Christmas Hymns: The Bad (but Salvageable) (Part 2 of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

We've seen a pretty sizable list of biblically accurate or at least not biblically problematic Christmas hymns in the first post of this series.

Now it's time to look at those in our hymnal that have significant enough problems that they need more than a few cosmetic changes.

They need a bit of salvage work.

UMH 216 "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming"
This song in its English translation makes much of the birth of Jesus happening during the winter (not specified anywhere in the Bible) and "when half-spent was the night" (repeated at the end of verse 2 in the English translation provided). The original German does contain both in verse 1, but the German at the end of verse 2 does not say "when half-spent was the night." Instead, there are two other choices. It is either, "and stayed a maid aright" (referring to Mary's perpetual virginity) or "the one who makes us blessed" (referring to Jesus). The former is likely a non-starter for Protestants, and the latter doesn't sound as clean as "when half-spent was the night." But at least the latter is biblical.

Suggested Repairs:
Verse 1. Remove the winter references and concluding with some ending other than "when half-spent was the night." If we want to maintain the rhyming scheme, we might change the last line to, "It came, a floweret bright, amidst our deathly conflicts, caught in our sins' bleak night."

Verse 2. Restore a better translation or paraphrase of the original German. To maintain the current English rhyming scheme, try "whose blessing brings us light."

UMH 219 "What Child Is This" Several biblical conflicts.

In verse 1, "Whom angels greet with anthems sweet" mischaracterizes both the nature of the heavenly host and what they say, not sing, together. Only one angel is mentioned, later accompanied by the "host of heaven," a term which does not typically refer to other angels, but rather to the spiritual army of God, and which may also include seraphim and cherubim (very different heavenly creatures) than angels. "Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will" is neither an anthem, nor is it sweet. 

The opening words of verse 2 are also a bit problematic. "Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?" The "mean estate" part may make sense, but Luke nowhere states the manger in which the newborn and swaddled Jesus was placed was in use, nor which animals may have used it. The rest of the verse could be considered poetic license, since we have no record of the infant saying anything to anyone.

Verse 3 shifts stories from Luke to Matthew with no warning, potentially leaving the impression the coming of the wise men happened at the same time or just after the shepherds arrived, and possibly suggesting the magi were kings, which is unwarranted by Matthew's account.

Suggested Repairs:
Verse 1: New line: "O angel, raise your voice with praise," and delete the question mark after keeping.

Verse 2: New line: "Why lies he in such mean estate, a bin for livestock's feeding?"

Verse 3: New verse: "Now bring him incense, gold and myrrh, he is our Lord, now own him! Christ, King of Kings, salvation brings, let every heart enthrone him."

UMH 224 "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"

There is little connection between the English translation of this carol by John Mason Neale and the 14th century Latin/German text originally attached to its tune (In dulci jubilo). Indeed, I'd suggest, Neale's translation is scarcely even a paraphrase, but more a new hymn inspired by the much earlier text to fit the still popular tune.

The problem starts with the now quaint phrase "Good Christian friends, rejoice!" (adapted from Neale's, "Good Christian men, rejoice"). This just doesn't work in contemporary English. We'd read it now in a rather exclusive sense, limiting even the "Christian friends" to the "good ones."

It's exacerbated by the "ox and ass before him bow," both because we don't use the latter primarily to refer to a livestock animal and because there is no record of either actually present at the birth of Jesus. We are told he was laid in a manger (livestock feedbin) after he was swaddled.   That is all.

The rest of the hymn is generally okay, as far as it goes, assuming we know what "gain his everlasting hall" refers to in current English usage.

Suggested Repairs:

Replace verse 1 and the opening line with a better English translation, one closer to the original In dulci jubilo, and retitle the hymn accordingly.

I suggest an adaptation of Percy Dearmer's early 20th century translation, but more thoroughly translated to delete the Latin entirely.

Here's my go at it:

With sweet joy, all aglow,
Now sing we here below!
Delight's to us no stranger,
lying in a manger.
Radiant, Holy One,
in his mother's lap, the Son.

First and Last above,
First and Last below.

UMH 229 "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly"

Verse 1: The bed of Jesus is not a cattle stall, but a feedbin. No animals are mentioned at all in the biblical accounts, much less "oxen lowing." Angels are never described as having wings in the Bible (so they can't be "winging"), and as we've already noted, they don't sing in the biblical account in Luke's gospel. And when they (plural) do speak, they do not say, "Christ, the babe, is Lord of all." The "herald angel" (singular) says something close to that ("born to you today is a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord, in the city of David" (Luke 2:11). 

