Christmas Hymns: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Part 1)

In dulci jubilo, From a 16th c. German song book. Public Domain.
It's been a pet peeve of mine for years:

Christmas hymns and carols that aren't biblically accurate.

Yes, I do respect poetic license.

I also respect putting biblical stories into indigenous contexts.

And still, Christmas hymns and songs that speak of snow while shepherds were watching sheep, or Jesus being born in a manger, and, worst of all (from my angle, at least), song after song trying to put the baby Jesus to sleep (or seeming to claim the scriptures ever portray the infant Jesus sleeping, or not crying)... well, I'm not cool with that.


Hence this blog post.

Or rather, as this has expanded, this series of three blog posts.


I've divided the Christmas hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal into three categories: the good (few or no biblical conflicts), the bad (several glaring biblical conflicts-- which can be corrected with some effort), and the ugly (so riddled with conflicts with scripture that no amount of tinkering can fix them without ruining the poetry).

So without further ado, here's my picks for the first category.

The Good
UMH 214 "Savior of the Nations, Come" No biblical conflicts, and sound, strong incarnational theology

UMH 220 "Angels from the Realms of Glory" No biblical conflicts.

UMH 222 "Niño Lindo" No biblical conflicts-- but also little biblical content. This is a song of adoration, not a doctrinal song.

UMH 223 "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" No real biblical conflicts. The Bible never describes Jesus as ever having had a "crib" (verse 3, line 2) to "leave behind" him in the first place, but that falls well within the limits of poetic license. The theological and Christological content of this hymn is rich.

UMH 225 and 226 Versions of the "Canticle of Simeon" This is either directly biblical content (225) or a reasonable paraphrase of it (226).

UMH 228 "He Is Born/Il est né." No biblical conflicts in the verses. Though the chorus calls for instruments that didn't exist in biblical times or places, it's clear this is a reference to ways to celebrate what the verses proclaim at the time the 18th century carol was written.

UMH 230 "O Little Town of Bethlehem" No direct biblical conflicts. Verse 3 may overplay the silence in how Christ was born among us, but the silence could be understood in other ways.

UMH 233 "En el Frio Invernal"  It's not necessary to read biblical conflicts here. If read poetically and liturgically, this song works for the Northern hemisphere at least. "Cold December" points to when we celebrate the birth of Christ, April to when we remember his death, and the tree the bears the flower points both to the birth (the flower) and the death/resurrection (the tree that becomes the cross).

UMH 234 "O Come, All Ye Faithful" Maybe some conflicts, depending on how you read verse 3. If the call to sing is contemporary-- we ask the angels now to sing-- there are no conflicts. The Bible, however, never describes the angels as singing when they make their announcement to the shepherds. Indeed, there is only one angel described as making the announcement. That angel is later joined by the "heavenly host" and with them says, not sings, "Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace to people of good will." Meanwhile, one can hardly argue about the orthodoxy of verse 2, which is taken nearly verbatim from the Nicene Creed.

UMH 242 "Love Came Down at Christmas" No biblical conflicts.

UMH 243 "De Tierra Lejana Venimos" No direct biblical conflicts, though the interpretations given to the gifts are extra-biblical.

UMH 244 "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime" You may think me too generous to include this on this list. Maybe I am. The imagery of this hymn is almost completely non-biblical, as it represents a complete resetting of the story of the birth of Jesus into a 17th century Canadian First Nations context. One either buys into that, or one does not. It also includes the error of singing angels and magi as foreign principates as some hymns that made the "Bad" or "Ugly" list. And as this site, which provides a more literal (but equally poetic translation) of the original 17th century Huron text, points out, the English we have scarcely resembles the Huron, and adds words (including the name for God) that were nowhere in the original text and, in that case, may not even be Huron in origin. Here's a  sample of a modern First Nations rendering of the original Huron text (go to track 11). 

Maybe this text could use a new reworking in English, one that hews closer to the Huron original without sentimentalizing it, and one actually created by Huron or related peoples, but as the cited website points out, this English version is actually in wide use among First Nations peoples in Canada today. If this is working for them, I as a non-First Nations person, and primarily descended from and operating within a culture that has oppressed First Nations peoples in the US, am not going to argue about that.


UMH 246 "Joy to the World" No biblical conflicts.

UMH 247 "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" No biblical conflicts, and strong devotional and theological content.


Part 2: The Bad (but Salvageable)

Part 3: The Ugly (Beyond Repair)