It may be very hard for us to consider traditional "Christmas Carols" objectively. First, the tunes without words (as we often hear them on seasonal broadcasting) may arouse powerful and conflicting emotions. A folk tune may reflect an unfamiliar musical tradition: which attracts some people by its timeless charm, repels others by its strangeness, or simply puzzles others by its subtlety. A pop tune may be associated with happy memories for some people, while repelling others by its maudlin sentimentality.
Then, if we get past the musical effects to consider the words, we must deal with the dilemma that the Birth of Jesus is a scriptural event of great spiritual importance, and yet Christmas is not a Christian celebration. Our hymnal editors have not served us well: one eliminated anything associated with Christmas; others include original or pop sentimentality, while excluding edifying spiritual hymns. We thus have no choice: we must discover for ourselves how to proclaim the life of Jesus in song, without becoming entangled in the vain repetition of "observing sabbaths and holy days and new moons." We can surely recognize some general principles:
We sing about the Lord's Supper or baptism, because we observe those rites; but we cannot song "about" Christmas or its observance.
We should not sing or teach unscriptural ideas about the facts of Jesus' birth: "God rest ye merry, gentlemen... remember Christ was born on Christmas day" is an unscriptural song. But "songs contain figurative language" (or rather, good songs are figures of language!) and must be heard with poetic appreciation, not narrowly-literal analysis.
A song may be scriptural without being spiritual. Nursery-school songs that name the apostles or the books of the Bible, may help infants remember Biblical facts, but are not for public worship! Even songs for adults sometimes recount Biblical facts without expressing any spiritual response. There are many such songs (a few in our hymnals). Some Negro Spirituals ("Ezekiel saw the Wheel") treat Old Testament stories this way. The charming "Bring a torch, Jeanette Isabella" provides an imaginative first-person view of the birth, without spiritual meat; the "Little Drummer Boy" is equally unspiritual. (Of course, some of these were not designed for public worship.)
But there are good hymns that reflect on Biblical events and their impact on us: Consider "I can hear my Savior Calling" and "O sacred Head now wounded" on Jesus' death, "Jesus Christ is Risen Again" and "Jesus lives, and so shall I" on His resurrection, and "Master, the tempest is raging" on the miracle of walking on the water. There are various ways to meditate on these events: hymns may treat them as examples or as spiritual analogies; they may expand and apply the mythic and metaphorical symbols so common in Biblical prophecy; or arouse and express faith, thanksgiving, wonder, praise, repentance, or dedication. Surely something like that could be done with Jesus' birth!
Please consider these things: take these "Christmas" songs, and divide them into the categories below. (I've encluded quotations for the more obscure songs.)
- A) Songs about Christmas
- B) Songs with unscriptural events or ideas
- C) Unspiritual or unedifying songs
- D) Spiritual songs about the birth of Jesus.
[ ] Away in a Manger...
[ ] Silent Night...
[ ] I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day...
[ ] We Three Kings...
[ ] Love Came Down at Christmas-Time...
[ ] Joy to the World
[ ] O Savior, whom this holy morn
Gave to our world below;
To mortal want and labor born,
And more than mortal woe;
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!...
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn....
[ ] Good Christian Men, Rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say:
Jesus Christ is born to-day;
Ox and ass before him bow,
And he is in the manger now....
[ ] Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of mankind was born
[ ] To us a Child of Hope is born,
To us a Son is giv'n.
Him shall the tribes of earth obey,
And all the hosts of heav'n.
His name shall be the Prince of Peace,
The Wonderful, the Counselor,
The great and mighty Lord...
[ ] Hark! The herald angels sing...
Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace;
Hail the sun of righteousness,
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings,...
[ ] As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold,...
So, most gracious God, may we
Evermore be led to thee.
[ ] Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid,
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid....
Shall we not yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and offerings divine,
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forst, or gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure,
Richer by far is the heart's adoration,
Dear to God are the prayers of the poor.
[ ] Lo, how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
By faithful prophets sung,
It came a floweret bright
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind,
To show God's love aright
She bore for us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
This flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load....
[ ] Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand;
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood,
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for holy food....
[ ] Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see.
O that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face.
This is he whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord,
Whom the voices of the Prophets
Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the long-expected,
Let creation praise its Lord...
[ ] While shepherds watched their flocks,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
"Fear not" said He, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind,
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
To you and all mankind....
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace:
Goodwill henceforth from heav'n to men
Begin, and never cease!"