‘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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