Twenty Four years... damn.
I remember whern I first heard 'Do They Know it Christmas?' I was in my grade 10 Algebra class and because we'd collectively done well at a recent quiz we got to listen to the radio while we worked on our latest set of quadratic equations.
Some kids in the class had already heard the song and word passed around quickly that it was a song by a bunch of British musicians to raise money for starving people in Africa.
I recall thinking that it was rather partonizing and had to think 'wait a second... there are large portions of Africa which while poor are hardly starving' or something to that effect. C'mon, I was fifteen, there was no internet, while not really anymore accurate than the information I was getting from the song, the essence of what was going on in my head was right.
Let's also put into perspective that beyond having grown up with Unicef ads telling me that I could sponsor a child in Bangladesh for less than 50 cents a day, I was really not in touch with third world suffering. Yes, I do know Bangladesh is not in Africa - but I don't know that I knew the difference in 1984. And that is part of the point... I didn't know. Over the next year I - like so many - would learn a lot. The short term legacy of that song would be phenomenal.
The effect in Ethiopia specifically was, as we now know, minimal. Some lives were saved, or at least prolonged, but an enormous amount of money was lost to logistical failures in distribution and localized corruption. But awareness was raised. A spirit of humanity was evidenced that has never really disappeared. The song has been rerecorded twice since. Various similar projects like "We Are the World" (talk about patronizing) and "Tears are Not Enough" (the Canadian artists' response.) appeared to do their part. And of course there was Live Aid.
Live Aid itself could fill volumes. From the career making performance of U2, to the follow up Live8 (where Bob Geldof recognized that awareness was more valuable than money & didn't even try to raise funds with it.)
The long tail of 'Do They Know its Christmas?' is truly remarkable. I wonder if Midge Ure and Bob Geldof had a clue when they put it together?
But the legacy that I think may actually be the most important, is that they created a song that would transcend it's origin to become a genuine non-secular carol. Non-secular? Yes. I contend that it is, despite the title of this post, and a reference to prayer in the lyrics. It's a song that goes beyond those cursory and largely metaphorical images and speaks to the things that many agnostic and atheists - I'll even go so far as to say 'non-Christians' - find in the yultide season.
It's a time of expanding our awareness to think of the plight of those less fortunate and to celebrate the abundance each of us has for ourselves and our families. These are all standard Christmas platitudes, and I don't want to get buried in my own maudlin musing, but the chorus of "Feed the world... Let - them - know - its - Christ - mas - time..." is hard to hear without singing along and or getting it stuck in your head. And it bears more of the spirit of the 'reason for the season' than the typical non-religious carol - most of which are seasonal novelty songs (Eg. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" or "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.")
Considering how bastardized the entire holiday has become, it's nice to have a cornerstone upon which the loftier morals of the holidays can be built without having to turn to the ecclesiastical. 'Cause "in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy."