Rethinking Our Holly-Jolly Christmas Songs
Sometimes I learn a lot from conversations I was never intended to hear. This happened once as I was stopping by my local community bookstore. It’s a small, quiet store, so it was impossible not to eavesdrop as I heard a young man tell his friend how much he hated Christmas. And, you know what, the more he talked, the more I understood his point.
This man wasn’t talking about the hustle and bustle of the holidays, or about the stresses of family meals or all the things people tend to complain about. What he hated was the music.
This guy started by lampooning Sting’s Christmas album, and I found myself smiling as I browsed because he is so right; it’s awful. But then he went on to say that he hated Christmas music across the board. That’s when I started to feel as though I might be in the presence of the Grinch. You know, when every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing; they’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Who’s would start singing. The sour old green villain didn’t like that.
But then this man explained why he found the music so bad. It wasn’t just that it was cloying. It’s that it was boring.
“Christmas is boring because there’s no narrative tension,” he said. “It’s like reading a book with no conflict.”
Now he had my attention.
I’m sure this man had thought this for a long time, but maybe he felt freer to say it because we were only hours out from hearing the horrifying news of a massacre of innocent children in Connecticut. For him, the tranquil lyrics of our Christmas songs couldn’t encompass such terror. Maybe we should think about that.
Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.
Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).
In a time of obvious tragedy, the unbearable lightness of Christmas seems absurd to the watching world. But, even in the best of times, we all know that we live in a groaning universe, a world of divorce courts and cancer cells and concentration camps. Just as we sing with joy about the coming of the Promised One, we ought also to sing with groaning that he is not back yet (Rom. 8:23), sometimes with groanings too deep for lyrics.
The man in the bookstore knew that reality is complicated. There’s grit, and there’s tension. Without it, Christmas didn’t seem real to life. It’s hard to get more tense than being born under a king’s death sentence (Matt. 2:16), and with an ancient dragon crouching at the birth canal to devour you (Rev. 12:4). But this man didn’t hear any of that in Christmas. I’m glad I overheard him.
We have a rich and complicated and often appropriately dark Christmas hymnody. We can sing of blessings flowing “far as the curse is found,” of the one who came to “free us all from Satan’s power.”
Let’s sing that, every now and then, where we can be overheard.
A version of this article originally ran on December 18, 2012.