A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [Second Stanza: Lyrical Incompetence]

In the first installment of this year’s Christmas music ethics review, I only plumbed the depths of the insulting lyrics in the Unethical Lyrics category. A much larger and more irritating sub-category lies ahead: incompetent Christmas song lyrics.Before I start, I must mention a lyric that now ruins a wonderful Christmas hymn for me, thanks to my sister. When we were children, she commented after hearing a rendition of the 19th century carol “O Holy Night,” “Why would I want to fall on my knees? It hurts to fall on your knees!” Then, year after year, every time we heard the song, she would interject a loud “OW!” after the lines,

Fall on your knees!O hear the angel voices!

I can’t hear the song now without hearing the “OW!” as well. But that lyric isn’t the lyricist’s fault. These are…

C. Incompetent lyrics.

1) Traditional Carols

The extra verses of many traditional carols are at best forgettable, at worst awful, but none reach the depths of “The First Noel.” How I remember our congregation at out local church struggling through all of the verses in the Christmas Eve service! The first two verses are fine, and then you hit the third verse:

And by the light of that same star

Three Wise men came from country far

To seek for a King was their intent

And to follow the star wherever it went

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel

Born is the King of Israel!

The accents are all wrong, words are dropped out because the lyricist couldn’t figure out how to make them fit (Came from country far) or added (“To seek for a king”). Verse #4 is worse:

This star drew nigh to the northwest

O’er Bethlehem it took its rest

And there it did both stop and stay

Right o’er the place where Jesus lay

Noel, Noel, Noel, NoelBorn is the King of Israel!

We are told in three different ways that the star stopped: it took its rest (the allusion to a star “resting” is ridiculous); it stopped, and it stayed. Yeah, we got it: the star stopped over Bethlehem. Meanwhile, an accent falls on “did,” which is a lyrical malpractice. Ready for verse #5?

Then entered in

Another bad accent, on “in”…

Those Wise men three

Fell reverently upon their knee

OW! And they had a communal knee?

And offered there in His presence…

PresENCE...you know, like the Pirates of Penzance.  Terrible.

Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.

After flunking Poetry 101 with the wrong accent on “presence” just to have a rhyme for “frankincense,” the hack (that would be Davies Gilbert, 1767-1839, who wrote all the verses after the first two by the far more competent Anonymous) still had to stretch out the line with two “ands.” Then after Noel, Noel, yada yada, we finally get to the inept sixth and final verse:

Then let us all with one accord

Sing praises to our heavenly Lord

That hath made heaven and earth of nought

And with his blood mankind has bought

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel

Born is the King of Israel!1.

  1. Another bad stress on “to”
  2. Apparently “heaven” is supposed to be sung in one beat, which is impossible, while “nought” is drawn out for three beats, and its such a pretty word…
  3. He has “bought” mankind with his blood? What does that mean?

Fortunately we seldom hear more than the Anonymous verses, and even more fortunately, none of the other traditional carols reach this level of ineptitude.However, I must mention in this section, because it doesn’t fit anywhere else, “I Saw Three Ships.” What’s going on here? Nobody knows:

I saw three ships come sailing in onn Christmas day, on Christmas day,

I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three on Christmas day, on Christmas day?

And what was in those ships all three on Christmas day in the morning?

The Virgin Mary and Christ were there on Christmas day, on Christmas day!

The Virgin Mary and Christ were there on Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three on Christmas day, on Christmas day?

Pray whither sailed those ships all three on Christmas day in the morning?

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem on Christmas day, on Christmas day,

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem on Christmas day in the morning!

 What the hell?

I always assumed that there was an acknowledged and well-researched metaphor buried here, but no, there really isn’t. The nearest body of water to Bethlehem  is the Dead Sea, and it’s 20 miles away: Bethlehem is land-locked. Where were those ships coming from? How did Jesus and Mary end up on a ship, and why were three necessary? This song is the fake news of Christmas Carols. It makes no sense, so scholars and critics have been positing justifications for this nonsense, without any evidence at all other than, “It must mean something!” One batty theory is that the the three ships are references to the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Wikipedia concludes that the reference to three ships “is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.” Then the song has nothing to do with Christmas at all?  The entry continues, “Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms “Azure three galleys argent”. Ah! It’s a song about a coat of arms! Sure! THAT makes sense.  Then it goes on to a theory that I considered years ago along with everyone else, that the ships represent the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as “ships of the desert.” But the Magi rode their camels to see the child. They didn’t load Mary and Jesus up on their camels and deliver them to Bethlehem, leaving poor Joseph behind.Now on to the modern Christmas songs, none so mysterious, just inept…

