Rejected Christmas Carols

Debra Rienstra Uncategorized 8 Comments

If the joy of Christmas ever breaks through the frenzy of event-going and present-wrangling and (for me) end-of-semester grading, it happens through music. This year, for instance, I sat in my city’s gorgeous basilica and listened to a youth choir perform a haunting, dissonant arrangement of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The sound of the voices and organ in that space for a few transcendent moments nearly lifted me off the pew. No one can deny that the church’s writers and composers over the centuries have put their best efforts into music celebrating the Incarnation.

Think of the rich theology we sing every year, half the time hardly noticing, with lines like “He comes to make his blessing known/ far as the curse is found,” or “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb,” or “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” In fact, if we were suddenly faced with the necessity of Christmas-carol rationing, we could probably survive very well on just the lyrics to “Let All Mortal Flesh.”

On the other hand.

Christmas is also the holiday with the very worst music. The most spectacularly awful stuff is the secular schlock, and we’re subjected to it repeatedly, for weeks, in soft jazz muzak versions in every grocery store and mall. I don’t ever want to hear “Santa Baby” again, not this year, not any year. Or “So This is Christmas.” Or “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.” (For fun, in the comments, feel free to share your Christmas song hate-list.)

Did you know, however, that there are Christmas hymns so bad they never get sung, even in the most desperate churches? Yes. I’ve done some research, and here are a few examples I discovered.

“God Rest Ye Merry Feminists”
Here’s one from about 1990. Good intentions involved, but you can imagine why it didn’t catch on.

God rest ye merry feminists
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Jesus honored women
At least by the standards of his day.
He came to topple patriarchy
From its ancient sway!
O tidings of comfort and joy, etc.

“The Begats Rap”
Here’s another unfortunate attempt to be relevant. Admittedly, Luke 1 and 2 get all the love in Christmas music, so it does make sense to try doing something with Matthew 1. I guess.

Abraham, he was old and gray but still became a dad.
Isaac was the promised gift he thought he’d never have.
Then Isaac’s son was Jacob, and Jacob had a dozen sons,
And Judah begat Perez because Tamar, she was a crafty one.

This is the line of Jesus, yeah,
the line of Jesus, yo!
Fourteen fourteen fourteen generations had to pass
until baby Jesus born in a manger came to kick some [censored].

“The First Noel: Supplemental”
This is one of those carols that no one knows beyond the first line and no one likes to sing anyway. The tune roller coasters up and down and the words clatter randomly over the melody, as if it was made up on the spot by a bunch of drunken shepherds. It’s an English carol, apparently from a dark time before anyone had invented steady metrical form. Did you know there are dozens of even lousier verses that we never even print in hymnals, let alone sing? Here’s one about the shepherds getting organized to go to the manger:

And so they said, “Guys, we should go
To find this babe in manger low.”
But then they thought, “We don’t know the way,
we have no GPS, and besides we can’t just leave our sheep unattended on this hillside till day.”
Noel, noel, etc.

“The Eco Carol”
So many carols remark on the cold, wintry weather in Judea that first Christmas night, which seems historically doubtful and probably only reflects European weather at Christmas. At least it used to. Evidently someone decided to write a new carol giving some attention to climate change.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
Much earlier than before.
The end of things is coming
As temps climb more and more.
For we have wrecked the earth.
O Jesus will you save us
by this, your holy birth?

“Can I Cry Out?”
I’ve noticed that Christmas carols too frequently involve questions no one is asking.

  • “What Child Is This?” No one is asking that. We all know.
  • “What Can I Give Him?” Again, answer obvious: your heart. Duh.
  • “Mary Did You Know?” I’m sorry, but this one is deeply awful. The speaker patronizes the Mother of Our Lord by taunting her with her lack of foreknowledge about things he only knows because he’s living 2000 years later. Honestly.

Also, I’ve noticed that there are songs from the point of view of absolutely every character in the Christmas story. Mary composed her own song, of course, and we’ve been cranking out settings of it since the early church. You hear very little from Joseph, but I learned from my friend Greg Scheer that someone in England in the fifteenth century wrote a little song called the “Cherry Tree Carol” in which the pregnant Mary craves a cherry and asks Joseph to get one for her. He replies: “Why don’t you have the baby’s father get it for you?” Nice that Joseph gets one little passive-aggressive moment out of the whole situation. In the next verse, baby Jesus—still in the womb—asks the tree to bend over and deliver a cherry to his mom. Makes you wonder about family dynamics later on.

drummerAnyway, we’ve got “We Three Kings” from the point of view of the wisemen. The angels and shepherds get their jubilees. How about the innkeeper? Yep, someone has thought of that. The beasts? Surely you remember “Carol of the Friendly Beasts.” We even have a song from the point of view of a little boy who appears nowhere in the Gospel accounts but apparently showed up at the manger anyway—with his drum.

