedy music trio saw something funny about the unquestioning worship of Christmas and how it implores us to give, give, give until we hurt, hurt, hurt. So they decided to give the Christmas hating Scrooges and the greedy gift-taking hoarders a song to show the seedy side of the holiday season. The song has a catchy chorus: "Christmas sucks, Christmas sucks, getting stuff is much more fun, you gotta look out for number one, Christmas sucks."

6. Spinal Tap's "Christmas with the Devil"

Spinal Tap members David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls (played by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, respectively) also couldn't resist the music industry's trend of trying to cram a Christmas song into every band's repertoire. Instead, they crammed heavy metal's brazen love for the occult and faux-devil worship into a holiday song where lost souls in Hell are celebrating Christmas with Satan himself. There, "the sugar plums are rancid and the stockings are in flames" and "the rats ate all the presents and the reindeer ran away."

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Amazon Is Offering Free Same-Day Shipping to Prime Customers for the Holidays
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The holidays are arriving early for Amazon Prime customers—along with every gift they’ve yet to order through the online shopping behemoth. Amazon has put all of its Prime members on the “Nice” list this year, and is rewarding them with free same-day shipping from now through Christmas Eve. While that may be cutting it a little too close for some shoppers, the limited-time perk has perpetual procrastinators singing “Joy to the World.”

“We are continually investing in Prime, adding more selection and making delivery faster and more convenient,” Greg Greeley, Amazon Prime’s VP, said in a statement. “In fact, in 2016, the last Prime Free Same-Day order from Amazon.com delivered in time for Christmas was ordered at 10:23 a.m. on Christmas Eve. The order included Venum Contender Boxing Gloves, and was delivered to a Prime member in Richmond, Virginia at 2:42 p.m.—the very same day, for free.

(Whoever received those boxing gloves last year: now you know.)

This year’s holiday shipping schedule will allow gift-givers to push that deadline even further. While two-day shipping is always free for Prime customers, if that were the only option, they’d have to be done buying all their gifts by Friday, December 22. This year’s shipping perk means that you can push your shopping all the way to Christmas Eve, as long as you live in one of Amazon’s Same-Day Delivery zones (you just have to order by 9:30 a.m.). Even better: If Prime Now is available in your area, you have until 9:14 p.m. on December 24 to place your order and still have something fabulous to stick under the Christmas tree.

Of course, zero-dollar shipping costs are far from the $99 service’s only perk: unlimited streaming of Prime Video movies and TV shows—including Amazon-produced series like The Man in High Castle, Mozart in the Jungle, One Mississippi, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—is there for the bingeing. Free Kindle books, photo storage, and grocery delivery are among Prime’s many other benefits.

Not a Prime member? No problem! “Even if you are not currently a member, holiday shoppers can try Prime for free for 30 days and get two-day, one-day, and same-day shipping for free,” says Greeley.

It’s hard to argue with free.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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