We had a Christmas carol party at our house the other day: thirty foreigners from six or seven different countries all gathered together to sing carols, eat cookies, and drink coffee. Unsurprisingly, it was a lot of fun. Perhaps surprisingly, it brought the meaning of Christmas home in a very stark way.
Christmas carols are usually associated with fun and jollity – the kind of thing Westerners listen to as they do their Christmas shopping. Since Christmas, at least in the West, has become a hyper-commercialised orgy of consumption and unnecessary expenditure, stripped of its Christian origins, so Christmas carols have become part of the cultural backdrop of the West – and so “Away in a Manger” is mashed up with “Jingle Bells” and “Driving Home for Christmas” and Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, and may God have mercy on us all for that particular crime against humanity.
Singing these carols in Pakistan, where Christmas passes largely unnoticed, stripped of all of its commercial baggage, brings the meaning of Christmas home to us in a very striking way.
Put simply: Christmas carols are dark.
Take this, from “We Three Kings”:
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in a stone-cold tomb”.
Or this, from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:
“Oh come, thou Rod of Jesse, free / Thine own from Satan’s tyranny / From depths of hell thy people save/ And give them victory o’er the grave”.
Not exactly chirpy, is it? Or this, from “Oh Holy Night”:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining / Till he appeared and the Spirit felt its worth / A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices…”.
The point is this: in wrapping Christmas in a bundle of gaudy, tinselly baggage of consumption and self-interest we have missed its most important point: that the birth of Jesus was part of a rescue mission to save a dark and broken world from its own slow suicide. It is a time of rejoicing, yes – but only in that we are celebrating the arrival of the Messiah who came to save us.
It is ironic that I spent most of my life in a “Christian” country and yet only really appreciated the true beauty and power of the Christmas story when living in a Muslim country.