It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Xmas!
How exactly did the shepherds' fox get dirty?
It was several years ago now: I was driving somewhere with one of my boys in the backseat. My toddler was in a holiday mood, singing songs of the season in that un-self-conscious child-like way. I pricked up my ears, though, when I noticed some unfamiliar words in the carol.
All this time I thought the line was "God and sinners reconciled." Not this Christmas! You haven’t heard "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" until you hear a four-year-old singing about "God and sinners Frankenstein." I’m not entirely sure what that portends, but I understood later why he sang "With the angelic hosts complain"!
If this sounds implausible to you, have a go at caroling this season. You might catch your fellow wassailers singing of "round John virgin" and "We three kings of Oregon are." You will even learn what happened "while shepherds washed their fox by night," and you will hear the command to "Get dressed, ye merry gentlemen."
And that’s just in the first verses! Don’t get me started on how the next verses will be mangled. It’s a crying shame. There is so much spiritual beauty in the Christmas carols, so many lessons for all year long. It seems that each year we hear fewer and fewer carols—and of those carols, fewer and fewer verses. We don’t go any deeper than the basics of the Nativity story: stable, manger, star, gold, frankincense, myrrh. Anything beyond that might slow down our spending spree, so we resist it throughout Xmas (pronounced "EX-mus").
The new song for the season is this:
It’s beginning to sound a lot like Xmas,
‘Cuz Christmas lost its joys.
Everyone is a grouchy Grinch,
And the reason is a cinch—
They turned our holy music into noise!
It’s beginning to sound a lot like Xmas.
Muzak’s for the birds:
All the carols we used to sing
Cease to mean a blessed thing,
Since we plumb forgot the words.
Christmas carols have such absolutely wonderful lyrics, especially when you get into the heart of the song. In the second and third verses, you move away from the postcard cutesiness of “Xmas” and come back to the real meaning of the birth in Bethlehem. You learn who Christ is and what He expects as a King. You hear the moral claims that Christmas makes on your own life. In many of the carols, the last verse turns into a prayer. And prayerfulness is the best way to combat materialism!
You can get by just humming the tune—or just singing the first verse—of familiar carols without slowing down your midwinter orgy of conspicuous consumption. Stores know that. A little Christmas music helps loosen up shoppers for the big splurge. But if the stores were to start playing all the words of all the carols, it would wreck fourth quarter earnings.
Take, for example, the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” After the first verse it gets into the meat of the Christmas message: repentance, worship, total commitment to God.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
One of the carols most expressive of our Orthodox theology is “Joy to the World.” But, again, you have to get into the second and third verses. The cosmic meaning of the Incarnation is extolled: God reversed the curse and establishes His Kingship over all. He makes the nations “prove” (meaning “test” or “experience,” as in “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”) the rightness of His ways, His justice.
I was scolded last year because at the Christmas Vespers I had the community sing a couple of carols besides “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger.” “No one knows these songs!” was the complaint.
This took me by surprise. One of the songs was something I had heard at the store just that morning, and I saw it and the others performed on a TV special just two days before that. It is a glorious hymn … and a statement of deep Christian conviction. It takes the story of the Wise Men and turns it into a meditation on our own lives. If you don’t know it—and if you’re not allergic to prayer—you ought to learn it.
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright,
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led by Thee!
As with joyful steps they sped,
Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before
Thee whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy-seat!
As they offered gifts most rare
At Thy cradle, rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin's alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King!
Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And when earthly things are past.
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
In the heavenly country bright
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down.
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!
The last verse is so in tune with Orthodox theology, it amazes me that this was not a carol from Russia or Greece. But that’s the beauty of the carols: they bring all Christians together singing hymns of glorious and true spirituality. We need only to make a point of singing the right words, from the first verse to the last.
So here’s a suggestion for how to dial back the commercialism of the season, a way to turn “Xmas” back into “Christmas.” Get to know the carols. Sing them through, each and every stanza. Maybe even learn a couple that you didn’t know before. Do this, and you can un-Frankenstein the holiday, and so with the angelic hosts wholeheartedly proclaim (not complain):
“Christ is born in Bethlehem! Glory to the Newborn King!”
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