What could be more beloved -- or more non-controversial -- than Christmas carols?
The best have a timeless appeal, retelling the biblical story of Jesus' birth through crystalline poetry wedded to singable tunes. Even saccharine repetition over tinny shopping mall speakers cannot destroy their charm.
But carols once were suppressed by ecclesiastical Grinches in Britain, the land from which so many carols come. Not one carol was sanctioned by the established Church of England until 1700, when "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" was slipped into a hymnal supplement. It was 82 years before a second was permitted: "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."
What was wrong with carols? The clergy were suspicious because their style was rooted in the folk-dance songs of pagan, pre-Christian Europe, and they thought restrained chants were holier than bouncy popular songs. There's similar feuding today about worship that uses soft rock and folk-oriented "contemporary Christian music."
(Admittedly, it's hard to imagine many of these current ditties surviving for centuries the way dozens of carols have.)
Carols thrived among the common people and reached a heyday from about 1400 to 1550. But then they waned, partly due to church snobbery, until 19th century romantics revived them to permanent popularity.
This history is depicted in "The Penguin Book of Carols" (Penguin, 414 pages, $12.95 paperback), a timely stocking-stuffer by Ian Bradley, a Church of Scotland minister and lecturer at the University of St. Andrews.
Beware the book's glaring weakness: Bradley provides the texts but not the tunes. The words are surely worth pondering by themselves, but the resulting book is a bird that attempts to fly with only one wing.
After the historical introduction, Bradley provides brief chapters on 100 carols, ranging from churchly favorites to secular songs ("Deck the Halls"). "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sounds like a secular frolic, too, but may have been a Catholic catechism teacher's code during suppression by Reformation Protestants (12 articles of the creed, 11 apostles minus Judas, 10 commandments, etc.)
Carols sometimes lack doctrinal precision, Bradley thinks. "Away in a Manger" says "little Lord Jesus no crying he makes," which is not only unrealistic but reflects the heresy that Jesus wasn't truly human.
"Away" is one of many carols with animals, a sentimental touch with no basis in the Bible accounts. Nor does the New Testament speak of "We Three Kings" (there were three gifts but we don't know how many Magi there were). Some carols, including "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," evoke the snowy climate of northern Europe, not that of biblical Bethlehem.
The strong theology in grand old carols doesn't delight some modern Christians, Bradley notes. Few current hymnals include the original concluding verse of "Angels From the Realms of Glory":
"Sinners, wrung with keen repentance,
"Doomed for guilt to endless pains;
"Justice now repeals the sentence,
"Mercy calls you -- break your chains."
Some carols have been adapted for gender inclusiveness to fit the outlook of our own times. Thus "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" often becomes "Good Christian Friends," though it's harder to rewrite "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen."
Regarding the latter carol, Bradley notes that the comma is all-important. The words are not addressed to merry gentlemen, as often supposed, but to biblical shepherds frightened by the angel.
Another common misunderstanding: The poignant "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child" is not a lullaby for the baby Jesus but for those threatened by Herod's slaughter of the innocents.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.