If you didn’t know it already, may have guessed it: I am German, and the internet allows me to follow German media here and there. Last week, I came across an op-ed piece in the German political magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ – ‘The Mirror’, which I read with interest, because it is about Christmas – or, to be more specific, about German Christmas carols.
The author, Margarete Stokowski, titles her piece: ‘Deutsche Weihnachtslieder: O du schmerzliche. Einsam, hygienisch, morbide – so klingt Weihnachten in den Texten, die die Deutschen am liebsten unterm Baume singen. Der Tod feiert mit. Ein Verriss.’ Which roughly could be translated to this very long title: ‘O come, all ye painful. Lonely, hygienic, morbid – this is what Christmas sounds like according to the lyrics Germans like to sing around the Christmas tree. Death participates in the party. A scathing review.’ (https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/deutsche-weihnachtslieder-verriss-von-margarete-stokowski-a-1301643.html)
Well, let me tell you, this title got my attention. Now my first reaction was: what the…where’s she coming from? There are such joyful carols that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, like ‘Alle Jahre wieder’, O du fröhliche’, ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’. These carols are anything but lonely, hygienic, or morbid. There all ALL KINDS of joyful carols that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, right? Come on! That’s what I was thinking.
Then…as I read Stokowski’s op-ed piece, I realized that it is supposed to be a humorous piece, tongue-in-cheek, a satire. She is playing with stereotypes about Germans. In the beginning of her piece, she summarizes what, in her opinion, is being expressed in German Christmas carols – and I am translating here, ‘Life in German carols is essentially hard, the thing about is Jesus is pretty pleasant – but suffering, obligation and order mustn’t be forgotten.’
So she goes on analyzing some of the most popular German carols – and it turns out she has a point! Especially when it comes to certain carols that originated in the 19th century, we find lyrics that seem to celebrate some cherished German values: Quiet, Order and Cleanliness.
There is ‘Stille Nacht’, ‘Silent Night’ – we all know that. But then there are more carols that invoke quiet. ‘Leise rieselt der Schnee, still und starr ruht der See’, ‘Quietly falls the snow, silently and rigidly lies the lake’, or ‘Still, still, still, weil’s Kindlein schlafen will’, ‘Quiet, quiet, quiet, because the child wants to sleep’ – We don’t want to raise a ruckus! There is no German equivalent to the ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
But it’s not only German carols that stress quiet. Also English ones—ORIGINALLY English ones. ‘O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie? Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.’ And in ‘Away in a manger’, ‘the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.’ It seems it’s not only the Germans who cherish silence.
Now for the German love for order and cleanliness – Stokowski points out that there are several carols and songs that celebrate these qualities. Among them ‘Ihr Kinderlein kommet’, an invitation to the children to come to the manger. In verse 2 of that carol, we hear: ‘O see in the manger in the stable at night, o see in the bright shining light, the heavenly child in clean diapers, much more beautiful and lovely than angels are.’ Of course the Christchild can’t have dirty diapers. These observations I find quite amusing. Stokowski has a point.
But as she talks about the ‘morbidity’ of certain carols, even in a kind of joking way, I feel somewhat uneasy. Yes, she is right, there are those carols that talk about suffering, guilt, sometimes even death. After all, the child in the manger one day will be the man on the cross. Her question is, do we need those doggie downers during a celebration of a birth?
Not only the writers of German carols allude to the darker sides of human existence – Stokowski inspired me to look into carols from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and here we find the same theme. In ‘Joy to the world’, we sing, ‘No more let sin and sorrow grow nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found’. In ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, we hear, ‘And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow…’. And even ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ reminds us of our human condition, because we hear about ‘God and sinners reconciled’.
And so one could ask, with Stokowski, do we need all this talk about suffering, sin and death? Isn’t it enough to just sing sweetly about this child and the joys of the season and dream of a white Christmas? Doesn’t all that negative stuff destroy our Christmas mood?
Well, it depends on what you think this Christmas mood is – or should be. If you expect it to be happy-clappy, and wish for a wholesome holy night, of course such lyrics may come across as disturbing.
But Christmas is about so much more than happy-clappy shallow joy. And, to be fair to Stokowski, she knows that. As she introduces her piece, she writes, ‘What is being celebrated is Jesus’ birth. His arrival among humans, the beginning of something grand: joy, hope, salvation.’
Joy. Hope. Salvation.
All this is reflected in those carols that Stokowski calls ‘morbid’: those carols that are honest, carols that don’t just give us a sugar-coated version of Christ’s birth, but are more like joyous protest songs: yes, we know there’s a lot awry in this world. And yet, we rejoice and sing our hearts out in stubborn joy, because a child is born to us, a son is given to us! And his name shall be: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There is hope.
And we live now in that hope. We don’t settle, we don’t just accept that things are hard or unjust or unfair. No, God rules the world with truth and grace—and we want that now (!) and we’re gonna reflect that now!
God breaks into an imperfect world to bring joy and peace and hope in the oh-so-familiar Christmas story.
This is not a sugar-coated story in an idyllic setting. Here we have a young couple, who, far from home, has to fend for themselves and bring their child into the world under the most degrading circumstances. Here we have shepherds, outcasts, those on the edge of society, those who can’t be or don’t want to be integrated. Here we have heartless and calculating powers, which dictate the lives of many. We know about all that, this is nothing new under the sun, this is what still happens everywhere in this world today.
The Christmas story reflects the human story, hi-story, during which there’s always been oppression and suffering. But, but – there also has always been hope. Without it, humanity probably wouldn’t have survived. Hope became, hope still becomes flesh in the child in the manger, the God who assumes our humanity, who comes among us and walks with us. God’s coming among us is a protest of the powers that are, the powers that control, restrain and destroy. Hope comes in the flesh of ALL who hear and who heed God’s call.
Today we celebrate that there is hope for a world in which we experience sin and sorrow, where thorns of various kinds infest the ground and politics and our lives – a world where we sometimes toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, our forms bent, beneath life’s crushing load – a world that needs reconciliation and saving. We celebrate that God doesn’t give up on us. We celebrate that God is protesting all forces of destruction and death in a new birth, new life. We celebrate that there is a child given to us and for us.
And so let us sing our beloved Christmas carols of any tradition with loud and joyful voices, protesting the forces in this world that want to discourage and disparage us. Christ is born! Glory to God in the highest! Joy to the world! Amen!
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library via unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German