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Thoughts on Lennon & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"

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A billboard from the campaign against war, which Lennon and Yoko carried out during the Vietnam War around Christmas.
(Image by Sam Harrelson)
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br />A billboard from the campaign against war, which Lennon and Yoko carried out during the Vietnam War around Christmas. by Sam Harrelson

A number of people know this song. Somehow, the celebrity and enigma of John Lennon managed to catapult this song into the catalog of Christmas music that plays over and over again at Big Box retail stores and on FM radio stations around the country. The song, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," was released as a single in 1971. It's lyric, "War is over/If you want it," came from a billboard and poster campaign in cities around the world that Lennon and Yoko Ono had carried out in 1969. And, when the song was released, the U.S. was still entrenched in the Vietnam War.

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The song seems irreverent. It is possible that Lennon was both sincere and cynical when he sang this song. "So this is Xmas/And what have you done" are lyrics wrought with irony; to Lennon and Yoko, they probably knew that a great many had been protesting and resisting the ongoing war but a great deal of Americans were also going about their daily lives and allowing the war to rage on. "For black and for white/For yellow and red ones/Let's stop all the fight" and "Let's hope it's a good one/Without any fear" are both parts of the song imploring humanity to be better, but they could also be sung with a sense of great pessimism.

There's a duality that is endearing to the song. Perhaps, sometimes it was a song being sung by a disappointed idealist and sometimes a song being sung by a passionate and loving man with hope for a better world.

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Today, what do Americans who hear this song think? Do they think about how Congress continues to approve some of the largest military budgets in U.S. history with little or no debate? Do they think about all the constructive and righteous things that could that could be funded instead of funding mercenary contractors or investing in the operations of the U.S. military around the world?

Sadly, the majority probably never think about any of that. This song is probably one that Americans have grown desensitized to in the same way that many have grown desensitized to hearing the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" or "All I Want for Christmas is You." Does that deepen or debase the song? It might do both. It might deepen the meaning--if you think the lyrics have a residue of cynicism--because look at Americans going about their daily lives and not really minding that America is now a country that wages perpetual war. And, it could debase the meaning, because only if someone consciously sits down to listen to the song would they really hear the roughness behind the lyrics. Only then would they contemplate the meaning and what the lyrics might say about the current state of affairs in the world.

It's a powerful song against war that is a Christmas song, but it is not a Christmas song. It could have been written at any time in the year and released. Yet, many people would not be aware of the existence of this song if Lennon and Yoko had not used Christmas as a means of expressing the spiritual urge to resist war. The ritualism of the holiday ensures that each year tens of thousands of people hear this song. It may be too real for some Americans whose loved ones are off fighting in wars, whose loved ones were injured or died in the wars that have been fought in this country's name. And then for some, it may just seem like a pleasant song of peace, a call to action to be considered or unheeded ("What, me resist war?").

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Finally, does this song implicitly comment on the consumerism or materialism of society? Only if you understand that the fascination with goods or the ability to collect material items, to stay up with consumer trends, is one cultural habit Americans engage in, which makes it possible for wars to continue in lands whose geography Americans scarcely know. Let's admit, tomorrow President Obama could announce that "Sumfuckinlandia" was being bombed because it was harboring terrorists and Americans would wonder if that was really a country but ultimately they would take the president and our military at their word--because might is right, because they really couldn't stop it from happening if they wanted to, and because they had to get back to their shopping.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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