Explanations of 8 Funny-Sounding Christmas Carol Lyrics
Christians have music for every season, but many of our most popular hymns and songs celebrate Jesus’ birth. This weekend, many of us will sing an assortment of Christmas carols: “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on Christmas Eve; “Joy to the World” and “Away in a Manger” on Christmas morning; maybe and eardrum-shattering rendition of “O Holy Night” when we’re alone in the car.
As we “sing we now of Christmas” and “repeat the sounding joy,” we’ll come across lyrics from the 18th and 19th centuries that don’t make much sense in 21st-century American English. Here’s a guide to help you translate some of the strange, confusing, and archaic phrases you’ll encounter.
“round yon virgin”
from “Silent Night”
words by Joseph Mohr (1818), translated into English by John F. Young
“Virgin” obviously refers to Jesus’ mother, Mary. “Yon” sounds a lot like “young,” which would be appropriate given Mary’s likely age at the time of Jesus’ birth. There’s nothing unusual about referring to Mary as a young virgin, but why are saying that she’s “round”? Isn’t that a rude thing to say about a woman who has just given birth?
Let’s back up. “Yon” actually has nothing to do with Mary’s youth. Rather it is a shortened form of “yonder,” as in “way over yonder.” “Round” is short for “around.” So the entire lyric is an abbreviated way of saying, “around yonder virgin,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense until you put it in context. The previous line is “all is calm, all is bright.” Put it all together and you get: “All is calm and bright around the virgin over there.”
“gloria in excelsis Deo”
from “Angels We Have Heard on High”
traditional French carol, translated into English by James Chadwick (1862)
“Glória in excélsis Deo” is Latin for “Glory to God in the highest” and is the opening line to a doxology used in the Roman Catholic Mass and in Eastern Orthodox prayer services. The doxology, commonly known as the Gloria, also appears in The United Methodist Hymnal and in both rites of the Holy Eucharist in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
“the cattle are lowing”
from “Away in a Manger”
“Low” is just an old-fashioned way of saying “moo.” So, in “Away in a Manger,” the cows wake up baby Jesus with their moos. But no crying he makes. In “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” the oxen do some lowing of their own.
“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal . . . Son of the Father, begotten not created”
from “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
words by John F. Wade (1743), translated into English by Frederick Oakeley (1841)
Most of the second verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is taken directly from the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and tweaked by the Council of Constantinople 56 years later. The Nicene Creed asserted that, while Christ was “begotten” by God the Father, he was of the same substance and essence as the Father and thus was not created by the Father.
Like most of the old ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicaea’s primary purpose was to resolve disputes about Christology. The council had to articulate how the three persons of the Trinity were distinct but equally God. They also had to explain what it meant for Jesus to have been fully human and fully divine. Did he have two natures? Two wills?
Though arguments about Christology carried on for centuries after Nicaea, the Nicene Creed has remained a foundational statement of Christian Orthodoxy. Still today Christians around the world recite the Creed each week in worship.
“late in time behold him come”
from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
words by Charles Wesley (1739)
Is this Charles Wesley’s way of saying, “Blessed are the procrastinators”?
Actually, this line has nothing to do with being late. Instead it echoes Galatians 4:4: “But when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son, born through a woman.” “Late in time” is just another way to say, “When the fulfillment of the time came” or the more familiar “in the fullness of time.” We encounter similar language in Mark 1:15 and Ephesians 1:10.
“ever o’er its Babel sounds”
from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
words by Edmund H. Sears (1849)
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a song about a song. The “glorious song of old” in the carol’s opening line is the song that the “heavenly host” sang to the shepherds in the fields on the night of Jesus’ birth. Edmund H. Sears managed to compose 4 verses about a song that (depending on your translation of the Bible) contains only 14 words.
The second verse is about the weary world—the one in which we live and into which Jesus was born—and its “Babel sounds.” “Babel” is of course the name of the site where “All people on the earth” (Genesis 11:1) decided to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky” to make a name for themselves (11:4). God didn’t approve and created different languages so that the people wouldn’t be able to understand one another. The people stopped building the city, and God dispersed them throughout the earth.
The city they left behind became known as “Babel,” a play on the Hebrew word balal, meaning “confusion.” Today “babel” refers to a mess of noises and voices. The second verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” says that the angel’s song was powerful enough to cut through the “Babel sounds” of our lowly world.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen”
from “Good King Wenceslas”
words by John Mason Neale (1853)
Many a Protestant has wondered, “Why do we sing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ during the Christmas season?” The song makes no mention of Jesus’ birth. There are no shepherds, no angels, no virgin. The lyrics mention “winter fuel” and “snow” and that “the night is darker now.” Is “Good King Wenceslas” just another cold weather song—like “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Let It Snow”—that has become a Christmas carol even though it has nothing to do with Christmas?
Not exactly. The song tells the story of a gracious king who offers a struggling peasant food, company, and encouragement during the Feast of Stephen. The Feast of Stephen, which commemorates the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8–7:60), falls on December 26 in the Roman Catholic tradition and December 27 in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. (Since many Eastern Orthodox Churches still use a Julian calendar, their Feast of Stephen isn’t until January 9 on our calendar.) Stephen’s Day doesn’t actually have anything to do with Jesus’ birth, but it does fall during the liturgical season of Christmas.
So “Good King Wenceslas” is appropriate for the season. It’s also a nice reminder to Christians that we have a responsibility to emulate Jesus, even if it means taking a break from our holiday celebrations to help someone stranded in the cold.
“God rest you merry, gentlemen”
from “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” likely originated in the 18th century, which was apparently a time when people used common words in combinations that didn’t make any sense.
It sounds funny today, but “God rest you merry, gentlemen” is more than just a random assortment of words. “Rest” here means “keep” or “make.” And when you replace “rest” with one of those other words, the phrase still sounds funny, but it makes more sense: “God keep you merry, gentlemen.”
You’ll also notice that there is a comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” The lyric isn’t about “merry gentlemen.” Rather, it is a wish that God will make the gentlemen merry as they recall Jesus’ birth.
I’m not sure why the anonymous author didn’t include ladies, who also need “tidings of comfort and joy.”
Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.