The first treacly twinkles of the piano begin. Then the raspy voice comes in. “It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line / Trying to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood …”
What happens next depends entirely on the kind of person you are. You may start bawling immediately, possibly hysterically. Or you may roll your eyes. And groan. And change the radio station.
The song is “The Christmas Shoes,” first recorded by the Christian vocal group NewSong as a bonus track for its album Sheltering Tree in 2000. Based on a chain-letter poem called “The Golden Slippers,” the song’s lyrics follow a narrator who is shopping on Christmas Eve and who is standing in line behind a young boy who does not have enough money to pay for a pair of women’s shoes. The chorus is what the boy says to the man next.
“Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there’s not much time You see she’s been sick for quite a while And I know these shoes would make her smile And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight”
It is so freaking sad.
Almost instantly after its release, the song surged to the top of the Adult Contemporary Billboard charts. It received frequent play on country and Christian music stations. It inspired not one but six books about the little boy, a CBS made-for-TV movie starring Rob Lowe and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and a sequel telefilm that aired on Lifetime. It is one of the few modern original holiday tracks to be successful, with possibly only Mariah Carey’s significantly less devastating “All I Want for Christmas Is You” for company.
“I call it the little song that could,” Eddie Carswell, a founding member of NewSong who co-wrote the track, tells The Daily Beast.
Now, every year, the song resurfaces on countless Christmas radio stations and finds success again. “The first year or two we thought, ‘I wonder if they are going to play it next year,’” Carswell says. “Now we’re just settled into the idea that, you know what, they are going to play it. It’s just a funny thing.”
So many people, judging by the song’s evident lasting popularity, obviously love it—relishing in the sloppy mess of tears it brings each holiday season. Others really, really hate it. Gawker named it “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” calling it “a zit on the nape of Christmas’s neck.” We asked Newsweek’s Tumblr subscribers, “What is the lamest modern Christmas song of all time?” Overwhelmingly, they named “The Christmas Shoes.”
What is it like to have penned what could be, quite possibly, the most polarizing holiday song in the canon? “We didn’t know when we were writing it if anyone was even going to listen to it,” Carswell laughs. That there has been such intense reaction to it is a total surprise. “We were never thinking along those lines when we were writing it.”
It’s true. That the song became popular at all was a fortuitous fluke. “The Christmas Shoes” was thrown together at the last minute and tacked on as a bonus cut to one of NewSong’s standard Christian-music records. It was the only holiday track on the album, and it almost didn’t make the cut. “We were doing concerts that week,” Carswell remembers, adding that he and co-writer Leonard Ahlstrom weren’t happy with how the song sounded. Still, the two hunkered down in their offstage time and managed to polish off “The Christmas Shoes” by the end of the week. “Everything about it sort of happened in a miracle way,” Carswell says.
That includes the speed at which a song from a Christian vocal group, which, to its credit, has produced 25 hit Christian-music albums over the years, took off in the mainstream world. “Almost immediately we started getting all these crazy phone calls: ‘Hey, people are playing it everywhere,’” Carswell says. “People called me and said, ‘You won’t believe this but were just at so-and-so place, they played your song!’”
Whereas almost every modern pop star du jour has put out Christmas albums over the years, often trying and failing for the next holiday hit, “The Christmas Shoes” is the incredibly rare example of an original Christmas song gaining any traction. Why did it succeed where the likes of Gloria Estefan, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber have failed?
“The emotion’s there,” Carswell says. “I think they fall in love with the boy a little bit, because he’s so heartwarming and so sweet to his mom. Or they have a family member they lost somewhere along the line around Christmastime. I think a lot of those things ring true in people’s hearts.”
Or perhaps people just like to cry.
In 2005, The Guardian named “The Christmas Shoes” the saddest song of all time, beating out Kleenex-endorsed staples by tear-jerking royalty Bette Midler, Harry Chapin, and Barbra Streisand. “‘The Christmas Shoes’ is smug, saccharine, and more depressing than the Cure’s entire career,” The Guardian’s Tom Reynolds writes. “And because it’s Christmas-themed and we have to hear it year after year in the U.S., it gets my vote as the most depressing Christmas song ever.”
But Carswell has seen firsthand—as has this writer, whose mother once had to pull over, her vision blurred behind the wheel by the tears she was spilling—that many people have a more cathartic and less disdainful reaction to the song’s sadness. “Normally when things make you cry, you don’t want to be a part of that,” he says. “But people say, ‘I cry my eyes out every time I listen to it, and I love that song.’”
And NewSong, in the years the band has been touring with the track, have become experts in staging the optimal sobfest. At the end of the song, just after the soaring bridge in which the narrator realizes that the boy was sent to teach him what Christmas is all about, a chorus of children tragically coos one last “Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please …” chorus. At that moment during NewSong’s concerts, when the audience is already on the brink of emotional collapse, a real little boy walks out onstage and sings those last lyrics. It is melodrama at its most brilliant.
Yet it is precisely that kind blatant pull for emotional response, which permeates the song’s lyrics, that many listeners find so cloying. “I’m surprised people call it depressing,” writes one Newsweek Tumbler follower, “because that implies they could sit through the entire thing.”
Carswell knows about these people, and he understands them. “I can imagine never wanting to hear it, especially if you’ve gone through some tough things,” he says. “I think there is some pushback, especially if they’ve been through a lot recently. I can see that, and I have heard that: ‘Hey, man, this song is too sad. I change the channel on things myself. ‘That’s too whatever. I don’t want to be a part of that.’”
Despite its polarizing nature, “The Christmas Shoes” remains NewSong’s most recognizable hit, and its perennial popularity does give the group something to do every winter. When Carswell spoke with The Daily Beast, he was on a Christmas tour, which the band has done numerous times over the years solely because so many people love the song.
And if some people find it too sad to bear, so be it.
“For some people it is the saddest song ever written,” Carswell says. “I guess if you’re going to write a sad song, write a real sad one.”