What’s left? Well, we’re down to inanimate objects now. Maybe someone should compose a carol from the point of view of a rock on the side of the road to Bethlehem, a rock who asks questions no one needs answered. Then again, maybe not. Moving on.

“The Love Shack: Christmas Edition”
Don’t try this at your church. But I’ve heard a rumor that a certain over-eager music minister [no, I’m not revealing names here] wanted a super-awesome finale for his church’s big Christmas extravaganza. Nothing brings in the unchurched for a little Yuletide evangelism like an 80s pop hit lightly revised with Christmasy lyrics. So imagine a stable on the stage, dimly lit. Now here comes a few magi from the back of the auditorium, shakin’ it down the aisle, following a spotlight/star toward the stage. I have to admit, the lyrics transfer to a Christmas theme with surprisingly ease.

[To the tune of the B-52s 1989 hit, “Love Shack.”]

If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says
“15 miles to the
Love Shack”
Love Shack, yeah, yeah

I’m headin’ down the Judea highway
Lookin’ for the love getaway
Headed for the love getaway
I got me a camel, it’s as big as a whale
And it’s about to set sail

And we’re headin’ on down to the Love Shack
I got me a caravan, it seats about twenty
So hurry up and bring your census money

The love shack is a little old place where we can get together
Love Shack, baby (a-Love Shack, baby)
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack (Love, baby, that’s where it’s at)
Love Shack, baby, Love Shack (Love, baby, that’s where it’s at)

Sign says (woo) “Stay away, fools”
‘Cause love rules at the Love Shack
Well, it’s set way back in the middle of a field
Just a funky old shack and I gotta get back

Glitter on the manger
Glitter on the hillside
Glitter on the shepherds
Glitter on the angels

The Love Shack (etc.)

Singin’ and a-praisin’
Dancin’ and a-prayin’
Givin’ God the glory
for the baby come a-savin’

The whole shack shimmers
Yeah, the whole shack shimmers
The whole shack shimmers when angels sing of glory
around and around and around and around

Everybody’s movin’, everybody’s groovin’, baby
Folks linin’ up outside just to kneel down
Everybody’s movin’, everybody’s groovin’, baby
Funky little shack
Funky little shack

Bang, bang, bang, on the door, baby
Knock a little louder, baby
Bang, bang, bang, on the door, baby
On the door of your heart, baby
Bang, bang, bang, on the door, baby
Knock a little louder,
Bang, bang, bang, on the door, baby etc.

You know, if you change the punctuation a bit, it’s not a bad summary of the season’s message:
Love Shack Baby: that’s where it’s at. Merry Christmas!

 

Comments 8

  1. I haven’t thought of “Mary, Did You Know?” In that way. I have heard it as rhetorical questions. (Of course she didn’t know). And I hear the questions as a reminder to myself of the history of Jesus. And I also think of all the things I didn’ t know decades ago.
    Never thought of it as taunting. The tone of the music is too haunting for me to feel any taunting.
    Appreciated the post and its insights.

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  2. This past year during my sabbatical I was taking the train across the country and found myself having dinner one evening with a wonderfully fascinating elderly Jewish man from the Bronx. Turns out it was Phillip Springer who continues to reap untold royalties from a single song he wrote (in about 30 minutes) back in the early 50’s — Santa Baby.

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      Doug, oh my goodness, that’s amazing! I guess I can’t say I’m surprised about that origin story. Mr. Springer has had his revenge on me, I must say. I’ve had that song in my head since writing this post!

  3. Please tell me these aren’t real.

    My personal seasonal “cringe song” has to be “Christmas Shoes.” Because what says “Christmas” better than a heart-wrenching ballad of impending parental death. Yeah…

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      I am happy to confirm that these are all fake. I made them up. However, the fact that you might wonder says something about just how low the bar is, eh? Yeah, “Christmas Shoes” is a classic example of sentimentality malpractice. (Sorry to offend those who love it. Just my opinion.)

  4. Several years ago we were worshipping in the magnificent cathedral in Seville, Spain on Christmas morning. The offeratory, played on the huge old organ, was “Little Drummer Boy.” We got the giggles during the “pa rum pum pum pum” and could barely stop for the rest of the service.

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