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Carols and Lessons and Lessons and Carols

Your Humble Blogger had seen one of the news articles about the grumpy CofE Bishop complaining about Christmas Carols, and thought that actually, he had an excellent point. I think in particular the bit about how certain carols give an idea of the infancy or childhood of Jesus that is both an invention (in the sense that it is not in the Gospels) and an unfortunate invention. I particularly liked the line about how pretending, in “Away in a Manger”, that the Baby Jesus did not cry seems to imply that crying is somehow sinful. Now, I’ve never really understood Christian Messiah-hood, or Jewish Messiah-hood for that matter, but I think that any conception of Jesus that denies his infant tears comes awfully close to heresy, yes?

Furthermore, I think it is important what the carols say, and what they imply, and what they teach. Children sing these things before they understand the words, but they also sing them after they understand the words. And the Victorian context of some of the popular carols that the Rt. Rev. Nick Baines mentions in the article is not a healthy one, not one that we are generally happy to be using for childhood indoctrination and whatnot. And I think people should generally be aware of what language they are using to tell their children the Greatest Story Ever Told, particularly as their children are, in fact, being told that this is the Greatest Story Ever Told, even better than the one about the bacon tree, and that this is What the World Is Really Like.

Ah, well. I see now from The Right Reverend’s Blog that he considers himself ill-used by the press who slotted him in for the annual barmy bishop story. Ah, well. I must say the Bish seems like a very interesting fellow, and I wonder if his book is any good—not really for me, if you know what I mean, but I imagine it would make a charming giftie for certain Gentle Readers.

I do wonder, not knowing anything at all, what religious carols American Christians know the words to. “Silent Night”, I’m sure. “Gd Rest Ye, Jerry Mendlebaum”, at least the first verse. “Hark the Herald-Tribune”, again the first verse and perhaps the third. A couple of verses of “Joy to the World”, and maybe Good King Wenceslas looking out on his feets uneven (when the snoo lay round about) (snoo? What’s snoo?) and then the one that you hum up to where you go Glo-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-ria (G-L-O-R-I-A!) and that’s about it, yes? Or am I wrong.

Because what the Bish is talking about is groups of parents and children singing “Once in Royal David’s City” at the conclusion of the pageant, and perhaps that does happen in England, but perhaps it doesn’t here. I certainly wouldn’t know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Here they usually sing "Once in Royal David's City" at the opening of Lessons and Carols, as an entering song, so it's a totally different thing.

For the record, our Youngest Member is learning Christmas carols this year and having a grand time with them, but he prefers "Jingle Bell Rock" to "Jingle Bells" among his favorite carols, so the Victorian brain-washing isn't taking yet, apparently.

We'll be working on the Gospel story as well, but he memorizes song lyrics faster than Elizabethan prose.

Let's see... quite a few, actually, but then again I was a musical and cute kid, and was therefore drafted as a child into performing at multiple churches-- so I'm probably an outlier. Silent Night (3 verses or so), Hark... (2), The First Noel (2), Joy to the World (4 or so?), O Come all ye Faithful (3), Away in a Manger (3), Angels we have heard (2), It Came upon a midnight clear (1), O Little Town (1), What Child is This (2 or so, though I recently became aware that it has an alternate refrain referring to the End of the Story, which I'd never heard before this year), O Holy Night (1), The Little Drummer Boy (...talk about mythical carols! though that one is SO out there that even as a kid I was pretty sure this was a fable), ...I could probably go on for a while, actually. Though as it turns out, Once in Royal David's City is one that I don't know very well (can hum the tune, but don't know all the words to even the first verse).

Interesting point about Away in a Manger, though I was a little confused by his objection to O Come All Ye Faithful... just because the shepherds were the great unwashed, they couldn't also be faithful? Seems like an odd position for a Christian to take, really.

To the above mentioned in the post and in charlene's comment, I would add as widely known religious carols (that I happen to know also) We Three Kings (5) and Go Tell it on the Mountain (3 or so).

So that's sixteen named so far that American Christians are likely to know. I'm sure there are a few that haven't been named, but I would guess the full total is not much above 20. Probably some have been forgotten, but I think most of the core set that lots of people know have been named. After that you get into the ones whose serious religious content is questionable or ones that are a bit more obscure. Group A includes ones like The Holy and the Ivy and I Saw Three Ships, while Group 2 includes ones like Masters of the Hall, the Hallelujah Chorus, and The Apple Tree. I would put "Once in Royal David's City" in this latter category. It is a fixture in Lessons and Carols, and lots of people will recognize it, but it's one that neighborhood Christmas carolers are less likely to break out. It's more of a performance piece than a sing-along, at least on this side of the pond.

