The Ugly: Christmas Hymns Beyond Repair (Part 3 of the Series)

Stille Nacht. From 1891 German song collection. Public Domain. 
I am glad to be able to say this is the briefest of the three categories of Christmas hymns in our hymnal.

I will also say it is with some trepidation that I present this. Several of these are beloved. The tunes are well known. In one instance, the use of the hymn in question has become so widespread for Christmas Eve services, that one part of that service would seem unimaginable without it.

So here is my list of nominees for Christmas hymns to rewrite entirely.

UMH 217 Away in a Manger

Verse 1: The whole setting of this hymn, announced in its opening words and confirmed in the closing of verse 1, is an image of a sleeping baby Jesus. The birth narratives we have never say Jesus was sleeping, nor on hay.

Verse 2: There is no reason to suppose that if Jesus had been awakened by something, he would not have cried. None. Yet that's the whole point of the first half of verse 2.

The second half of verse 2 seems to come out of the blue. How do we get from baby Jesus not crying to someone calling upon Jesus from a cradle? Most children in cradles don't yet talk.

Verse 3: As a devotional thought, this verse is really okay. The first part perhaps recalls the Emmaus story, "Stay with us, for night is at hand." And the second part is a fine prayer. Asking Jesus to bless all children is a great thing to do. And since this is, apparently, a children's hymn, having children ask for other children to be blessed and fit for heaven is a good sort of solidarity move. But again, one has to ask how one gets to any of this from where this hymn begins.

If we want a children's hymn somehow connected to the manger, and then somehow connecting Christ in the manger with the rest of us here and now, it's time to write a new text that takes the biblical narrative seriously and makes a clear connection between it and what we are subsequently called to do.

218 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
Thanks to Michael Hawn for pointing out I had missed this one in the original version of this post. With fairness to Michael, he would not want to put it in this category because of its compelling vision of peace-- a vision he and I share, by the way.
There is a lot of poetic license with biblical texts in this hymn. We have angels singing, even playing harps, and bearing wings. It's sort of a typical 19th century Romantic view of angels. So be it.

The larger problem with this hymn is it nowhere mentions Jesus, or God for that matter, except perhaps at a remove-- the angels sing of "Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven's all-gracious King." The announcement from above, "remotely far,"
supplants the actual good news the angel brought that the Messiah, the Lord, has been born among us.

What the text leaves us with, ultimately, is a kind of almost deterministic progressive view of history, that the world is getting better and better, or is simply bound to do so, at some point.

In short, the song only offers hope to us in some future state. It ignores the actual hope Mary proclaimed at Elizabeth's greeting, and that the angel proclaimed to shepherds in Luke's account-- that God has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ and is already turning the world upside down. God's kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus. And there is more for us to do than wait for the "ever-circling years" to send back the word of peace. Jesus has already started this, in giving peace to his disciples, and calling us to be a people of peace, sharing Christ's peace and working for peace in the world here and now.

The tune is lovely. The text leaves much to be desired.

UMH 221 In the Bleak Midwinter

Verse 1: At a poetic level, abstracted from the biblical stories, the opening stanza of this poem seeks to set a stage for just how bleak, dark, cold and hopeless the world had gotten. The world is "in extremis." And Christ comes to us then, in the worst of all possible conditions. Poetically, maybe even homiletically, this works.
But if we're trying to view this poem through a biblical lens, as the second verse with its references to the biblical narrative as kind of warrant seems to want us to do, this becomes more problematic.

We have zero evidence from the Bible that the birth of Jesus happened in winter at all, much less "bleak midwinter." December 25, when we celebrate the nativity (for theological reasons, not historical ones) is already a bit past midwinter, an alternate name for the winter solstice (thanks to Jerry Sather for that reminder). There is no good climatological evidence that snow would have been likely, much less "snow on snow," capable of turning the countryside around Bethlehem into a frozen wasteland ("earth as hard as iron, water like a stone") even in December in Palestine in the first century AD, much less in the Southern hemisphere, where summer, not winter, begins. Seriously, if it were that cold and snowy out, the shepherds would not have been simply "abiding the in the fields keeping watch." They'd be out among the flock rounding up the lambs and getting them to safe shelter to keep them from freezing to death.

Verse 2: If this poem/hymn began with the beginning of verse 2, it might have been salvageable. But the last part of this verse puts us right back into all the problems of verse 1, and adds the additional complication of placing the birth in a "stable-place."

Verse 3: The description of the angels and archangels and other heavenly beings thronging is one of the most accurate of any of the hymns in our hymnal, with one exception: where they were said to throng. In Luke's account, that occurred in the countryside outside of Bethlehem, not directly at the place of the birth of Jesus. The last part about Mary kissing the baby Jesus is lovely, and not in conflict with scripture, but nowhere mentioned in the Bible, either.

