‘Won’t you help to sing …’

‘Won’t you help to sing …’ December 9, 2011

Old-school Anglicans and Episcopalians don’t sing Christmas carols yet. They save those for the actual 12 days of Christmas, and despite the decorations and hype of early December, it’s still only Advent. (Black Friday is not yet an official part of the Christian liturgical calendar.)

But I like starting early with the Christmas carols because it’s good to be reminded during Advent of what it is we’re waiting for. This is what the best Christmas carols do, such as for instance:

Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease

That’s the third verse of “O Holy Night.” Adolphe Adam’s carol is a favorite for people who can really sing. It’s got that big, soaring, Roy-Orbison crescendo in the chorus — the perfect vehicle for those who’ve got the pipes to let it rip.

Search for “O Holy Night” on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of renditions by some of the best and biggest voices in music — pop divas, American Idols, Broadway belters and opera stars. They sound great, but theirs aren’t the renditions I’m looking for because it seems the singers with the best and biggest voices wind up too enamored with that grand chorus. They only sing the first verse, then it’s off to the races, ignoring my favorite verse, the one quoted above.

I’ve found a handful of versions where someone sings all three verses, and most of those seem to be from artists with a less dazzling vocal range: Sufjan Stevens. Weezer. The Fray. Avril Lavigne. Rickie Lee Jones. (I found a few ooh-what-a-voice! types who sing the third verse — including Faith Hill and Aaron Neville — but most of them are too eager to get to the “O night, diviiiiiiine” fireworks to bother with it.)

The humbler renditions are interesting as these singers find their own way to serve the song, but I’ll admit I’m drawn to them mainly because I love to hear those words. That’s what I’m waiting for during Advent. And that’s what I’m waiting for the rest of the year, too.

Richard Beck wrote a nice post on “O Holy Night” as “resistance literature.” Beck notes that the English translation of this carol first appeared in 1855 — years before America’s new birth of freedom. In 1855, this song would have seemed like A John Brown Christmas Special.

“Can’t anybody tell me what Christmas is all about?”

I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about, John Brown. Lights please. ‘Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.’ And that’s what Christmas is all about, John Brown.”

Beck notes that the original French lyrics, by poet Placide Cappeau, are unmistakably radical. He offers this more literal translation of that third verse and chorus:

The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Those lyrics remind me of another of my favorite songs, one I’ve never associated with Christmas, but which maybe we ought to consider an Advent hymn:

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  • Anonymous

    Yes, it’s Advent.  The hard part is slowing people down, not rushing into Christmas while learning to enjoy the season of anticipation, and living with the tension of the already and the not yet.  And, no, I don’t allow Christmas hymns during Advent.

    But at a meeting yesterday, we were asked to tell about our favorite Advent hymns.  I have two:  Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding, and On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry.

    In short, they both remind us that the Savior is coming and what it is we need to do.  In last week’s sermon I told the congregation that during Advent you needed to keep one question in mind:  “What should I do?”

    And the answer to that question is, “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord.”

    And now I need to go take the car into the shop to prepare for winter driving.

  • Anonymous

    Well, we don’t sing carols in church except for the somewhat misleadingly named Lessons and Carols (misleading because Christmas carols aren’t a big part of the program, as people would expect).
    Otherwise what Rev. Ref said.  The point is to consider the in-between time (between realization and expectation in our parish’s prayers) and what should be done. Just like Lent and Good Friday lose their punch if you jump straight to Easter.

  • Anonymous

    Well I like to sing christmas carols as well.

    And I agree with Fred about the the message.

  • Linnet

    I really like O Holy Night as well.

    I am sort of embarrassed to say the Brian Setzer Orchestra version is one of my favorites: managed to sound good and includes all the verses in a way that is clearly understandable.

  • Anonymous

    Here is a dutch not christian christmas carol.


  • Anonymous

    While Christmas carols may not be strictly appropriate in Advent season, there are plenty of worthwhile Advent songs. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has that properly minor-key, mopey vibe, I always thought.

  • Linnet

    Ten years ago we got a liturgical expert at my church whose first visible act on policy was to stop us singing carols at retirement homes/hospitals in December, because it wasn’t ‘liturgically correct’.

    We tried explaining to him most of the volunteers were college students, and would not even be in state when he wanted us to reschedule.  But he said not singing carols before Christmas was how we defined ourselves as Catholics versus other Christians, and therefore was more important than our local tradition of doing things for the elderly in the space before midterms.

