It’s that time of year again, when stores, living rooms, and offices echo with the familiar songs of Christmas. Just stop and listen, and you will hear people singing along to their favorite holiday songs. Some people are great singers — quite happy to belt it out. Others are more reserved, preferring to lip-sync under their breath.
But what often unites them — both the proud vocalists and the shy lip-syncers — is a failure to sing the correct lyrics! Have you, your spouse, or your family members ever been guilty of singing these incorrect Christmas lyrics?
“Later on, we’ll perspire, as we dream by the fire …”
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“Sleep in heavenly peas … ”
“Deck the halls with Buddy Holly, fa-la-la-la-la …”
I admit it. I spent many years singing a lot of wrong lyrics. Thankfully, my wife Heather is a song lyrics specialist, and for the past 22 Decembers she has patiently taught me the correct words to many of our holiday favorites.
But it isn’t only in our living rooms or offices where mistakes are made with Christmas songs. When we come to church, some of the most famous Christmas hymns we sing have some unfortunate errors that don’t pass a biblical fact check. What are some of the errors that most people sing without ever noticing? Let me share four of them:
1.) ‘We Three Kings’: ‘We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar’
Matthew tells us that “wise men” from the East traveled to Jerusalem, looking for the Christ child (Matthew 2:1). The famous hymn says that these men were kings. But the Bible says these men were not kings, but “magi”— professional astronomers or astrologers.
When the magi studied the sky, they saw the supernatural star and traveled to discover the king as foretold by the Old Testament. The song speaks of three men, but the Bible gives no exact number. There may have been three, or seven — or 15. The traditional number three comes from the three gifts presented: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But by the time the magi finally arrived – Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were already living in a house (Matthew 2:11).
2.) ‘The First Noel’: ‘On a cold winter’s night that was so deep’
Christians have been celebrating Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25 since the days of the Roman Empire. As a result, many people associate Jesus’ arrival with cold weather and bleak, winter nights. Nativity scenes typically depict Mary and Joseph huddled around the manger with coverings to shelter them from the cold.
“On a cold winter’s night that was so deep …”
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This classic carol mentions the “cold winter’s night” — but the Bible doesn’t actually give us the precise month or day of Jesus’ birth. Many experts contend that Israelite shepherds didn’t sleep outdoors with their flocks during the coldest months of the year. In reality, Jesus may have been born in the spring — perhaps March or April.
3.) ‘Away in a Manger’: ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes’
How many Christmas pageants feature a rendition of “Away in a Manger” performed by children in costume? We love to hear their sweet voices sing about the baby Jesus. But are we really to believe that Jesus didn’t cry? Scripture teaches that Jesus was 100 percent human — often weary and hungry, just like you and me (Mark 11:12). His mother gave birth normally and He grew normally (Luke 2:52). So Jesus must have uttered the normal cries of an infant, too. As a theologian and a father of six children, I am very confident that the night Jesus was born was not a “silent night” after all.
4.) ‘Silent Night’: ‘Radiant beams from Thy holy face’
Many Hollywood movies take artistic license when they transform books into films. Songwriters are known to do the same, as they create pictures with words. While it is a beautiful sentiment to picture the baby Jesus with a visible glow of deity, the Bible does not make this the point of emphasis.
How did the shepherds know they had found the promised Messiah? It wasn’t “radiant beams” from His face — but the fact that He was wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a feeding trough (Luke 2:12).
I love all these classic Christmas hymns, and I sing them with joy every year. I’m not suggesting we should eject these songs from our services because of their inaccuracies. But since music is so powerful in how it impacts our mind and soul, we should care that the songs we sing reflect the truth of the Scriptures.
With every song we sing at Christmas, we should stop to see if these things are really so (Acts 17:11). God is honored when we sing and make melody in our hearts (Eph. 5:19) — but even this should be in accordance with the actual truth God has revealed. In short, when it comes to Christmas, trust the Bible — not a song!
The Christmas season is officially here, which means nonstop holiday music. People young and old will be smiling and singing along, and you should join them. The birth of Jesus the Savior is worth celebrating! But if you want to know the actual song lyric that is being played on that loudspeaker at the mall, you shouldn’t ask me. My track record hasn’t been so great in the days of Christmas past. You’d better ask my wife.
Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 17 years. He is a regular contributor to FaithZette.