There’s a radio station in Portland that plays 100% Christmas music from the last week of November until the first week of January. Most years I love to listen to it while driving around because it cheers me up. But this year, it annoys me. Because I’ve actually been listening to the words of the songs rather than getting caught up in the emotion of things, and I can’t believe what I’ve been singing all these years.
It seems that we have a dual standard when it comes to the lyrics of Christmas carols vs. the lyrics of other songs we sing about God the rest of the year. I’m on staff at a church and it’s a crazy Advent season, so I get the pressure that people must’ve been under in past Christmas seasons to bang out a new song their people could sing to celebrate baby Jesus.
But it seems that in their haste, they have created some shoddy work, and they’ve altered the theology of the Christmas story — sometimes because it’s cute, and sometimes merely for the fact that it rhymes.
And we tolerate it. No, not just tolerate. We actually enjoy and embrace it.
(If you don’t believe me about the dual standard, ask yourself this question: If there was a song about a little boy doing a drum solo at the foot of the cross, singing nonsensical syllables like “rum pum pum pum,” do you think we’d sing it on Easter Sunday? No sir.)
This week I found myself driving around, listening to Christmas music, not nodding and smiling like I usually do, but yelling at the radio.
Sorry, Silent Night, but nothing was calm about the night Jesus was born. The town had swelled to capacity because everyone was there to register for a census, and the inns and restaurants and streets were crowded. Bethlehem was a complete madhouse.
Sorry, Do You Hear What I Hear, but the wind was not talking to a lamb, nor was a lamb talking to a shepherd, nor was a shepherd telling a mighty king about the star with a tail as big as a kite. Shepherds weren’t bringing gold to baby Jesus either. That was the wisemen, you idiot.
Silent Night, I highly doubt that there were beams of light radiating from baby Jesus’ face. He was an actual child, not a fluorescent doll.
And Away in Manger. Seriously? No crying he made? If a baby’s born and it doesn’t cry, it gets a very low Apgar score and everyone tries to resuscitate it.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? What the what? If they’re merry, why the heck do they need resting? (And what exactly do you mean by ‘resting’, anyway?)
Ding Dong Merrily on High…shoot. Don’t even get me started.
Okay, gang. Let’s get a few things straight. Bethlehem was not quiet and calm and listening to angel music all night. It was teeming with cranky people who were there to be registered. There were piles of donkey dung in the streets. Joseph was mad as hell because no one would give his pregnant wife a bed. And Mary was probably not too chipper after riding on the back of a donkey while she was 9 months pregnant.
And once they resorted to staying in the barn…well, forget the “birth plan” with the spa music and scented candles and rocking chair. Mary was lying in agony on the floor of a barn that smelled like animal feces, trying to give birth to a baby when she’d never even had sex before. You cannot tell me that she was gentle and mild in that moment. And who can blame her?
The theology of Christmas music leads us to believe that “good Christians” are exuberant and pious, that God’s presence makes everything perfect, and that frustration and pain and exhaustion and tears are not allowed.
The lyrics of these songs also make baby Jesus’ arrival completely unnecessary. Because if we could be the perfect people the songs describe, and if the world was always a quiet, peaceful place, we never would’ve needed to be rescued from it all.
All that to say — if you want to celebrate the season by believing that Joseph and Mary rode into Bethlehem on Dominick The Italian Christmas Donkey, that baby Jesus got a hippopotamus and his two front teeth for Christmas, that Santa Baby worshiped at the manger with the shepherds, that there’s an angel named Herald who sang to shepherds as they were washing their socks by night, and that Mary’s dress had green sleeves, knock yourself out.
Just remember that underneath all the trappings and nonsense, on the night that Jesus was actually born, there was a real family with real problems; there were marginalized migrant workers to whom the angels appeared; and it was wealthy agnostic astronomers, not pious religious leaders, who were invited to visit Christ.
And when everyone woke up the morning after Jesus was born, no bells were ringing. The star was gone. Everyone thought the shepherds were insane or high the night before — seriously, guys, you’re going to stick with the “angels singing in the sky” story?
Most people in the town didn’t know and didn’t care that a baby had been born. Everyone on the planet needed a savior, but no one wanted it to be the neonate screaming in the cattle trough.
And this is what earth is like. It’s messy and excruciating and unfortunate and frustrating. But sometimes, it’s surprising and it’s beautiful. Because sometimes God comes near to us with soft strains of love and north stars of hope, and we know that in spite of the disarray, we are going to be okay.
So Rum pum pum pum, baby Jesus. Rum pum pum pum.