Subversive Carols: Do You Hear What I Hear?

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often overlooked. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

Do you hear what I hear? by  Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A child, a child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has consistently been my favorite Christmas carol. I especially love Sufjan Stevens’  version. On researching this carol, I was surprised to discover  this little nugget in the writer’s NYT obituary: “Written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was intended to be a plea for peace.” Thus we can gather two things from this statement. It is a rather new song, unlike Silent Night (1818), and it has political implications. This Christmas song was a creative way to protest for peace.

Now let’s take a look at the lyrics. The movements in the song are what I find most captivating: the night wind, the little lamb, the shepherd boy, the king, and all the people. In our political discourse, the political elite and the media hold the power of knowledge on current and world events. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” reverses this discourse and begins with the earthy, something anyone can engage: the night wind. The night wind is the first one to know and share the secret of peace.

We then find the little lamb listening to the night wind’s message. Again no human interaction has taken place. The Earth and her creatures know of Divine peace and love before humanity is even touched by it. Our first human touch of the peace secret comes to the socially lowest person in the world. In the time of Jesus, shepherds were the marginalized. They were sent to be with the sheep because society rejected them. They were the weak ones, the ones without political and economic power. Understanding this theologically, the Divine comes to the least of these before God/She appears to the elite.

In the next verse, we take a leap in social status. The shepherd boy appears before the king, the authority in political/social life, and offers him peace. The king listens to these words and takes them to heart. And in the last verse, the king gives up his kingship and tells all of the people that there is someone who will bring peace to all. The carol ends with the king singing that the child of peace “will bring us goodness and light.”

In conclusion, this song flips our notions of the Divine relation to humankind since the Divine first speaks to non-humans. Our concepts of power too must be overturned and reevaluated, possibly for a radical cosmopolitanism, where the Earth will be treated equally as a person.

Listen deeply to non-humans, their vision of Divine peace is radiating.

Night Wind to the Little Lamb


2 thoughts on “Subversive Carols: Do You Hear What I Hear?

  1. Thanks I am enjoying your carol blog but think it would be good to include the text/lyrics you’re writing about, perhaps at the top, it would make it easier to follow your thoughts thanks

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