Verse 4: "Poor as I am" doesn't make a lot of sense for Christina Rosetti, nor for most of us in the English speaking Northern hemisphere who sing this poem as a hymn. Though she had had some health struggles (a nearly fatal heart attack in 1870, and a diagnosis of Graves Disease in 1872, the year she wrote this poem/hymn), Christina Rosetti was by far the most widely known, praised and important female poet in England at the time. It seems hard to imagine how she could call herself "poor."

And it is equally hard to imagine how the majority of those who sing this as a hymn could do so, either. Most of us (including most reading this blog post) deceive ourselves to frame ourselves as poor in any way. We are wealthy, powerful, privileged, and in the US, by far the greatest consumers, per capita, on the planet. We need to own that. We cannot claim poverty as an excuse to give only our heart, and not actually our wealth and the influence our privilege brings us in service to Christ in the world.

"If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb," conflates Matthew's story of the magi, who do bring gifts, with the shepherds, who instead bring news from the angels to inform Mary, and not lambs to offer in homage to the swaddled infant. The emotional response to their offering isn't reverence, but astonishment.

The last two lines of verse 4 are lovely (even if the first of the two is a bit vague), and really fine as a devotional thought.

But they beg the question of what we think we're to do when we worship at Christmas. Are we there to offer our sentimentality around the crèche? Astonishment isn't sentimental. There is certainly no sentimentality in the gifts of the wise men or the news of the shepherds. Nor is John's declaration about the Word made flesh and dwelling among us the least bit sentimental.

As devotional poetry, "In the Bleak Midwinter" is undoubtedly fine art. But as a text for Christian worship, ultimately it fails.

Gustav Holst's musical setting to Rosetti's poem is lovely. But it needs to be used to sing much sounder words at Christmas.

UMH 227 "The Friendly Beasts"

This "children's hymn" in English was derived from a very different 13th century Latin and Old French original (Orientis partibus) that was used as part of the observance of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt after Epiphany. In the original, only one animal is remembered-- the donkey (asinus) which helped them flee, the same one who is portrayed as having brought Mary into Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. Of course, neither Matthew nor Luke says anything about a donkey being part of the birth story of Jesus. So even the 13h century original has no biblical grounding.

What we have in the anonymously "translated" (more like, created from wholecloth) English version is even less tethered to any biblically-based accounts. The only animals mentioned in connection with the birth narratives of Jesus in the Bible are sheep. And it seems unlikely the shepherds would have brought their entire flock or even any part of it with them into Bethlehem when they "left with haste" to tell Mary and Joseph what they angel had announced to them.

What we appear to have in this song is a Victorian children's morality text masquerading as hymn for Christian worship. All the animals give something to Jesus. What will the children give to him is the question the song begs but never quite gets around to asking.

Time to write a new text to the otherwise lovely and lively (if arranged in its medieval form) Orientis partibus, which, as a tune, at least has some historical connection to the liturgical celebration of the Christmas and Epiphany stories.

235 Rock-a-Bye, My Dear Little Boy

The text of this hymn, per se, isn't even trying to be biblical. It's an imaginative scene of the singer, Mary, rocking the infant Jesus to sleep. It's a lullaby.

And it's a lovely lullaby.

But let's think, just for a minute, about the implications of singing this as part of worship. The congregation is trying to get Jesus to go to sleep? We're imagining ourselves as the mother of Jesus, thus infantilizing our Lord and Master, and, in a sense, placing ourselves over him? Really?

Given that the tune itself is a lullaby in form, I'm not sure even it is salvageable, nor that it should be re-used for a different kind of text.

UMH 239 "Silent Night, Holy Night"

Yes. That one.

Overall, every verse begins with "Silent night, holy night." Nothing in the biblical stories ever speaks of silence as a feature of the birth of Jesus, or the appearance of the angels. Nothing. Indeed, where the angels appear, to shepherds watching their sheep at night, it was likely not silent at all. The sheep would have been making plenty of sounds. 

The perpetual silence proclaimed by this song only underscores the whole attitude of "let's all go to sleep now, including you, too, baby Jesus" that the first verse makes explicit.

The biblical accounts don't include sleep as a feature, and the watchword from Jesus to his disciples was to wake up and stay awake!

Verse 1: In both the English version and the German original, verse 1 has the congregation trying to get the infant Jesus to sleep. This in itself is bad enough (in my book) to put any Christmas hymn on the "ugly" list.

The German sort of helps understand why this is happening in ways the English may make worse. "Alles shlaeft" Everyone (else) is asleep (rather than "all is calm" in the English).  "Einsam wacht nur da traute hoch heilege Paar." Lonely, only the faithful, most-holy pair (Mary and Joseph) are awake. So they're now trying to get their "Knabe mit lockigen Haar" (curly-haired baby-- yes, it says that) back to sleep again.