    I know that’s a whole different level than not putting carols in a mass in advent (which is what I assume you meant).  But your post reminded me of that experience, and I am surprised at ten years later how angry I still am about it.

  • Allie

    What is the video at the end of the post? YouTube is blocked here at work and that includes any information about embedded videos.

  • Tom V

    What is the song at the end of the post?  We can’t get youtube links here at work, so I just see a blank page.

  • I used to know an Episcopalian whose church didn’t do any congregational singing during Advent. I’m so glad my church (a PCUSA congregation) doesn’t do that. I love the advent hymns; we get to have both kinds for 4 Sundays.

    Last year, I was at my boyfriend’s baptist church one Advent Sunday (morning and evening) and on the 26th. I think we sang one carol (maybe 2) as a congregation. The choir did a Christmas musical that included a bunch, of course, and in the evening service the kids sang a couple (plus Rudolf), but those of us in the pews got one. I think the Baptist miss out a lot on by not paying attention to the liturgical year and not having Advent (or Lenten ones for that matter) hymns.

  • Anonymous

    I have to disagree with Fred on this one.  First off, we old-school Lutherans don’t sing Christmas hymns during Advent either.  But more to the point, the purpose of Advent is to look ahead to Christmas while remembering why we need it.  (There is a reason Advent and Lent share their liturgical color.)  Yes, it is good to be reminded about Christ.  This is true any time of year.  The peculiar gift of Advent is the anticipation and the self-reflection. 

    Look at the verb tenses in that verse from O Holy Night.  He has taught us:  past tense.  His law is love:  present tense.  He shall break chains:  future tense.  The verse puts us smack dab in the middle of events.  This is appropriate for Christmas:  the waiting for him is over, for he is come, but there are still promises to be fulfilled in the future.  This is a good place to be, but it isn’t Advent.

    Our culture isn’t good at Advent.  We shove Christmas as early on the calendar as we can manage.  I am resigned to the inevitability of this, but I want church to be a refuge from secular Christmas.  I want Advent hymns: not only because they are correct in a bureaucratic sense, but because I need Advent.

  • I’d say during Advent we are awaiting birth of the Christ child and his triumphant return. (We ARE in the middle of events, all the time, we just think about it in particular during Advent and Lent.) But, as Fred said, O Holy Night is a Christmas hymn. And while I enjoy singing them, only after Thanksgiving dinner – Jan 6th (choir rehearsals excepted obviously), I’m glad like you my church remembers that we need Advent.

  • Anonymous

    Trigger warning next time you post something like that, OK?

  • Anonymous

    He was wrong about this on a couple of counts.  First off, it doesn’t separate Catholics from other Christians (even supposing that to be a Good Thing) because lots of Protestants observe Advent as well.  More importantly, the whole issue is cast in terms of Law.  Surely this discussion should be about Gospel.

    On the other hand, the problem he was trying to address is that by observing Christmas early, we are not observing Advent.  Advent serves an important purpose, too.  (What would you think of throwing Easter parties in Lent?)

    On the gripping hand, there are the practical issues you cite, to be combined with Christ’s admonition to us not to be dicks.  (He worded it slightly differently.)  The whole discussion reveals some fault lines in the relation between secular and sacred Christmas celebrations.  Thoughtful Christians often try to reconcile the two by imagining that they are separate things that just happen to occur at the same time of year.  But in practice, secular Christmas always seems to win out.  Go to mass on Christmas Eve and you are done.  Compare this with the time and energy and money and emotional capital that is invested in secular Christmas.  The disagreement you describe is all part of this, but it is on the surface.  Being a dick about it isn’t going the help the underlying problem, and it will make people unnecessarily unhappy.

  • Anonymous

    I love “O Holy Night,” but that verse (“… in his name all oppression shall cease”) always–well, not “makes me angry,” but rouses my anger, because really, what has actually happened has been pretty much everything but that.

  • Anonymous

    “I used to know an Episcopalian whose church didn’t do any congregational singing during Advent”

    For whatever it is worth, this is idiosyncratic.  I could take a guess at the reasoning behind this, but I want my Veni Veni!

    “…at my boyfriend’s baptist church one Advent Sunday … the choir did a Christmas musical that included a bunch, of course, and
    in the evening service the kids sang a couple (plus Rudolf)”

    Out of curiosity, how many of the songs, by either the kids or the adult choir, involved anything recognizably Christian?  As opposed to songs about reindeer created as marketing tools for Mammon?

