Have you ever noticed how many Christmas songs/carols add to the Christmas story or speak of details that we have no clue about? I didn’t, in the past… it’s shocking at how little I paid attention to lyrics, especially to songs I know or to songs where I really like the music. Here are some top additions that I’ve noticed after going through a bunch of Christmas songs for accuracy. On one hand, I hope this doesn’t ruin songs for you; on the other hand, I hope it encourages thoughtful singing and picking of songs at Christmas time. We’re celebrating a historical birth of our Savior; we should be able to get the story right in our songs!
1. Angels Singing
The gospel accounts seem to say that the angels were, as The Messiah states, “praising God and saying.” It doesn’t say they sang it, it says they said it. Perhaps the singing thing comes from the “praising” part, but praise != singing either. This seems to be an addition without particular biblical foundation for it. As a sort of metaphor or poetic addition, it seems to be okay… but let’s not conflate praise with singing. They’re not equal
Songs? Oh, many. This really isn’t that big of a deal though, ultimately, as long as we understand that we don’t know if they sang or not. Whatever happened, it was a big deal to the shepherds!
2. Wise Men: Not at the Manger
The wise men weren’t at the manger; they came after Jesus was old enough that Herod didn’t just kill all the infants. He wasn’t just born, he had grown some… and he didn’t grow up in a manger. Also, as we are very aware of typically, we don’t know how many of them there were.
Songs? The First Noël, I Wonder as I Wander, One Small Child, O Holy Night, We Three Kings
3. The Star: Not for Shepherds
Shepherds did not follow the star. “Well, of course not! What song talks about that?!” you may ask: The First Noel.
Verse 1 talks about the shepherds; verse two talks about a group (the shepherds, apparently) following a star. Verse 3 talks about the wise men also following the light of that same star … the same one as what? The same one that the shepherds followed in verse 2, I guess.
4. Mary’s Lullaby
Mary seems to always be singing What Child Is This? talks about “the virgin sings her lullaby.”
5. Time of Night, Time of Season, Weather Conditions
Depending on what song you sing … the birth happened in the morning (Go! Tell It on the Mountain), happened at midnight (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear), and happened in a freezing cold winter (In the Bleak Midwinter, etc.)
6. Random Other Things
One Small Child talks about a lot of details like the infant Christ “reaching up to the starlight” and smiling in His stall. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear has a ton of … poetic license. Angels are singing and playing harps of gold (and flying around with wings). There’s also an odd fixation with angels in this particular song, to the extent that it seems like the angels song is what brings peace … not the Christ. The author was also Unitarian. I Wonder As I Wander actually adds farmers to the manger scene. O Thou Joyful, O Thou Wonderful is a translation … but as I have read it translated, it actually is singing to “Christmastide” the whole time (with an odd grammatical switch where “Thy” suddenly seems to refer to Christ, even though it grammatically would not).