Should Christmas carols be biblical?

I am aware that all the readers of this blog are fastidious in their strict observance of liturgical seasons. So I am confident that, during this season of Advent, you will have only allowed yourself to sing Advent carols, and will not yet have either sung or planned to sing anything about Christmas until that season is upon us. It is, therefore, an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of carols and some of the things that they say.

Last week I posted a link to David Baker’s mildly provocative critique of some traditional carols:

What a load of nonsense is written in some Christmas carols. Of course, many are excellent. But along with the gold there is a lot of dross. Take the line in ‘Away in a manger’ which asserts boldly: ‘Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’. Really? On what basis is that stated? It’s certainly not in the Bible.

His short piece isn’t a comprehensive assessment of carols, but he clearly has his favourite targets.

But perhaps the most annoying carol of all is the well-known ‘We Three Kings’. This was written in 1857 by one Henry Hopkins Junior, who as Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, really should have known better. The problem is simply stated, and you know what it is: the Bible only states that the visitors from the east who came to visit Jesus were ‘magi’ – or wise men – rather than kings, and furthermore it doesn’t say how many there were.

In amongst the theological issues, David also asks questions about problems with the rhythm and rhyme, and offers a brief three-fold exposition of the kingship of Jesus. I felt David asked some interesting questions—but much more fascinating was some of the response I received on posting this. The most radical was from a friend on Twitter:

It’s a kind of bland puritanism which demands literal truism at this level. Next thing we’ll be arguing is that Noah’s ark is parked in Essex, The Good Samaritan was a real bloke called Eli from Shechem and the Johannine vine still grows in an Ephesian cave.

The most striking thing about this response is what it reveals about attachment to traditions. It sometimes seems as though it’s possible to question whether anything in the gospels actually happened (even whether Jesus existed!) or doubt some central theological convictions of the Christian faith, and you are asking responsible, searching questions that any modern person would ask. But question a cherished Christmas tradition—even one of recent invention—and all hell is let lose!

But two further assumptions here are worth further reflection. The first is that staying with what the text of the New Testament says should be interpreted as literalism, and the second is that such literalism involves stripping the text of its imaginative and poetic potential. The same point about ‘wooden literalism’ was made by Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham Cathedral:

It comes down to *how* we engage in a deep reading of the text. Carols, hymns, poetry & art wean us off wooden literalism into an imaginative immersion into the tradition.

I confess that I find this contrast between the text and the imagination rather bizarre, not least because of the long-standing Anglican discipline of feeding our imagination with biblical metaphors, and shaping our thinking by them. Michael countered that ‘it’s precisely that imaginative engagement with the text that gives us permission to search for new symbols & metaphors, and indeed for new words too, as the creeds bear witness.’ But that was not, historically, the function of the creeds. They sought to draw boundaries around the undisciplined development of new ideas that moved away from the apostolic witness in the New Testament, and not set a trajectory of development for new ideas.

We do need imaginative engagement with the text, but (as Richard Bauckham argues) such imaginative reading also needs discipline—historical discipline which prevents us making the text mean what it could not have meant, and textual discipline, which takes the text seriously in its canonical context. Without that we miss the place of the magi within Matthew’s story that focuses on men and their power (in contrast with Luke’s focus on the women and their relationships). We miss the biblical allusions to the wider narrative of the Old Testament, and we miss the insertion at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel for ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15.24) of a reference to ‘all nations’ to which we return (as an inclusio) at the end of the story (Matt 28.19). There is plenty of food for the imagination here! To suggest that we need to pull away from, detach, or add to the biblical text in order to give full flourish to our imagination assumes that the biblical writers themselves lack poetic imagination, or that their language was not in itself a rich source for reflection.

Michael offers two further defences of traditional hymns, regardless of whether they are true to the biblical story. The first is that there is much other poetry and art that similarly departs from the narrative; are we to dismiss this too? I think this is a slightly odd question. All art will have a mixed track record when it comes to illuminating biblical stories, and I am unclear as to why any art should be above question in this sense. Many love Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal’—but this is because it gives real insight into the human meaning of the parable Jesus told, not simply because it takes us into a new imaginative world. Michael’s other defence is the continuing pastoral value of traditional carols that people have grown up with.

