Singing Christmas Carols in Church
Gods rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
It's in good humor and it points to something very real about how we approach Christmas as a religion. For example, our UU hymnal changes a lot of words to Christmas carols. One example is "Joy to the World," which, in our hymnal, reads:
Joy to the world!
The word is come:
let earth with praises ring.
A far cry from:
There are strong reasons for this change, obviously. Unitarians don't believe that Jesus was the Lord or King. That's point one. The second point is that our hymnal did away with a lot of heirarchical language in reference to God. We don't use the whole monarchy metaphor for God.
Joy to the world!
The Lord is come:
let earth receive her King.
Yet, of course, were I to put the song in our service with just a hymnal number, the majority of people in our congregation would still sing right over those words: The Lord is come. Why?
The easy answer is tradition. At Christmas time, particularly, people seem opposed to changing traditional words in songs even for sound theological reasons. We'd rather be hypocrits to our beliefs than have our nostalgic Christmas interrupted by the jarring words of modernity. I say we, because I'm no exception. I'd rather sing "O Holy Night"
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
with all its sin and Saviors and angels than sing some sanitized version that strips it of the very majesty that I'm theologically opposed to yet make this song what I love.
But this is a bit hypocritical of me to want the old words. All old words were one time new. And, after all, the words I know to "O Holy Night" are not the original words, either. The original words were in French, and every time songs are translated they lose some of their original meaning in order to fit the verse into the song.
And, of course, even in English songs, there are words that get changed. For example, Lydia Marie Child's song:
Over the river, and through the wood,I don't know about you, but we always sang it as Grandmother's house. That's apparently the more common version, but not the original. And I know at least one grandfather who feels slighted by the change.
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
I understand this longing for the old words. I feel it, too. And yet, if we never give the new words a chance, they will never catch hold. And with songs in our hymnal that aren't Christmas carols, I'm more familiar with the new words than the old. And I beleive this is consistent with hymnody. Words change, because those hymns aren't in there just because we love them; they're in there because they're consistent with our religious beliefs. And for the next generation, the UU words will be their traditional songs. For me, our UU words to "Abide with Me" are the only ones I know:
Until I look up on Wikipedia that it was:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; still with me abide.
And, ultimately, I think that's a good thing. Maybe this year I'll try singing "Joy to the world! The word is come."
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.