Christmas carols are a wonderful thing. Evocative, nostalgic and as festive as an eggnog latte, they unite us as a church and a society each December, giving us an outlet for our collective sense of Christmas cheer. Like footballers who use a goal as an opportunity for a much needed hug, Christmas carols give us a great excuse to do what our hearts desire at this time of year - to sing, to smile and to celebrate, all while wearing an expensive novelty jumper.
Some of the lyrics of these songs have become as culturally familiar as the most memorable lines of Shakespeare. 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!' 'Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.' Even those of us who have no idea what the words mean can probably recite half a dozen of those classic opening lines. But what we don't always appreciate is that hidden away are some extraordinary moments of uplifting, thought provoking and profound lyricism. Here are nine of my favourites (you'll have others - tweet them to me) - followed by a little foray in the opposite direction: a few of the lyrical mis-steps our Christmases could all do without...
1. Sing choirs of angels - sing in exultation! (from 'O Come all ye Faithful')
This is stirring stuff to begin with. Who can fail to be moved by the full choral rendition of this line, which underlines the divine significance of Christmas with volume and harmony. I like to imagine angelic hosts joining in every time an earthy choir nails this lyric - which would make sense of course...
2. Son of God, love's pure light (from 'Silent Night')
A glorious image which focuses us in on the central 'meaning' of Christmas - that because he loved the world so much, God came here as a baby to save it. As the recent Sainsbury's / World War One advert proved, this carol is among the most moving and evocative pieces of music ever conceived - and I think the lyrics are one of the key reasons. Deep down we all know there was something different, special, holy about that night 2,000 years ago on which we divide human history. This song gives language to that knowledge - and this line is the key to it all.
3. The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more (from 'O Little Town of Bethlehem')
This line comes from the usually-omitted fourth verse of 'O Little Town', cropped from the hymnbook because the sentences that come before it are a little bit weird. A shame though, as it's an incredible piece of poetry showing how the glory of Christ's coming smashes through the darkness of a world lost without him. The youth organisation I work for loved this line so much when we discovered it, we made it into a charity Christmas card.
4. Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices! (from 'O Holy Night')
This one sends the hairs on the back of my neck straight up every time. The idea that a moment is so divinely profound that it literally sends us spiralling to the ground might be culturally unfamiliar, but boy - don't we all long for experiences like that? My absolute favourite moment in my absolute favourite carol - a phrase that describes a pulse-racing moment, and creates the same reaction in us.
5. Sages leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar (from 'Angels from the Realms of Glory')
A highlight of a deeply theological carol, these words both refer to the wise men (or Magi), and inspire us to remember that there's something bigger than all of us, however clever or well-read we might be.
6. To free all those who trust in him from Satan's power and might (from 'God rest ye Merry Gentlemen')
Unlike Santa, Satan doesn't get much of a mention at Christmas, and while that might seem like a sensible thing, it does leave one wondering exactly what all the blood, sweat and tears of the incarnation were all actually for. After all, why do you need a saviour if there's nothing to be saved from? It's understandable that we airbrush most of the darker bits of the Christmas story away in the pursuit of celebration, but we should also remember the reason why Jesus appeared at all: to save.
7. Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay (from 'Away in a Manger')
If you're anything like me, a few bars of Away in a Manger have you immediately claiming there's something in your eye. The theology might not be note-perfect (Jesus has left the earth, it's the Holy Spirit who stays with us), but the sentiment is - reaching out beyond the nativity story as a reminder that Christmas is only the start.
8. And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love (from 'Once in Royal David's city')
What a promise this is - that not only will we sing about Jesus by candlelight, but that one day we'll see him face to face. And the way that happens? Through his 'redeeming love', because Christmas is really only a precursor to the main event of Easter, when this baby grows up, dies, rises again, and heals the rift between heaven and earth. And all for love. I'm welling up here.
9. The whole world sing back the song which now the angels sing (from 'It came upon the Midnight clear')
The one about the angels finishes with an amazing bit of future-gazing - flinging us forward to the moment when this world is restored like new and Jesus comes to earth once more. 'It came upon...' focuses on the song of the angels, and promises a time when that song will be ours too. That's a perfect vision of eternity for me - one where we get to sing Christmas carols all year round...!
Of course, no-one's perfect, not even the giants of songwriting who penned these classics. In the interests of balance, here are just three examples where they could have probably done with just one more draft...
- But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes... (from 'Away in a Manger')
Jesus was fully human. Fully. A breast-feeding, nappy-filling, projectile vomitting, full baby human. And to any of us who've experienced the glory of raising one or more of those creatures, this line is pure fantasy. File this imaginary non-crying baby Jesus with a dog who doesn't bark and a Shane Richie who doesn't burst into song at every possible opportunity.
- Christian children all should be, mild obedient, good as he (from 'Once in Royal David's city)
Well this one is just riven with problems. Are we really going to suggest children need to make it through their childhood without making any mistakes? Jesus was perfect - he's an impossible role model for childhood. Apart from the fact that it's the epitome of 19th Century naff, these songs also cause us to focus on arguably Jesus least important attributes - his mildness (was he even mild?) and his obedience to his parents. Feels like an attempt to enforce Sunday school discipline to me...
- Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen
And finally we come to the nadir of Christmas carolling - the song that enables you to feel 'religious' at Christmas without having to engage with the actual Christ story (that's probably also why they chose to use it in Love Actually). About as theologically useful as the Coca-Cola 'Holidays are coming' song, this traditional carol tells the story of a nice king giving alms to the poor during winter. Great.
So there you have it. The greatest hits (and a few misses) of Christmas. I trust that you, like me, are already reaching for that bobble hat, scarf and carol sheet. Enjoy every opportunity to sing this month. And as you glug down that eggnog and feel your cheeks go rosy, may you experience moments that are truly profound.