Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again and again and again…)

Other years, if you were to ask me to name my favorite Christmas song, I probably would have chosen “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The tune is uplifting, and the lyrics are meaningful. How many Christmas songs convey the precise theology of “God and sinners reconciled,” or, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the Incarnate Deity”? “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are two candidates for good Christmas theology; many other seasonal songs are weak and shallow and trite.

The original words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were written by Charles Wesley; today’s familiar version comes from a rewriting done by George Whitefield. The original tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn; text and tune were brought together by William H. Cummings. The hymn has prominent placement in our Christmas memories, showing up in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, among other seasonal favorites.

Perhaps that ubiquity of the song has left me jaded this year. It is the seven o’clock song on our Christmas carol clock, which means that I hear it most mornings after exiting the shower and heading toward the kitchen for breakfast. Then I hear it again most evenings after supper. Perhaps I have overplayed the hymn too much other years—especially the version from Amy Grant’s Christmas album of 1983. That version features an enthusiastic orchestra and choral setting of the hymn, including a repetitive instrumental rendering of the third line which has become an earworm, cycling endlessly in my head while I am trying to access other thoughts. Many years, I have set my alarm to waken me Christmas Day with Amy Grant’s version of “Hark….” Not this year.

Another problem I have with the song is a joke my father told years ago about a commercial version of “Hark…”—one that promoted Beechum’s pills. My father never claimed to have invented the joke. Indeed, it shows up on the Internet with various back stories, no doubt all of them apocryphal. But my father’s version includes a line that I have not found anywhere else, so he may have contributed his own wit to the joke. At the risk of putting these words into your head and ruining the song for you (as it has evidently been ruined for me), here are the words my father sings: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/ Beechum’s pills are just the thing/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ Two for men and one for child/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Try the new economy size…”

I don’t know whether to say “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome.” J.

Six Christmas specials

When I was a boy (walking in the snow, uphill, to school), television was a lot simpler. We could not buy copies of our favorite shows to watch at our convenience. We could not even record our shows to watch them later. The newspaper printed schedules of what was showing on which channel at what time; if there was something we wanted to see, we had to make sure to be at home in front of the television to catch that broadcast (interrupted every few minutes by a string of commercials).

Christmas specials were particularly important. Each one could be seen only once a year, at a certain time on a certain channel. We checked the schedule to find our favorites, and sometimes we changed our personal schedules so we would not have to miss an important show that year.

Some Christmas specials were variety shows—humorous skits and song-and-dance numbers, linked only by the presence of the host. I tried never to miss the Bob Hope Christmas specials where he entertained the troops. Others were also meaningful: some designed only for Christmas, but others appearing as a Christmas special in a regular variety show, such as Carol Burnett.

Other Christmas specials were short movies made for television. Some were cartoons and others were Claymation, but they were part of the holiday season. Again, they could be seen at one time on one station, and if you missed it that year, you had to wait an entire year for a chance to see it again. All of these were made in the 1960s and continued to be shown on television year after year until they became holiday classics.

My number-one top favorite Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Of all the Peanuts holiday specials that were created, this and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are the only two that rank as classics. A Charlie Brown Christmas not only features Linus quoting from Luke’s gospel to explain the real meaning of Christmas; it also addresses holiday depression and the emptiness that some people feel while everyone around them appears joyful and festive. Key to the story is a little Christmas tree. On the tree lot it has only three branches. Once Charlie Brown chooses the tree and makes it his, the size of the tree doubles to six branches. At the end of the special, when all the children care for the tree, it becomes a full tree. What seems at first to be a lack on continuity is instead a depiction of the need for love and of the results of being accepted and loved.

A second special that I love is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This special does not quote the Bible—it even creates its own nonsense Christmas songs to avoid any mention of Christ other than in the word Christmas. The Grinch lives on Mount Crumpet and hates Christmas for many reasons, chiefly because of the loud noise of Christmas celebrations. (I can relate.) He tries to keep Christmas from coming by stealing the decorations and presents and holiday food, but even with all those missing, Christmas comes all the same. Enlightened by that discovery, the Grinch returns the presents and decorations and food and celebrates Christmas with the Whos. Had I been the Grinch, I would have held back the loud musical instruments and other noise-making devices; with that compromise, I would gladly carve the roast beast.

Frosty the Snowman is also high on my list of favorites. A magic snow on Christmas Eve and a magician’s hat creates a talking walking snowman. The magician becomes a villain who wants his hat back, even at the cost of Frosty’s life. Accompanied by the adorable Karen, one of my first childhood TV sweethearts, Frosty sets off for the North Pole to be protected by Santa Claus. Frosty is one of several Christmas specials based on a song, but its message of faithfulness and of the victory of good over selfishness makes it a holiday favorite.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is also based on a song. This television special becomes a bit heavy-handed with its message of accepting oneself and also accepting others in spite of their differences. Even Santa joins the dark side, criticizing Rudolph’s nose until it suddenly becomes useful to him. The Abominable Snowman who threatens Rudolph and his friends scared me just as much when I was young as did the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

A nicer Santa Claus is shown in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Here we see Santa grow up as a baby, raised by the toy-making Kringles, until as a young man he resolves to deliver toys to the children of a nearby town. One villain, the Winter Warlock, is easily defeated by the gift of a toy; the Burgomeister Meisterburger is a far greater threat to Santa and his career. Along the way, Santa meets Jessica, a schoolteacher who is to become Mrs. Santa Claus. More than the other Christmas specials, this cartoon reflects the psychedelic cartoons of the 1960s, along with the spirit that love and generosity will always overcome greed and the abuse of power.

The Little Drummer Boy builds its plot around the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the travels of the wise men to bring him gifts. The narration attempts to imitate the sound of Shakespearean English to make it seem that the Drummer Boy’s story is found in the King James translation of the Bible along with the shepherds and the wise men. The title character comes from a background of extreme bleakness and cruelty, which has made him bitter, but his encounter with Baby Jesus makes everything better. Although I watched this special most years, it never meant as much to me as Charlie Brown or the Grinch or Frosty.

These, then, are the Christmas specials I remember. These are those I bought to show to my family. These are the Christmas shows I can now watch, without commercials, any day at any time. The world is different today, but many of the Christmas messages of the 1960s remain meaningful because they are timeless. J.