I've never heard Once in David's Royal City. May have seen it in a book of world carols at some point, but never played or sang up.

I grew up Christian, not all that religious, but very musical. I am not sure what Lessons and Carols is, and suspect it's a High Church thing? We definitely didn't have that.

I know things like Masters in this Hall and the Hallelujah Chorus from singing them with school choir at our holiday concert. There are a whole bunch of carols that "everyone knows" including most of — Joy to the World, Away in the Manger, God Bless You Merry Gentlement, O Come Emmanuel, Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Coventry Carol, Little Drummer Boy, Hark the Herald Angels, O Come All Ye Faithful (and the Latin from school choir), What Child Is This (a.k.a. Greensleeves), We Three Kings (although I thought Orientar was a planet when I was little), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Good King What's His Face (according to a book we read as kids, "...'s car backed out, on a piece of Steven"). Probably more that I'm forgetting, but definitely not the David thing. There's also more pop-y stuff like "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow" and "White Christmas", and totally secular yet always sung with the carols stuff like "Let There Be Peace On Earth".

To hear "Once in Royal David's City" and see it performed in the epitome of "Lessons and Carols" style, go to this url:


This has a performance of the song by the King's College Choir at the opening of their Festival of Lessons and Carols, in a gorgeous Gothic chapel.

It'll also give you an idea of why a lot of people who "know" this carol will know the tune but not the words, except for the first verse . . .

Yeah, "Once in Royal David's City" is a song that I think of as being obscure. But the various Lessons and Carols services I've been to always didn't have much in the way of what I recognize as being Christmas Carols, and seemed to be non-standard every year, so my experience may not be the norm (or that Lessons and Carols service *always* uses the obscure stuff?).

But Jillian's list is pretty much the carols I know--as well as "Do you hear with I hear?" and the Wassail Song (here we come a-wassailing, among the trees so green!) and the Carol of the Bells... I was in various choirs and chorales up through junior high that did Christmas concerts, though, and there was a tradition of singing Christmas carols at various holiday parties up 'til I went away to college, though, so yeah, I used to know all the verses to most of 'em.

I think the Bishop's point of view covers most things religious: Always think about it, and accept nothing unexamined. Christmas carols, Advent wreaths, easter egg hunts, Christmas trees, the liturgical colors of the seasons, even to the Gospel readings on Sunday--you gotta *think* about what you are hearing, saying or doing. Once you take that as a maxim, considering the messages of the carols is a corollary. :)

textjunkie—but what he is doing is not just thinking about the carols but thinking critically, with an eye to the possibility that they are wrong and harmful. I think that's what has people in a tizzy. Even if he ultimately comes down pro-carol, once you start thinking critically about the carols, then you start to ask if there are perhaps problems with the liturgical colors, the liturgical responses, the text itself... One of the things the Bish finds amusing about the whole thing is that it's the churchman who is getting grief for looking critically and the laymen who are offended, but that's Anglicans for you, aint' it?

I remain curious whether American Christians are really likely be familiar with the words to those twenty or so carols. I don't know why I am so skeptical. We have here four folk of quite different traditions, all of whom grew up singing them, one way or another. My stubborn suspicion that y'all are outliers isn't based on anything. I asked a student worker at the desk if she knew the words to “Away in a Manger” and she didn't, but that's not really evidence, either, and I didn't ask her to make a list of the ones she knew. Hm. Perhaps I'll ask people at the desk today, if I get a chance.


and here I was thinking that the Bishop was going to be going on about secular Christmas carols: Jingle Bells, Rudolph, and the like. Good heavens, if he objects to Away in a Manger, I wonder what he would suggest that we do teach our children? (I note that the linked article doesn't contain any positive examples.)

I'll admit that that "Christian children all must be..." line grates every time I sing it, but Once In Royal David's City is still my favorite carol, bar none.

My suspicion is that most American Christians (or folks who are ethnically Christian, at least) know the first verses of most of the carols named above, but little beyond that, and they often get lines mixed up.

Part of the answer to this question depends upon who you mean by American Christians -- do you mean "ethnically Christian," or do you mean people who go to religious services, you know, religiously?

Among regular church-goers, I really think that a large percentage will know the carols, especially in traditions that stress congregational singing. Mainline Protestants are probably the most likely of all, because most of the popular English-language carols are actually derived from their traditions. (How is it possible for the Catholic Church to be as musically impoverished as it now is??)

