It’s beginning to look and sound a lot like Christmas. From cell phone ringtones to radio stations, elevators and shopping centers, holiday music is being played continuously. Today’s popular songs relate to cultural elements surrounding the season like snowflakes and sleigh bells that jingle, mistletoe’s that ignite romance, and gifts discovered under a tree. Many titles relate to the mythical aspects of Christmas such as Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Characterized by joyful arrangements, bells, strings, and flutes, Christmas songs honor the euphoria and magic of the season. However, traditionally, the spirit of Christmas has inspired hymns of revolution and social change.
The first Christmas carol, Mary’s Song (also called the Magnificat), is a clear contrast to the commercialism and cultural elements featured in modern Christmas music. Coming from the perspective of a young woman in a patriarchal culture, the song contains a shockingly radical message. In Luke 1:52-55, Mary finds the courage to sing:
“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.
During the first century, Palestine was ruled by Rome and subject to the unjust laws of a foreign empire. The Jewish people were heavily taxed to fund the Roman military, building projects, and maintain the Pax Romana. Economic pressures on peasant communities caused the accumulation of debt, indentured servitude as form of debt bondage, and the confiscation of land as payment. This often led to the destruction of family units and a broken cultural environment. Mary’s Song represents the cry of a dominated people yearning to exercise self-determination and be freed from the burdens of foreign rule. She professes a sense of hope that her unborn son will overturn the oppressive regime and liberate the Jewish people. The first Christmas carol is a hymn of thanksgiving and love for a God who promises to free the oppressed and ensure justice for all people.
The original Christmas message of freedom from oppression and justice under the law is further expressed in the popular Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” The song, written in 1855 by the American Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, is based on a French poem Minuit, chrétiens composed by Placide Cappeau. Staying true to the message found in the Magnificat, “O Holy Night” prominently features the themes of emancipation and liberation:
“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name. Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim. His power and glory evermore proclaim.”
The original French poem is even more explicit in its anti-slavery message and cry for freedom:
“The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle: The Earth is free, and Heaven is open. He sees a brother where there was only a slave, Love unites those that iron had chained. Who will tell Him of our gratitude, For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies. People stand up! Sing of your deliverance, Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer, Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
The English version was written in 1855, six years before the Civil War erupted, eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and ten years before the passage of the thirteenth amendment which abolished slavery in the United States. In light of the socio-political context in which “O Holy Night” was written, it becomes clear that John Sullivan Dwight used the musical platform to profess a Christian argument against slavery. By linking the anti-slavery movement to Mary’s anti-Roman message, Dwight offers a song of political resistance and protest. Through “O Holy Night,” the birth of Jesus continues to symbolize the promise of freedom.
Later, in 1967, Stevie Wonder released “Someday at Christmas” which simultaneously serves as a Christmas song and a plea for peace and equality under the law. He visualized a positive future in which the world is filled with peace and equality, and free of poverty, hatred and hunger:
One warm December our hearts will see; A world where men are free. Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars. When we have learned what Christmas is for; When we have found what life’s really worth, there’ll be peace on earth. Someday all our dreams will come to be. Someday in a world where men are free. Maybe not in time for you and me; But someday at Christmastime.
“Someday at Christmas” was written as a protest song against the Vietnam War and in solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. In an era where the struggle for freedom defined a generation, “Someday at Christmas” is a plea for freedom and a rallying cry for anti-war protesters. Stevie Wonder exposes the paradox of a joyful Christmas at a time where equal rights were denied on the basis of race and soldiers lay dying of the battlefields of Vietnam. He argues that the true message of Christmastime is that fellowship, compassion and love should be applied to all people.
When the birth of Jesus was announced to Mary, the Jewish community sat quietly hoping for change and praying to YHWH for deliverance. During the anti-slavery movement and the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s, the people no longer waited passively for freedom. Composers and musical artists had the audacity to either write a song or stand on a stage and speak out against injustice. Carols are about much more than simply a holly, jolly celebration. They provide the vision and energy that engenders collective action and social transformation. The message in the music is much more than simply Merry Christmas.