Revisiting Band Aid’s Cringe-Inducing 1984 Single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

We all know, don’t we, that the 1984 char­i­ty hit “Do They Know It’s Christ­mas?” qual­i­fies as pos­si­bly the worst Christ­mas song ever record­ed? Does that go too far? The song’s writer, Bob Geld­of, went even fur­ther, once say­ing, “I am respon­si­ble for two of the worst songs in his­to­ry. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christ­mas?’ and the oth­er one is ‘We Are the World.’”

There’s no objec­tive mea­sure for such a thing, but I’m not inclined to dis­agree, with due respect for the mil­lions Geld­of, co-orga­niz­er and co-pro­duc­er Midge Ure, and British celebri­ty super­group Band Aid raised to feed vic­tims of famine in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. Revis­it­ing the lyrics now, I’m shocked to find they’re even more ridicu­lous and cringe-induc­ing than I remem­bered.

We can quick­ly dis­pense with the absur­di­ty of the title. As an exas­per­at­ed Spo­ti­fy employ­ee help­ful­ly point­ed out recent­ly in a series of anno­ta­tions, “the peo­ple of Ethiopia prob­a­bly did know it was Christmas—it’s one of the old­est Chris­t­ian nations in the world” with a major­i­ty Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tion.

The song’s aid recip­i­ents are referred to as “the oth­er ones” who live in “a world of dread and fear.” Lis­ten­ers are enjoined to “thank God it’s them instead of you.” And two years after Toto’s “Africa,” Band Aid man­ages to deliv­er the clum­si­est, most ill-informed stan­za per­haps ever writ­ten about the con­ti­nent:

And there won’t be snow in Africa
This Christ­mas time
The great­est gift they’ll get this year is life
Where noth­ing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christ­mas time at all?

Trou­bling­ly, the song “ped­dles myths about the cause of the famine,” writes Greg Evans at The Inde­pen­dent, “sug­gest­ing it was down to a drought, rather than the cor­rupt gov­ern­ment mis­us­ing inter­na­tion­al aid.”

But it’s Christ­mas, as you prob­a­bly know, so let’s not be too hard on “Do They Know It’s Christ­mas?” The artists who par­tic­i­pat­ed, includ­ing George Michael, Bono, Boy George, Sting, and many oth­ers had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the enter­tain­ment industry’s role in inter­na­tion­al aid, for good and ill. The song was re-record­ed three times, in 1989, 2004, and 2014, and it has become, believe it or not, “the sec­ond best­selling sin­gle in Britain’s his­to­ry,” Lau­ra June points out at The Out­line.

Evans notes that “a report­ed £200m was raised via sales of the sin­gle which went towards the relief fund and it lat­er went on to inspire the icon­ic Live Aid con­cert in July 1985, which raised a fur­ther £150m.” (Some of that mon­ey, it was lat­er dis­cov­ered, inad­ver­tent­ly made it into the hands of Ethiopia’s cor­rupt gov­ern­ment.) Oth­er ben­e­fit events, like Farm Aid in the U.S., would fol­low Geld­of and Urge’s lead, and the mod­el proved to be an endur­ing way for artists to sup­port caus­es they cared about.

See the unbear­ably earnest orig­i­nal video at the top of the post and, just above, a thir­ty-minute mak­ing of film with a who’s who of mid-1980s British pop roy­al­ty learn­ing to sing “let them know it’s Christ­mas time again” togeth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Relive 16 Hours of His­toric Live Aid Per­for­mances with These Big YouTube Playlists: Queen, Led Zep­pelin, Neil Young & Much More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (28)
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  • Brent says:

    But that’s what you need­ed to sell to raise char­i­ty back then. Nobody was into wok­e­ness to get out their cred­it cards then.

    His­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism…

  • Scott says:

    You cringe that the writer didn’t know as much as you do 35 years after the song was pro­duced? How smug we are churn­ing our our crit­i­cisms.

    Since our knowl­edge is so supe­ri­or, per­haps you should know the cause of the famine in Ethiopia wasn’t just cor­rup­tion, as you sug­gest. There was, in fact, a drought in that year, par­tic­u­lar­ly through Goj­jam, Tigray, Wol­lon­gong and Hararghe. Oth­er fac­tors were con­flict and civ­il war, the per­se­cu­tion of non-Amhar­ic pop­u­la­tion, the agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem and poli­cies, and even locusts and dis­ease. Might be hard to fit all that into a pop song though.

    Fur­ther, Ethiopia is Chris­t­ian but the lyrics are writ­ten to those in the wealth­i­er coun­tries, admon­ish­ing them for the slow response. “Do they know it’s Christ­mas” doesn’t mean THEY don’t know it’s christ­mas. It’s writ­ten as a crit­i­cism of the lack of Chris­t­ian response and “thank god it’s them instead of you” atti­tude in the west.

