Final nod to confusing themes in Christmas coverage: Time finds that 'Joy to the World' is about Santa?

A final Merry Christmas to any readers out there who are on the Western calendar and preparing for services tonight or tomorrow for Epiphany (or Theophany among the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics). The 12 days of Christmas are past, unless you are in an old-calendar Orthodox parish that celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7th. We can expect a few news reports on that tradition in the next few days, as always.

Still, we are at the end of Christmas for readers who follow Christian traditions, as opposed to the calendar of the dominant mall culture. With that in mind, let me give a shout out to those of you who sent me email about a truly interesting, if bizarre, little item from the Time online site. I'll slip this one in, right at the last minute.

The goal in this piece was to try to draw a line between the secular and sacred, when it comes to Christmas music. The headline: "TIME crunches the merry numbers behind the most popular Christmas songs of the modern era." The goal, through the study of commercial recordings since 1978, was said to be separating the sacred ("songs about the birth of Christ") from the commercial or secular (songs "about Santa and snow").

You can see the confusion that's ahead for readers, right? Time was defining secular and sacred according to function, not content. The methodology was stated in this manner:

As one might surmise, songs that are no longer under their original copyright are considerably more prominent on modern Christmas albums, given that one needn’t share the holiday windfall. This lends an obvious advantage to the ecclesiastical hymns and tunes, like “O Holy Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” ...

To determine secularity, TIME measured the likelihood that a song appears on the same album with either “What Child Is This?”, a decidedly devout 1865 tune, or “Jingle Bell Rock,” roughly it’s polar opposite. (The choice of those two songs is rather arbitrary, but proved in trial and error to offer the clearest dichotomy.)

The clear winner on the sacred side of things, to no one's surprise, was "Silent Night." This will not cause any controversy.

However, what "song" was among the most popular in the world of snow and Santa? It's right there, in the graphic atop the piece, in the green color that symbolized the secular -- green as in money, perhaps. Here are the lyrics to this secular classic:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

You can see why a few readers were confused. The Savior is not Santa, nor is the "curse" a reference to Black Friday traffic.

I, for one, think the Time piece was valid and interesting. I would welcome more news coverage on the fine details -- even if they are disturbing -- of how the cultural steamroller called The Holidays has affected the actual content of Christmas events.

Is it a win for the church to hear secularized versions of hymns playing in shopping malls, as evidence of some giant, vague civil religion? I was walking in a Bible belt grocery store the other day and, I would not make this up, heard a Muzak choir over my head singing, "On the first day of The Holidays, my true love gave to me. ..."

So the Time piece was interesting. But, maybe, the editors could have spared a sentence, or half of a sentence, noting that "Joy to the World" is not, in fact, about Santa? Does the content of this hymn matter at all?

Just saying. Have a blessed Epiphany or Theophany, those of you who are headed back to church at the end of (sssshhhhhh!) Christmas.

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