In early December, I’m indifferent to Christmas; by the second week, aware; then attentive; and, by Christmas eve, avid.
Why such a change from torpor to fervor? Actually, it’s not so much wanting Christmas to happen as to have happened. December 25th ushers in the most blessed time of all — The Season of No Christmas Carols.
Many carols are ok, some are good, and a few so beautiful that even a non-believer like me knows that some divine spark touched their creators and performers. What drives me round the bend is the Chinese water torture of hourly, daily, weekly repetition on the radio, in stores, on the street, in my fillings. Even Berlioz’s The Shepherds’ Farewell, a personal favorite, can grate after fifteen replays, and The Little Drummer Boy turn one to thoughts of mayhem after only a few hearings.
To make matters worse, even listenable carols often seem to careen downhill once the initial inspiration evaporates, as if the Reverend Mr. Pusey, who rendered a credible first verse, was called to a sick parishioner and handed the second to his curate, who, his wife being taken unto labor, passed the third to the sexton, thence — verse-by-perverse — to the beadle, the little old lady in the third pew, and finally the parish gravedigger.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing is a perfect example — an ok first verse (though I challenge you to use With th’ angelic host proclaim in a normal sentence) that rapidly petrifies into such monstrosities as Late in time, behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb and Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity. Poor Mendelssohn, to have his lovely tune fitted with cement shoes.
Away in a Manger is a lot closer to what even an agnostic might agree is the message of Christmas — daily human life transposed by the spiritual. Its melody (whether the American or British version) is simple and, at least for a while, its sentiments moving. But, by the fourth verse, even this carol goes off the rails, asking baby Jesus to comfort all children and then — ominously — pleading with Him to take them all to be with Him in Heaven …. Now!
Yes, it’s easy to criticize, but it’s fair to ask, Could you do any better? Of course not, but someone did, as The Oxford Compendium of Justly Neglected Verse demonstrates in a recently unearthed, anonymous version that long predates what we sing today. I think it captures the humanness of The Story, if stinting a bit on the supernatural:
Away in a manger, as shepherds stood dumb, the little Lord Jesus lay sucking his thumb.
Don’t worry, said Joseph, it won’t harm his looks. It’s typical, really, it’s all in Spock’s books.
That’s nothing, said Mary, but what has me vexed, this virgin birth story makes me feel unsexed.
And what of the Magi? For Christ’s sake, you’d think they’d bring something useful like water to drink.
Can I add just one thing, the little babe spoke, I’ve plans to make Israel go up in smoke.
To walk on the water, and make strong the weak, to preach to the stricken and comfort the meek.
Good Lord, said his parents, what nonsense you talk. You can’t change your diaper, you can’t even walk.
Oh little one, don’t come off acting the fool. Be a good Jewish boy, go to medical school.
Solid narrative development; down-to-earth, in keeping with the simple melody and the manger theme; and yet miraculous, considering that, despite His parents’ strong pressure, He did not become a doctor.