In 2018, Miley Cyrus lit up the internet with what almost every headline writer called a “feminist” rewrite of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” On The Tonight Show, she explained that she was uncomfortable with the Christmas classic’s original lyrics from 1953, in which Kitt lists all the extravagant gifts she desires. “Am I saying I’m gonna hook up with Santa if he buys me all this stuff?” Cyrus asked, before performing an updated version in which she asked Santa for men to stop talking over her and grabbing her ass because she could buy her own stuff, thank you very much.
The feminist publication Ms Magazine, on the other hand, included Kitt’s sultry tune on its list of the Top 10 Feminist Christmas Songs in 2020, with Julia Cornick writing, “[Kitt] was ahead of her time when it came to sex positivity during the ’50s and ’60s, embracing ‘her persona as a golddigger who renders men into helpless little boys with her sexual power.’”
“Santa Baby” is clearly divisive—a recent survey by the polling website YouGov America showed it to be the least loved Christmas song, perhaps because studies show money to be one of the most uncomfortable topics for Americans to talk about. It’s certainly central to “Santa Baby,” which still scandalizes almost 70 years later.
“Santa Baby” wasn’t Kitt’s only Christmas song, though, and it gains vital context and nuance when heard next to her other holiday tunes.
It’s important to note that money factored into Kitt’s life and career from the start. The South Carolina native rose from poverty to fame after advancing in Katherine Dunham’s dance company, which took her to the glamorous social circles of Paris. In her 1989 autobiography The Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Kitt recalls how the legendary playboy Rubirosa wanted to take her to dinner at Maxim’s. When she complained that she had nothing to wear, he sent his assistant to take Kitt shopping for an outfit. At dinner, he gifted her an additional string of pearls.
As a performer, she often dealt with cash flow issues, but the luxury goods kept coming, frequently at shows. “Usually it would be older men sitting alone, but they would inevitably make a move of some kind to be introduced,” Kitt wrote. “One older gentleman who had gone through this same exercise had made himself known to me by sitting with a black ribboned box saying ‘Cartier’ obviously on display on his table, making me curious all through the second show as to whom it was for. The lone older gentleman brought it to my dressing room with the maître d’ and said, ‘I am an old-fashioned millionaire and would not only like to give you this gift, which is not much, but I also would like to give you the deed to my yacht standing in the harbor in San Francisco. It is made of all-Japanese teak wood, and has a crew of seven.’” She kept the bracelet in the box but passed on the yacht, wary of the upkeep costs.
The relationship between wealth and sexuality was the subtext (if not the entire text) of many of her songs, including “Monotonous,” her signature number from New Faces of 1952, the Broadway show that launched Kitt. In it, she complained about her humdrum life as rich men bought her elaborate, expensive gifts: “I met a rather amusing fool while on my way to Istanbul / He bought me the Black Sea for my swimming pool. Monotonous.”
“Santa Baby” seamlessly fit that artistic profile. Songwriters Philip Springer and Joan Javits wrote it specifically for Kitt in 1953 at the request of her record label, RCA Victor. Springer had a hard time squaring Kitt’s sensual image with Christmas, but he was purely the melody guy, and when lyricist Javits suggested the title “Santa Baby,” he knew they had something they could work with.
Javits’ lyrics were of a piece with the rest of Kitt’s songbook to that point, and according to Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro, they got closer to the truth than Javits may have realized. In Shapiro’s memoir of her life with her mother, Eartha & Kitt, she tells of a couple of sugar daddy relationships Eartha had, including one with a banking heir who “showered her with lavish gifts, including an emerald ring surrounded by diamonds and her first mink stole.”
The book also links the singer to Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, who was 20 years older than Kitt and similarly pampered her with expensive gifts. When it became clear that she would never be more than his mistress, the relationship fell apart. “My mother didn’t want to be anyone’s mistress,” Shapiro wrote. “She wanted to be important enough to be someone’s wife.”
As Kitt explained in an NPR interview in 2007, “The song says, ‘Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree.’ Well, all the men who have done that with me never stayed with me.”
Still, it’s easy to hear what made “Santa Baby” transgressive. Even though it was clever and campy, it presented a self-possessed Black woman talking openly about wanting the finer things in life. Kitt paid no lip service to romantic niceties and instead posed her relationship as a power game.
“Even though it was clever and campy, it presented a self-possessed Black woman talking openly about wanting the finer things in life. Kitt paid no lip service to romantic niceties and instead posed her relationship as a power game.”
Like burlesque, “Santa Baby” creates the impression that it’s more scandalous than it is. Kitt promises remarkably little in words, but her delivery implies a world of sensual pleasure. The song outrated politicians, and Springer said some southern radio stations banned it for being too suggestive, but not enough to hurt its chart performance. “Santa Baby” peaked at No. 4, and Billboard reported at the time that “Unlike many other Christmas tunes it has broken the dee-jays’ ‘We won’t play Christmas music in November’ sound barrier and has already been getting loads of airtime.”