    The fact is, the famine killed some­where between 400,000 to 1.2 mil­lion, dis­placed 2.5 mil­lion, and left 200,000 orphans. Sor­ry the song that raised a cou­ple hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars for those peo­ple had lyrics you dont approve of.

  • Scott says:

    Per­son­al­ly, being of a cer­tain age, I love see­ing how young and beau­ti­ful every­one looks in that video.

  • Indigo says:

    Way off mark arti­cle.
    Try the same on We Are The World.
    Makes you want to puke in your soup, for per­form­ers and song.

    Brent got it “His­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism…”.

  • rob preuss says:

    “unbear­ably earnest”?

    for such an inter­est­ing
    web­site, every once
    in awhile you reveal
    your strange­ly cyn­i­cal
    gen­er­a­tional dys­func­tion!

    mer­ry christ­mas!

  • Ralph says:

    Not even close. Worst Christ­mas song: The Fairy­tale of New York. I don’t care what you believe, the word “fag­got” dis­qual­i­fies it!

  • Tom says:

    Oh please.
    “Dominic The Don­key” is the worst Christ­mas song ever record­ed.

  • David says:

    I find most crit­ics of this song have nev­er donat­ed to char­i­ty, or done any­thing to ben­e­fit any­one oth­er than them­selves. This song raised hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to pro­vide aid. What have the crit­ics done to help end world hunger?

  • Joe says:

    The music was sec­ondary to Geld­of’s actu­al accom­plish­ment with Live Aid. In spite of the feel-good back pat­ting the offi­cial sto­ry told, the real­i­ty was hor­rif­i­cal­ly, unimag­in­ably, the exact oppo­site. The Ethiopi­an dic­ta­tor, Mengis­tu, until then dead­locked in the war, was using the mon­ey the west gave him to buy sophis­ti­cat­ed weapons from the Rus­sians, and was now able to effi­cient­ly and vicious­ly crush the oppo­si­tion. Ethiopia, then the third poor­est coun­try in the world, sud­den­ly had the largest, best equipped army on the African con­ti­nent.
    Live Aid allowed Mengis­tu to slaugh­ter 10’s of thou­sands of Eritre­an women and chil­dren.
    Geld­of and the rest of the stu­pid­ly com­plic­it ‘stars’ bankrolled mass killings. He was warned warned repeat­ed­ly but was too busy bask­ing in the glow.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Spin Mag­a­zine found a) Ethiopia has drought every year, some years worse than oth­ers, and b) a lot of the mon­ey raised through Live Aid went to the dic­ta­tor who used it to buy weapons.

    Feel good now, David?

  • Marianne says:

    Spot on. I remem­ber at the time I found it cringe­wor­thy for many rea­sons, some of which are men­tioned above. And I was­n’t the only one then. Hav­ing good inten­tions is no excuse for being ill-informed, prej­u­diced and smug. And, yes, I have donat­ed to many char­i­ties through­out my life and vol­un­teered for some.

  • Alan McBride says:

    “Urge’s”? Ffs.

  • DJRMewzique says:

    Cringe-induc­ing? This is one of the sin­gle best Christ­mas songs of all time. What a pile of bull. There are so many songs I can­not stand to lis­ten to ever Christ­mas. This song? Play it ten times a day every day in December’s by all means,

  • TheMarque says:

    White Peo­ple: “If only these inter­est­ing native peo­ple I like to read about had snow and Christ­mas Trees like we do! They must ter­ri­bly regret not hav­ing real cul­ture like we do, the poor dears!”

  • H. Dotson says:

    I still love both songs.

  • Linda says:

    Well, they meant well.

  • Kaz says:

    The Bandaid song is my favourite mod­ern Christ­mas song because it embod­ies the very essence of what Christ­mas is tru­ly about although I wish there was an updat­ed ver­sion that is inclu­sive of all who do not know that the king­dom of God is at hand.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    Wol­lon­gong is in Aus­tralia not Ethiopia..

  • Ana says:

    Geld­of and oth­ers were aware of the prob­lems in Africa. When Geld­of vis­it­ed the camps he called the Ethiopi­an pres­i­dent a mur­der­ous c*** to his face and prob­a­bly owes his life to a sym­pa­thet­ic (or ter­ri­fied) trans­la­tor. Those artists chose to save lives even if a per­cent­age was always going to be lost to cor­rupt gov­ern­ments. The alter­na­tive was to do noth­ing. Bono com­ments on that when­ev­er asked. He says that you can only do your best, chose care­ful­ly the char­i­ties you sup­port but don’t just sit on your behind. Sting has also stat­ed that “you can’t save the world, but you’ve got to try.” So, no, not naive, rather sto­ics.

