John Walsh: 'O Come All Ye Faithful isn't a historical record of who was at the manger'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

A pinch and a punch, it's the first of the month – and both pinch and punch this December come from the Right Reverend Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon. Noting that it's traditional at Yuletide to bitch about the flashy, meretricious tat of consumer society and the importance of recalling the True Meaning of Christmas, the bishop has decided to complain about ... carols.

He doesn't like them. He says they're inaccurate, nonsensical and "perpetuate images of Christmas that have more to do with Victorian sentiment than the story we read in the Gospels". In his Scroogily-titled book, Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?, he grumbles that "Away in a Manger" (that new-fangled pop rubbish, written in 1885) says of the baby in the manger that "no crying he makes", which he finds unrealistic, since all babies cry. He complains that "O Come All Ye Faithful" makes no sense because the people who converged on Bethlehem for the birth weren't "faithful" Christians but vulgar shepherds and pagan kings from eastern parts. These ghastly songs, he thunders, have made us see the birth of Christ "as just one more story alongside the panto and fairy stories".

God knows what Croydon has done to deserve such a literal-minded grump as their pastor. Carols are centuries-old, well-meaning, naïve little songs of celebration, like sonic comfort blankets, to be sung when you're young and cute, and wept over when you're old and nostalgic. They're not ruthlessly accurate slices of documentary realism. "O Come All Ye Faithful" isn't a historical record of who showed up at the manger, 2009 years ago,it's an exhortation to Christians to visit the scene in their imaginations.

Has the bishop no imagination? Has he never shed a tear at "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and the line, "Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by"? Does he reject the proposition that the sleep of the townsfolk is "dreamless" since lots of people dream? Is he furious about "the silent stars go by", since heavenly bodies do not, as a rule, make a terrible racket when Going By? Don't mention "The Little Drummer Boy" or he'll tell you that percussion instruments were considered inappropriate adjuncts of natural childbirth in first-century Judea.

What's really intriguing, though, is the bishop's notion of The Truth. "I always find it a slightly bizarre sight," he writes condescendingly, "when I see parents and grandparents at a nativity play singing 'Away in a Manger' as if it related to reality." But the "reality" on which he's so keen is a story in the New Testament about a pregnant virgin, an uncomplaining dotard, an ass, a nasty local governor, a disobliging innkeeper, a quantity of livestock and a heavenly body mistaken by shepherds for a rudimentary satnav. It has about as much objective verisimilitude as The Lord of the Rings.

It is a charming story and we hope it might have happened, just as John Betjeman was once told that oxen spend Christmas Eve on their knees, and said he'd gladly go to a cowshed to check, "hoping it might be so." But for the bishop to complain that Nativity plays and carols "relegate the story to fictional fantasy" suggests a reverend with a decidedly shaky grip on the actualite.


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