Their Unfamiliar Carols Play

The other week we sang that slightly odd Christmas carol written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“I heard the bells of Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play…”

It’s rather an ironic choice of lyrics in my case, because in many cases even Christmas carols are sung to different tunes here in America than they are in Britain.

Some of the American tunes are known, though less common: we’re aware, for example, of the American tune to Away In A Manger, though compared to the more usual British tune I always think the American one sounds like a drinking song.

The American tune to It Came Upon A Midnight Clear sounds like something out of a Broadway musical to me, but I’ve heard Americans say that our tune sounds like “a hymn tune”. This seemed like a weird characterisation; Christmas carols are hymns. Or the proper ones are, anyway; stuff like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aren’t carols, they’re just Christmas songs.

Some of the British tunes are sung with a completely different carol set to them: the British version of Angels From The Realms Of Glory has the same tune as the American Angels We Have Heard On High.

Which brings us to the other facet of carolling in America: the carols we simply don’t have, or which are vastly less prominent. Like Angels We Have Heard On High, O Holy Night and I Heard The Bells of Christmas Day. Some of these are great carols that we’re beginning to pick up on, like O Holy Night. Others I’m less enthralled with.

It’s not that we don’t have a few the other way around. I’ve yet to hear Americans sing Once In Royal David’s City, with its dubious verse about how “Christian children all must be/Mild, obedient, good as He”. And Come And Join The Celebration is similarly unknown.

I’d sung I Heard The Bells maybe twice before in my life, both times in America. Singing about “old familiar carols” as part of a basically unfamiliar Christmas song is kind of amusing.

It’s an ok song, I suppose. My wife likes it. But the part that most speaks to her is the part I find most weird and uncomfortable. All those follow-on verses about “there is no peace on earth, I said” and how the bells tolled back the answer that God is still at work and all hope is not lost.

It’s a true statement, and one I sometimes think we as followers of Jesus could do well with bearing in mind. Sometimes we seem to just love playing the martyred doomsayer prophet.

But the song as a whole just doesn’t sit well with me. Apart from this vague idea of God not being asleep, there’s little Gospel in it. “The wrong will fail, the right prevail/With peace on earth, goodwill to men” is true, but there’s no indication in this song of how or why.

The focus of the song is peace on earth. I suppose that’s fair enough; Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But Longfellow’s carol almost seems humanistic in its focus on peace while practically ignoring the One who makes it. It’s a song for the birth of the Saviour with no Nativity and no Saviour, which just seems unaccountably weird to me. Still, it’s better than Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly, which we sang at the Hanging of the Greens and which has even less Gospel in it. Why do we sing these things?

I may be taking things too far. I Heard The Bells does not, after all, totally leave God out of the picture. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep”, it says clearly. If you have a tendency towards pessimism, especially where society is concerned, it’s good to be reminded that God is still at work in the world, that there is still Righteousness and Justice and Goodness, in God if nowhere else.

But a Christmas carol without the Messiah? This is a Very Odd Thing.

It’s a very secular thing to focus in on the second half of the angels’ song, the bit about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, in the old King James version of the Bible. Other versions put it a bit less human-centredly: “on earth, peace to men on whom His favour rests”. But all versions definitely connect the idea of peace on earth with the missing first half of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest”.

God’s glory comes first, in pre-eminent place. The great event of the Birth is first and foremost one that brings glory to God. It’s as a result of God being glorified, as a consequence of the things that bring Him glory, that it spills over into peace on the earth.

What kind of peace?

Peace as in “peace and quiet”, that treasure so lacking in this season of busyness, shopping and stress? Peace as in the absence of war?

The angels sing that it’s “peace to men on whom His favour rests”. This implies that it might be primarily about our upward relationship rather than our outward ones. Not that peace with God is not manifested in peace between us as human beings, but that without that peace with God, the tendency toward selfish pride leading to arrogance and conflict remains within.

Peace on earth comes together with glory to God, at the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Longfellow’s carol skips right over this and keeps on going. It shouldn’t really surprise us; I’m not sure he was anything more than just a churchgoer rather than a man who had trusted his life to Jesus the Messiah. Why should we expect people who don’t really believe to write poetry as if they do?

But it’s a weird song. Too religious for the secular Santa/mistletoe crowd, too disconnected from the real story for those of us who believe. At best, it implies the Christmas story. But I’d be more comfortable with it if it did a bit more than that.