  • Ana says:

    Band Aid Con­tem­po­raries : “If only these ‘awoke’ peo­ple could read in between the lines or do a bit of research so they could under­stand that to this song start­ed as an angry, protest song by Bob Geld­of, then Midge Ure added those naive car­ol-like notes and Sting, Paul Weller and Gary Kemp helped smooth it all out with the melod­ic phras­ing. The result was a Xmas car­ol that was as close to a kick in the guts of those who did believe that there was such a thing as Xmas — as a mag­ic time enjoyed by all in the world. It did its job won­der­ful­ly well and it turned donat­ing or being involved in char­i­ty a cool thing to do. Both Bono and Sting have repeat­ed­ly affirmed that Band Aid was a turn­ing point in their lives and it taught them “to care”.

  • Kiss Myass says:

    TheMarque:“I am a brain­less racist com­mie fas­cist and I need to jump of a tall build­ing”.

  • Michelle says:

    I was a young teen when this song was released, I am white, and the title and lyrics made me cringe then. “Do they know it’s Christ­mas at all?” Good Lord.

    It is no sur­prise that white suprema­cy was bub­bling out of the tiny island nation for­mer­ly known as “Great” Britain, a cesspool of impe­ri­al­ism and belief in racism supe­ri­or­i­ty, but I expect bet­ter from us Amer­i­cans. Some songs need to thrown in the trash. Ethiopia was indeed suf­fer­ing from polit­i­cal fail­ings and famine at the time, and I applaud the sen­ti­ment to help (with­out mak­ing it all about the singers’ pop­u­lar­i­ty). No need to add insult to injury by won­der­ing if one of the first Chris­t­ian coun­tries in the world, hold­er of the world’s old­est Bible and pos­si­bly also of the Ark of the Covenant, knows Christ­mas. Again, good Lord! We can do bet­ter.

  • Michelle says:

    If the “they” real­ly was meant to us in the west­ern nations, I would be com­fort­able with the song. Do you have any links to share for that hypoth­e­sis? Right from the time I first heard this song back in the 80s, that line made me cringe, think­ing it sound­ed like smug west­ern­ers ask­ing if Ethiopi­ans knew it was Christ­mas. (Fun fact: the date of west­ern Christ­mas is t the Ortho­dox Christ­mas any­way. Lol)

  • Jon Zilkow says:

    This arti­cle is pure garbage based on hap­less wok­e­ness. The impact this cause had on the world at the time was pro­found and will nev­er be repli­cat­ed by wastrels like this jour­nal­ist and his ilk.

  • Belisario says:

    Well said Jon. Unbe­liev­able the abuse in col­lec­tive neg­a­tiv­i­ty that this wok­e­ness gen­er­a­tion is apply­ing at almost every­thing. Lets see only the bad, not the good. Lets not learn, just cancel/destroy.

    Geld­of made the com­ment of the songs on 2010 because of artis­tic aspects rather than the con­tent or mean­ing. As he said once…“it is a damn pop song not a Doc­tor­al the­sis”. I will per­son­al­ly hear DTKIC as one of
    my favorite songs for­ev­er. May God bless Geld­of and all of those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in help­ing the cause back then.

  • Sean says:


    What’s the deal with the way peo­ple talk, am I right? How does expres­sion work? What’s poet­ry? What’s rhetoric?

    “We sure don’t know, around here.”

    The fact that Ethiopia is a Chris­t­ian nation adds even more grav­i­tas to the title, “Do they know it’s Christ­mas?”

    It’s almost absurd that some­one needs to point this out to you.

    In Cana­da, a fair­ly Chris­t­ian nation, peo­ple also often lament that the pover­ty-strick­en don’t get to “know” the joy of Christ­mas.

    I know, I know… I’m just get­ting roped into a click­baity argu­ment with half-wits.

    I mean… why would a non-Chris­t­ian nation, such as, say, Pak­istan, have any rea­son to know or care that it’s Christ­mas?

    If Pak­istan had been in the grip of a pover­ty cri­sis, and the song had been writ­ten for Pak­istan, would that some­how make MORE sense to you?

    Nev­er mind.

    Some­thing tells me it would.


  • Bubba says:

    I have watched a lot of the videos on YouTube of “Do They Know It’s Christ­mas” I bought a VHS ver­sion when it was first released and one glar­ing omis­sion from every ver­sion online is a clip of Boy George hold­ing up a bot­tle of alco­hol around the line of “here’s to them, raise a glass for every­one” it’s on my VHS ver­sion, but nowhere on line have I been able to find it. Around the same time, Paul Young is also on tape with an arm extend­ed and a “thumbs up” with his hand. Fun­ny how I can’t seem to find that version…maybe it’s out there, but I’ve changed my search para­me­ters, added and delet­ed words to try and find the video I have with no luck. Just sayin’.…

  • Bubba says:

    I just found a ver­sion (extend­ed) not exact­ly like the one I have but it does show Boy George tak­ing a drink from a bot­tle and Paul Young rais­ing a arm with what may be a “thumbs up”, hard to see for sure. But a mod­i­fied ver­sion of what I have is out there. Nuff said.

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