The English version takes this and turns it into a scene of almost eternal stasis. There is a heavenly light glowing around the virgin mother and child (Joseph is nowhere to be seen in the English version).  Then we all sing Jesus to sleep in this eternally lighted scene, and so the sleep itself takes on an eternal character. The ideal posture for the holy infant and the virgin mother is sleep. Lights on the mother and sleeping child forever.

I'm not sure which is worse-- the (Aryan?) curly-headed German original, or the English Currier and Ives "ideal" Christmas scene. Both are beyond redemption for use in Christian worship.

Devotional use, maybe. The song of the worshiping assembly, no.

Verse 2: The verse starts out okay with frightened shepherds. Then it goes off the biblical rails. There is no mention anywhere in Luke of visual phenomena (much less "glories streaming") other than the angel and the multitude of the heavenly host. The heavenly creatures do not sing in Luke's story. And they never sing or say "Alleluia." The German also has the angels singing Hallelujah, so there's no help there. Finally, "Christ the Savior is born" is said by the original angel, not by the heavenly host.

Verse 3: The problems here are both textual and editorial. Let's start with the latter. The semicolon at the end of the second system (love's pure light) makes no sense. And then it makes the next line "radiant beams from thy holy face" also make no sense. Here's how it should go, but how pretty much no one puts it, privileging tune over text. "Son of God, love's pure light radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth."

If that makes better sense (it's still a bit of a run-on, with an awkward fit of text to tune), it's still problematic theologically, if not biblically. We're proclaiming the dawn of redeeming grace is the birth of Jesus? So it didn't exist before then? What of the Word being in the beginning with God, and being God? What of all the redeeming grace God had shown in creation, and in particular to the descendents of Abraham, and through them to countless others, for centuries? Though the text wouldn't need to be read that way, at face value, given the general successionist theological context of 19th century Germany (and much of the West), a context that made it thinkable redeeming grace only began with Jesus and that the Jewish people had not received it or, if they had, had rejected it and so lost any opportunity to receive it now, this is a more than plausible reading.

Verse 4: "Wondrous star, lend thy light." Wait. The whole song up to now has been about the night of the birth of Jesus, and so the shepherds and angels. Now, suddenly, we shift from Luke to Matthew, from the night of the birth to a phenomenon that pointed to the fact of the birth and continued to be present in the heavens for quite some time after the birth had occurred.

"With the angels, let us sing Alleluia to our King! Christ the Savior is born." Again, the angels didn't sing, they have nothing to do with the star (in Matthew, communication happens not by angels, but by dreams), and they didn't sing Alleluia in the biblical birth accounts. This line could be read to say "Let's sing with the angels now." If that temporal change is made, it almost works, so long as the implication is we are singing and the angels likely are not-- since angels are never once recorded as singing in the Bible. 

Not a single verse of this hymn passes biblical and theological muster.

Meanwhile, the Unitarians published a version in the 19th century that generally does. It's almost nothing like the German original. (HT Mitch Wilson for pointing this one out to me). Indeed, that version could go on the Good list!

So can we find another text, if not a different tune, for candle lighting?

UMH 249 "There's a Song in the Air"

Okay, I admit I've hated "Silent Night" since I was a small child. The tune always made me cry. I don't know why. But it did. And I didn't like that. I wanted nothing to do with it. I would cover my ears or try to leave if someone started singing it. That may color some of my analysis of it. But it doesn't change my opinion that it fails biblical and theological testing.  

But here's the thing. I've actually always liked text and tune of "There's a Song in the Air" from as early as I can remember. A lot.

Alas, it's so riddled with biblical inconsistencies, through and through, that it becomes the final entry on the Ugly list.

Verse 1: "There's a song in the air." No, there's not, not if the referent is to the angels. "There's a star in the sky." No, that conflates two completely different stories. "There's a mother's deep prayer, and a baby's low cry!" We never hear of Mary praying for Jesus in the biblical texts, and we see zero emotional response from Jesus in these stories, either. "And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing" simply reinforces the complete conflation of the Lukan and Matthean narratives, something the early church ruled out of order when it declared Tatian's Diatessaron heretical. The only line that survives biblical testing is "for the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King."

Verse 2: Line one works, if the referent is to the multitude of the heavenly host. Line two also works. But in lines three and four we're back to the same conflations and the same words that end verse 1.

Verse 3: This is the one verse that almost works, if we allow "the beautiful sing" and "the song from the world" to refer to the church's treatment of the text of the heavenly host, which we have, indeed, sung, worldwide.

Verse 4: Similarly, this verse almost works, except for the identification of the song, as something actually sung, with the heavenly throng.

Still, as much as I'd like to put this on the salvageable list, these are serious enough problems, especially in the early verses (the ones most folks will remember) that it's time for a new text to this joyous Christmas tune.

Part I (The Good)
Part II The Bad (but Salvageable)