Verse 2: It may be unlikely the sheep were sleeping, since sheep sleep in short bouts and at most 4 hours per 24, and often more during the day than at night. The rest of the verse is okay.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 1 basically needs to be rewritten.  If we want to keep a similar rhyme scheme, we might try something like:

Infant holy, infant lowly,

lying in a manger small;
swaddled, glowing, little showing,

that this babe was Lord of all.
Then proclaiming, angel naming,
shepherds quaking, Noel breaking:
Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Verse 2 needs new opening words:

"Never sleeping" would be an appropriate description for shepherds keeping vigil.

UMH 232 "When Christmas Morn Is Dawning"

Verse 1 can be read as merely imaginative, wishing one might be at the manger (in the past) as Christmas morn is dawning (now).

Verse 2, however, has if not a biblical problem, certainly a theological problem and a logical problem as well. "O may we not by sinning despise your lowly birth." Logically, there's no connection between our sin (now) and his "lowly birth" (then). Theologically, it's hard to see how we're going to avoid sinning simply because Jesus was born into humble conditions, as if we would, in fact, be able to stop sinning if we contemplated the lowliness of his birth properly. This is mere preciousness which takes neither human sin, nor human nature, nor the Incarnation seriously.

Verse 3 is okay.

Suggested Repairs:

Replace verse 2 with another English version, or with a new translation of the original Swedish.

Here's the late 19th century translation by Claude William Foss:

How kind, O loving Savior,

to come from heaven above!
From sin and evil save us,
and keep us in thy love.

From sin and evil save us,
and keep us in thy love.

Here's my attempt at translating the original Swedish second verse anew:

Welcome here among us now

in this, our Yuletide;
You are our king forever,
who brings us peace and light.
You are our king forever,
who brings us peace and light.

UMH 236 "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"The repairs needed to be biblically correct are minor here, but enough to put it into his category, since some appear in the opening words that are most likely to be remembered.

Verse 1: "While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground"

We have no idea from Luke what the posture of any of the shepherds was as they carried out their night-watch duties, much less the posture of all of them.

Verse 5: "Thus spake the seraph..."
Seraphim are different creatures than angels, and the scripture, as well as verse 1 of this hymn, plainly states the heavenly creature involved was an angel.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 1: "While shepherds watched their flocks by night, a sight did them confound"

Verse 5: "Thus spake the angel"

UMH 237 "Sing We Now of Christmas"

Verse 2: Angels called to shepherds, 'Leave your flocks at rest, journey forth to Bethlehem, find the child so blest."Only one angel "called to shepherds," not several. Then neither that angel no the others actually told the shepherds to go anywhere. Instead, they announced to the shepherds that the Christ was born in Bethlehem, and (assuming they went), they'd know they'd reached the right place because they'd find a swaddled newborn baby in a manger. Luke makes it clear the shepherds responded to the announcement by deciding to go see what had been described, not acting as if they had been ordered to do so.

Verse 5: "There was never a stable so like paradise." Neither Luke nor Matthew ever mentions a stable. In the magi narrative in Matthew, there's no manger, either. The magi find Jesus in a house and go inside it to offer their gifts
(see Matthew 2:11). The first part of the verse also leaves out frankincense.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 2:

"Shepherds heard an angel, "Peace, be not afraid. 
Good news do I bring you! Christ is born this day!"

Verse 5:

"Frankincense they brought him, gold and myrrh beside,
Signs of death and glory. Christ, with us abide!"

UMH 238 "Angels We Have Heard on High"

Verse 1: "Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o'er the plain." The angels (plural) did not sing, but spoke, and neither the descriptor "a multitude of the heavenly armies" nor what was actually said in praise is properly described by the adjective "sweet."

Verse 2: If you think about it, the line "Why your joyous strains prolong?" doesn't even make sense. The original French version of this hymn is more helpful. There it's clear the inquiry is not being made about the shepherds continuing some jubilee (party, in French), but rather the raucous sounds in the heavens. 
"Your" just misses the point.

Verse 3: Two problems here. First, the person of the verb "Come" (second person) makes little sense.  Who is being asked to come? Are we talking to the shepherds? Are the shepherds talking to us (which may be the only way this might make some sense!). Are we talking to ourselves? In the original French, it's "Let's all seek out this happy town which has seen him born under its roofs." So it's the shepherds, and perhaps the congregation, talking to ourselves. The second problem is, again, the "heavenly song," which, as we've noted, was not sung by the heavenly creatures. We sing it in this hymn, yes. But the heavenly host did not.

