Subversive Carols: Wonderful Christmastime

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 not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

The moon is right
The spirit’s up
We’re here tonight
And that’s enough

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The party’s on
The feelin’s here
That only comes
This time of year

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The choir of children sing their song
Ding dong, ding dong
Ding dong, ding, oh, oh

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The word is out
About the town
To lift a glass
Ah, don’t look down

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

In 1979, “Wonderful Christmastime” was released. Paul McCartney, then an ex-Beatle and the lead singer of Wings wrote it. On the radio, this song gets such an absurd amount of  airtime that McCartney receives $400,000-$600,000 a year in royalties. Honestly, this is a huge brick wall for me attempting to interpret this carol as subversive. If with only one song, McCartney is making more money than 80% of US workers without actually doing anything, but writing and copyrighting a song, we have a serious problem on our hands. Much more can be said about income disparity and inequality among the working class and the ruling class, but I will save that for another post. For now, I want to construct new subversive meanings behind these lyrics.

The line “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” repeats fourteen times throughout the song. This is done for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the simplicity of Christmas. The chorus is not concerned with presents, mistletoe, candles, angels, or even the baby Jesus. Instead, it sheds light on the simplicity of the Christmas season. In addition, it denotes Christmas as a time in space. For “Wonderful Christmastime,” Christmas is more than just a holiday, it is a presence. Although, Christmastime is mostly found in winter, it could possibly be located all year round. The simplicity and the presence help us not to be distracted by the holiday and celebrate Christmastime.

Moving onto the verses, there are only three verses found in this song if they are not repeated. Two of them speak of a friendly gathering and the third takes the gathering into the streets. In the first verse, friends are gathered for a fun time with the singer. Everything about this gathering is perfect: the weather, the friends surrounding her/him, and the spirit. The spirit is no ghost of Christmas past or a haunting figure. The spirit actually is that which is situated among the peoples, and without the peoples, there is no spirit. Thus in the first verse, the spirit moves the people and keeps them joyful during their time together.

In the second verse, which mirrors the first in rhythm and lyrics, the spirit is removed. In its place are “the feelin’s.” These feelings can only be found during Christmastime. Furthermore, “the feelin’s” do not negate the spirit; instead, they grant the spirit flesh. It is the fleshy feeling that we find in this song: the touching of bodies through hugs, kisses, and handshakes. Indeed, through these acts of incarnation do we see the spirit move and transform the world!

Finally, in the last verse, the party enters the streets expressing their fellin’ spirit. They raise a glass to new possibilities, to a just world, never looking down. This is a hope for a better future. They are pushing the boundaries of love and hope. Christmastime transcends holidays and seasons. It cannot be domesticated and set on a shelf until next year. Catching the Christmas-spirit changes us and the world. Let’s celebrate!

christmastime

Subversive Carols: The Friendly Beasts

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 not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“The Friendly Beasts” by Robert Davis 

Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
I carried his mother uphill and down,
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town;
I,
 said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

I, said the cow, all white and red,
I gave him my manger for His bed,
I gave him hay to pillow His head;
I,
 said the cow, all white and red.

I, said the sheep with curly horn,
I gave him my wool for his blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
I,
 said the sheep with curly horn.

I, said the dove, from the rafters high,
I cooed him to sleep that he should not cry,
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I;
I,
 said the dove, from the rafters high.

Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.

In some Christmas circles, this song is on the margins or not known at all. The Veggie Tales perform a pretty fun version. In past youth ministry jobs, I have taught “The Friendly Beasts” and kids seem to love it. The only time I have ever encountered a problem with it was a criticism of calling Jesus our brother, apparently it lacks a high Christology. Researching this song I have found that it has some radical roots with the low christology!

Between the 5th and 15th centuries, festivals were conducted in the name of social revolution. These include the Feast of Fools, the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Asses. At Christmas, people chose the Lord of Misrule (England) or the Abbot of Unreason (Scotland). This person was a peasant, lacking political and social power. Because the medieval church wrote laws, dictated society, and was in cahoots with the State, these feasts dismissed the church’s authority.

The Feast of Fools and the almost blasphemous extravagances in some instances associated with it have constantly been made the occasion of a sweeping condemnation of the medieval Church. On the other hand some Catholic writers have thought it necessary to try to deny the existence of such abuses.”

The feast of the Ass was celebrated on January 14th and recognized the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. In their liturgy, a donkey entered the church and stayed by the pastor during the service. The congregation would “hee-haw” during their responses, e.g. “The Lord be with you. Hee-haw.” How does all of this relate to “The Friendly Beasts?” The melody originated from these festivals and was called “Orientis Partibus.” During the Festival of the Ass, these great lyrics were sung:

From the East the donkey came,
Stout and strong as twenty men;
Ears like wings and eyes like flame,
Striding into Bethlehem.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Faster than the deer he leapt,
With his burden on his back;
Though all other creatures slept,
Still the ass kept on his track.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Still he draws his heavy load,
Fed on barley and rough hay;
Pulling on along the road —
Donkey, pull our sins away!
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;
All rejoice who see him pass;
Mirth inhabit young and old
On this feast day of the ass.
Hail! Sir Ass, oh hail!

Out of these radical and revolutionary festivals, we sing “The Friendly Beasts.” These festivals were democratic, carnival-like, and destabilizing to the current church hierarchy. Originally sung in praise of an ass, the lowliest of creatures. Our current version adds more animals and deems Jesus our brother. In other words, the high christology disappears for a Jesus whose Mother has to ride an ass to birth a child in a crappy manger.

One last comment, the animals speak in our song. They have language to engage the Holy Family. This draws away from the uniqueness of Jesus, and lends to the beauty of non-humans.

friendly beasts