Christmas music V: Botching the Incarnation
Santa songs are easy to snark because they’re stupid and I hate them. But a lot of Nativity carols work.
One of the problems I have with a lot of contemporary Christian worship songs is the way they try to invoke reverent awe and end up something like this. If you write a boring praise song, you make God seem boring, and that means you’ve failed.
But listen to “Joy to the World”. Its author seems genuinely happy that God became a man, not just properly respectful of it. “O Come All Ye Faithful” is actually joyful and triumphant at the Word appearing in flesh. And that flesh-becoming is the main reason this atheist loves the Christmas story: the king of the universe is a peasant born in a barn. Whereas Easter is a holiday of victory celebrating a Messiah conquering Death, Christmas is a human-scale story of hope.
That doesn’t mean you can’t screw it up! “Away in the Manger” pretends like it understands the Nativity, focusing on the actual birth of the infant, in the present tense. You’ve got your hay, your cattle, the entire Christ-was-born-in-a-shithole boilerplate. But then you get the anachronistic Bless all the dear children in thy tender care / and take us to heaven to live with thee there. Huh? Jesus can’t care for children here, he’s a baby himself! Who’s the narrator here, and why are they making their afterlife reservations to a baby? Why mention No crying he makes? There’s no reason baby Jesus wouldn’t have cried. This isn’t nipticking; if Jesus was too perfect to cry, was he too perfect to bleed?
“Once in Royal David’s City” is also uncomfortable with duality:
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
Check out the only canonical story about the childhood of Jesus:
42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.
So Jesus wandered off and talked to strangers and backsassed, but don’t let that stop you from instilling bullshit lessons about compliance!
The worst, though, is the bowdlerized “O Holy Night”. I love “O Holy Night”, sung in its entirety . But many artists–Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole—leave out the best stanza, the one that has includes Chains shall He break/ For the slave is our brother / And in His name all oppression shall cease. They celebrate God donning human frailty by removing the explicit reference to human suffering. If the audience for Christmas music is so pro-Herod that they find anti-slavery sentiment distastefully “political”, they don’t deserve the song. Better to just drop God, replace “He” with “we”, and reclaim what we can for a Leftmas carol:
Chains shall we break, for the slave is our brother, and in our name all oppression shall cease!
Rise from your knees! And hear the People’s voices!
O night sublime…