The Best (and Worst) of Christmas Carols
‘Tis the season to dust off the ol’ holiday canticles. Over the next few weeks, the songs we know and love will be broadcast over the airwaves and web, belted out in neighborhoods by peripatetic carolers, and sung in churches by congregations and choirs. And like you, I’m sure, I enjoy almost all of them. But, it’s fair to say that not every Christmas carol deserves a place in holiday lore. Some actually contain some very dubious lines. With that in mind, I’d like to offer the best and worst of Christmas lyrics. I won’t be considering the words of some perennial contemporary hits, like Madonna’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause or Elmo and Patsy’s Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, just the ones that we might look to for spiritual edification. As is always my preference, let’s start with the positives:
1. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the incarnate Deity/ Pleased as man with man to dwell/ Jesus, our Emmanuel.” From Hark the Herald Angels Sing >> It’s hard to beat the theological richness and beautiful cadence of this Christmas favorite. God the Son, the Word, the One who set the planets in order and “without whom nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3), became flesh and saw fit to live with us so he could die for us. He is our Emmanuel.
2. “O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer/ Our spirits by Thine advent here/ Disperse the gloomy clouds of night/ And death’s dark shadows put to flight.” From O Come O Come Emmanuel >> Luke 1 tells us that Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was “filled with hope …because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high shall visit us.” The birth of Jesus marked the metaphorical breaking of dawn, the beginning of the end of the reign of death and darkness on this earth, and this carol captures the hope of that appearing.
3. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth/ A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices/ For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” From O Holy Night >> The world and everything in it continue to groan and await its final redemption (Romans 8). Pain is everywhere. But the first advent of Jesus, that “glorious morn,” means that the all-consummating moment of Christ’s second appearing is coming. And it won’t be long.
4. “Let earth receive her King/ Let every heart/ Prepare Him room/ And heaven and nature sing.” From Joy to the World >> Ok, so even though this great Isaac Watts hymn is not really a Christmas song, we sing it at Christmas so it qualifies for this list. This carol, while actually about the second coming of Jesus and not about the incarnation, does include the tender admonition to make room in our hearts for the Savior. A timeless plea, indeed. The lyrics point us to the fulfillment of what Jesus came to do in the first place: conquer sin and death, redeem his lost people, and establish his righteous reign forever.
1. “The cattle are lowing/ The poor Baby wakes/ But little Lord Jesus/ No crying He makes.” From Away In A Manger >> Have you ever met, known, or heard about a baby that “makes no crying”? This is maudlin, at best, and terribly misleading, at worst. It minimizes the humanity of Jesus. As the Scriptures affirm and the church has attested throughout the ages, Jesus was fully human. He suffered all the pains and difficulty that go along with living on a broken world … so that he could identify with us and be our substitute. If he cried when he was a grown man (John 11:35), why would we expect that he would not cry as a baby?
2. “We three kings of Orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar.” From We Three Kings >> Written for a Christmas Pageant in New York City in 1857, the problem with Rev. John Henry Hopkins’s hymn starts with the very first line. First of all, the travelers who sought out the baby Jesus were magi, not kings. And, secondly, there weren’t three of them. There were probably dozens of travelers; we simply don’t know. Finally—this has nothing to do with the lyrics, necessarily—no song needs ten verses to make its point!
3. “Silent Night/ Holy Night/ All is calm/ All is bright.” From Silent Night >> As I mentioned in my message on Sunday, the situation at Jesus’ birth was neither silent, nor calm or bright. On top of the bleating of sheep, the groaning of cattle, and the crying of a newborn baby, there was likely the quick-fire chatter between a first-time mother and father, wondering what they would do to escape the one who wanted their son dead. The reality is: The whole point of Christmas is that nothing was calm, nothing was bright. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why God entered into the confines of this earth. To fix what was broken. Once and for all.
4. “They looked up and saw a star/ Shining in the east beyond them far/ And to the earth it gave great light/ And so it continued both day and night.” From The First Noel >> While there’s nothing terribly egregious about this classic from the 1800s, there’s no indication in the Scriptures that the shepherds saw a star; they were, in fact, guided to Jesus by an angel of the Lord (Luke 1:9). And even if they had seen the Star of Bethlehem, we know that its brightness did not continue both day and night. In fact, it was apparently only visible at certain times (Matthew 2:10). Nevertheless, at least this one ends strongly: “Then let us all with one accord/ Sing praises to our heavenly Lord/ That hath made heaven and earth of naught/ And with his blood mankind hath bought.”
Anyway, there’s a sampling of the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to Christmas lyrics. I could add more to each category, but I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit. The point is not to take the fun out of singing these well-known hymns, but to consider carefully what we are reciting together.
I’ve decided, though, that I like playing the role of the song reviewer. I think now I might turn my critical eye to Christmas movies, and see if I can find any redemptive themes in classics like Will Ferrell’s Elf or Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation. Does Clark Griswold represent a type of … It’s a thought not even worth completing.