The Worst Christmas Carol Ever
December 21, 2018
by Steve Watson
During my teenage years and into my very early twenties, I spent thousands of hours singing. I performed in art song recitals and musical theater, sang fake medieval music for an athletic ware television commercial, and wrote and sang original avant garde opera for a school mate’s dance recital. Interesting times, those were. I also sang in dozens of choirs, which were usually busy with sacred music this time of year. And one benefit of all that singing is that I can definitively tell you what is the worst Christmas carol ever.
It’s a popular one. You’ll likely hear it this week. But it’s horrible, and I’m on a mission to take it down. That carol is “Away in a Manger.” Musical tastes are personal, but it’s hard for me to understand this one. It’s a sappy lullaby, written in late 19th century America, which produced an oversized share of songs that sound like sappy lullabies.
Even if you like the music, though, the lyrics have got to go. The first verse is ordinary enough and fine on the whole. It sentimentalizes the Nativity scene; there are far more interesting things about the manger birth than Jesus’ “sweet head.” But there are worse things than a little sentimentality. At least the verse reminds us Jesus wasn’t born into the comfort or luxury of contemporary consumer baby-care products, but into a hay-strewn barn.
The final verse is worse, but in a vein that’s common to Christian theology. In a prayer that Jesus will be close to us and watch over children, it ends, “And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.” This prayer implies that life is mainly a dress rehearsal for the afterlife, diminishing the significance of this life while also ending the song with the creepy vision of Jesus taking care of “the little children in (God’s) tender care” only to sweep them off into heaven. Like I said, though, this minimizing the sacred significance of our present life is common in disembodied Christian theology. Even the ancient creeds that serve as touchstones for the historic faith state that Jesus was born then crucified, as if his life and teaching in between were mere footnotes to his afterlife mission.
So far my complaints likely sound petty and small. You might want to play your Pentatonix or John Denver or cute animated video and keep this Christmas lullaby! The problem is that the middle verse of “Away in a Manger” undermines the heart of the good news of Jesus and insults our shared human condition. The carol states that while the baby wakes up under a starry sky, and the surrounding cattle make a bunch of noise, “the little lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
No crying – seriously? Did the man who wrote this song never care for an infant? (Actually, perhaps not.) What is the purpose of this lyric? To comfort weary parents who are tired of their children’s noise? To shame any dear children who might consider crying themselves? Or just to indicate that Jesus, the holy child who graced our world with divine presence, just floated above the difficulties of life, immune to our shared pains and problems?
The very heart of the Christmas story is to tell us that God is so interested in the human condition that God entered it along with us. Born temporarily homeless, into a working class family, in a marginalized region of a small nation, oppressed by a brutal empire, Jesus experiences the challenges of our lives, from his first cries of infancy to his last breath during his state-sponsored execution. To remove Jesus’ crying is to tell us that we are hopelessly flawed and forever out of God’s reach. Jesus did cry as an infant – loud, gas-suffering, milk-longing, breast-craving baby cries.
Consider instead these lines from the song “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” by Robert MacGimsey, a White composer writing in the early to mid-1900s. While MacGimsey was guilty of cultural appropriation, he was at least genuinely interested in African-American culture, and in many ways an ally and advocate for African-American musicians and music. That carol also has us sing of the infant Jesus.
“Long time ago/you were born/born in a manger Lord/Sweet little Jesus boy.” Then we hear words that speak to Jesus’ share in our sufferings, from the very start of his life. “The world treats you mean Lord/Treats me mean too/But that’s how things are down here/We don’t know who you are.”
That’s how things are down here indeed. But at least God knows and understands. Cry with us, sweet Jesus, cry on, cry loudly. We’ve got plenty to cry about still, and we could use your help.