How Run-D.M.C. Saved Christmas

How Run-D.M.C. Saved Christmas

It’s that time of the year. Or, should I say, it’s well into that time of the year, and there’s no better way to end the holiday season and simultaneously pass my first semester of college than by writing about Christmas anthems. That’s right — it may be below freezing outside, but I am still in hot water academically. And that’s right — Christmas anthems. Not carols. Not the sickeningly repetitive and seemingly endless tunes that made up my elementary school winter concerts. Not even Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (oh yeah, I went there). If you want to talk about real working-class holiday spirit, real POC cheer, you need look no further than Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis.”

We should start with why I have good reason to be a grinch when it comes to Christmas carols. I had a very stressful relationship with holiday music between what was being taught to me in school and my life at home. At the root of it, Christmas carols, such as “White Christmas,” were just that — too white American. I would hear about the classic holiday singers in school: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin… there was a trend. And while Sinatra and Martin had Italian heritage, I couldn’t see myself sitting next to any of them at the dinner table. If Dave Marsh asserted that “rock-as-rebellion is a story compiled almost exclusively by white men,” then rock-as-festive was no different.[1] I didn’t hear enough about The Supremes or Ella Fitzgerald (or Run-D.M.C.!), so I was left in the classroom with tunes that were too plain, and where the voices I heard came from the throats of white men. My family didn’t buy into sleigh rides, nor did we get a Christmas tree every year, nor could we afford to shop down 5th Avenue in NYC. It was all too stereotypical of the 50s, nuclear, rich white American experience for me to relate to.

Other Christmas carols I sang in school were also naive and one-dimensional in such a way that it grew increasingly hard to tolerate them as each New Year passed. Specifically, I was introduced to a cast of fictional characters and yearly traditions that had no relevance to me outside of the holiday season. Classic Christmas carols tied well into Bakhtin’s analysis of the carnival of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for the Russian philosopher noted that “the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with… a ‘world inside out.’”[2] I didn’t want to keep singing about red-nosed reindeer or frosty snowmen or Santa Claus, because it all seemed like one giant party whose admissions ticket I could never afford. I wasn’t comfortable being annually reminded of a magical winter wonderland, when I had no representation of the utopia that could exist in Queens, New York City.

Let’s say that I’m writing a Christmas carol about my neighborhood. If we had reindeer, they’d be sporting Timberlands. If we had talking snowmen, they’d be wearing snapbacks and smoking vape pens. Santa would have to ring my apartment bell in order to enter. And our snow would glisten for one day before it looked like a misshapen 7-Eleven Coca-Cola slushie. But no songs of that sort were taught to me in class, and the ones I did learn, I couldn’t even dance to. There was no pulsing beat, no groovy melody, no soul in any of those carols. If I had to listen about Santa flying around in a sleigh, shouldn’t I have also been taught a line dance? So not only was the content of the Christmas classics too frivolous, but they were beyond being simply “inside out” — they existed in a boring, alternate dimension. For that, they couldn’t provide a mode of escape from a boring reality. I honestly appreciated my family’s socioeconomic reality, and only wanted music’s positive reinforcement.

And so I grew up being fed a utopia that was too bland and too far out of my reach; I never learned how to swallow all of it, nor did I ever really want to. Instead, all of my family’s energies were directed towards gathering around Christmas dinner. I wanted to hear songs that were reflective of my own background — songs about the happiness that is found within the working-class, within my Honduran mother and Italian father. I longed for music that was just as kick-ass as it was familial, just as spicy as it was sparkly. So while my parents made mashed potatoes, rice and beans, and lasagna, they also kept it real; they played jazz while we sat and ate, then put on salsa for some dancing afterwards. Helps with digestion… but I was always wanting more.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “Christmas in Hollis” appeared within my family’s musical repertoire. Apparently, my dad used to play it when I was a toddler, but had forgotten about it until last Christmas, when I added the song to our Spotify playlist. “Oh, I used to play this when you were little!” he said as the intro’s trumpets blared through our living room speakers. I’m sure a big part of the reason why I stopped hearing “Christmas in Hollis” was that my parents didn’t generally enjoy listening to hip-hop. It breaks my heart that my mom will talk about how she witnessed hip-hop’s inception while growing up in the South Bronx, but today she’ll change the radio station when a rap song comes on. Too vulgar. Too sexual. Too gangster. Essentially, everything that “Christmas in Hollis” isn’t. But how so?

Let’s get into the knitty-gritty. “Christmas in Hollis” samples Clarence Carter’s 1969 “Back Door Santa,” and it’s tempting to shift this paper’s entire focus onto that song, but I’ll provide a sneak peak.[3] Its trumpets blare the kind of funk that’ll make you squeeze your eyes shut and scrunch up your eyebrows. Its baseline runs as if there’s no tomorrow. And Carter’s lyrics are so cheeky that I can understand why I never heard this song when I was younger (I highly recommend giving it a listen). In fact, this blues track had so much groove that its remix by Jam Master Jay was what convinced “Run” Joseph Simmons and “D.M.C.” Darryl McDaniels to rap over it for a Special Olympics Christmas benefit album.[4] So the backtrack for “Christmas in Hollis” is already like no other Christmas carol: being topped off with the sounds of turntable scratching, pounding base drums, and tolerable jingle bells, the track is effortlessly danceable and revolutionary. The song begins with the opening notes of “Jingle Bells” being scratched over as the drums furiously bang for the arrival of “Back Door Santa.” The records of Christmas Past, with their oversaturated and rich white American content, are literally being scratched over by the African American artists of Christmas Future. It’s as if Jam Master Jay is yelling: “Forget what you knew about Christmas carols! This is hip-holiday, baby!”

