Bless us with a silent night

Felipe Fernández-Armesto finds little joy in Christmas hymns and carols

December 8, 2011

I doubt whether Advent brings joy to the world. I know it depresses me: not because I hate the commercialism (although I do), nor because the feeble displays of enforced jollity upset me (although they must), nor because turkey revolts me (although it does), nor because the absence of Christmas spirit even at Christmas, let alone at other times of the year, is profoundly disheartening (although it is).

My distress arises from the imminence of endless performances of Christmas carols and hymns, most of which are musically valueless and educationally subversive. The worst of the lot is Once in Royal David’s City. The mere thought of it induces agony of soul, stirring memories of my own nasty childhood as an imperfectly assimilated schoolboy in England, and prompting feelings of hopelessness on behalf of ill-educated children everywhere.

Even as a child, especially as a child, I hated Once in Royal. I don’t complain particularly of the music, although it’s a dirge better suited to a burial than a birth. My quarrel is and always has been against the evil, oppressive lyrics. They start harmlessly, if your stomach is strong enough to stay unchurned by the weaselly recommendations of mildness and lowliness, calculated to keep people in their place. The second verse is tolerable, recalling one of the great virtues of Christianity: a human god, who loves the mean and lowly. In the third verse, you get the author’s real, cruel agenda. It opens with a flagrant misrepresentation of the infancy of Christ: “And through all His wondrous childhood He would honour and obey,/Love and watch the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms He lay.”

There is no scriptural basis for this twaddle. All we know from the Gospels of the real young Jesus is that he ran away from his parents to make a nuisance of himself by disputing with his elders and betters in the temple. “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” he asked when Mary came to collect him. As a grown-up, who urged his followers to forsake their parental homes, he hardly seemed to share the sentimentality of the hymn. It is incredible that the boy who grew up to expel the moneylenders from the house of God, challenge the injustice of the economic system of his day, denounce the illegitimacy of the Roman Empire, and embrace death on the cross should have been a nice little biddable bourgeois, seen but not heard. To represent the infant Christ as something other than a typical, red-blooded, fully human boy is an abominable heresy. Until the age of discretion, to be true to his incarnate nature, he should have been as exuberant and uncontrollable as the rest of us were in boyhood. My favourite painting of him is in the Prado: Murillo’s depiction of little Jesus as a slightly naughty chap, who amuses himself by teasing a pet dog, is heartwarmingly believable and consistent with real experience.

The lyricist of Once in Royal could hardly escape the ideology proper to her class and calling. Cecil Frances Alexander was a Victorian Anglican bishop’s wife, who also wrote All Things Bright and Beautiful - a detestable ditty that perverts St Francis’ great Canticle of the Sun into a banal endorsement of an uncritical attitude to an unequal society. Her Christmas dirge had a similar agenda, exposed in the final lines of the third verse of Once in Royal, which present her phoney, sycophantic Christ as a model for the victims of her propaganda to follow: “Christian children all must be/Mild, obedient, good as He.”

When I asked my prep school headmaster what was the evidence that Christ was mild or obedient, he hit me - perhaps deservedly, as my object, I confess, was to taunt him. Even as a child, I sensed the insidious dishonesty of the text. The rest of the hymn is mawkish rather than malign, but its dispiriting effect tends to lengthen with the funereal pace at which most English congregations perform it. I believe - and learned readers will surely tell us if I am wrong - that the habit of starting the performance with a solo began with a Cambridge precentor who first inflicted a service of nine readings and carols on the world in 1919. Whenever I hear that solo, my heart bleeds for the children whom the custom must have blighted over the years, whether through egregious pride at election as soloist or hurt feelings at being overlooked.

Many other Christmas-service standards are almost equally bad. While Shepherds Watched, with its dismal tune, trite rhymes and feeble imagery, is calculated to put children off religion and art alike. The First Nowell offends every value of literature and every faculty of critical intelligence with its tortured syntax and incompetent prosody. O Come, All Ye Faithful demonstrates how inept translation can wreck a fine hymn. Computers, trash entertainment and bad educational theory alienate children from literacy effectively enough: why make a bad job worse with crass Christmas pabulum?

The Advent lights are coming to life around the campus of the University of Notre Dame as I write, strewing trees and railings with glimmers of hope for a renewed, reborn world. But to me, every twinkle represents the menace of another dose of woeful Christmas wassail. I almost find myself sympathising with those joyless old Puritans who wanted to abolish Christmas altogether, or with the devastating candour of honest Ebenezer. Bah, humbug! Who wants Christmas carols?

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