2) Modern Christmas songs

  • “Silver Bells.”  This is only first because I just heard it. “See the kids bunch” is a classic bad lyric, an obvious forced rhyme with “crunch.” The rule is that when you have a dubious rhyme to slip by, you put the howler first to take attention away from your incompetence. The song writers,  Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, also breach a rule by including slang of the day (1950). Seasonal songs have to last and can’t use trendy lyrics safely. “This is Santa’s big scene!” is beatnik jargon, in, “Like, let’s make the scene, man!” “Silver Bells” isn’t about a play or a movie. Tellingly, the song was nearly called “Tinkle Bells,” until the wife of one of writers, more familiar with toilet training apparently, pointed out one of the meanings of “tinkle.”
  • “Home for the Holidays.” Both Perry Como and Karen Carpenter made recordings of this song  standards for the season, even though it is entirely about food, and doesn’t reference Christmas at all. The lyrical rule violated here is relatively minor, but it takes me out of the song every time:

From Atlantic to PacificGee, the traffic is terrific

Now I ask you—was the traffic good, or bad? Terrific means good 90% of the time now, and has since before that song was written (1954). Yet holiday traffic is always heavy, so I am almost certain the lyric means the traffic was bad. The lyrics were written by Al Stillman, who was usually very deft: he wrote such song lyrics as those for “Moments to Remember” (1955), “No, Not Much” (1956), and the Johnny Mathis hits “Chances Are” (1957) and “It’s Not For Me to Say.”  He was better than that.

  • “We Need a Little Christmas.” “Mame’s” composer lyricist Jerry Herman was the opposite of his rival Stephen Sondheim in several ways. One was that while SS was a brilliant lyricist who wrote music, Herman was a skilled tune-smith whose lyrical skills were pedestrian. This bit him in his one Christmas standard from “Mame,” “We Need a Little Christmas.”  First, he created one of the gag lines for future wags with the ambiguous line, “Carols at the spinit.” Wait: does he mean singing carols at the spinit, or that someone named Carol is playing the spinit? And who plays the spinit in a New York Park Avenue apartment in the Fifties? Then, true to form, Herman also included the sloppy couplet

For we need a little music, need a little laughter

Need a little singing ringing through the rafter…

Some singers cover for Jerry and sing “rafters,” but that’s how he wrote it.

Now we get to a disturbing sub category of incompetent lyrics, the dark, disturbing or sinister lyrics that  infect a remarkable number of  modern Christmas standards, but WordPress is misbehaving and making formatting difficult, so I’m going to end Stanza Two here, and save the creepy stuff for the next installment. 


13 thoughts on “A Christmas Music Ethics Spectacular! [Second Stanza: Lyrical Incompetence]

  1. He has “bought” mankind with his blood? What does that mean?

    I believe it’s in reference to Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane (where He sweated blood) and dying on the cross. In my church at least, I’ve often heard sin being compared to a debt, with Christ’s suffering paying that debt.

    • I was going to make a similar point.

      The sacrifice on the cross “purchased” salvation.

      This lyric probably involves a complex mix of archaic language and complex biblical metaphors (Jesus being the sacrificial lamb from the 10th plague of Egypt where God sacrificed the first born of the Egyptians to save God’s Chosen People).

      “Bought” is an odd word, but I think it was deliberate and meaningful.


      • “Bought” makes a lot of sense that we may miss because our culture is different. It has to do with “redeeming” (from the Latin for “buy back”), which we still use it in talking of pawned goods. But the living metaphor of ancient times was buying back captives who had been enslaved, a metaphor that had a real counterpart as late as the French conquest of Algeria that stopped the raids of the Barbary Corsairs (see “Redemptionist Brothers”, or the origins of the Henry Smith charity that I learned about because it owned a place where I once lived).

        I may be misremembering “I Saw Three Ships”, but:-

        – the version I recall has “I Saw Three Ships go sailing by” (not “come sailing in”); and

        – I don’t read that as implying that Mary and Jesus were on the ships at all, just that the ships were going to where Mary and Jesus were.

        As for Bethlehem being landlocked, that still makes sense under a couple of readings:-

        – geographical error from a mediaeval tradition, understandable among the untravelled; and/or

        – the idea that the port of an inland place might be removed from it, e.g. Acre might be understood as the port of Bethlehem just as Ostia is the port of Rome.

