Christmas Lyric Changes

Cmas 2013 mouseDeacon Greg Kandra, swept up in a re-anchorage at Aleteia, muses on those words they changed. I found the link on PrayTell, where Anthony Ruff reminds us that changing hymn texts is not new at all.

The deacon’s concluding argument bemoans non-poetic and “clunky” alterations, plus this:

Worse, it appears these and similar revisions have been implemented for one reason: someone presumes that intelligent Christians are too stupid to know that the word “man” doesn’t always mean a human being with testicles.

As a musician, I think “clunky” is worse. But that may be splitting angel hairs.

Even Rome is caught up in advocating a more accurate vocabulary these days, thanks to Liturgiam Authenticam. We live in an era of rationalism. It is always better, according to some, that words have one and only one meaning. Or at best, that they be not inclined to bad meanings–I take note of alterations to an otherwise sound song in its unaltered state here.

People out for a casual laugh or a dose of ridicule have no problem altering lyrics of songs they might even like–but often don’t. I think there are three good rules to keep in mind:

  1. If the lyricist is alive, she or he is best responsible for providing an alternate text.
  2. If dead, and if one is disinclined to seriously pray with lyrics, don’t bother changing a dot.
  3. If one thinks she or he can do better, write your own hymns and say what you want to say.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Christmas Lyric Changes

  1. Liam says:

    Changing lyrics on Christmas carols that have achieved canonical status (of all the hymns in the repertoire, Christmas carols are most likely to fall into that category) in the name of [here insert Value N] can come at the cost of participation. That is, if a carol text is well remembered, people will sing what they remember more than what’s printed – and that can (but will not necessarily) produce confusion in the pews (it depends on pewsitters’ confidence, which seems to vary considerably). (I have been in communities where this also produced the progressive equivalent of the traddie pewsitter who writes a nasty note to the unveiled woman in front of her; both reactions should be suppressed….)

    Changing lyrics used to be easier in the generations before copyright triumphed over much older church praxis.

    It does require a deft and lucid touch, which many people think they have – and they are more often wrong than right about that.

    And, above all, if you’re going to do it, be prepared to receive the criticism for it without getting defensive. If you’re not ready for that, don’t bother. Too many people want to have the power to change things without being accountable for it.

  2. Mary says:

    “the word “man” doesn’t always mean a human being with testicles” – really? I thought the word “person” was the one for a human being irrespective of genitalia!

    • Liam says:

      For good or ill, the non-sex-specific use of “man” is quite alive and far from archaic. I hear or read that usage regularly. And not only from people who’d might be expected to resist gender-inclusive usage, but stereotypically progressive sources, too. Just this morning, I was reading a communication from Harvard’s president, Ms. Drew Gilpin Faust, that employed it unironically….

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