I’ve become everything I hate

Or hated, at least.

Today, I’m attending a carol service, and I’ll be in church again on Christmas Day. I don’t want to have anything to do with the church in general, but I’m quite happy to turn up for high days and holidays. I used to be scornful of people like that – people like me, I suppose. Either you believe it or you don’t, I thought – why would you reject those beliefs and still turn up on big occasions? But there’s a strong element of culture and tradition that I can’t easily shake off, and I’m a real sucker for a good carol.

It’s around this point that someone usually complains that I shouldn’t enjoy carols unless I accept the theology contained in their lyrics. How can you lustily sing along to something that’s making claims you completely reject? If I like carol singing, I must either be in denial about my beliefs, or a plain old hypocrite. It’s an argument that’s superficially convincing, but no more than that.

Even Christians will find much to disagree with if they pay attention at these services. How many people enjoy the Sans Day Carol, for example? But however pious the sentiment, the whole thing is nonsense from start to finish. Even the opening couplet manages to be wrong in practically every detail:

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk
And Mary bore Jesus all wrapped up in silk

Yes, you can get white-berried cultivars, but we all know this is what holly looks like

Is there anyone who could claim that those lines are actually true and keep a straight face?

There’s also the awkward fact that carols are essentially a fusion of the sacred and the secular, with many of the carols we love set to tunes that started out as drinking songs. Most amusingly, Charles Wesley wanted his words for Hark! the Herald Angels Sing to be set to a solemn, holy tune, while Felix Mendelssohn wrote the tune for another purpose entirely and considered it inappropriate for sacred use. Bad luck, guys – we had other ideas.

I like a lot of different types of music, and I like singing along to them, but that doesn’t mean the lyrics are a reflection of my thoughts or beliefs. I happily sing along to Les Misérables, despite not being a 19th century French revolutionary. I’m not a teenager in love, you’re not my wonderwall (whatever that means), and I’m positive that neither of us is the eggman, or even the walrus.

So I’m sorry to anyone who finds my behaviour confusing or offensive (especially my old self, with whom I feel a particular connection), but I consider carols an essential part of the Christmas season whether I agree with them or not, and I’m not about to give them up for anyone.

Photos by dhester, used under morgueFile License, and arquera, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “I’ve become everything I hate”

  1. Invisible Mikey says :

    I totally get where you’re coming from. I have Jewish pals who still love Christmas music. And there are plenty of carols that are more ethical than theological, including my favorite “Good King Wenceslas”. Now that one has nothing to do with the behavior of the historical person of the same name, but it’s still a grand song about social justice and generosity. BTW, carols that include references to holly are attempts to incorporate and co-opt pre-Christian pagan traditions like Yule. Decking the halls had nothing to do with Jesus. Same goes for wassailing. Doesn’t matter. A good tune is a treat.

  2. unklee says :

    One of the things about maturity (I think, never having fully attained it yet!) is getting a perspective on things and changing our minds. Why shouldn’t you do what you enjoy? The funny thing is, I as a christian don’t enjoy singing all that much, certainly not carols. Who can understand us human beings? : )

  3. Neil Rickert says :

    It’s around this point that someone usually complains that I shouldn’t enjoy carols unless I accept the theology contained in their lyrics.

    Do Christians really take “Good King Wenceslas” to be part of their theology?

    There are quite a few popular carols which have some elements of fiction to them. If people like singing carols, they should do so while ignoring any implied theology. Carol singing isn’t about theology. It is as much about the spirit of a secular Christmas as anything.

    If you enjoy the traditions of a Christmas church service, there’s no reason not to engage with that, too.

    • Invisible Mikey says :

      Of the 70+ churches I’ve attended in different cities and countries over the past five decades, not one has failed to include a singing of “Good King Wenceslas” somewhere in Christmas sevices and pageants. So, yes, I would say Christians DO include it as part of their theological tradition and ritual. Social justice is a core tenet.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Funny story – there were a couple of times last night when I just couldn’t carry on singing, but neither was anything to do with theology.

      The first one was Once in Royal David’s City, and that ridiculous piece of Victorian moralising “Christian children all should be / Mild, obedient, good as He”

      The second was The First Nowell, which always gets me in giggles because the lyrics are so ridiculous they sound like they were written by William Rees-McGonagall. “Then entered in those wise men three / Full reverently upon their knee” conjures up such a hilarious image that I can’t take it seriously at all.

  4. John Sargeant says :

    Nothing wrong with enjoying Carols. What you were saying reminded of what Chris Rock said about lyrics in rap music but still dancing to it anyway.

    As a child in the Jehovah’s Witnesses never did Christmas. As an atheist, I’m going to wish people a Merry Christmas, decor and not give a damn about it.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I had rap music and also heavy metal in mind as examples of whole genres which probably shouldn’t exist if everyone had to agree with the words. Do you find that a JW upbringing gives you a different perspective on this, as the carols and services aren’t part of your personal traditions and experiences?

  5. StatelyPlumpBuckMulligan says :

    Sorry to spoil your thesis, but “the holly bears a BLOSSOM as white as the milk” in the version I know.

    As a Recovering Anglican, I agree with your sentiments. The choir I’m in did a lovely candlelit 9 Lessons and Carols the other evening. I won’t be going to church again until our next concert unless somebody dies.

    Thinking of starting a local Pagan Choir.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      All the sites I’ve checked for the lyrics agree with me and give “The holly bears a berry” as the first line of the Sans Day Carol, but it’s pretty traditional, so there may be other versions out there that I haven’t come across. The Holly and the Ivy, on the other hand, definitely contains lines about the holly bearing a blossom as white as either milk or a lily flower.

      I agree, it would make more sense, but you’ve still got the silk to overcome, which is a problem for both carols.

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