Parody is one of those fine grammatical terms like anaphora, chiasmus and synedoche that English teachers understand and the rest of us don’t. Simply put a parody is a spoof or send-up by means of humorous, satirical or ironic imitation. Ben Johnson sums it up rather nicely in his 1598 publication ‘Every Man in His Humour’…
“A Parodie, a parodie! to make it absurder than it was.”
In their 1959 book, “The Lore and Language of Children”, the noted anthropologists, and collectors of children’s rhymes and games, Iona and Peter Opie suggest that the masters of parody are children…
“Parody, that most refined form of jeering, gives an intelligent child a way of showing independence without having to rebel. Children who recite “Our Father which art in heaven, bought a pair of braces for two and eleven” are not necessarily irreverent. It is just a thing they do. It is as if children know instinctively that anything wholly solemn, without a smile behind it, is only half alive."
And it is at Christmas – surrounded by carols just asking to be sent up rotten – that children’s gift of parody really shows itself…
Good King Wenceslas looked out Eating bad bananas Where do think he put the skins? Down his pink pyjamas. While shepherds washed their socks by night All seated round the tub, A bar of Sunlight soap came down And they began to scrub.
With many of the Christmas carol parodies it is possible to date their origin from their content. Take this favourite from the First World War….
Hark! the jelly babies sing, Beecham's Pills are just the thing, They are gentle meek and mild, Two for a man and one for a child.
This ties in with a popular wartime joke…
Q. What is the difference between Beecham’s Pills and Lord Kitchener?
A. One sends you out the back (to the privy) and the other out the Front!
(Pause for hysterical thigh slapping!)
Many of these generationally old parodies are still popular today. Two favourites from the 2nd World War…
We three spivs of Leicester Square, Flooging nylons, tuppence a pair, Fully fashioned, off the ration. Not even fit to wear.
…and its Scottish variant…
We three kings from Campbeltown Square Selling knickers for tuppence a pair Oh how drastic - no elastic! Very unsafe to wear.
…come from a time when knicker elastic was rationed to 1 yard per person and nylons were virtually unobtainable unless you knew a ‘Spiv’. These black market racketeers sold rationed and often stolen goods on the street.
“Stolen! It ain’t stolen lady! It just ain’t paid for yet!”
We four lads of Liverpool are John in a taxi George in a car Paul on his scooter Tooting the hooter Following Ringo Starr!
…is equally easy to date to the early 1960’s and the rise of Beatlemania.
The process of parodying Christmas carols still continues to this day although one suspects that not all were written by children. Along with the currently popular….
We three kings of Orient are, Puffing on a joke cigar. It was loaded, It exploded. BANG! [Pause]. We two kings of Orient are...etc etc
…is the absolutely modern and distinctly sinister…
You'd better watch out, You'd better not cry, You'd better not pout; I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is hacking Your phone! He's bugging your room, He's reading your mail, He's keeping a file And running a tail. Santa Claus is hacking Your phone!
Before we all start worrying about strange men coming down our chimneys perhaps we should cheer ourselves up by composing some parodies of our own…
Good King Wenceslas rushed out To catch the H37 Tripped right over a local Boy Scout. Now he's up in heaven.
Hark! the Herald angels sing. Glad their acclamation! Topping up their Oyster Cards At St Margarets Station!
Students at the Carlson School of Management Flash Mob sing “Deck the Halls.”
Recorded at the University of Minnesota last month.
— from Martyn Day