It’s that time of year again when we begin to hear those heart-warming, memory-inducing songs that most people love: Christmas carols. Whether it’s Nat King Cole or Michael Bublé, I will admit, I’m a sucker for holiday tunes. (Confession: I’ve had my Spotify Christmas playlist in queue since mid-November. It feels good to get that off my chest.) And even though I enjoy the “Let It Snow’s,” the “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’s,” and other such nostalgic songs, what I really enjoy to hear are the Christmas-time hymns which speak so memorably about Jesus’ birth.
We sing most of the same carols year after year. In some ways, that’s a good thing. Like a family-heirloom quilt – they are comfortable, familiar, and cozy. And yet, as the old cliché says, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes we sing these songs mechanically. We employ our vocal chords, but not our brain waves. In other words, we can be guilty of singing Christmas hymns without ever thinking about the specific words and the message they teach. And, as Scripture so clearly states, we should, “teach…one another through psalms, hymns, spiritual songs” and carols too. (Col 3:16)
Songs about the birth of Jesus are important to sing – but they are just as important to understand. Some of our beloved carols teach good, biblical truth – while others can mislead us in our thinking about Jesus’ birth, if we’re not discerning. Let me give you a few examples.
Take, for instance, the German-born carol Silent Night or, as it was originally called Stille Nacht. (Which, if I may be frank, is a far less soothing and tranquil sounding title than its English equivalent. In fact, in my opinion, the entire German vocabulary is anything but “calm and bright.” Even the most bland of ideas, when put into German, sound like a throat-gargling Orc battle cry. The English word “daisy” in German is ganseblumchen and the word “sorry” is entschuldigung. Terrifying, right? My apologies to any German speakers among us. But I digress.)
As a kid, I was always confused by what I thought the words of Silent Night were. I assumed that there was a perpetual typo in the lyrics and that the song was describing Mary as a “round young virgin.” In my 7 year old mind, I didn’t know what a virgin was – but, I guessed, from the rest of the lyrics, that it must have had something to do with being an obese teenager. My mental image of Mary was more like an egg-shaped Weeble Wobble than a Middle Eastern maiden.
Still, year after year I sang it – failing to grasp that the song was pointing the singer in Mary’s direction. “Yon” is an old-fashioned way of saying, “over there.” Thus, the lyrics are saying that all is calm and bright “around that young virgin, over there.”
Now, I hate to sound like a nit-picky old curmudgeon, but, ask any woman who’s given birth and they will tell you that, in a pre-epidural era, pushing a 7 pound human being out of your loins is not a calming experience. In fact, in recent years, Andrew Peterson wrote a song entitled, “Labor of Love” that begins, “It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground. You could hear a woman cry in the alleyways that night.” I think Peterson is a bit more accurate.
Maybe Silent Night is describing that transcendental, first mother-baby bonding moment as calming, reassuring, and comforting. Even still, don’t let the song mislead you into thinking that Mary was a super woman who gave birth effortlessly or that it was an all-together tranquil ordeal. Up to that point, human sin had left a noisy, messy, bloody trail throughout history. And I think it’s very appropriate, then, that the birth of our Redeemer would come in a similar noisy, messy, bloody way.
Away in a Manger
A similar example is a song that is commonly, though wrongly, attributed to Martin Luther, Away in a Manger. The lyrics say, “The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes. But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Again, if we’re not mindful, these words paint a misleading picture of Jesus as if he was some kind of ever-peaceful super baby. If a motorcycle rumbles even within a mile of our home, my two-year old daughter wakes from her nap in a frantic panic. So, don’t try to tell me that a new born baby wouldn’t be startled by the loud baritone mooing of a cow just a few inches away from His makeshift crib. Rest assured, Jesus cried. He wailed. He screamed. He peed. He pooped. He fussed. He did all the things that newborns do. Jesus was not only fully man, He was also fully baby, despite what the song may lead you to believe.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Or, consider one of my favorite Nat King Cole recordings, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I always assumed the singer (or songwriter) was speaking, through his lyrics, to some already “happy dudes” (aka “merry gentlemen.”) It seemed to me the song was a blessing of rest – asking God to help these men take a break or be more relaxed during the holidays. Boy, was I wrong.
It wasn’t until just a few days ago that I realized there is a comma after the word “merry.” After a few clicks on the internet, I learned that the phrase “God rest ye merry” is a Shakespearean expression of goodwill or good wishes to another person. So, the men being addressed are already downcast and bothered by life, circumstances, or the world in which we live. Which is why the singer (or songwriter) tells them to be at ease. The second line makes this even more clear, “Let nothing ye dismay.” That is, he tells these gentlemen, “stop being be discouraged or depressed.” Why?
“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power while we have gone astray.” Apart from the historical inaccuracy that Jesus wasn’t actually born on Christmas day, the song speaks powerfully and reassuringly about the purpose for which Christ was born: the gospel. The song reminds us that, in our hearts, anxiety and worry should be dead, or at least in a coma, and that message is made clear thanks to that little comma. And that truth, the truth of peace to men, through Christ, is the most accurate of them all. Know Jesus. Know Peace. No Jesus. No Peace.