If I am on my deathbed during Christmas, maybe barely conscious, nothing would comfort me more than to hear little children sing “Away in a manger”. “Be near me Lord Jesus…”, “And fit us for heaven to live with thee there”. And I’d hope not to have lost my God-given sense of enchantment in my last hours.

The issue for me not about loss of enchantment, but about being enchanted by the right things. I’d rather be enchanted by the transforming presence of Jesus by his Spirit, and sleeping in death awaiting resurrection to inhabit the New Jerusalem—a kaleidoscope of the imagination in itself. And when we challenge or continue these Christmas traditions, we are not only responding to traditions laid down in previous generations, we are also creating them for future generations. What kinds of enchantment would we like to instil in those who are at the start of their imaginative journey? For me, ‘away in a manger’ perpetuates the myth that Jesus’ birth happened away from the normal bustle of everyday life. Jesus’ ‘sweet head’ suggests that I should primarily be moved by sentimental admiration. ‘No crying he makes’ removes him from the realities of human life, something that Stephen Bullivant powerfully rebukes through the experience of his own child’s illness.

St Athanasius says somewhere – you’ll forgive me if I don’t have the full bibliographical details to hand – that Christ couldn’t ever have fallen ill. Frankly, I’m not remotely convinced. In fact, Chalcedon’s “like us in all things but sin” rather implies the opposite. After all, Isaiah 53 informs us, he has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”. The words of that great Easter hymn apply to Christmas too: “O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh…”?

Look down from the sky’ seems to deny the presence of Jesus with us by his Spirit. And ‘take us to heaven‘ supposes an unbiblical eschatology which is about escape from the world rather than transformation of it. I think we can find a better enchantment.

Jeremy Begbie was asked whether we should continue to sing traditional carols—and he is hardly a wooden literalist!

Only with great care. For thousands, carols will be their only link with a church. At the same time, sentimentality is perhaps the single most dangerous feature of our Church and culture—and the sentimental air is never thicker than at Christmas. The Incarnation is messy, dirty, and resonates with the crucifixion. We need a new wave of carol writing that can gradually swill out the nonsense and catch the piercing, joy-through-pain refrains of the New Testament.

And some have risen to the challenge. Paul Bradbury, who is a pioneer minister in Poole, Dorset, has offered three updates of traditional carols. They might not be appropriate for your carol services this year, but they make the point about connecting with reality, and the real world of the nativity texts.

Away and in Danger

Away, amongst strangers, who gave them no bed
The new born Lord Jesus
Lay down his wet head
The stars in the night sky
Looked down in dismay
‘This was the Christ!? Asleep on some hay!?’

The cattle are lowing, this baby awakes
And just like a baby, a great din he does make.
‘I love you, Lord Jesus?
But please do not cry,
It makes you look human
Not aloof or on high.’

Be near me, Lord Jesus, get up from the hay
Grow into a man and be near me I pray
Bless all the children
In pain and despair
And don’t stop you’re crying
It shows that you care.

O Occupied Zone of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
In captivity you lie
Amidst your nervous, terror-ed sleep
The sentinels pass by.
In occupied streets shining
An endless burning light,
The hopes and fears of exiles’ tears
Are met in Him tonight.

How naturally, how painfully
the wondrous gift is given!
And God imparts to broken hearts
the promised reign of heaven;
Keen ears have heard his coming
But in this world of din
Where Roman soldier’s madness holds;
The liberator breaks in.

Sleepless Night

Sleepless night, horrible night
Baby cried, half the time
Round we walked this Mother and Child
Holy Infant not tender or mild
Sleep is desperately need-ed
Sleep is all that I need.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Shepherd’s came, what a sight!
Covered in poo and smelt like a bar
Brought their sheep, that’s going to far!
I can’t wait for the morn
I can’t wait for the morn.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Son of God? Yes, alright.
Asleep at last, just look at his face,
See the dawn of ordinary grace!
Jesus Lord at your birth
Jesus Lord at your birth.

