A little (or a lot) earlier than most people tolerate Christmas music, John-Mark and I were listening to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Handel’s Messiah. On a lark, I scrolled through some of the comments below the piece, and stumbled upon something hilarious. One commenter admitted that, as a child, she’d always heard the entreaty “come for tea, my people” (rather than the more logical, but no more inviting, “comfort ye my people”) in the second piece. I don’t think I’ll ever hear that song the same way again, but I don’t mind. An invitation to tea with the Lord sounds, well, heavenly. 

John-Mark famously (in his family lore) believed the lyrics for “Little Drummer Boy” went something like “pa rum bum bum,” and amused the fourth-grade choir (himself a kindergartener present because his mom played the piano for their practice) by drumming on his own bottom, belting out the mistaken lyric. More mundanely, I believed for years that the line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” ran “good tidings we bring, to you and your king” (I was probably in middle school before I learned it’s actually the less-than-perfectly rhyming “kin”). Not knowing how a bushel (which I thought was only ever a sheaf of wheat) could be placed over a candle, I long assumed the line in “This Little Light of Mine” was “hide it under a bush? Oh no!” 

A quick Google search pulls up another few aural and visual gems: “while shepherds washed their socks by night…” or “later on, we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.” Most of the time, I can’t, to this day, distinguish the lyrics of the average popular song, not even enough to have a guess at what the words are. Church music is a welcome aural relief because the words are always printed out, clearly legible (though not immune to the occasional typo), and my confusion about the lyrics ended with my learning to read. One song that stands out as a literally clear exception to my lifelong struggle to identify sung words is “O Holy Night,” whose singing always seems endowed with a certain ineffable lucidity. 

“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! Oh praise His name forever!

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.” 

We were singing that very song a few weeks ago, with the lyrics as crisp and clean and clear as the candle flame it always reminds me of. I was suddenly transported from a Texas church’s boisterous Christmas banquet to two decades worth of ceremonious candlelight services in Calgary. Every Christmas Eve we would pass multiplying flames reverently from wick to wick until the whole sanctuary (well, community center gym, where the church met) was filled with soft glowing pinpricks of light. The memory is invariably accompanied by that sight, the smell of wax and flame, and the soft strains of “O Holy Night.” 

Back in the nearer past, in the brightly-lit room full of people, but not candles, my eyes were suddenly less than clear. “What’s wrong?” John-Mark asked. “We always sang this at the candlelight service,” I half-explained. “But we’re going to that this year too,” he pointed out, puzzled. “Yes,” I agreed, “but I’ll never be a kid again.”

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