The Weird Noel

“Have you ever noticed just how weird the grammar and syntax of Christmas carols are?” asks Joseph Bottum of First Things over at the Weekly Standard.

He cites: Little Lord Jesus no crying he makesWhat the gladsome tidings be  and of course: We three kings of Orient are.

Says Bottum, “The weirdest may be ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ whose phrasings are now so alien that even the first line gets regularly mangled — punctuated (and sung) as God rest ye, merry gentlemen, which suggests the gentlemen have made so merry that God needs to send them sleep, saving us from their wassailed warbling through the streets.  The original meaning was ‘rest’ in the sense of ‘keep,’ requiring the comma in a different place: God rest ye merry, gentlemen

He also finds oddness in its verses.

A blessèd angel came / and unto certain shepherds / brought tidings of the same. (“What same?” asks Bottum).

How that in Bethlehem was born / the Son of God by name. (“Incompetent poetry,” he concludes, but nonetheless “really charming in its way”).

My own favorite Christmas weirdness is when the narrator of “Angels We Have Heard on High” suddenly asks: Shepherds, why this Jubilee? Why this joyous strain prolong?

I’ve asked my kids when they’re being too loud, “Children, why this tiresome noise? Why this raucous strain prolong?” They never have a good answer.

Relient K, the sort-of Christian band my kids like, refer to the weirdness of Christmas songs in their album “Let it Reindeer.” They do version of the 12 Days of Christmas” but add the refrain:

“What’s a partridge? / What’s a pear tree? / I don’t know so please don’t ask me …”

Which is odd, because that’s one of the few gifts in the song that’s understandable in modern times.

At any rate, have you noticed the “Christmas Music” link in the upper left corner of this page? Click it here, too, and enjoy the weird syntax and mysterious allusions in ancient Christmas songs that for some reason feel right anyway.

— Tom Hoopes