Christmas Carols


I know this is not an original sentiment, but Oh, Christmas! What Crimes Are Committed In Your Name seems an ample interjection for what got my goat early this morning as I was catching up on my mail. I thought my friend was joking, but I checked, and triple-checked, different references, and it turned out she was not pulling my leg at all.

But let’s start at the beginning. One of the many things associated with Christmas is, of course, the carolling. But, if His Grace the Bishop of Croydon gets his way, no more a-wassailing’ people’ll go – almost.

Apparently, it has suddenly occurred to the Right Reverend Nick Baines that some of the phases and sentiments expressed in the time-honoured carols are, to use his own descriptions, “silly” and “inaccurate” and “embarrassing” and “nonsensical”, and that the sight of people singing them was “slightly bizarre”.

Waxing definitely less than lyrical, the minister says that the carols were written with a Victorian frame of mind – I think he means to say they were politically correct for their time – and now there is the need to overhaul the traditional carols and make them more real, or at least slightly more realistic.

Of course, I thoroughly agree with the man, when he says that snakes and bears have no place in school nativity plays, since this turns them into some sort of “holy pantomime” (my words, not his)… but I cannot for the life of me understand why he would want to ban carols such as Once in Royal David’s City and Away in a Manger. The latter, he says, “cannot be sung without embarrassment”.

Parents and teachers usually accompany these ‘lessons’ with an explanation. Besides, learning poetry by heart is an ideal way to train the brain into being able to recall facts and details.

Those who believe in the Christmas which is portrayed in a cross-section of carols have a vision that is “tame, fantastic and anaemic”. Similarly the phrase “no crying He makes” appears to have annoyed the minister because “Jesus would have been abnormal if he did not cry” – but, I didn’t see that the carol says he never cried, it was just when the word-photo was taken that he did not cry. But the Bishop insists that it was the attitude of “children should be seen and not heard” that caused the poet to pen these lines. Could it not have been his wishful thinking? Who knows whether he had a sleepless baby at home?

Yet… there may be another factor in this equation. Why Wish You a Merry Christmas? is the name of a book penned by… you guessed it. And nothing boosts sales like a little controversy. Especially when religion and politics are involved in tandem.

His Grace argues that an imaginary Grotto Scene will eventually lead children to suppose that Jesus is akin to Father Christmas and other fantasy figures. He stops short of mentioning “… the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy” by name, though. Carols, he says, add to the confusion that people have about the real meaning of Christmas.

Incidentally, the title of Oh Come All Ye Faithful comes in for some bashing, too, because on the night, it was people who had no idea of what was happening (and not those who believed, or even those of little faith) were the ones who heard the angels’ tidings first.

I, for one, think that the whole argument has been blown out of proportion. The Bishop makes no allowance for poetic licence. Why does he turn his cannon only towards Christmas Carols? Most pop songs are full of exaggerations (when, indeed, they have lyrics and not a sentence that is repeated a thousand times or, worse, syllables that pass for words).

Nursery rhymes and fairy tales give another meaning to the word “incredible”, and so idioms often reply on an impossible juxtaposition of ideas to work. Are we to remove all figures of speech from our literature?

Are we to treat hyperbole, and for that matter, understatement, as “lies” that cannot be included in our day-to-day communications?


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