“Santa Baby” prompts a litany of questions, beginning with the identity of Santa Claus in the song. Is Kitt singing to St. Nicholas or to her lover, using “Santa” as a holiday pet name? How serious is that list? Is the entire, elaborate inventory of extravagant desires (a convertible, a yacht, a duplex, etc.) a pretext to finally get to the only one that matters—a ring? Is the song a way for the woman to ask the man to marry her, something that would have been considered a breach of gender roles at the time? Philip Springer thought so.
“You remember it says, ‘Santa baby, forgot to mention one little thing, a ring’? That was my line,” he told the Deseret News in 2018. “I’ve always believed that my line makes it clear that she is saying, ‘Santa baby, I also want to marry you if you want to go along with this relationship.’”
“Santa Baby” left these questions hanging, but a year later, we learned that things didn’t work out as planned for our sultry protagonist.
“Santa Baby” was so successful that RCA Victor requested a follow-up tune, which Springer and Javits delivered very literally in 1954 with “This Year’s Santa Baby.” Javits fitted new lyrics to Springer’s music to update the story, and if any marriage took place as Springer suggested, it’s never mentioned. What we do learn is that the gifts Kitt requested either failed or didn’t live up to their promise.
“Santa Baby, that Cadillac is falling apart, won’t start,” Kitt sings on the 1954 sequel of sorts. “A private plane would be smart / Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.” Time after time, she responded to the litany of disappointments by upping the ask. The yacht she wanted sprang a leak, so the next year she wanted the ocean liner The Queen Elizabeth.
For those who considered Kitt a golddigger on “Santa Baby,” it’s a case of karmic payback and a valuable lesson in a capitalist society. The luxury items didn’t live up to their promise, but as a good capitalist, Kitt’s solution in the song is simply more. Her faith in their promise remains unshaken.
“This Year’s Santa Baby” failed to chart, likely because it’s not as good a song. “Santa Baby” is playful, inviting the listener to consider the nature of the relationship and how seriously to take any of it. “This Year’s Santa Baby” doesn’t build on that, and taking her Christmas list to the extreme flattened the dynamics. Asking for a platinum mine and a box of checks may be nakedly avaricious in “Santa Baby,” but a fur and a ring sound plausible in certain rarefied circles. Nothing in “This Year’s Santa Baby” rang true.
Kitt wasn’t through with Christmas, though, and 1955’s “Nothin’ for Christmas” was the response to “Santa Baby” that exposed the patriarchy. Written by Sid Tepper and Ray C. Bennett, “Nothin’ for Christmas” pairs off with another of Kitt’s signature songs, “I Want to be Evil.” In that one, Kitt complains, “Prim and proper, the girl who’s never been kissed / I’m tired of being pure and not chased.” Her answer to that is to become evil—in comedic terms—and “bad,” which we learn in “Nothin’ for Christmas” means being physically expressive. In the song, men offer her fur coats, motorboats, and a trip to Paris, among other gifts, if she’d only give them a little kiss or squeeze. But she gets none of it “because I didn’t want to be bad.”
Part of the critique of “Santa Baby” is that it’s wrong of Kitt to use her sexuality as a bargaining chip with men, but in “Nothin’ for Christmas,” all the guys offer goods for physical contact. Taken together, the songs show women in a no-win situation—they’re bad if they’re sexual, but the only way they merit a Christmas present is to be bad.
The reluctance of the women in Kitt’s songs to bet heavily on love rang true in her own life because as a Black woman, her relationships with the white men who courted her faced clear limitations. According to Eartha & Kitt, a number of her relationships with wealthy white men couldn’t withstand the pressure from families. The Revlon founder Revson’s estranged wife once threatened to expose “his black mistress,” Shapiro wrote.
“Taken together, the songs show women in a no-win situation—they’re bad if they’re sexual, but the only way they merit a Christmas present is to be bad.”
In 1962, during an interview with writer Studs Terkel, Kitt elaborated on the love/money debate, admitting that she loves fur coats—“I mean, everyone loves to have mink coats”—but she felt bad for the people who rely on material goods to make them happy. “I don’t think that another Cadillac car or another Frigidaire in the house is going to make anyone any more happy,” she said. “As a matter of fact, these are the things that complicate your life.”
Her song “Mink, Schmink” seemingly endorsed that point of view with the lines “Mink Schmink, Money Schmoney / Think you’re hot now, don’t ya honey / What have you got if you haven’t got love?”
But that wisdom comes courtesy of a male friend, according to the song’s first verse, who tries to pound this thought into her head. In Kitt’s life, love remained elusive. She only married once, in 1960, to John William McDonald, and they divorced five years later. So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the end of “Mink, Schmink,” a song discounting money and the finer things in life, she still concludes, “I’ll take the Jaguar on the right.”