I’m just gonna jump right in.
50. There’s a moment in “Joy to the World,” my favorite Christmas hymn, when the whole congregation, the whole choir, and every voice track in the whole studio sings, without reflection, the lyrics–at once dazzlingly unsingable and gorgeously heartfelt:
The glo-or-ree-ees uhhhh-uh-uv
followed immediately by,
Yes, without time even to take a breath, we force every last dotted rhythm of “his righteousness” through our vocal chords. In this kind of music, there are no winners.
49. “With th’angelic hosts proclaim.” It’s like we’re not reading it right. This and every apostrophe we find in hymnody–“ev’ry,” “heav’n,” “fortress’s’rGodabulw’rkneverfailing.” But this “Hark the Herald” example is egregious because the syntax of other languages–Italian, French, maybe more–governs the familiar article-apostrophe contraction in the song of everyday. I would have expected someone so revolutionary as a Methodist writer to accept once and for all that English is not like its forebears and give up trying to follow their rules. I would have expected hymnbooks to recognize that all human beings are musical and that if we can read music (or read, or share a hymnal, or stay awake in a pew) we can omit syllables to fit a line.
But these are minor cases, blemishes, compared to what follows.
48. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
47. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
46. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
45. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
44. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
43. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
42. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
41. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
40. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
39. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
38. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
37. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
36. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
35. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
34. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
33. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
32. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
31. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
30. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
29. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
28. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
27. “The angel did say.”
26. Not “the angel said” but “the angel did say.” And it gets worse.
25. “Was to certain poor shepherds.” There are (at least) three possibilities. First, there are many poor shepherds in the world and in the Judean countryside, and the angel did say to only certain of them. Another explanation arises from the impulse to give some insight into the character of the shepherds. They were poor–what else? Well, for one, they were certain. Not quite certain or very certain. But certain. Certain poor shepherds. It’s a possibility. And the third I dismiss but I can’t disregard because when I was a child I interpreted the line as the creation of a knew transitive verb: to certain. “The angel did say”–so I heard the line–“(in order) to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay (about the coming of the Messiah, finding him in Bethlehem, in cloths, in a manger, and this will be a sign, and on earth peace).” It almost works.
24. “On a cold winter’s night”–brace yourselves–“that was so deep.”
23. “So deep.”
22. This is the kind of thing that we say today when a friend makes a particularly truthful comment or that we never quite believe when we try to be poetic and someone says it of us. It is not something we say in any kind of poetry or songwriting. If we were in first grade and brought home a picture we had drawn of that cold and starry Christmas night but that included this caption, our parents would be embarrassed. They would not have put it on the fridge.
21. And this line has been accepted. Decade after decade.
20. Which gets me thinking: is this the world’s worst writing or the world’s worst translation? Some Latin hymn maybe? Thomas Merton decried the bad translation of liturgical texts, calling them “transliterations of the French.” The lyrics of this song are so bad, this could almost explain everything wrong with it.
19. But then I got on wikipedia. And look at the history: 1823 as the first known publication date.
18. England. 1823.
17. So we know it’s not a Latin carol or Old French. It’s not even some wayward carol from the 12th century, some lost sheep making its way through Christmas as this newly codified language called English began to emerge like a retrograde sun in the western hills. Something we need Seamus Heaney to interpret for us.
16. This wasn’t even a song from the 18th-century book of carols that we trounce through with joy each Christmas. We had “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” We had Handel. We had the inspired Charles Wesley canon. And that’s just songwriting. We had Keats, Shelley, the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Was this simply–and painstakingly so–a song meant to teach young children the Christmas story, picking the right parts, clipping their edges, and then pressing the folds into clunky rhyming lines?
15. Did the folk who inhabit our image of 19th-century London–we see them stepping into church for Mass, coats and hats on, songs in their hearts, we watch them returning home from the shops clutching parcels with bright ribbons, copies of The Pickwick Papers in hand–did the whole of respectable English, human, adult society simply shrug and say, “Oh well?”
14. In fact quite literally they did. Get on wikipedia. The Cornish songbook gives the chorus “O well, O well, O well, O well.” You can’t make this stuff up.
13. Cornwall, keeping it classy since the invention of the pasty. And, like, game hens.
12. But then, and perhaps first–and maybe this is the whole point–we listen to the music.
Noel, noel, noel, noel
Born is the King of Israel.
11. How is it that the very words of this song, if we take them at their word, will exacerbate and aggravate, will frustrate us at every turn, will ridicule our conceptions of childhood and Christmas and angels and stars and the robustness of an English literary culture, but that the music, if we listen–and we cannot help be listen–will radiate in our hearts and in our consciousness?
10. The music builds. First, there is the suggestion of good tidings. Shadows and whispers. There’s still darkness. The stiffness of slowly moving centuries in our muscles. Each layer being softly placed upon the next, the song grows. If the song soothes, it is not the large-scale events we recover from here, the mass destructions, brutality and cruelties. This music–this song–was never meant to help us respond to this.
9. But as we sing “Noel,” we hear rise within us the pure and full-throated lament of our daily miseries, quick agonies, friends lost, blank pages, loneliness, the same fears. We will sing the four glowing words, the same Noel, sung first, and then repeated three times, until we are freed.
8. And the bones of the song, the words, may haunt us, but we keep singing, and our lament fills the skies in the flesh and blood of music. The angels, if we follow our vision, have a different substance. Maybe theirs is starlight, “hope’s feathers.” A returning, the first new stirring. And as we join in, our sad song reaches–it does not strain–into joy. We hear the clamor of massbells, smell the sheltering of incense, feel the tenderness of a community awakened. The beautiful feet of the psalm’s messenger, the sprig of an olive branch. We can hear, after the famine, at last, the first hush of rain.
Born is the King of Israel
And all flesh will see it together.
7. And we learn that it is no longer the dark and the cold
6. but the full singing, the lush notes–a vibrating reed playing on a column of air, so high the last “Noel” soars
5. a crying together with one accord
4. which is, truly, so deep.
3. “So deep.”