  2. Jack,

    I read every one of your emails because I’ve learned a lot from them over the time I’ve been be a subscriber.

    I have to say that your two posts about Christmas music are ridiculous unless you’re delving into satire. These songs bring joy to the people that love them and they uplift everyone’s spirits during the Christmas season. Do you really think there’s anyone but you that cares about the lyrics? Why spoil it for the rest of us?
    I’ll bet that NOBODY thinks that “Gee, the traffic is terrific” means that the traffic is wonderful.
    Why would you allow yourself to get upset over trivial crap that no one is concerned with?

    • Several problems here. First, I’m not “upset. I don’t know why people always say that. I’m not upset at dumb, inept or silly song lyrics; I just avoid the songs. It’s just a principle worth enforcing that people who produce products , services and art should do a good job and not hack it up, and if there’s any art that should be good and well-made, its Christmas music, which is part of an important holiday, and music that stays around for a long, long time. Lyricists ought to be competent, as in any other job or profession. It’s no different than any other kind of art: some people like sloppily made movies with lame dialogue and plots that don’t make sense too. That doesn’t excuse the sloppy artists. Many Christmas songs are superbly crafted—if we don’t point out the junk, it’s unfair to the good stuff. Irving Berlin (Happy Holidays, White Christmas, Count Your Blessings) would never write “Gee, the traffic is terrific” because he was a pro’s pro. People who write things like “ringing through the rafter” are not giving the public their best. Unethical.

      I’ve written song lyrics since I was 12. I’m only holding the writers of Christmas songs to the standards I hold myself to.

      • Oh…one more point, one I do care about. Most people don’t listen to lyrics, which is why pop musicians get away with such lousy songs and terrible diction. That’ in turn, makes music worse for all of us, and especially annoying for people like me, who do care about how songs are crafted. The long fall from Gilbert, Hart and Cole Porter to the Pina Colada Song is precipitous and tragic. Billy Joel and Paul Simon are ancient, and Stephen Sondheim is dead. Crappy Xmas lyrics aren’t helping.

        • Here’s a thought about you not being upset: it certainly seems that way or at least you’re great annoyed. Unlike sarcasm, which is easy to misunderstand in the written word, anger or the appearance of anger usually shines through. And I know a few things about the written word, having published over 120 magazine articles.

          But here’s the thing: I’m still going to read your emails and learn from you, but not if you blow a gasket over stuff like this. We don’t need you to have stroke. Then where would the rest of us be?
          Merry Christmas

          • Tony,

            Sure, “stuff like this” in a microcosm is fairly irrelevant, but to Jack’s larger point, it does make a big difference because it downgrades true art and the world around us. Orwell discussed this in “1984” where war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Contradictions like these keep society off balance. Warhol cynically did with his Brillo soap box – he took a commercially available product and used it as a centerpiece for art. While marketing and advertising, can indeed be artful and very interesting, Warhol flipped it around and the art community thought his soap box what deconstructive of some deeper meaning – and it was: it meant that modern art is baseless and reductive.

            Art as expression, and not as market campaigns, will still capture our imagination. We live in an ever increasingly cynical world where nothing really matters – laws, morals, ethics, pursuit of excellence. Much of this is driven by an overwhelming present where we are inundated and/or bombarded with constant information overload. There is a theme, though, underlying this – it is intended to destroy the fabric of society. It is the motivation behind declaring that “Bruce Jenner” has somehow, magically, inexplicably, miraculously became “Caitlin Jenner” and anyone thinking otherwise is simply too intellectually inferior to accept the undeniable truth. While I will refer to Jenner as “Caitlin” out of respect, under no circumstances doe I actually think or believe that he is now a she. it is also the underlying theme that someone’s race, gender, sexual identity/orientation, religion, etc., defines that person and reduces the intrinsic value of that individual.


          • Tony,

            I have it on good authority that Jack has a supply of spare gaskets under The Tree, appropriately gift-wrapped. They should last him through The Season, at least.

  3. So Jack joins Martin Luther in denigrating poorly written Christmas songs!

    Some songs are so entrenched that people sing them without thinking about that they’re really saying. I would offer the same for The Star Spangled Banner, e.g. It’s the tune, not the words, and a group together singing it. It is meant for choirs and groups to sing – only. Certainly no one hums the SSB going about his or her daily activities. Ya think?

    • Wait!. A little off-topic, but I sing the SSB to myself every single time I am driving by the huge American flag that flies just south of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel here in Virginia–or at least, it used to.

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