The Lyric Police, Fair vs. Sweet and Politically-Correct Christmas Carols

It’s that time of the year when Catholic parish musicians all over this land break out the Wite-Out and, once again, adjust the lyrics on the Christmas carols so their old copies of the music have the new words.

Many thanks to Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) for making this annoyance possible.

Every year when the new missalette/hymnal comes out, musicians have to check their pages and make sure what they’re singing matches what’s in the books in the pews.

Last night at practice, we rehearsed Immaculate Mary in preparation for next week’s feast day. Many people have the lyrics to that song memorized–but those lyrics aren’t the same as the ones in the book. Mary reigns in heaven now, not in splendor; her name is fair, not sweet. So this discussion happened:

Singer: “Oh wow, these words are really different. And look at verse 3! It’s not the same at all as the one I learned when I was a kid. I’m going to have to concentrate on this while I’m singing.”

Musician 1: “Who lets them change the words?”

Musician 2: “The publisher decides that.”

Musician 1: “How do they get away with that? They can’t just change the words like that.”

Musician 2: “Well, they did…”

Musician 1: “So how do we stop them?”

I don’t know if we can stop them, but there’s just no good reason to go around changing the lyrics to songs that have been the same for over 100 years. That’s going to discourage people from singing. They’ll go along from memory until they reach the part that’s different, and they’ll either sing it the old way, loud and proud, or they’ll get embarrassed and stop right there.

Musician 1: “Can’t we just announce to the people that we’re going to say splendor instead?”

We’re not looking forward to lyric-checking all the Christmas carols, either. That’s a job that needs to be done every year, because OCP likes to make the lyrics more politically-correct by removing words like “man” (never mind how much it messes with the poetry of the carol) but they tweak the lyrics year after year, so it’s never the same way twice.

Hence the Wite-Out, because we’re happy with the musical arrangement we’ve got and don’t want to rewrite chord transpositions just because the words were changed.

Now hear this, OCP and any other hymnal publishers who like to mess with hundred-year-old lyrics to satisfy the politically-correct fad du jour: you’re making the music ministers’ job harder. We’re there to help people pray through music. Especially at Christmas, when churches see many visitors and people who only show up occasionally, musicians should want to make the hymns as accessible as they can be.

People in the congregation at Christmas expect those familiar favorites: O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, Joy to the World. Singing these familiar carols is a way of welcoming everyone to the celebration. Forcing new lyrics on people who might already feel unfamiliar enough with what’s going on at Mass is not welcoming. Forcing new lyrics on people who are in the pews, week after week, striving to participate as best they can, is not welcoming to them either; it doesn’t encourage anyone to sing (or to open the hymnal and look for the words.)

I’m sure you’re already hard at work on the hymnals beginning in Advent 2017. Please dig out your 25-year-old hymnal archives and return the lyrics to their proper poetry and glory. No one wants political correctness forced upon them in the middle of Joy to the World.

And while you’re at it, give the Blessed Mother her splendor back.


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