My Christmas (Carol) Blues

I love Advent. Christmas, not so much. Right now, I’m wishing I could fast forward to Tuesday, and have Christmas behind me.

It’s not Christmas itself that gets on my nerves. It’s mostly Christmas Eve and the annual Christmas Eve service. I should be more content this year. I’m writing on Thursday (December 21) and both services for December 24—one in the morning and one in the evening—are done, with bulletins printed off and ready to go. This is a wondrous thing that I don’t think has ever happened before.

Yet, I am not content. The complaints have been rolling in for the last week or so. It’s like this every year. The complaints mostly center on the hymns we are going to sing at the Christmas Eve service, the Christmas carols to be precise—and from what hymnal we will sing them.

Christmas Eve is, for so many, like a large, warm security blanket. And, that blanket is made up of certain things—including particular words of Christmas carols. For those who have been going to church for all of their lives, there’s something comforting about the same old words to the same old hymns. And, who can blame those who are looking for just that feeling? Especially in Maine, where it is cold and the sun sets around 4:00 in the afternoon.

Like other United Church of Christ churches in this part of the world, we have two hymnals in our pews—The Pilgrim Hymnal (from the 1950s) and the New Century Hymnal (from the mid-1990s). On most Sundays, in our three-hymn format, we sing one from one of the hymnals, and two from the other. And, there’s little complaining.

At Christmas, though, there is a small, but very vocal, group who would prefer to heave the New Century Hymnal, and all of its “new” language out into the closest snow bank.

It is true that not all of the decisions regarding the updating of Christmas carol language were good decisions. Still, there are some carols, I would argue, that benefitted from the updating. Yet, I have already heard, and will continue to hear mutterings around “those stupid words” and “why do we have to sing that”?

I don’t even choose many from the New Century. Out of the seven or eight carols that we’ll sing for the Christmas Eve service, only two or three of them are from the NCH. A few years ago, I tried allowing the congregation to sing from whatever hymnal they wanted, listing the numbers from both. One person told me that I might as well have scraped my fingernails across a blackboard for the whole service. It was that grating an experience for her.

So, now only one number is listed for each carol, and most of the carols are from the Pilgrim. Yet, the airing of grievances has commenced, and will continue until Christmas Eve is over.

But, it gets to me, this lack of openness to the possibility that some of the new words might actually be better words, and have a lot more connection to the sort of people of faith that we are now. Take the refrain from “The First Nowell.” In the Pilgrim, it goes “Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell, Born is the King of Israel.” In the New Century, it’s been changed to, “Nowell, etc., born in a stable Emmanuel.” Or, the start of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” In the Pilgrim: “Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’” In the NCH: “Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the Christ-child bring.’”

I think that we ought to be not only more comfortable with, but more welcoming of, the reworking of those monarchy words—as well as those words that that are all about “men” and “mankind,” etc. Like the start of the second verse of “Joy to the World” where “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns: Let men their songs employ” has been altered to “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns. Let all their songs employ.” Especially appropriate in a church that is made up mostly of women.

Yes, the words are different. And, they may feel strange on our tongues. And, they require that we pick up a hymnal and follow words, when we are used to singing without the book.

But, I think it’s worth it. Christmas, as a holy-day, cannot be simply a safe refuge in a difficult and cold world. Christmas, if it is to be a true refuge, should inspire some openness to something new. After all, we are visiting and considering a remarkable thing: the coming of God in the small, vulnerable package of a child. We can’t (or shouldn’t) escape the newness. A nice gift this Christmas, to the worn and tired pastor: a little less grumbling. So that we may all find in this season a renewal of wonder and awe, a renewal of our faith.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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