Among those "ethnically Christian," if they spend much time in retail establishments or listening to the radio, I'm sure they will have learned a lot of them by osmosis. If I did either of those things, I'd be heartily sick of Christmas music by the third week of December: there's such an incessant bombardment of it! And some of the tunes are awful ear-worms, though not so bad as some contemporary Christmas songs that I will not mention by name. . .

I prefer to call them “culturally Christian”, but I think those are the ones I mean. Or, at least, I mean the category broadly defined, which I assume means more non-church-goers than church-goers, although that may be wrong, too…

As for osmosis, I rarely hear religious carols on the radio or in malls. Not that I have been spending much time within earshot of either, this year (whew), but my experience is that here in Secular New England they tend heavily to the secular and nearly-secular holiday music, from “Winter Wonderland” to “Holly Jolly Christmas” outnumbering the ones we've been talking about by ten to one. Well, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm counting instrumental versions of the religious carols in the secular category, which is OK for my current purpose, innit?

My one Yule in the South, I was startled by the frequency and the stridency of the religious music in shops, but (a) that was mostly newly-written stuff in the Country-Western-Pop style, and (2) the theological problems there might be too easy a target for the Bishop for Diocesan Communicators. Still, not so many “Away in the Manger”s, more “Jesus is all I want for Christmas”ses's.

Going back to the categories of Am.Xians, I'm wondering if (like charlene and Jillian?) most/many/nearly all non-churchgoing “cultural Christians” did have ten or more years of childhood church attendance, participation in choirs for church holiday concerts, etc, etc, which would result in knowing a verse or two of the twenty-odd songs we're talking about (even if they get the lines mixed up).


I concur with We Three Kings (2 or 3) and one verse of Go Tell it on the Mountain. Oh, and textjunkie, "Do you hear what I hear" was one of my favorites as a kid (but yeah, strong on the mythical there). Is Carol of the Bells supposed to have words? (I know the words, courtesy of a high school choir, but it always seemed a song that ought to be wordless.) Then there are ones I can't say I know really more than half the words to, like Ding Dong Merrily on High, Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella, and The Friendly Beasts (even stronger on the mythical).

Chris, when I was a small kid I only knew the first verse of Holly and Ivy, as well as the first verse of Good King Wens-his-name, with the result that I had no idea why either of them were Christmas carols ("he's watching a guy carrying winter fuel? What's his problem?!")

I don't know whether most american christians have extended choir participation, though I suspect it's actually pretty likely in religious areas like the Southeast and parts of the West (e.g. Utah). The "cultural Xtians," not so much. Here in CA I don't think I've heard a religious carol while shopping in years (which I count as a loss, seeing the kind of contemporary drek it's usually replaced by... what's wrong with silence, anyway?)

I wasn't even really raised Christian and I know large portions of the standards from attending Society of Friends (not during services, but we had a special Christmas thing), from UU services, and from going to church at my grandparents' at Christmas. Also from working retail and singing in high school choirs. Yes, in public school. Also, when we've been with Stephen's family for Christmas, we have sung them together on several occasions.

"Away in a manger no crib for his bed the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head dum dum de dum..." Well, yes. I can feel the words of the rest of the verse crowding to get out, though. Yep. Stephen just sang, "the stars..." and I was able to finish, "..in the bright sky looked down where he lay the little lord Jesus asleep in the hay."

Silent Night. Keep the Red... oh, wait: oh Christmas Tree, oh Christmas Tree. We Three Kings. Little drummer boy. Hark the Herald. The First Noel. Joy to the World. O Come all ye Faithful.. O Little Town. What Child is This. Lully, Lullay. Deck the Halls. The Holly and the Ivy. I saw three ships. Wassail, wassail. We wish you a merry Christmas.

Most of them I can't sing cold, but if I'm with other people and get a running start, I can generally remember most of the words.

(Theo is busily singing: "O woe is me, o woe is me, I wish I had a pencil tree!")

Of course, now I've had this as a challenge in my head since you posted it--how many verses of these carols DO I know? :) Good King Wenceslas was driving me nuts--I could remember the first verse, but then only the opening bits of the last verse, "In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; heat was in the very sod, that the saint had printed..." But I popped in Loreena McKinnitt's Winter Garden this morning and she did four of the five verses, I could fill in the missing one, and I finally remembered the last part "You who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing." Nothing unacceptable about THAT message, I'd have thought? :) Though it is Victorian in origin, I guess...and completely mythical, I'd not be surprised...

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