I recently heard a comedian doing a bit on the radio about the poor quality of Christmas carols. He seemed at first to suggest that the best carols gave the impression of being nearly synonymous with the Christmas event itself when he said that lots of carols seem like they were actually written by Jesus. What he meant, however, was that much Christmas music is so unsophisticated and unimaginative that it could have been made up by a baby. He went on to detail the simplistic nature of carols: “They’re all about the same four things: God, love, snow, or Santa Claus sleeping around.”
While the comic may have a point about recent Christmas music (say, much of what has been written since the rock-and-roll era), but he’s sorely confused about the definition of a Christmas carol. He takes it to be the official name for any Christmas song. But “carol” is the term properly reserved for a joyous song with a Christian theme, written in a slightly less formal style than many traditional hymns because the carols were designed to be easy to sing even outside the constraints of formal Christian worship. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are Christmas carols. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not.
I’m not one of those people who hurry to put on Christmas music in September, but as Christmas approaches in mid-December, most of my music should match the season. And while I enjoy a wide range of Christmas music (Sufjan Stevens’ “Get Behind Me, Santa!” and “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day?” are just two quite non-traditional titles that come to mind), I have a special regard for the church’s great Christmas carols and hymns. So for the past week, during our brief family worship time after supper, in place of our ordinary Bible readings, each night we’ve been going through the words of a different Christmas carol.
It’s a practice I’d commend to anyone who wants to consider the true meaning of Christmas. You might not get a whole lot of deep meaning out of “Away in a Manger,” but many carols contain great treasures of reflection about the significance of the incarnation, the central Christian doctrine that, in Jesus, God became a human being, that Jesus is the one unique person who is fully human and fully divine.
From “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we hear the invitation to see Jesus as the culmination of God’s promises and his concern for his people: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;/the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
“Once in Royal David’s City” encourages us to recognize that in Jesus the pattern of true humanity was revealed to us, and that he understands all of our difficulties and has great compassion toward us: “Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,/day by day, like us he grew;/he was little, weak, and helpless,/tears and smiles like us he knew:/and he feels for all our sadness,/and he shares in all our gladness.”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is to me the greatest of all Christmas carols, written by the greatest of all hymn-writers, Charles Wesley. The riches of classic Christian thought are here put into words we may all remember from a young age, and yet we are never too old to be enriched by pondering the meaning of the hiddenness of God within the humble form of a particular person like us: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;/hail th’incarnate Deity,/pleased as man with men to dwell,/Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
One could go on and on, and I suggest we all do exactly that this Christmas season. Pull out a hymnal or a book of Christmas carols, or search the lyrics to an old familiar carol. Spend an extra few minutes looking at the words. And take the time, before getting on with the busy season, to pray about the true meaning of this celebration.