Most of us enjoy singing Christmas Carols and listening to them. Some like “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Good king Wenceslas” are essentially secular songs and in what I am about to write I am not thinking of them. Many non-Christians like carols even though they don’t believe the message they convey.
What I would point out is that few if any of the carols are completely factually accurate when they are compared with Scripture as I will seek to show. Scripture presents the facts as to our Lord’s birth in what is pretty much a matter of fact way. Scripture is not presenting just a pretty story. However to many the so-called Christmas story is like what we have in Ezekiel 33:30-33. There we get it said: “Thou art unto them as a lovely song, a pleasant voice, and one that playeth well on an instrument; and they hear thy words, but they do them not (verse 32).”
As to the carols themselves many sing them thinking of what I would call the spirit of them rather than the accuracy of the words. Sometimes it is no doubt difficult to be accurate and at the same time have rhyming verses. Further, you might get a carol or any hymn literally in accord with Scripture, but it might be as dry as dust.
As to Christmas itself it is remote that Christ was born at the time of the year that his birth is celebrated, if only for the reason that the shepherds would not have been in the fields with their flocks at night at that time of the year. They would have taken them into some kind of shed more likely. Further, it is generally recognised that Christmas was originally a heathen festival - the Saturnalia. In any case there is nothing in Scripture telling us to celebrate Christ’s birth. If we were intended to celebrate it we would most likely have been given a date to do it. After all, the dates when the Israelites were to celebrate their feasts were laid down in the law. Very likely the writers of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) were aware of the time of Jesus’ birth, but they do not tell us when it was.
I have before me a selection of eight carols (not my selection ✲), first of which is “Hark, the Herald-angels sing”. Without nit picking one would point out some misleading statements. We were not reconciled to God by Christ’s birth, but by his death (Romans 5:10). This is important but anyone considering the carol’s first verse would be liable to take on board the idea that reconciliation was by Christ’s birth. What is meant in the second verse by “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” is not clear, because no one has seen God at any time (John 1:18). In the third verse we are told on the one hand that He “lays His glory by” and on the other that he is “ the Sun of Righteousness”. His coming as the Sun of Righteousness is actually still future. His coming in lowliness is confounded here with his coming in glory.
The next carol is “Once in Royal David’s city”; one which I particularly like. However, even here the carol writer uses his imagination. The Gospel narrative actually says nothing about a cattle shed or oxen. See verses one and four. Again in verse two we have the statement that the Lord of all came down from heaven. This is presumably based on 1 Corinthians 15:47 where the AV says: “The second man is the Lord from heaven”. However the correct reading is: “The second man, out of heaven ” (J.N.D. translation). See also Marshall’s literal translation.
The third one is “It came upon the midnight clear”. It speaks of angels singing and having harps of gold. Scripture simply speaks of angels saying (Luke 2:13). There is no case of angels singing in Scripture. Singing is first spoken of when God’s redeemed people see the Egyptians dead on the sea shore (Exodus 15). Verse two speaks of the angels wings. Scripture never does, though it speaks of cherubim and seraphim with wings in visions and in representations. In Revelation 14:6 an angel is said to fly, but there is nothing about wings. Usually angels appear as men. If it were not so how could anyone entertain angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2).
Ones concern with these inaccuracies is that they play into the hands of sceptics who get their ideas of what Christians believe from carols instead of looking into the Scriptures to find out what they actually say. They get the idea that the so-called Christmas story is just something fanciful and reject it and go on to reject the Scripture narratives without seriously looking into them. Dr Richard Dawkins, the well known atheist (Unweaving the Rainbow page 142 and The God Delusion page 337) speaks of the three wise men, when Scripture says nothing about there being three.
Then we come to the fourth one: “Silent night”. It may sound nice but there is no real reason for thinking that the night was silent or holy. Then we have: “All is calm, all is bright”. For all we know it could have been a dark night.
The fifth one: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” appears to follow Scripture and does not therefore invite criticism.
Number six: “Away in manger” although quite popular is inaccurate. Was it a starry night at the time of Christ’s birth ? Scripture does not say so. The words “little Lord Jesus” grate on one. “Little child Jesus” would I think be better. Little Lord makes one think of the book “Little Lord Fauntleroy”. I doubt that Jesus did not cry. We know he wept in his life here on earth (Luke 19:41; John 11:35). It was said of Moses that the boy wept (Exodus 2:6). It is a sign of life when a baby cries, though one would think that with Jesus his cry would be distinctive. In fact one understands that mothers usually know the distinctive cry of their own babies. There is nothing about cattle lowing in the Gospel narratives.
Number seven: “O little town of Bethlehem”calls for little comment. The expression Christmas angels is not a Biblical expression and there is no reason to believe that the angels that appeared to the shepherds were any special class of angels. In any case the word Christmas being a putting together of Christ and the Roman Catholic mass, with the last letter dropped is something which Protestants could be expected to dislike.
Number eight: “In the bleak mid-winter” the statements about frost and snow are almost certainly incorrect. Whether such weather is normally experienced in Bethlehem today one would doubt. Snow does fall in Jerusalem so I understand, but whether Bethlehem gets it, or much of it one doubts. In any case the idea that Christ was born in the Winter is very unlikely as commented on above. Further, it was not so long ago as we imagine (see verse one). It was circa two thousand years ago; about a hundred generations, at twenty years a generation. In verse two the expression Son of God would have been in accord with Scripture, rather than “The Lord God Almighty”. Regarding verse three there is no reference to cherubim and seraphim in the Gospel narratives, nor archangels. In fact archangel means chief angel and Scripture never uses the word in the plural. There is only one chief angel: Michael (Jude 9).
Apart from the carols considered here we know that the carol “We three Kings of Orient are” is very inaccurate. There is nothing about kings coming to visit Jesus when a child and neither are there said to be three persons. There could have been two or more and there were probably servants as well. See my article the wise men on my website “Bible Exposition”.
The relatively modern rocking carol is irreverent and one most Christians would not like to sing.
My above comments one would I hope encourage others to look critically at carols and make sure they do not imbibe from them thoughts that are not found in Scripture.
✲The number of verses in the selection are as follows:
One is aware that there are other verses not included, at least in some cases.