The Deeper Meaning Behind Our Favorite Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols

Christ and Pop Culture writers share their reflections on their favorite Christmas carols, and how, all kitsch and schmaltz aside, they bring meaning to the holiday every year.

Whether it’s songs from the Christian tradition, classic Christmas pop music (thinking Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Bing Crosby), or contemporary renditions of both — I think we all reach the point of saturation one moment or another each Christmas season with Christmas music. But even so, these songs remain some of the most beloved in our culture. And for Christians, they have an added bonus that can be easily overlooked due to their ubiquity and familiarity: they are some of the best and brightest proponents of Christian theology around.

Christ and Pop Culture writers share their reflections on their favorite Christmas carols, and how, all kitsch and schmaltz aside, they bring meaning to the holiday every year.

Jason Morehead: “The Friendly Beasts”

Though it’s been around since at least the 12th century, the first time I heard “The Friendly Beasts” was on Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas collection. I was initially struck by its cuteness potential: The song, which details the perspectives of the various animals in the stable where Christ was born, seems perfect for Christmas pageants. One can easily picture the youngsters dressed up as donkeys, cows, etc. as they sing — off-key, no doubt — about the gifts that each beast offers to the newborn Savior.

But as I listened more closely to the lyrics, I found the carol a remarkable reminder of the Incarnation’s reality. Each beast’s gift addresses something that Christ, as an unborn baby, would need to survive or be comfortable, e.g., the cow sings “I gave Him my manger for His bed” and the sheep sings “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm.” In my favorite verse, the “dove from rafters high” sings “I cooed Him to sleep so that He would not cry.”

The thought of Jesus as a crying baby can seem nigh-sacrilegious, if you really think about it. This is Jesus we’re talking about, the perfect Son of God, and if any baby would be “good” and sleep peacefully through the night, it would be Him, right? And yet Christians confess that Jesus was born fully human, and thus, He experienced the full spectrum of human-ness — which would certainly include rough, sleepless nights as a baby.

The thought of God’s eternal Son as a little crying baby, perhaps with a runny nose to boot, being calmed by doves cooing is a provocative one. It’s a reminder that Christ fully entered into this world’s mundanity, that He had material and physical needs that He could not meet Himself — that even He cried pitiably as a baby and needed help going to sleep. He saw fit to be just as weak and frail as we are, right from the start.

Erin Straza: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Christmas is all about fullness — of loved ones, of cheer, of gifting, of remembering, of celebrating. But more often than not, all this fullness leaves me feeling rather drained and empty. I get to Christmas Day feeling spent and tired rather than rejoicing and resting in my Savior’s birth. To combat this, I look for special ways to be with the God who came to be with me. Playing the familiar Christmas songs help, with their Truth-rich verses retelling this particular chapter of God’s Story, the part culminating in redemption.

I especially love “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Here I’m reminded why I need Christmas to come, and why I need a God who comes near. He comes to ransom captive people who are exiled from Him by all manner of rebellion and righteousness — and the busyness of celebrating. He comes to free us from Satan’s tyranny, granting us victory over death and Hell — and the empty hollowness of a full season of rejoicing. His advent chases away the gloomy clouds and dark shadows of this life — even those that threaten my Christmas.

Again and again, this carol calls me to “Rejoice! Rejoice!” for “Emmanuel shall come to thee.” When He comes, the fullness of His presence will mean Christmas has come at last.

Jewel Evans: “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus”

“Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” has been a favorite Christmas carol of mine for some time now. I am deeply encouraged by the lyrics and what they speak of. It begins with a declaration of Jesus being the coming Messiah that the Israelites were longing for. Jesus did indeed fulfill the prophecies spoken of Him in Isaiah 7:15, Isaiah 9:6, and Micah 5:2. In Luke 2, we read of Simeon who was waiting for the day when He, the Messiah, would arrived and he prayed earnestly, “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25): We can see Charles Wesley echo this passage in the song’s second line, as he describes Jesus as “Israel’s strength and consolation.” Jesus was indeed the Messianic hope.

But not only did Jesus come and fulfill the prophecies, He came as salvation for the world. Wesley refers to this with the “hope of all the earth” and the “dear desire of every nation.” Israel was seeking salvation and it was found in the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. More than that, Jesus is the “joy of every longing heart.” He alone can satisfy, a great reminder to us in the Christmas season.

In the second verse we are reminded that the reason why Jesus can meet our expectations is because He was “born a child, and yet a King.” Being fully God and fully man, Jesus was able to satisfy the wrath of God completely in place of sinners by dying on the cross for them, taking their punishment on Himself. When Wesley wrote about Jesus’ “own sufficient merit,” he was speaking directly of His perfect obedience as our head so that we may be counted as righteous before a holy God.

“Come Thou-Long Expected Jesus” is a carol that helps us remember our great Savior Jesus, who was born to set us free and bring us salvation by His death on the cross. There is much to be thankful for this Christmas.

Erin Newcomb: “The Friendly Beasts”

My favorite Christmas carol is “The Friendly Beasts,” an old English song illustrated in Tomie de Paola’s book by the same name. I love singing through the simple text with my daughter; she learns the nativity story and I reflect on the gifts and sacrifices each animal made for the Christ child. I love the way knowing this song changes our experiences all year long, the way it transforms a donkey at the petting zoo into the donkey “shaggy and brown” who carried Christ’s mother “uphill and down… safely to Bethlehem town.” There’s something this song captures about the vulnerability of the baby Jesus, “humbly born in a stable rude,” that brings Christmas to life for me. His mother rides on a donkey, he makes his bed in a cow’s manger, he gets his blanket from a sheep, and his lullaby comes from a pair of doves. In this simple song, it seems, all of creation bows before the baby king, the swaddled God incarnate.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.


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