On a more practical note, Neil Bennetts and Rhiannon Davies have written additional words to the traditional ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and combine the traditional and a contemporary in a way that might be very effective in services where visitors are present—visitors who might know the tradition, but need it as a bridge into reality. Enjoy.

In the comments below, why not post your own reflections on your favourite carols, and why they communicate the Christmas story well, so that we can develop a resource for future years?

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55 thoughts on “Should Christmas carols be biblical?”

  1. One minor, seemingly pedantic, quibble: the line from Away in a Manger is, “… and fit us for heaven…” not “… Take us to…” A somewhat different concept, I think you’ll agree.

      • I am aware that the concept of “living in heaven” has a somewhat controversial history, but I didn’t think it was particularly heterodox. My focus was rather that the carol balances this with the desire to be “fitted for” heaven, which is surely a process that takes place as we live out our lives as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now – as opposed to (what I assumed was) your complaint that “take us to heaven” implied a focus entirely on somewhere else.

  2. The carols that I sing through gritted teeth are the ones that present a sentimental and entirely implausible version of Jesus as a child – Once in royal David’s city in particular. The alternative version from the Iona community – Once in Judah’s least known city – highlights this, but probably wouldn’t be well received at many Carol services! I’m cautious about discarding well known and much loved carols that help people to connect with the Christmas story, even if they’re theologically dubious – but I’d welcome good new carols (singable by congregations) that have a better message. Come and join the celebration is good fun for children.

  3. My favourite ‘carol’ isn’t actually a carol at all, but is often considered such because it mentions a “stable” and partially tells the Christmas story in the opening verse.

    “From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
    By the Spirit and a virgin’s faith,
    To the anguish and the shame of scandal,
    Came the saviour of the human race.
    But the skies were filled with the praise of heaven,
    Shepherds listen as the angels tell
    Of the Gift of God come down to man
    At the dawning of Immanuel.”

    The criteria for gaining the title ‘carol’ is often a little loose, and yes, I know it wasn’t a stable, but this is pretty good by the standards of modern carols. I think the hymn is called Immanuel, it’s by Stuart Townsend.

    At the other end of the spectrum…. I’m really loathe to enjoy “Ding Ding Merrily on High”.

    “E’en so here below, below,
    Let steeple bells be swungen,
    And “Io, io, io!”
    By priest and people sungen
    Gloria Hosanna in excelsis!”

    It doesn’t scan well, it’s language is archaic, even by the standards of carols and there’s no consensus on weather the steeple bells are rungen or swungen, or even how to pronounce Excelsis.

    Let’s not even touch how hard it is to sing!

    • I’ll add another to the “good” pile. I’d advocate for ‘The Calypso Carol’ (Oh now carry me to Bethlehem), because aside from the obligatory “drafty stable” it’s pretty sound theologically and captures the bigger gospel story, placing Jesus’ birth in the context of his life and death. The best verse is:

      Mine are riches from thy poverty
      From thine innocence, eternity
      Mine, forgiveness by thy death for me
      Child of sorrow, for my joy.”

      It’s also really upbeat and adds musical diversity to any carol service.

  4. I too have been wrestling with the issue of what carols say vs what the bible actually says (especially all the ones that mention stables!), and trying to work out where we balance the need to ensure the message we are spreading through the songs we sing is a biblical one with the need to ensure people who might otherwise not come to church feel at home with an element of familiarity, which will hopefully encourage them to return or ask questions. I also get frustrated at some carols that don’t really seem to speak about Jesus that much (such as The Sans Day Carol or the Holly and the Ivy, which are songs about trees with tenuous links to Jesus’ birth thrown in), or at all (e.g. Ding Dong Merrily, which although it references the Angels glorifying God as they appeared to the Shepherds, doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all!). Especially as these carols aren’t really known to most of my generation (I only encountered them through listening to CDs with them on, and have only been to the odd carol service where they have been sung, maybe they should be among candidates to be withdrawn from the pool of carols picked for each service.

