What is your favourite Christmas carol?
As reported elsewhere recently on this website, a poll carried out by Premier Christian Radio reported that the most popular in its survey of listeners was "O Holy Night" – with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as runner-up.
Having heard "O Holy Night" sung at a concert just a few days before this news was released, I can understand people's enthusiasm for it. The music is beautiful, and the words are wonderful
Sadly, however, the same cannot be said of all the "old favourite" Christmas carols. I can just about cope with "The Holly And The Ivy" – but only just! As for "I Saw Three Ships", in which the writer imagines he saw three boats carrying Mary and Jesus to Bethlehem on Christmas Day, the less said the better.
Then we have the popular "Away In A Manger" which makes the startling claim that "Little Lord Jesus no crying He makes" – to which one can only say, "Oh, really?"
Meanwhile, "In the Bleak Midwinter" boasts not only an unlikely title – since we don't have any idea what season Jesus was born in – but also an improbably cold weather situation for the region, with its suggestion that "frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone".
Well, despite my qualms I will probably carry on singing some of these songs, and enjoy doing so. And it is true that I am slightly over-stating my case. But the underlying point is simple – namely, that some of the carols we sing sentimentalise the Christmas story in a way that undermine its central message. Some of them, in fact, are just jolly folk songs (though such things have their place).
That's why – although it might seem controversial – I sometimes mischievously wonder whether the 1987 folk ballad "Fairytale of New York" by Celtic punk group The Pogues is actually closer in spirit to the real meaning of Christmas than some carols that we sing.
It might seem a dubious and even offensive argument. While musically it is terrific, and has topped several surveys as the best Christmas song of all time, there is no mention of Jesus. Moreover, some of the language would be offensive to many and is certainly unsuitable to sing in church. There's also the actual story it tells. As Wikipedia puts it: "The song follows an Irish immigrant's Christmas Eve reverie about holidays past while sleeping off a binge" and goes on to feature bickering between a couple whose "youthful hopes [have been] crushed by alcoholism and drug addiction".
Bit of a mess, isn't it? And that's the point. It seems to me that the messy, hopeless, curse-ridden, drink-sodden and seemingly God-forsaken world of which the song paints a picture is exactly the scenario into which God in Christ chose to come as a human being. The setting into which Jesus came was not glorious or glitzy, but marked by hopelessness, violence and despair. Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us – for people such as the couple in the song.
It might not be to everyone's taste, and some may feel I have erred in being this enthusiastic about it. But if we can remember that the world into which Jesus comes is far removed from the winter wonderland of which we often sing – and if we can recall that Jesus came not for picture-perfect congregations of plastic people, but ordinary, contradictory, emotional folks like you and I, then maybe it will be alright to hum "Fairytale of New York" under your breath as you walk up the path to the carol service...