  • Jenora Feuer

    Hmm, my favourite version of ‘O Holy Night’ would probably be Jim Nabors’ version.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1fntRft9PM

    He had such a wonderful voice when he sang, and I always remember that song in particular with the depth he gave to it.

  • I though no congregational singing was a bit extreme, Advent is a mini-Lent not all out Lent. :) But my friend said they didn’t even sing the Doxology (or was is Gloria Patri?), that’s why she loved going to another church’s Christmas choir program. She got to hear and sing a few of her favorites early.

    The choir cantata was all hymns, probably 6 or 7 all together (tied together by Beautiful Star of Bethlehem), the kids sang two or three Christmas hymns plus Rudolf and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. BTW, the handing out and collecting of sleigh bells needs to carefully considered beforehand.

  • Anonymous

    As an addendum, I’ve just discovered Morris Robinson’s version, and I feel rather better about the whole thing now. For one thing, the man’s a bass, and one doesn’t often get to hear the song in that voice. For another, I think he’s made a significant improvement to the verse I was complaining about: “chains shall we break, for the slave is our brother.” 

  • Anonymous

    Wow . . . just . . . wow.  I’m angry at that and I wasn’t even there.

    So, my policy IN THE PARISH is no Christmas carols before Christmas.  But if we had people going out to nursing homes to sing, then we’d be singing what they wanted to hear (and, okay, maybe interspersed with a few easily recognizable Advent hymns). 

    Hospitality runs both ways.  As a host, you offer hospitality.  As a guest, you accept what they offer.  If the nursing home wants Christmas carols, that’s what you sing. 

    *sigh*  Beating people over the head doesn’t work with a Schofield Reference Bible, and it doesn’t work by forcing them to conform to your liturgical standards outside of the parish.

  • Allie

    It’s “Redemption Song.” I’m sorry no one else got to your question before now.

  • Marshall Pease

    Anglicans and Episcopalians? Well right, either or both sing Advent carolshttp://www.amazon.com/Advent-Carols-Johns-Choir-College/dp/B0000037FK, like O Little Town of Bethlehem. 

    BTW, I notice that if I sign in with Yahoo, DISQUS gets to read my address book. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

  • OnlyMe

    While I like the third verse, my favorite line have always been from the first –
    “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”

    Hope is thrilling when you are weary and tired and run down and have lost all sense of your place and worth (and everyone else’s as well).  And suddenly, out of nowhere, there is just the glimmer of the idea that it isn’t always going to be like that, that it can change – and that’s amazing.

  • Guest

    I recall on a TV special, Michael Crawford did a beautifully sung version of O Holy Night and included your favorite verse. It was also on an album of his. Michael Crawford O Holy Night 1999, Michael Crawford O Holy Night.

  • cjmr

    I like that version (the Morris Robinson one).  I’d really like to hear him without the huge background chorus!

  • I really rather like Avril Lavigne’s recording of O Holy Night. The way that it’s sort of flat makes it seem very human.

  • Tonio

    I love the melody and the chords of O Holy Night, and I love truly passionate singing of the song, but I don’t remember more than a line or two of the lyrics. It’s similar to my enjoyment of African-American gospel. By contrast, most traditional church hymns leave me musically cold, like the authors had never heard of pocket or groove.

    If I had ProTools, I would take a song like Rudolph and combine 20 different versions, all adjusted to the same pitch and tempo. It would be gloriously messy.

  • I wish Jeff Buckley got a chance to sing it. That would have been amazing. For what it’s worth, here’s my version. Unfortunately, I do not have the voice of Jeff Buckley, but I do sing all 3 verses. 


    By the way, Fred, longtime lurker, this is my first post. Really appreciate what you do. You contribute a perspective to the discourse that is sorely needed.

  • spinetingler

    In my years of attending an Episcopal church, I was always absent during December, attending some other church where they sang Christmas carols.

    Our rector and music staff were strict about the “it’s not Christmas, it’s Advent, so no Christmas songs” rule, but once Christmas arrived there was one day of Christmas music and then right back into the same old Josh Redmond chord progression.

  • I have similar feelings about O Holy Night, which are enhanced by a bit of nostalgia tied to the passionate singing.

    Back when I was much younger and  I still went to church, the place was usually packed on Christmas Eve (of course), and among those in attendance was a man with a particularly strong voice who would just belt it out.