    I would, however contest the notion that the ‘How silently’ verse of O Little Town should be re-written, because if one looks at it, I think it could (and perhaps should) be interpreted as speaking, not of Jesus’ birth, but the entry of the Holy Spirit in our lives (after all, it is the Holy Spirit, not the incarnate Jesus, who we speak of entering into our hearts or souls as the verse speaks of). At least, that’s how I’ve interpreted the verse for the past few years, but I admit that in a carol about Jesus birth, the obvious conclusion one could jump to is that it speaks of Jesus’ birth. Perhaps a sermon series unpicking the meaning of carols such as this could be a potential for the church one Advent/Christmas season?

    I also, at a recent carol service, sang the 4th of the 6 possible verses for Once In Royal (for he is our childhood’s pattern) for what I think may have been the first time (at least the first time while properly being hit by what it said), and fell in love with it, especially how it, in a good way, humanises Jesus and makes him relatable.

    (He was little, weak and helpless,
    Tears and smiles like us He knew;
    And He feeleth for our sadness,
    And He shareth in our gladness)

    I wonder, how many other verses to carols are there that are not typically sung in a carol service, but contain such beauty and truth that we would do well to grasp?

    • I’ve always liked “How silently, how silently”, and I’ve always seen it as comparing the Incarnation with the entering of the Holy Spirit. I’d never thought of it as meaning “no crying he makes” or similar, but rather that God’s gift was given without fanfare (except for the angels, whose audience was not mainstream society), with no publicity machine, and with most of the world being unaware at the time. Contrast with any normal royal birth.

  5. Please forgive the digression (Ian do delete this if you’d prefer to keep the comment thread on topic) – but did anyone have thoughts on the incoming Bishop of London? I was a bit disappointed I’ll be honest. I can see that she had a successful career in the NHS and has been decorated for it, which is great. But as a Christian leader she seems somewhat unremarkable: not distinguished as a theologian, scholar, preacher, teacher, orator or evangelist. I know this could (sadly) be said of many bishops, but for the Bishop of London (such a prominent post, such a key diocese) you just could have hoped for someone more obviously brilliant. This leaves me feeling like she’s been picked because she’s a woman who looks good on paper rather than because she is actually the best person for the job – and even more dismayingly because she may be being teed up for Canterbury. Her equivocation about her commitment to biblical orthodoxy on sexual ethics is obviously also a cause for concern at this juncture, and makes her look worryingly more like a people pleaser than a woman of conviction (though I suppose at least she hasn’t expressed the wrong convictions, yet). So all in all, pretty disappointed – not exactly a shining beacon of women’s ministry – and dismayed to think this may be the shape of things to come. I’d really like to hear if anyone thinks I’m being unfair.

    PS: My current favourite carol is As With Gladness Men of Old, because I really like the theology and find it inspiring in its sentiments. I also think it’s under-appreciated and has been under-sung in recent years.

    • Compared to some of the responses, I think you’re being practically sycophantic Will!

      Archbishop Cranmer was his usual scathing and cynical self, but that doesn’t even compare to this reaction, from Jules Gomex on “conservative woman”.

      “But the best way to come across as ‘cool’ in the CofE is to be singularly skilled at box ticking…..

      Mullally says she believes that marriage is between a man and a woman (at least for now). That’s a sop to wealthy St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, who have threatened to sever ties with the CofE if the new bishop is not conservative on sexuality (Tick Box). By the same Houdini-esque attempt to reconcile irreconcilable opposites, she concedes that sexuality ‘is a challenging issue not just for diocese of London’. That’s a sop to the LGBTIQ alphabet soup lobby (Tick Box).

      Mullally stacks up the hierarchy of intersectionality and smartly feeds each of their insatiable appetites for attention. She tell us the church needs more black and minority ethnic clergy (Tick Box) and better representation of disabled people (Tick Box), as well as women (Tick Box), in order to better represent the communities (Tick Box) it serves. She speaks of deprivation (Tick Box) and inequality (Tick Box) in London, where some people feel ‘marginalised, voiceless and angry’ (Tick Box—is that for Remainers?) Mullally will visit a food bank (Tick Box – a visual demonstration against heartless Tory bastards) and will be introduced to leaders from the Tower Hamlets interfaith forum to discuss the challenges faced by London’s faith communities (Tick Box – a symbolic cuddle with Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan).”

