while shepherds washed

I don’t think it was just me that grew up singing a mixture between while shepherds washed their socks, and while shepherd watched their flocks by night… it was funny as I got older, slightly cheeky I suppose trying to get away with it, but I can also remember back to the feeling of confusion as to which was the right set of words before it all became clear!


There are an awful lot of possible causes of confusion in carols! Here are some of my late night musings looking afresh at these familiar words through the eyes of my children…

Some are simply because when we don’t know a word, we most often hear in the sounds a word we do know…

T, yesterday – ‘Ding dong merrily on high, the children are defeated!’

me – ‘pardon???’

(still working on unraveling and putting that one back together!) … and what about ‘and I owe, I owe, I owe’ …’good tidings we bring, to you and your king’… ‘Good King ‘Wences’ last looked out’… ;shepherds leave your compilations’… ‘the angels keep their watch of wandering love’… ‘low he comes with clouds descending’…

There are a lot of words in carols that are very unfamiliar, words that are not words we use everyday, old words and theological words – ‘hark the herald’… ‘yonder’… ‘Lo!’… ‘sages’… ‘as bitter as any gall’… ‘lowly’… ‘meek souls’… ‘incarnate’… ‘mortals’… ‘with what rapture’… ‘oxen lowing’…


Some carols, even more unhelpfully I guess, have words that have a very different connotation now than they did when the carol was written…’with the poor and mean’… ‘As they offered gifts most rare, at that manger rude and bare’…’swell the triumph of his train’… ‘robed in dreadful majesty’…’hear the trump proclaim the day’…

Then there are the hair raising moments for literal thinkers… ‘what I can I give him, give my heart.’…’be born in us tonight’… and less hair raising perhaps but unnecessarily awkward; ‘good christian men rejoice’… ‘go tell it on the mountain’…’if I were a shepherd I would do my part’

And what about the ones where we are faced with metaphor … ‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’…, especially the times when it doesn’t seem like a metaphor, perhaps wasn’t even written to be one but maybe ought to be – ‘no crying he makes’…’silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright’…’no ear may hear his coming’…

It is interesting to sit and take the time to hear these familiar-to-me words again… and perhaps have a glimpse of some of the processes we all go through to hear and find meaning … or find ourselves lost in confusion.

I wonder what parts of the Christmas carols my children are struggling with this year? It would be helpful to do more asking what they think things mean, more finding out together about the histories of these traditional songs of praise, and the meanings and uses of the old words… anyway, I’m rambling… just a few, probably very disconnected, thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s