Love of All Wisdom

The theology of Christmas carols

by on Dec.22, 2013, under Aesthetics, Christianity, Emotion, God

I will be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks’ holiday. When new posts return in January, they will be on a biweekly (or fortnightly, if you wish) schedule: every alternate Sunday rather than every Sunday. I continue to enjoy writing Love of All Wisdom and intend to keep doing so, but as I have tried publishing more conventional papers, studying computer science and teaching a course on top of my day job, the weekly schedule has been too hard to sustain. I hope that alternating weeks will make it easier for me to continue engaging in the wonderful exchanges of ideas that have taken place here.

In Canada and the US today, the Christian aspect of Christmas is likely most noticeable in the music. There are of course a great number of English-language Christmas songs with little or no Christmas element (“Jingle Bells”, “Deck The Halls”, “Frosty The Snowman” and so on). It is increasingly common to hear only these songs played in public places. But one may quickly feel something missing here. Certainly some of these songs are grander than others; it would be a difficult task indeed to argue that “Deck The Halls” is no better a work than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. But even so, there is a certain depth that is missing from them.

By contrast, many Christian carols engage with some weighty theological questions, especially that most significant of all questions for monotheistic believers: theodicy, the problem of bad. If there is a God – specifically, a being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent – how can the world be so full of terrible things? These questions are sometimes missed when (as is common practice) one hears and learns only the first verse and chorus. There is nothing intellectually interesting about the first verse of Edmund Sears’s “It Came Upon A [or The] Midnight Clear”;

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Hooray for Jesus and God and the angels, aren’t they wonderful? Taken by itself, this verse – the one most people know – is kitsch, as much as “Silver Bells” or other secular shopping-mall favourites. It’s a nice sentiment in lovely language, but there’s no more to think about here than there is in “Frosty The Snowman” (and perhaps less). But continue to the third verse, and things look very different:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Now we have moved away from simplistic positive thinking. Here is the real world, with its darkness, its terror, its awfulness – above all, its war. The conflicts and places have been different since Sears’s time, but the reality of human brutality has remained constant or worse. It takes far more guts to affirm the angels’ rule of the world when one acknowledges they permit all of this.

Milan Kundera would probably still consider it kitsch. For him, the central idea that underlies kitsch is the “categorical agreement with being” – the idea so central to the monotheistic traditions (and alien to the Buddha) that being is good. Anything Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) affirms existence, and is to that extent kitsch. And indeed, even this verse still ends on the optimistic note that behind all this strife one can still rejoice in the angels singing, if only one listens closely enough.

But at this point we should protest. If kitsch, as Kundera proclaims, is the absolute denial of shit, then this is not kitsch. Nothing is denied here; something else is added. For few if any things, one might note, are shittier than war. Even the (roughly) two thousand years since Jesus’s birth are “years of wrong”. What we have here is something else: an affirmation of the good in the face of acknowledging the bad – appropriate for a season whose rituals are characterized by light in the darkness. The agreement with being need not imply the denial of shit.

This problem – the problem of suffering, the problem of bad, or in Kundera’s terms the problem of shit – is expressed even more directly in “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”, originally a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The narrator begins directly with the promise made for Christmas in story, song and theology:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Longfellow, however, was writing during an event that during Sears’s time might have seemed preventable, but during Longfellow’s own time was a terrible reality: the American Civil War. And so the narrator cannot avoid the fact that the promise is apparently broken:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

These verses directly confront what one might call the central problem of the Christian Christmas, and to some extent even of Christmas in general. The cheery shopping-mall Christmas is kitsch; the Christian celebration of a cherubic babe in a manger, equally kitsch. In Kundera’s terms it is a denial of shit – but for all our attempts to deny, the world is no less full of shit. These verses confront the shit – the war and strife that continue to mock the kitschy promise of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”. In our time the strife is not in Virginia but in Syria, in Sudan, in Iraq – and to a lesser extent in the ghettoes of Johannesburg, São Paulo, Detroit. In another century it will be somewhere else – but only the sunniest of optimists could even conceive of it going away entirely.

Songs like “I Heard The Bells” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” (when the later verses are included, as they always should be!) are welcome because they address this problem and acknowledge it. It is not so much that they provide solutions. The final verse of “I Heard The Bells” offers this answer to the problem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

This was, in fact, the case in Longfellow’s time: the slaveowners were defeated and the slaves freed. The right side won the American Civil War. But at what cost? What comfort is this to the more than 600 000 who died? This is the Maoist God, who says to the fallen soldier: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You just happen to be one of the eggs. Too bad.

The last verse of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” promises that a golden age is coming instead, “when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling”. To which one responds: we’ve been waiting for that for two thousand years. We’ll believe it when we see it. Somewhat more satisfying is the third verse itself, which offers not a resolution but an exhortation: “O hush the noise, ye men of strife / And hear the angels sing.”

But it is not the job of musical lyrics to provide intellectually adequate answers to rational problems. To fit a logical answer into a song is like trying to do philosophy on Twitter: not entirely impossible, but usually more trouble than it’s worth. Lyrics speak to us on an emotional level, and that is as it should be; the question is which emotions they speak to. Christmas kitsch has its place, for children and for a release and escape from the world’s darkness. But it can ring hollow without the other songs that address the darkness directly.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • aumshantih

    Namaste:
    I must say a lot of this is way over my head, but I always viewed Christmal Carolling as the equivalent of kirtan in Hinduism. That is, more specifically both are practices that brings together community/sangha rooted in bhakti yoga.

    • Amod Lele

      That sounds about right to me, yes. Bhakti is really at the heart of Christianity – including the image of God as child.

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