      I am hoping this gets a dedicated post too.

      • Thanks, Mat. I thought Jules was a bit mean, actually – I felt uncomfortable reading it, feeling like there was an undercurrent of misogyny (and I don’t normally attribute criticism to that, but in this case it seemed so unrelentingly negative).

        I thought Cranmer was surprisingly positive, especially about her being respected beyond the church.

        I too would be very keen to hear Ian’s thoughts, if he is willing to share them.

        • Of course, I think Jules went too far as well.

          I shared the quote and link to reassure you of two things. First, that you are not being unfair in your worries, given what others have said, and second, that you are not alone either.

          Personally, I feel respect for her, but worry that this appointment is more of the same capitultion to culture, rather than standing up for the gospel.

  6. ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ is a good one, I think, especially ‘God and sinners reconciled’. ‘Hail the Incarnate Deity’ and the whole of the third verse.
    I am one of the musicians at our church and ‘Hark…’ was the final carol at a service last night, with me playing the clavinova. We also had ‘Away in a manger’. ‘No crying he makes’ was especially ironic last night because the leader had placed in a crib on the dais a real live baby who did no cry during the singing of ‘Away…’, but who did cry during the talk!

    I am not happy about playing ‘Away…’ but I did it for pragmatic reasons – we are short-staffed and short of musicians and everyone is overworked and, even if I were good at debating and wanted to ask for an alternative to ‘Away…’ I don’t think this would be the best time to broach the subject!

  7. I think it is possible to introduce Carols in a thoughtful, positive, and biblical way so as to minimise the sentamentalism and re-contextualise them. For example, I could certainly live without Away in a Manger (despite its helpful Lukan focus on the manger); but it could be introduced in the context of thinking that while baby Jesus certainly cried (not presumably as much as other babies since he was without sin), one can think of the contrasting scene when he wakes without crying as a blessed moment of relief.

  8. “I am aware that all the readers of this blog are fastidious in their strict observance of liturgical seasons.”

    I don’t even know what a liturgical season is. I had to look it up. I’m more of a Romans 14:5 kind of guy myself, as in, one who, “…esteems all days alike.”.

  9. I’m really interested in the place of imagination in fatih, although I would interpret it more in terms of a deep power implanted in the human spirit than just making pictures in my head. How do you think Ignatian spirituality fits into your argument, Ian? I have found the imaginative entering into the text under spiritual supervision to be immensely liberating and enriching.

  10. Why do people fulminate – every year, I think – against that line ‘No crying he makes’? The hymn does NOT say Jesus never cried as a child, only at the moment described he is not crying.
    There are plenty of reasons not to like this song for little children (just as I don’t care any longer for ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’) but this line is not one of them.

    And if we are concerned about literalism (as we should be), I am sure Ian would also ask: where in the Bible do we read about a stable – or the child being laid in hay?

    To say nothing about the ‘bleak midwinter’ and ‘snow on snow’!

    There are many, many hymns and poems from Prudentius (4th century: ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’) through to the middle ages which avoid the traps of 19th century sentimental carols about childhood and love. Those concerns do reflect, however, how liberal theology, touched with Hegelianism was shaping popular piety in the 19th century. (Think for example, of ‘It came upon a midnight clear’.)

    What you find in the works of Prudentius and the middle ages is a deep sense of: the Trinity; the reality of the Incarnation of God the Son; the purpose of the Incarnation as leading to Calvary; and the role (and purity) of the Virgin Mary in the work of redemption. I don’t think you read anything about snow.

    • And the angel of the Lord came down and shot the b***** lot…hehehe hahahaha hohohoho
      The wheels in our house go square square square for our grandson…..

    • Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm’s book “The Invention of Tradition” helped me to understand the concept of instant tradition.

