O Come All Ye Faithful

(Happy New Year to all readers!)

I know, I know, Christmas is over. But before stashing away the decorations, I thought I would just contribute a few thoughts on the great church debate of the festive season, which of course centres round the fourth verse of “O Come all ye faithful”.


There are two schools of thought here:

  1. The correct one, which is that the fourth verse (“Yea, Lord, we greet Thee/Born this happy morning…”) is only to be sung between midnight and midnight on Christmas Day, 25th December. On all other dates this is a carol with three verses;
  2. The more easy-going one, which says that you can sing this verse at any time, but if you want to compromise with the zealots before Christmas Day you can change “this happy morning” to “on Christmas morning”. Everyone will be happy, right?

No. They will not, because the crinkle of glee down the back, singing that line on that day, is one of the thrills of a proper Christmas, and not to be tampered with. Admittedly it may not be a completely spiritual glee, but it is very Christmassy.

It’s not that I’m trying to stop people singing “O come all ye faithful”. It’s just that one verse has its own special day.

(Don’t worry, I know I’m being irrational here. Although there is a trend to change the line in “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” from “remember Christ our Saviour/was born upon this day” to “born on Christmas Day”, nobody really minds singing “The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight” on other nights than Christmas Eve, and indeed during the day, do they? But “O Come…” has a special place.)

This year, I’ve noticed other points about carols and their wording. Despite the fact that hordes of people surely come to church at Christmas because they want the familiarity of the ancient tunes and words, modern churches and church organisations persist in messing with these words, for several, usually understandable, reasons.

I have to admit that this goes back a long way. According to the Guardian, second only to Wikipedia as a fount of knowledge, what Charles Wesley originally wrote was “Hark how all the welkin rings…” and it was George Whitefield who changed it to “Hark! The herald angels…” to Wesley’s displeasure. At least looking at the original clarifies that the meaning is that we are being told by our fellow humans to listen to the angels, and it’s not the angels who are saying “Hark!”

Those of us who don’t know what a “welkin” is are grateful to Whitefield. But his is now the familiar and much-loved version. It doesn’t need, two hundred years later, to be changed.

Carols are changed these days to make them more comprehensible to the common people. This can be done, for example, by changing “ye” or “thou” to “you”. Frankly, the common people, who study Shakespeare and trigonometry at school, and are considered capable of following the plot of your average Marvel film, are quite capable of understanding “thou”. Let’s not get into the topic of whether non-churchgoers are equally clear about the significance of those cute symbolic Lambs who gambol into so many worship songs, old and new. If it’s idolatrous to worship a calf, why is it compulsory to worship a sheep? You know, and I know, but does someone who’s never been in church know?

This year I came across a version of “Hark the herald angels sing” with a more bizarre change. Instead of “offspring of a virgin’s womb” the words printed were “offspring of the favoured one.” What possible reason can there be for this? The magnificent second verse of this carol revels in the paradox, the impossibility, of the Incarnation. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!” God can’t be born as flesh – and yet He is. The mention of a virgin’s womb is part of this. Calling Mary “the favoured one” is a fairly obscure reference that surely helps nobody. If the intention is to be inclusive to those who can’t believe in the virgin birth, don’t such people (don’t all of us?) have more pressing issues with carols? “In the bleak midwinter/Frosty wind made moan”… in Judaea?

Carols are also changed to make them more politically correct. “Good Christian men, rejoice” has been changed over the years to “Good Christians all, rejoice”. And “born as man with man to dwell” to “born as man with us to dwell.” One can have more sympathy with this change, perhaps, and indeed I do.

But on the other hand, as said above, carols need to be familiar. People are singing them by heart, and if different versions proliferate, this can make life difficult for choirs and congregations. The words in my head and the words on the screen and the words in the book and the words my next door neighbour is singing…

And maybe leaving Wesley’s “born as man with man…” reminds us that people in the past weren’t politically correct, and that this doesn’t make them evil. We can disagree with them, but still love and admire them.

Do we have to make ancient writers apologise for not being modern? Jane Austen approved of nepotism; Shakespeare seems to have been reasonably happy with torture (what happens to Malvolio is not really funny, and what is going to happen to Iago certainly isn’t); St Augustine thought that unbaptised babies went to hell (C S Lewis points out that this is not the same as wanting them to); and Charles Wesley used the word “man” to mean “human being”. At Christmas, I can forgive him for that.

Because I’m very old-fashioned.

I am now ready to hear arguments in favour of view 2) above.

Love from the PPI Blogger


1 Comment
  • Malachi Malagowther

    6th January 2017 at 6:25 pm Reply

    Foreigners usually visit Jerusalem in the summer as it’s not a major ski resort but it does have storms with a major snowfall (10 – 15 cm) about every seven years. Jerusalem is a few thousand feet above sea level and is significantly colder than the coast. The idea of frosty winds moaning and even earth as hard as iron does happen occasionally. Whether there was a snowstorm at the time that Jesus was born seems impossible to determine as it’s difficult to be certain even of the year never mind the day. However surely the carol writer is allowed a bit of poetic license?

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