Verse 4: "Whom the choirs of angels praise"-- Choirs might work in the Greek sense of a "chorus/choros," which might say things in unison as well as sing them. But in our usage, choirs are singers, and, again the angels did not sing. Nor, as we've noted, is it clear the "heavenly host" consisted solely of the heavenly beings called angels.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 1:
Hosts of heaven fill the sky, with their praises fill the plains,
and the mountains in reply echo back their loud refrains;

Verse 2: Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why do they their praise prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be that inspire their heavenly song?

Verse 3:
(Sung by "shepherds")
Let's together go and seek where the blessed Christ is born,
Offer homage from our hearts, worship him this Christmas morn.

Verse 4: Does not exist in the French original. May either be omitted, or replaced as follows:
Here, before his manger, bow, come adore on bended knee,
Join the angel voices now, and this song eternally.

UMH 240 Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Before you get on me for placing perhaps the most famous Christmas text by Charles Wesley in the "Bad, but Salvageable" category, let me say the problems with this hymn were not created by Charles Wesley. They were created by one of his editors, George Whitefield, and then by the use of Felix Mendelssohn's tune and the need it causes to create an extra line after each verse of the text Charles originally wrote.

Charles's original verse 1 is really perfect, if a bit antique.

"Hark! How all the welkin rings,
Glory to the King of Kings!

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil'd."

If we can sing about Ebenezers, we can sing about welkins. "The welkin," if the term is unfamiliar, means "the sky" or "the heaven." If we had to update Charles's original, it might be "Hark, how all the heaven rings."

Wesley's original or updated version fixes the song entirely and makes it much richer than George Whitefield's "Hark! The herald angels sing."

We already know some of what's wrong with Whitefield's version. There was only one herald angel, not herald angels. And none of them sang.

But Whitefield's "solution" introduces more problems not present in Wesley's original. We're now dealing with these specific angels at a specific past point in time.  The past time reference is only underscored by Whitefield's further change from "Glory to the King of Kings" to "Glory to the newborn king." Given that we have these two past time referents as anchor points for the temporal frame of this song, it actually becomes problematic that these "herald angels" also sing of "mercy mild" and "God and sinners reconcil'd," two things neither the Lukan herald angel nor the Lukan heavenly host ever said.  Further, that heavenly host gave "glory to God in the highest," not "to the newborn king." So Whitefield may have made it prettier by having herald angels singing, but he also made it much less biblical.

And using Mendelssohn's tune and the repeat of Whitefield's opening line only underscores how problematic all of this is.

Not so with Wesley's original. There are no time references pointing backward. The welkin/heaven rings here and now. Present tense. This is in keeping with Charles Wesley's dynamic way of addressing time in salvation history as all times present in an eternal now. With that dynamic way of framing time set in the first line, it is not only not problematic, but quite appropriate that what we hear in the ringing welkin reflects the whole of salvation history, past, present and future. What we hear echoing through the welkin is thus glory to the coming King of King, the past and enduring promise of peace on earth, the present and foundational reality of mercy as God's way and our way of life as disciples of Jesus, and the the  work of Jesus on the cross and through the church reconciling "God and sinners."

Wesley's first verse is literally cosmic and, if you think about it for just a bit, mind-blowing in its scope. Whitefield's doesn't come close.

Suggested Repair:

Restore, but slightly update, Wesley's original first verse. The rest is fine, though it wouldn't hurt, at some point, to revisit the whole of Wesley's original and see what might be done to restore it all.

"Hark! How all the heaven rings,
Glory to the King of Kings!

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil'd."

Using Mendelssohn's tune and repeating "Hark how all the heaven rings, Glory to the King of Kings" actually underscores the right point-- the heaven is still ringing as we anticipate the coming of our Lord in glory.

UMH 241 "That Boy-Child of Mary"

Arguably, this piece could almost fit the category of "Good" since its problem is just one word: "stable." Nothing in the Bible says Jesus was born in a stable. The reason I put it here is that word appears in the opening line that is sung at least seven times if the full hymn is performed as intended.

With this hymn, keep in mind we're dealing with a text still under copyright. So if you seek to repair it and make any physical copies of your proposed repaired version, you have to get permission from Hope Publishing first.

Suggested Repair:
Change the phrase "was born in a stable" to  "announced by an angel"

245 "The First Noel"

Confusions and conflations abound. Indeed, this is so problematic, on so many levels, and in every verse, that it almost needs to be rewritten entirely. Still, I've tried to salvage it.