      I think it has something to do with the British Empire and our armed forces going around the world in the second half of the 19th century. “Ancient” customs had to be established overnight and clothed in the aura of tradition. In India, the British were known as “the Muslims” because they had so successfully assumed the ancient mantle of the Mughal emperors. “Traditional” Anglo-Catholic worship styles (again, late 19th c.) are a special case, I think they were competing with the splendour of the Victorian gin palace.

      The much-loved, sentimental, theologically-incorrect, doggerel hymns and carols date from this time as does the Nine Lessons and Carols format. But once established as “much loved” they are hard to shift.

      The resources that Brian directs us to are mostly unknown apart from, for example, (of Advent hymns) Veni Immanuel. Possibly there is a job here for a translator and an arranger.

  11. One important mark of integrity in a carol (as in a hymn etc) is a notable degree of originality, which often manifests itself in the ability to create a whole atmosphere or world of its own.

    The strange thing is that sometimes this can be achieved even despite the poverty of the lyrics, because of the freshness of the vision. That freshness can just as easily manifest itself in the music or in the overall atmosphere of the carol (there is a certain carol-like atmosphere that is quite different from that of a hymn).

    Carols that achieve this in my book:
    Once in royal David’s city has developed via Willcocks descant and harmonies into a thing of real beauty; Tom Wright has a point when he criticises some of the theology
    See amid the winter’s snow
    Mary’s boy child (the ultimate example of poor lyrics yet great carol)
    Among Sydney Carter’s ever-fresh output, Every Star (abysmal theology though it does make you think)
    I wonder as I wander ( & to a lesser extent Go, Tell It)
    I saw a fair maiden sitten and sing (Warlock) – also Bethlehem Down
    Sing lullaby; A spotless rose (both Howells)
    The 3 Kings (Cornelius)
    Silver star (Borodin / Michael Perry)
    I sing of a maiden (Hadley)
    Britten, Ceremony of Carols
    Britten, New Year Carol (the words are practically pagan, so this one qualifies strictly only for the music)
    Britten, O lift your little pinkie and touch the winter sky
    O little town
    Adeste, Fideles (with the latter of the 2 Willcocks descants, Carols for Choirs 1)
    O come, Emmanuel (9-verse version, or however many it takes to cover all the O Antiphons)
    Wesley, Lo, he comes (a truly great hymn)
    Bach, Wake, O wake (Wachet Auf – with mass choir) – unsurpassed
    Thou didst leave Thy throne
    Have you any room for Jesus? as sung by the African Children’s Choir
    As with gladness – yes, Will, I agree – extremely neat and well-crafted
    Christians, awake
    Hark, the herald angels sing
    Of the Father’s heart/love begotten
    Silent night with the 2015 bridge passage
    Away in a manger with John Barnard descant to verse 3
    David Wellington, Emmanuel
    Good King Wenceslas penultimate verse nicely captures the swirling snow & wind in the Jacques (or Willcocks??) Carols for Choirs 1 version
    For children: Born in the night; Little donkey; Come and join the celebration; Calypso carol; the Virgin Mary

    (I am less of a fan of G R Woodward’s carols (Ding dong merrily etc. – redeemed by Willcocks’s CfC2 arrangement) since in almost all his output he seems to be breathing a sigh of relief when he manages to achieve rhyming and scansion by *whatever* tortuous means – many examples could be quoted. When I heard Ding Dong Ding (not to be confused with the former) on Classic FM, I was tempted to throw the trades-descriptions act at them.)

    • Also in the pantheon:
      Berlioz, Shepherds’ Farewell
      Kendrick – Thorns in the Straw, Meekness and Majesty, Servant King
      A Great and Mighty Wonder
      Behold, the Great Creator Makes (This Endris Night)
      Joubert, Torches

      Also in the pits:
      Sans Day Carol (Jesus was wrapped in silk?). The Holly and the Ivy is a nice idea but you can’t get away with repeating verse tune for chorus.

  12. Wot, hardly no mention of ‘While Shepherds Watched’? Just been watching Kate Rusby perform four different versions- all eminently singable.

    God Rest Ye Merry Gentle(folk?) still has guts, especially when rendered by Annie Lennox.

    On Christmas Night All Christians Sing definitely cuts the mustard, too.

