As I have said a lot in the past two years, I am no longer sure what I believe in. Given that, it’s hard, this time of year, to be confronted with the evangelical exuberance of Nativities, of mangers and shepherds and magi. That may be why I feel far less charity towards the ridiculous “Christmas Warriors” than I might otherwise.
Nonetheless, Advent (not Christmas) is one of my favorite seasons. It is filled with wonder and darkness, with waiting and hope. For those of us raised in heavily ritualized faiths (I was raised Roman Catholic and later became Episcopalian), Advent matters as much as Lent, although it can be harder to observe, given the general frenzy society brings in December. I have never heard of an office giving a Good Friday party.
Lessons and Carols is the second most beautiful mass of the year, right behind the Easter Vigil. I was once blessed (regardless of what I believe there is no other word for it) to see the service in Westminster Abbey, and I still get chills when I remember it.
Oddly enough, I planned this post to be about music, again, and the penchant people have for changing lyrics which don’t suit them.
Christmas is, and always has been, a bittersweet time. Religiously, there is the waiting for the Christ, a child destined to change the world and to be tortured and murdered at a young age. As I have said before, the manger stands in the shadow of the cross. You cannot celebrate one without recognizing the other. Even on a secular level, however, we have much to feel conflicted about. As we gather with family, we recognize the people who cannot be with us, either because of distance or death. People experiencing bereavement often find the holiday particularly painful, because of memories of Christmases past, and feel anew the loss of those they love.
Some of the best Christmas songs reflect that feeling. There are a surprising number that are in a minor key, for example. And there are lyrics which reflect the complexity of the season. Two Christmas hymns that do so well are “What Child Is This?” and “We Three Kings.”
“What Child Is This” has a verse which includes lines about “Sword, spear, shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you.” The only commercial recording that I have heard which includes that verse was one by Tennessee Ernie Ford from years ago. More subtly, and just as significantly, most versions I have heard change the line “Raise, raise the song on high; the virgin sings a lullaby” and replace “the virgin” with “his mother.”
“We Three Kings” has a line a “Glorious now behold him arise; King and God and Sacrifice.” The only version I have heard which includes this verse is the wonderful “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (which morphs into “We Three Kings”) by The Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Maclachlan.
I know there is a temptation to ignore or change what I once heard an acquaintance refer to as “all the depressing verses” of these songs.* That robs them of their depth and complexity. To change a reference to Mary from a virgin to simply any other mother takes away the meaning of the song. To remove references to the central tenet of the religion, namely that Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world, destroys the deeper meaning of the song. If you are going to change them to remove their doctrinal content, you might as well not bother singing them to begin with.**
Performers also like to change the lyrics of secular music if they don’t suit them. The poster child here is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland’s character in Meet Me In St. Louis sings it in the face of losing her home to move far away. She longs for stability, to be able to live and love just as she has been. The song reflects that longing: it is in a minor key, and a quick listen to even the “happified” version will reveal a hesitancy to embrace the cheerful holiday spirit unreservedly.
In the original, the line “Through the years, we all will be together; if the fates allow” is followed by “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” This has been almost universally replaced by “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”*** If you listen closely to the tenor of the rest of the song, that transition to vapid empty Christmas imagery jars.
Fortunately, nobody seems to have messed with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Maybe because it would be impossible to do so: the payoff line comes at the very end, and clearly is the raison d’être for the whole song.
Christmas is a complicated holiday. We have nuanced music that reflects that complexity. People need to not mess around with it.
*The person in question was, if I recall correctly, a self-professed pagan. I really wanted to snap “Well, don’t sing them if you feel like that. It’s not your religious tradition anyway.”
**Or not: I recognize that Christmas carols are profoundly beautiful and moving music.
***The impulse to change this line is so widespread that the author of an article about the song talked to James Taylor about why he chose to keep the original lyric. I bought subsequently bought Taylor’s version specifically because he did, and I love it.