Christmas Carols - are they Christian?

Nigel Robb looks at the origins and content of a number of well-known carols and asks “Christmas carols are they Christian?”

OberndorfIt has often been remarked that one of the most important influences on what people believe is what they sing or sang as young people in church. Hymns or worship songs make impressions that are very difficult to expunge or correct over time.

Perhaps one of the most influential group of hymns are those popularly known as Christmas carols, associated with the events of the Christmas story, or, perhaps more realistically, a reflection of the idealisation of the family celebration of the holiday season.

The carol by Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter is one prominent example. It is a poem much influenced by the pre-Raphaelite style, set to music in 1906 and later gaining popularity in a setting by Harold Darke. It was voted 'the best Christmas carol' by choirmasters and choral experts in 2008. What this means in practice may be open to debate.

There are those who would point out that if we follow the statements in Luke, and the confusion over the timing of the governor named by him, that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth took place in the spring time when the shepherds, essential to his account of the nativity and incarnation, would be in the fields. The month of April in Palestine is not known for snow!!

The whole romantic atmosphere of the hymn is attractive to some, while those who would want to emphasise the reality of the life and experience of Jesus would find the evasion of the grim realities of oppression and homelessness rather poor. As the hymn describes the scene, it is really rather pristine and lacks any acknowledgement of the dirt and smell and harshness of the surroundings. It creates an environment of a beautiful Christmas card.

There are also some strange allusions in the hymn to the location and nature of heaven, which some would find rather difficult to embrace. While many musicians and selectors find it attractive, there are many in congregations who find the hymn’s words completely unrealistic and unhelpful.

Silent Night has been seen by some commentators as the most famous carol of all time. It is reputed to have been written by an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr, and on Christmas Eve in 1818 was set to a guitar accompaniment by Franz Xavier Gruber, due to the organ being out of action (some suggest by mice eating the bellows).

ArnsdorfWhile its popularity may be related to its melody and simplicity, the story of its origin has given birth to stained glass windows in churches at Oberndof and nearby Arnsdorf (where Gruber lived and worked), depicting its first performance.

The carol is often evocative of the atmosphere which those who conduct midnight services on Christmas Eve like to create. It suggests a time of contemplation and withdrawal from the bustle and noise of the Christmas season as many have experienced it in the present and engagement with the power of the intervention of God in human life and history.

One Christmas carol often sung by choirs has probably Druid and pagan origins. Some parts of The Holly and the Ivy are likely to be over 1000 years old. It features references to plants that were not found in the biblical record. They may have been important in the worship of pre-Christian Britain. The carol may refer to the protection acquired by individuals when these plants were taken indoors to protect them against the worst of winter weather, and by association the inhabitants of the house.

What the theological basis is for some of the lines may be open to speculation and question. Is the “holly bears the crown” an indication of the crown of thorns and predictive of the Passion of Jesus? The references to “singing of the choir” and “merry organ” may also be unusual in that they are indicative of a type of worship which did not reflect the Puritan period which the carol predates. How much of the Christmas message is in the carol may also be doubted.

Nigel Robb is St Andrew’s Presbytery Clerk and former Secretary to the Committee on Church Art and Architecture.