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Make a joyful noise unto the [insert diety of your choice here]

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Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 9:40 am

Like many of us, I grew up attending church with my parents. As children, we didn't choose the church. We went to theirs. For me, that meant the First United Methodist Church of Upland, California with the Reverend Pitts at the pulpit - amen.

We sang in the choirs, went to Sunday school and did all the usual stuff that kids do in church. For me it was about having fun. 

Both of my brothers and I sang in choirs. I was in the Cherub Choir (little kids) and they were in the Clarion Choir (older kids). We practiced on Saturdays and had snacks afterward; on Sundays, we were in the chancel, bleating our hearts out. We went caroling on occasion, so I was on a first-name basis with many Christmas Carols.

Except that, as a little kid, I had no grasp of the meaning of what I was singing. I mean, of course the story of Christmas is an old one, and everybody knows about Bethlehem, Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, Angels and barn animals. 

But have you ever dug deep into the lyrics of some of the most popular songs sung at Christmas? Some of the lyrics are creepy and strange. 

I'm a fan of the upbeat, happy songs and oddly, most of those aren't found in the church hymnal. Santa Claus doesn't enter into the holy Christmas vernacular. Neither does Rudolph or Frosty the Snowman. I don't think there were chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Israel (I could be wrong on this one, but I'm guessing). 

As usual, I digress. I always digress. Back to the hymns. 

One of my favorites, musically, is "We Three Kings" which, is often referred to by the title "We Three Kings of Orient Are" which kind of leaves you hanging. Are . . . what? 

It starts out beautifully, in a lovely minor key. The three kings are traveling to meet Jesus and give him gifts. Each gift given by each of the kings is referenced in the song: Melchior is bringing gold, that's an awesome gift; Gaspar is bringing some incense - cool; But then Balthazar shows up with his gift of Myrrh: Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes, a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb. Wow. Buzzkill.

Then they're back in a major key, singing about the star of wonder, star of light. I'm thinking if Balthazar would have just stayed home, things may have turned out differently. But that's just me. 

Then there are lyrics that sound spiritual and solemn, but make absolutely no sense when spoken in modern American English. 

Seldom do we use the word "Hark" (intentionally). But the Herald Angels used it to announce the birth of Jesus. And as a child I'd sing those words having no idea whatsoever what I was . . . excuse me . . . heralding.

While I love the upbeat tempo of "I Saw Three Ships," this one makes less sense than most. It announces the arrival of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on ships. I know music is open to interpretation, but . . . ships? Haven't we all agreed that this particular miracle happened in the desert? In a manger? With camels? How'd ships make it into this equation? Could the Mediterranean Sea be seen from Bethlehem? Maybe it was the Dead Sea. I'm very confused.

We had "lowing cattle" in "Away in a Manger." We had neglected sheep in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - hence: The shepherds at those tidings, Rejoiced much in mind, And left their flocks a-feeding, In tempest, storm and wind. Poor sheep. And in the joyful tune "Good King Wenceslas" there is no mention of anything related to the nativity. It's about a good king and his big party celebrating St. Stephen. 

Of course.

But, to be fair, I wasn't there. Hymns and Christmas carols are melodic works of art, many dating back hundreds of years and often not written in English (much like the Bible itself, but we won't go there). So I think whoever writes, translates, and interprets some of the early hymns can take poetic and creative license to sing what sounds and feels right for the moment. 

So . . . sing loud and proud. Whether you sing about Jesus or Rudolph, make a joyful noise.