    On the other hand, please could we round up all the copies of ‘Little Donkey’ in existence and have them put down with extreme prejudice? The author (Eric Boswell) much preferred another he wrote, about having a wonderful whippet.

    • Or, to quote Express cartoonist Carl Giles, when it was all the rage circa 1960 ‘If someone doesn’t stop perpetually whistling Little Donkey, someone is going to get a very thick ear.’

      While Shepherds Watched is a bit like a metrical psalm so not very carol-y. This rigidity deprives it of a sense of wonder. Others I rate less highly than the norm are: Coventry Carol, I Saw 3 Ships (see article above), God Rest You Merry, A Child This Day Is Born, Unto Us Is Born A Son (a boy is born), several Kendrick, Joy to the World (lovely atmosphere and words, but tune though Handel is uninteresting and does not modulate.

      As for The First Nowell (tune too repetitive; wise men seem strange geezers: ‘Then entered in those wise men three, full reverentlee upon their knee’ [an even more difficult means of transport, I should have thought] ‘and offered there (in his presence [in case you were wondering])…’. ‘Follow the star wherever it went’ sounds too Monty Python but is actually faithful to Matthew. The interesting ‘stars’ are of course the moving ones like comets.).

      • The First Nowell wise men remind me of Tolstoy’s 3 hermits. ‘Three are ye, three are we – have mercy upon us’ they cried out. They were gently advised that this was not the right way to pray.

    • Yes, and isn’t ‘on Christmas Night all Christians sing’ glorious. Heard and transcribed in a Sussex pub. O to be with Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams gathering the oral history. I am trying to do something similar with the early (1970s) charismatic repertoire that escaped the Scripture in Song / Songs of Fellowship net.

        • Equally sublime – In The Bleak Midwinter. The 2 tunes seem rated equally by the public. Holst’s is the more subtle, and I think Darke’s would have been terribly easy to write, albeit good. He made his fortune from it. 5 verses rather than Darke’s 4 does the carol good, just like 7 verses does ‘O Come all ye faithful’ good: it is all about giving the atmosphere time to settle.

  13. I was caught out, as were a number of others, singing carols at our local shops with an ecumenical group. The words had been changed for political correctness and we were all lost!
    As it is a time when even atheists will look in on what we are are up to (e.g. Carols from Kings) I think we should embrace the opportunity to tell the Good news of Christ as King and His humble birth.
    At my carol service talk I pointed out that we indeterminate number of wise men doesn’t scan. We need to choose the battles to fight and hope that as folk look in to this strange phenomena of Church they see beyond the sometimes crass words of the carols and the deficiencies of its leaders to the incarnate God. Let’s build bridges not walls and pray that the Holy Spirit will come on those who look on as He did upon Mary.

    • “I think we should embrace the opportunity to tell the Good news of Christ as King and His humble birth.”

      One could, I suppose. Whether we should or not is a different matter. Did our Christian ancestors of the first few centuries need Christmas and all its object lessons and borrowed imagery to sweep through the surrounding pagan nations? Or was it more their enthusiasm for the Gospel in their everyday lives that turned eyes and hearts?

      Maybe it’s just where I’m currently at personally but I feel a strong irreligious reappropriation of Christmas. I’m actually ok with that because, a) In my opinion, Christmas isn’t really Christian anyway (even though we’ve imposed ourselves on the season to make it so) and, b) The hollowness, shallowness, stress and loneliness that generally accompany secular celebrations, and that, for many, pervade this season, is what actually provides the opportunity to share the message of hope. I see quite a deep irony in that.

  14. I would nominate “Born in the night” (not just for children) with its powerful “Prove it is true, Mary’s child/Go to your cross of wood”, and “Hark! the herald angels sing”. But I also think the traditional carols are valuable, even if historically inaccurate.

  15. As someone who doesn’t jive biblicalism, not to mention being a fan of “We Three Kings” and “I Saw Three Ships,” I unsurprisingly disagree with Mr. Baker; but, as noted over at Thinking Anglicans, it’s a fine example of thIs particular art. Also a strong afterglow of the brand of Protestantism that denounced the entire Christmas season as so much pagan idolatry.