Verse 1: Two issues here."In fields as they lay." Night is the most dangerous time for sheep to be in the fields because their predators are on the prowl. It's rather unlikely the shepherds "lay" in the fields.

"On a cold winter's night that was so deep." Nothing in Luke describes the temperature or even the time of year with any great precision.

Verse 2: "They looked up and saw a star." The antecedent for "they" here has to be the shepherds, but there is no star mentioned in Luke's shepherd account at all.

Verse 3: "And by the light of that same star..." Same problem. The star appears in Matthew's birth narrative, not Luke's, and it's clear the two are set at rather different times.

Verse 4: "This star drew nigh to the northwest... and there it did both stop and stay." This verse represents a star acting more like the "pillar of fire" that guided the Israelites by night than any heavenly body we or the biblical writers would have tried to describe. The language of Matthew's narrative does not have the star moving across the Arabian desert in front of the wise men, nor from Jerusalem to the very house where Jesus was (and yes, in Matthew 2:11, as we've noted before, it's a house, and there's no manger mentioned). Rather, the language Matthew used describes seeing a particular arrangement of stars and planets in the sky that would indicate, in the magi's astrology, the birth of a king in Judea. They "followed the star" in the sense that they went to Jerusalem to get more specific information. That information came from the book of the prophet Micah, who predicted a future king's birth in Bethlehem, David's hometown. When they arrived at the place where the child was (Matthew 2:10) the star stopped. That doesn't mean they were following the star to get there. It means the star no longer appeared in the constellation at it previously had. Their interpretation was this meant they had found the one the star's appearance had signified.

Verse 5: "Then entered in the Wise Men three": Matthew never specifies the number of magi, nor even the number of gifts, but only the kinds of gifts they brought. 

Suggested Repairs:
Verse 1:

"The first Noel the angel did say

was to certain good shepherds in fields where they stayed,
in fields where they stayed, keeping their sheep,
through the night and its dangers, and never asleep."

Verse 2:

The angel did say, "Now be not afraid.

The Savior is born. In a manger he's laid."
"Come, let us go to see," said the shepherds that night,

"this child who is born to bring us delight."

Verse 3:

And following an Eastern star,
three wise men came from country far,
to worship a king was their intent,
and to honor the One by whom he was sent.

Verse 4:
On Zion's hill they learned the town,
from Micah, the prophet's scroll brought down;
Twas to Bethlehem they now did go,

whence David descended long ago.

Verse 5:

When they there came, the star did cease,
and down they fell upon their knees;
Going into the house when the star ceased to shine,

they offered their myrrh, gold and incense fine.

UMH 248 On This Day Earth Shall Ring

Verse 1 is fine.

Verse 2: "Ox and ass beside him from the cold would hide him" repeats the idea of Jesus being born among livestock, nowhere stated in biblical or early extra--biblical accounts, and that it would have been cold in Judea at the time of his birth.

Verse 3: "God's bright star o'er his head Wise me three to him led" As we've previously noted the biblical wording that "the star stopped over the place where the child was" means the star had "stopped shining," and so was no longer visible once they reached him The star had not led them to Bethlehem, but rather Micah's prophecy had. Finally, we do not know from Matthew's account the number of the wise men.

Verse 4 is fine.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 2: Last line:
"As God had truly spoken, Micah's words the token"

Verse 3: Looking up, Magi see, 

Guiding star absentee;
Entering home, bending knee,
lay their gifts before him,
worship and adore him.

250 "Once In Royal David's City" 

There is only one kind of biblical inconsistency to address here, the citation of Jesus being born or, early on, living in a stable. But since this is repeated twice, and therefore reinforced, in the first two verses, it needs to be addressed.

Verse 1: "Stood a lowly cattle shed:"

Verse 2: "And his shelter was a stable; and his cradle was a stall:"

Verses 3 and 4 are fine.

Suggested Repairs:

Verse 1:

Once in royal David's city,
Bethlehem, "the House of Bread,"
there a mother laid her baby

in a manger for a bed.

Verse 2:

He came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all;
God with us in humble dwelling,
Word made flesh in body small.

UMH 251 "Go, Tell It on the Mountain"

The only problem here is in verse 1. The flocks were quite unlikely to have been silent, and there are no visual phenomena such as a light in the heavens described in Luke's account.

Suggested Repair:

While shepherd's kept their watching o'er all their flock by night,
An angel there did tell them, "Behold your Savior, Christ"

Part I: The Good

Part III: The Ugly (Christmas Hymns Beyond Repair)