    He didn’t live in the area most of the year, but would always come to our church for Christmas Eve.  He had a cabin in town, so he was a regular attendee in the summer, and his singing in general when he was there was one of the few pleasures the church had to offer.  But, like chocolate and peanut butter, he and that song in particular were pretty much made for each other.

    Now that I’m older and have becoming increasingly Grinch-like, I have an aversion to anything related to Christmas*, especially Christmas music, religious or secular.  I’ve come to look upon having to hear the music over an extended period of time – said period seeming to get longer and longer, and start sooner and sooner all the time – everywhere I go at this time of year as the metaphorical lump of coal in my metaphorical stocking.  It’s my punishment for being on the “Naughty” list.

    However, because I’m not on the “Downright Horrible” list, I do, occasionally, get rewarded with O Holy Night.

    *If you would have said the word “Advent” to anyone at my church (except, presumably, the pastor), you would have been greeted with a quizzical stare.  You would have had even less luck if you went on to use the word “Liturgical.”

  • B

    I like this version (which includes that verse).  But then, I think it’s impossible to over-orchestrate O Holy Night.


    Personally, I start listening to Christmas music when I leave to visit my parents for Thanksgiving and finally give up after the spring semester starts.  I love Christmas music!  Twelve days wouldn’t be enough for me. :-)

  • I have a question:  How and when did the 12 Days of Christmas move to BEFORE Dec 25th?  I thought it was and should be from Dec 25th to Jan 6th ( or **12th** Night)…

  • Tonio

    Until I was in middle school, I didn’t realize the meaning of the 12 days. My school district’s calendar had enough days off around Christmas so that counting weekends, the break from school equaled 12 days most years.

    I’m not sure where the Magi are supposed to have originated, and Wikipedia is all over the map. For some reason I had thought that they came from Persia, India and China, but there’s no way they could have gotten to Bethlehem that quickly. In the last case, Jesus would have been at least a toddler when they arrived.

  • cjmr

    Note that after the magi visited Herod looking for the ‘newborn king’, Herod ordered the death of all male children under the age of 2.  So, yes, Jesus was a toddler by that point.

  • Anonymous

    If I’m not mistaken, the “12 Days of Christmas” moved from beginning on Christmas Day and running through January 6 (12th Night, Epiphany) to beginning on the Day After Thanksgiving when retailers discovered they could sell more stuff if they hyping Christmas earlier and earlier.  Of course, this hype up to Christmas also resulted in the virtual ignoring of the Twelve Days of Christmas of the Church.  After all, once the presents were bought, wrapped and opened, what was the point?

    And cjmr has it right — Jesus was a toddler by the time the Magi arrived.  Note that in the Gospel of Matthew the wise men arrive “at the house,” not at the manger.

    Which reminds me of my favorite holier than thou sin I often commit and that’s when I belittle those people who put up incorrect Nativity scenes with wise men and shepherds all together at the manger.  That annoys me to no end.

    Never said I was perfect . . .

  • I sing in a college Catholic choir. This evening we’re doing our Early Holiday Liturgy, which is a midnight Advent mass followed by Christmas carols (technically not part of the mass :) ) because all the students will have scattered for Christmas.

    One of which is Rutter’s “Fecit Potentiam”, with a rather timely theme:

    Fecit potentiam in brachio suo
    dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
    Deposuit potentes de sede
    et exaltavit humiles.

    He hath shewed might in his arm
    he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
    He hath put down the mighty from their seats of power,
    and hath exalted the humble.

  • I like to correct people on “Immaculate Conception” myself, but my circle of friends have too many other wiseasses who went to Catholic schools. 

  • Anonymous

    Seems to me that the Magnificat is always a rather timely theme.

    Enjoy the service.

  • Anonymous

    Um. Yes. Wow. I mean, I figured out what was going on in the first twenty seconds or so, but I had to keep watching because the boyfriend didn’t, and then the end…

    So, TRIGGER WARNING FOR THAT VIDEO: (ALSO SPOILERS): extreme animal cruelty, emotional child abuse, violence.

  • cjmr

    We have the shepherds out from Christmas to Epiphany and then the wise men out from Epiphany to Candlemas.

  • sk-reader

    Advent hymns I enjoy:

    O Come, O Come Emanuel (as someone previously posted)

    On Jordan’s Bank the Baptists Cry

    One year I had to organize the church’s nativity play and in the opening scene when Mary got the word, I had the congregation sing w/ Mary “Tell out My Souls” (Magnificat)