The first verse of “Christmas in Hollis” places distance between the audience and Santa Claus, depicting him as a fleeting figure whose world we are not meant to escape to. Run raps about spotting a man with his reindeer in a park on Hollis Avenue, only to find out that the man was Santa Claus after he takes to the air, dropping his wallet and license at Run’s feet (good to know that Santa has a license to ride his sleigh). And instead of stealing the million dollars in cash, Run ultimately decides to mail the wallet back to Santa Claus that same night. This rap isn’t afraid to talk about morality in true holiday fashion: “I’d never steal from Santa, cause that ain’t right.”[5] In the act of returning the wallet back to Santa — which contained material wealth and the only proof of Father Christmas’s existence — Run also expresses how he has no need to connect himself to Santa’s world. Joseph Simmons is content enough with his life in Hollis to return a million dollars and a license to the Santa. Not only that, but he is rewarded for sticking to his morals by receiving a note from Santa that tells him to keep the money. If Run is willing to disconnect himself from Santa, and is rewarded for doing so, then maybe the North Pole, and the fictional characters I was forced to sing about, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

D.M.C’s second verse pays tribute to the middle/working-class, describing his home in Hollis and the various foods that bring him and his family together. Darryl comes out the gate announcing, “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens,” showing how an African American family can enjoy the holiday season in middle-class Queens without the sleigh rides or shopping sprees afforded to wealthier families.[6] It’s not the gifts that tie D.M.C’s household together — it’s the food that his mom prepares throughout the verse, moving on to rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and eggnog. No caviar or champagne. And maybe it’s because Hollis is only a fifteen minute drive from my home, but it’s comforting to know that “Christmas in Hollis” can be hip-hop outside of the context of being in the hood. As Dave Marsh says, “‘there’s no gangster in these guys,’” because Run-D.M.C. embraces their humble utopia, and it’s expressed from their rhymes to their Adidas track suits.[7] It even gets to the point where Darryl ends his verse with a mashup of different Christmas melodies. “Ah, yes. I always hated that part,” my dad said when we gave it another listen. It was a bit confusing; weren’t these the tunes working-class listeners were supposed to be forgetting about? But Run-D.M.C. doesn’t play Christmas carols — they “bust” them out of existence, giving listeners one last sour taste of the mediocre tunes before the banging drums prompt the last verse.

“Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it / It’s Christmas time and we got the spirit.”[8] The delivery of Run-D.M.C.’s rhymes is what keeps listeners grounded in reality, forcing them to rejoice in the festivities that their life at home presents to them. The third verse comes in hard and carefully articulated as Run and D.M.C. rap in unison. Lines like “The time is now / The place is here / And the whole wide world is filled with cheer… So open your eyes, lend us an ear / We want to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” tells listeners to stay present, whatever the socioeconomic class, so that the holidays become adaptable to anyone’s current living conditions. “Run-DMC comes at you without excess. When they trade verses, it is more like a dialogue than a jumbled conversation.”[9] Indeed, their raps manage to get all up in your grill while also inviting you to taste what they’re cooking.

But, it’s tricky (“tricky, tricky…”). Darryl McDaniels admitted that “Christmas Rappin” by Kurtis Blow was a hip-holiday anthem before “Christmas in Hollis” was released in 1988.[10] However, this comparison can be knocked out in several respects. For starters, “Christmas Rappin” is over eight minutes long. Eight minutes. Versus just under three? With my attention span? … I’m leaving that there. And while Kurtis Blow did us the favor of calling out “The Night Before Christmas” as it begins to be recited at the top of his song — “Hold it now! Wait, hold it. That’s played out.” — the music and lyrics of his 1979 single are still within the elementary stages of hip-hop.[11] Curtis keeps the same rhyming pattern as he raps about getting jiggy with Santa Claus over a track that sounds too close to “Good Times,” so that the song’s lyrics are the only indicator of it being about the holiday season. Instead, Run-D.M.C. sampled a holiday song from a black blues artist, and “sparked a sort of hip-hop revolution, breaking down conventions in lyricism by abandoning the melodic rhyming made popular by such artists as… Kurtis Blow.”[12] They managed to integrate hip-hop, and the marginalized communities behind it, into the holiday season while hailing the working/middle-class life in Queens and splicing out conventional Christmas music. “‘They dug each other so much and they the world so much that you know, the most ferocious thing they ever did was just utterly charming.’”[13]

This essay was read by Alejandro Zuleta. It is not a first draft.


[1] Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul: 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999),

  1. xxxiv.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Rabelais and His World,” Cultural Resistance Reader (London: Verso, 2002), p. 88.

[3] Evan Rytlewski, “We Talk Run-DMC’s ‘Christmas in Hollis’ with DMC Himself,” AVclub, 3 Dec. 2013, 12:00am,

[4] Evan Rytlewski, “We Talk Run-DMC’s ‘Christmas in Hollis’ with DMC Himself.”

[5] Run-D.M.C., “Christmas in Hollis,” in Tougher Than Leather, Def Jam Records, 1988,

[6] Run-D.M.C., Christmas in Hollis.

[7] Sean Alfano, “‘I Am Who I Am,’” CBS, 4 June, 2006, 10:13am,

[8] Run-D.M.C., Christmas in Hollis.

[9] Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, editors, The Anthology of Rap, (Yale University Press, 2010: 122) JSTOR,

[10] Evan Rytlewski, “We Talk Run-DMC’s ‘Christmas in Hollis’ with DMC Himself.”

[11] Kurtis Blow, “Christmas Rappin,’” in Kurtis Blow, Mercury Records, 1979,

[12] Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, p. 265.

[13] Sean Alfano, “‘I Am Who I Am.’”