Words of traditional Christmas carols speak to the hearts of ma

December 10, 2004|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

We were listening to the car radio on a recent morning, the Christmas carols slowing melting away the stress of the early morning rush out the door.

When an instrumental version of "The First Noel" came on, the words started flowing through my mind.

Somewhere between "was to certain poor shepherds" and "fields as they lay," my 5-year-old caught my attention.

"Mommy, when are the voices going to start singing?"

Of course, since I had been thinking the words, it didn't occur to me that they weren't being sung.

"There aren't any voices, just instruments, in this version of the song," I explained.

From the rearview mirror, I saw her glance out the window and then back at me.

"I know this tune, Mommy, I just don't know the words."

When it comes to Christmas carols, I think many people are in the same boat. The tune is familiar, but the words are elusive. Most of us can sing only the first verse of familiar carols, if that.


It's no wonder. Many of these songs were written a long time ago. Even simple phrases aren't what we expect. (For instance, "in fields as they lay" really should be "in fields where they lie," but lie doesn't rhyme with say, so we'll give William Sandys his poetic license even if he isn't grammatically correct.)

Plus, we only sing carols for two to three weeks each year, unless we're part of a church choir that has been practicing for a cantata since Labor Day. Those are the people to have on your team if you're asked to unscramble Christmas carol titles, play Christmas carol Pictionary or a similar game at a holiday party. They know their stuff.

Why do we return to these songs each year? Oh, I know there are updated versions and contemporary Christmas selections, but most of those are not enduring.

I believe it's because the words of the traditional carols speak to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We want to believe. We want to hope. We want to have peace. We want to have rest.

Take for instance this stanza from "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear":

And ye, beneath life's crushing load whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:

O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

Those words contain an understanding of human struggle that we often don't hear in day-to-day conversation.

It's important to look beyond the words, to the meaning of these beautiful songs we sing.

"The First Noel" is a perfect place for my family to start because my daughter's middle name is Noelle. We chose her name because she was due on Dec. 22. When she didn't show up until almost two weeks later, I stayed with the name I had chosen. It still fit.

Noel, or Noelle, is a French word derived from the Latin natalis, meaning "birth," or novella, meaning "new."

In the Christmas carol, it is a reference to the birth of the Christ child.

If parents can look at the carols and find connections for their children, the songs of the season will be much more meaningful.

These resources might help:

· "Color the Christmas Classics" by Carmen Ziarkowski. For information, go to

· "The Family Book of Christmas Songs and Stories" by Jim Charlton and Jason Shulman, published by Perigee Books.

· "The One Year Book of Hymns," compiled and edited by Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc.

This Christmas, fill your heart with song.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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