Monday, December 19, 2011

The Six Days of Christmas

I love old hymns.  Love, love them.  That's mostly what we sang in church when I was young, and it was by far my favorite part of the service.  Don't get me wrong, I like contemporary music, too; there's a lot of great new stuff out there.  But when things get tight, sing me a few verses of "It is Well With my Soul."  Tell me that's not powerful.

In church we always sang verses one, two, and four, supposedly to save time.  That never made sense to me, because it doesn't take but a minute to sing a verse of a hymn, and it's so fun.  It may have been some kind of "grass is greener" phenomenon, but I always felt like the third verse was the one with the most powerful lyrics.  Was it a conspiracy to cover up the most powerful (and therefore, dangerous) messages of these songs?  The world will never know.

(Now I know that some object to old hymns, claiming they contain faulty theology.  Well, I can't argue with that (I'd never win if I tried, anyway) but I'll only accept that objection if you're subjecting all your music to the same scrutiny, not just the old stuff.)

My favorite worship service of the year has always been the one paltry Sunday on which we sang Christmas carols.  The rest of the year they looked out of place in the hymnal beside the "every Sunday" songs, but the last Sunday before Christmas we were allowed to belt them...verses one, two and four, of course.

Retail Christmas starts earlier and earlier every year, but Christmas hymn Sunday remains frustratingly in place.  If I were a worship leader I'd dust those babies off right after Halloween and keep them in the rotation until Groundhog's Day, so it's probably a good thing that I'm not.  There's a lot of good Christmas songs, but these hymns are powerful.  They get me every time.  It's the only time of year we can go into public places and hear the birth of Christ proclaimed in song.  Sometimes I'm amazed.  How do we get away with it?  I think it's because they're too familiar.  We've known them for so long that they've passed into the subconscious, with all the other miscellaneous stuff.

Though it's true that many of our Christmas traditions do not have Christian origins, Christmas has been celebrated for years by mainstream society as a staunchly religious holiday.  As our culture moves away from that, I see us in a bit of a pickle trying to sort out the traditional from the religious.  We resolve this dilemma with instrumental versions of old songs, and new, Jesus-free Christmas songs, and moving the meaning of Christmas to a belief in "the Christmas spirit" and away from religion.

Don't get me wrong, I think these things are good, not bad.  I think people who aren't Christians shouldn't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday.  God isn't honored by unwilling, or unwitting, praise.  I think people should be free to celebrate the holiday the way they want.  After all, I'm not free to celebrate in my way unless others are free to celebrate in theirs.  My only beef with the situation is that the drive for secular songs to fill the gap has produced some truly horrible Christmas music.  I'm sorry, but there it is.

So I'm here in China, but I am not without Christmas.  Celebrations of Christmas, at least in this part of China, are more and more in vogue every year.  A couple weeks ago I walked into my local mega-mart (yep, we have those; with a billion people, there required) and saw these:

Who says China is behind the world in human rights?  China is a place where Spanish-speaking Packers, Raiders, and Redskin fans can all share their Christmas lo mein together.  And of course we can do so while listening to this rendition I heard last week in McDonald's, "Jingle bell, jingle a one-horse open slee!"  I get that "sleigh" is hard to pronounce, but doesn't the rhyming scheme with "way" help?  I know Chinese preschoolers that get it.  Oh well.

So I was in Subway yesterday, and I had this idea.  Subway, like all remotely western businesses, is playing Christmas music.  I was just thinking how nice it was that I hadn't heard any "Feliz Navidad" when they played both "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Christmas Shoes."  Call me a philistine, but those are the two worst Christmas songs ever, closely followed by "Here Comes Santa Claus."  The drummer boy is a nice enough story, but I'm sorry, no mother every gave anyone permission to play a percussion instrument around her newborn.  And Christmas shoes?  I know it was the top of the charts a few years ago, and the mom is dying and blah blah, but I can't stand it.  It's like someone found a way to use the PA system to send me email spam.  Sorry, kids.

As I was yearning for some of the good ol' stuff, I had an idea.  We've got six days till Christmas (give or take), and that's eight songs.  I'm gonna search up my best Christmas hymns and post their lyrics here.  I know you already know them, but take a look.  Really take a look.  For starters, let's get to know that lost third verse.  Most of the hymns we associate with Christmas weren't written specifically for Christmas (validating those of use who want to listen to them and sing them in September) but were written like any other hymn: to be good, ol' praise.  So, I'm going to post the lyrics to one hymn every day until Christmas.  I wish I'd thought of this sooner, then I'd challenge worship leaders to start singing these songs earlier, though perhaps not as early as Halloween.  Well, you'll have to stick that one behind your ear for next year.  Anyway, today's selection is Joy to the World.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

"He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found."  When you hear "Old Man is Stalking You"  ("Santa Claus is Coming to Town") in Walgreen's for the twenty-nine millionth time, think about that.  To make his blessings flow.  Joy to you.


sarah said...

It sorta makes you wonder if as a song writer today you may put less effort into writing the 3rd verse than you do in the 1st, 2nd and 4th.

deltasierra said...

I am SO with you on Christmas Shoes! I can't even listen to the Christian station without hearing it! Fortunately, the only time I listen to radio is in my car, and I can get HD stations (like, digital stations between normal stations). Our classical station has an all-classical-Christmas all-the-time HD station, with no commercials! I'm LOVING it!

And I also agree with you about the Christmas hymns in the book. I actually grew up in a church where we did not acknowledge Christmas as being associated with Christ (Christ's birthday is in APRIL, after all!), so Christmas songs -- regardless of their message and celebration of Jesus' birth -- were strictly forbidden. So there is a teeny-tiny part of me that feels a little weird singing Christmas hymns in church.

But the rest of me loves it! :D