    Bravo sir, and a very merry … never mind. 😉

  16. A great article, which I do think somewhat asks a larger question about all the songs we sing in church, both modern songs and ancient hymns, along with the sentimental carols at Christmas.

    Many times I’ve been told that you can sing something you “don’t (yet) believe or feel”, since it is an affirmation of desire, rather than needing to be actually true now.

    However, so many of the songs we sing, both ancient and modern, have questionable, and sometimes downright terrible theology, similar to the “heaven” examples you described in this article.

    I don’t feel that I should be “affirming” something that I don’t believe in, or actively refute, but if we stopped singing anything that didn’t fit any our churches’ theology, then we probably wouldn’t sing very much at all.

  17. ” but if we stopped singing anything that didn’t fit any our churches’ theology, then we probably wouldn’t sing very much at all.”

    …though sometimes I do stop during a song/hymn, wondering if I should sing ‘dodgy’ (or endless repeats beyond my ability to use as worship) stuff.

  18. We need both a hermeneutic of suspicion with which we explore how carols might reinforce false notions about the nativity, about Christ, and about the church, and a hermeneutic of charity with which we seek to interpret carols in a sense that agrees with Scripture and Christian doctrine.

    I cannot say that I particularly like Away in a Manger but to interpret the carol as saying that Jesus never cried seems to me unwarranted and may be the result of a hostile reading which is to say that I am not convinced that this is the impression that most people take away when they sing the carol but a reading by some who do not like the carol. But maybe there is a risk that exasperated parents may be reinforced in a belief that baby crying = naughtiness and so maybe the carol needs to be explained every now and again, not least as casual singers are not likely to appreciate that the second verse paints a specific scene in which “the little Lord Jesus” silently accepts the acknowledgement by the animal world of their master (Isaiah 1).

    Similarly, I struggle to understand why one would want to interpret “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” in an heretical way, especially given its parallel line about “incarnate Deity”. It seems to me perfectly possible to hear and sing the line as a Chalcedonian Christian with “veiled” being the opposite of “obvious”. After all, many people looked at Jesus and did *not* see the Godhead. How many people come to our carol services tempted to believe that Jesus was truly God but not truly man? I think the risk is pretty low.

    We need to take our responsibilities seriously. A church service is not a Christmas concert. True, at the big services we are in reality not a congregation that affirms a common belief but welcome an audience that we do not want to put off. But if we stick to traditional carols unthinkingly, merely to attract outsiders who are then sent on their way with their prejudices confirmed, we have pleased ourselves rather than genuinely reached out to people in our community.

  19. I fail to see how Neil Bennetts & co. have improved on Christina Rosetti’s exquisite ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Adding a series of interchangeable platitudinous worshipy words is unlikely to engage the unchurched, and interrupts and dilutes beautiful carol which already has a very compelling ‘bridge into reality’ in the challenge of its final verse.

  20. I really like the alternative lyrics you have given here from Paul Bradbury, and “Once in Judah’s least known city” which Mandy Stanton cited – all new to me, and I’d love to hear them in a Christmas service. After all, if we make Christmas all sweet and sentimental we’re losing the sense of the Incarnation.
    For traditional carols, I’ll add a vote for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (although many other good ones have been mentioned in the comments), and I like “While Shepherds Watched” to the tune of “On Ilkley Moor Ba’at ‘At” (Google didn’t help me with the spelling, so apologies to any Yorkshire folk) – which was originally a hymn tune before that song was written.
    For a non-traditional one which tells the story well, I like this clever parody. There are various versions on YouTube but the mime in this one is my favourite.

  21. The first Nowell the angel did say, Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. When they had see the Anointed Lord, The news of the child they made known aboard. Nowell Nowell Nowell Nowell. Born is the king of Israel.

  22. How about removing the references to winter in The First Nowell: The first Nowell the angel did say, Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. When they had see the Anointed Lord, The news of the child they made known aboard. Nowell Nowell Nowell Nowell. Born is the king of Israel.


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