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Words Mean Things: Christmas Edition

December 9th, 2013 · 4 Comments

I know it’s not Christmas yet, and I know there are a few souls left who try not to sing the “Christ is born!” type songs until Christmas Eve (and continue singing them throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas), so consider this a part of your Advent preparations.

Words mean things: the words of Christmas songs are no exception. The songs we sing about Christ’s birth tell a beautiful story, so it matters what we sing. You can write this off as a “Christmas songs pet peeve list,” but some things are important enough to get right, and I think the Christmas Story falls into that category.

Silent Night: First, the English translation of “Silent Night” that most of us know is a tortured one, as poetic translations often are, with strange word order and strange word choices, but it does make sense if you think about it. “All is calm, all is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child” means “Around that Virgin Mother and her Child over there, everything is calm and bright.” Takeaway 1: “‘Round” is short for “around”: it is not a description of the woman’s shape. Takeaway 2: Don’t breathe between “Virgin” and “Mother”: the two words go together.  The next line is a prayer: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace!”  The stanza that we often sing third is even harder to parse: “Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” Let me try my best here: “Son of God (a.k.a. Jesus, a.k.a. Lord), love’s pure light, which accompanies the dawn of redeeming grace, beams radiantly from your holy face.” I heard a country version of the song recently that contained the line, “Jesus, Lord of thy birth.” Someone completely missed the point of the line.

The First Nowell: This song narrates the Christmas story as found in Luke 2 and also in Matthew 2. In Luke 2, you may recall, we read that “an angel of the Lord” appeared to the shepherds. An angel. One. That’s why the song says, “The first Nowell the angel did say …” Not “the angels did say …” It was one angel who told the shepherds about Christ’s birth. After the angel finished this announcement, he was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host. And it is “The First Nowell,” not “The First Noel.” “Nowell” in the first stanza comes from the Latin novellae, which means “news,” so, “The first [good] news the angel did say …” In the refrain, it does say “Noel,” which is from the Latin natalis and means “birthday.” So there have been puns in songs long before there was country music.

Angels We Have Heard on High: Gloria in excelsis Deo means “Glory to God in the highest,” which is what the angels said in Luke 2:14. No big mystery there: it’s just important to sing with understanding.

Joy to the World: “The Lord is come,” not “The Lord has come.” This one doesn’t really change the meaning, but “is” is what Isaac Watts wrote, not “has.” “Is come” reflects the Germanic roots of English: in German, the present perfect of “come” (kommen) uses sein (”to be”) rather than haben (”to have”). Aside: this hymn is really an Advent hymn instead of a Christmas hymn. It speaks of the Second Advent of Christ, not the Nativity. But everyone enjoys singing it at Christmas.

Away in a Manger: “Stars in the bright sky” fits the meter of the tune. “Stars in the sky” is one syllable short. A lot of people have theological issues with this one. “No crying he makes”? Really? If Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then he did, indeed, cry. It’s still a nice song: just sing the “no crying he makes” part very softly, or with your fingers crossed behind your back.

And finally, a question for you all: Inclusive language: help or hindrance? Does altering the words to familiar Christmas songs to be more gender-inclusive help, or does it get in the way? For example, in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Wesley wrote, “Born to raise the sons of earth; born to give them second birth” and “Pleased as man with men to dwell.” Many of our modern hymnals have “Born to raise us from the earth; born to give us second birth” and “Pleased as man with us to dwell” (or “Pleased in flesh with us to dwell.”) What think ye of such alterations?

Tags: Holidays · Holy Days · Liturgy · Music · Theology

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kelli Holston MonsterID Icon Kelli Holston // Dec 10, 2013 at 23:25

    You forgot to comment on We Three Kings!
    And, I agree on all that (above).

  • 2 Kelli Holston MonsterID Icon Kelli Holston // Dec 10, 2013 at 23:26

    Sorry, I didn’t answer the question. No, I don’t like modifications.

  • 3 Mark Nabholz MonsterID Icon Mark Nabholz // Dec 11, 2013 at 5:52

    I have yet to see a situation where the alteration of a familiar hymn text actually was helpful. Generally those alterations are like driving over unexpected speed bumps, and hinder the congregation’s participation – especially for people who have memorized the texts over their lifetime.

    When writing a new hymn, current gender terminology should wisely be observed, but pre-existing, well-known texts should either be left alone or simply not used.

  • 4 RevJATB MonsterID Icon RevJATB // Dec 12, 2013 at 22:55

    Our hymnal (1990 Presbyterian Hymnal) is pretty heavy-handed when it comes to changing the words to hymns, even well-known ones. I take a middle-of-the-road approach to most of them. On Christmas Eve, we print the music and texts to all the hymns (Finale is a wonderful thing), so we are free to bring the hymns back to more familiar wording, but we do leave some of the gender-inclusive language in places where it does get in the way. For example, in “Pleased as man with us to dwell” is actually closer to the meaning of “Emmanuel.” It is “God with us,” not “God with men.”

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