Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The First Noel?

Recently, I played one of those games where it gives you the name of a Christmas song or carol in fancy vocabulary so you have to guess what it is. The examples ranged from “A singular yuletide yearning for a pair of anterior incisors” (“All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”) to “Our company consists of a monarchial trio” (“We Three Kings) to “A query concerning the infant presently before us” (“What Child Is This?”)

It was fun trying to figure out the different titles, and after a few, I got pretty good at it. It was when I got to “Proclaim tidings of jubilation from the summit of a rocky terrain,” otherwise known as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” that I realized something: the “it” in the title is talking about sharing the gospel with people, especially the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Who knew, right?

Maybe all of you knew that. Probably. Because it’s right there in the song. But the “Name That Carol” game reminded me of something really interesting: I never really listen to the words of the songs I sing at this time of year.

There’s something nice, comfortable, and familiar about Christmas carols. You can let your eyes wander to the starry background of the screen during worship at church, not even glancing at the words, and still sing them on auto-pilot. The memorized lines are tucked away somewhere deep inside us, and we bring them out like treasures from the attic once a year, dusting them off and displaying them proudly.

Think this doesn’t happen? Think you generally know what Christmas carols are all about?

Quick, summarize “O Holy Night” in a sentence. Couldn’t do it without singing through the whole thing in your head? I didn’t think so. Or tell me what “Noel” actually means. (I see you there, looking it up on Google. Stop it!) What came upon a midnight clear? (Nope, not Jesus. A glorious song sung by the angels. With harps. Which, incidentally, I don’t think they had. If I were God and sent my son to Earth, I’d commission a whole brass section.)

So here’s some really radical advice that will probably get me fudged and tinseled (which is, obviously, the Christmas equivalent of tarred and feathered. Please): the next time you sing a Christmas carol, don’t. Just listen to it for a verse or two and think about the words.

Yes, I know you only get to sing these songs a few weeks per year. So if you’re really going to go into some kind of stressful hyperpanic in the middle of church because you can’t stand to be silent as everyone else sings your favorite carol, then listen to the songs on your own on the radio sometime. And really listen.

Some carols that sound really beautiful don’t actually have much to say. (I’m tempted to go on a mocking rant here about a few of them, but I don’t want to accidentally trash a song that someone loves and finds meaningful. There’s nothing that can start a fight like insulting someone’s favorite Christmas carol.) And a lot of the carols have things to say that are so beautiful and profound that you want to go hug a poet. Or Jesus. Either way.

Words can do powerful things. They can make catchy, sentimental fluff pieces without much lasting value (although really good or really catchy music can make us disregard this). Or they can say things that matter.

Most Christmas carols fit into the second category. So you should listen to them.

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