Skip to content

Worst Christmas Carol lyric ever

December 12, 2013

 Earlier this week I attended my first carol service of the season (because my daughter was playing the flute in it), and I realised that verse 2 of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ has to contain the worst lyric ever written for a Christmas carol: ‘Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.’

It’s bad from the very first word. ‘Lo’ means ‘look.’ But what are we supposed to be looking at? And what is so praiseworthy about not abhorring a virgin’s womb? Why the hell should he abhor it?

Apparently this mish-mash is the work of the Rev. Frederick Oakley, who translated the hymn from the original Latin in 1841. The corresponding line in Latin is ‘Gestant puellae viscera‘, which simply means ‘born of a virgin’s womb,’ so where he got the ‘abhor’ bit from is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he felt he needed to make it scan – but then he didn’t bother about that with the first two lines of the verse, which go ‘God of God/Light of light’, and have to be stretched out to fit the tune.

From → Uncategorized

  1. alexburrett permalink

    I’ve got another reading for you Brandon. (I have to add I’m a fundamental atheist so this is purely an academic observation.)

    So, verse one, the listener has been metaphorically invited to see a human baby that’s also sort of god.

    Then, verse two, try replacing ‘Lo, he abhors not…’ with, ‘Listen mate, he ain’t too good for…’. In this reading, attention is drawn to the fact that god is willing to appear in human form.

    Perhaps ‘Lo’ was a 19th Century London colloquialism?

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Nice try, Brandon, but not quite. Admittedly not a carol, but the worst lyric ever associated with a Christmas song just has to be ‘The choir of children sing their song, they’ve practiced all year long …Ding, dong, ding, dong, ding, dong, ding, dong’. Step forward Mr Paul McCartney. I cringe every time I hear it, with embarrassment not only at just how awful the lyric is, but at the lack of self – respect of anyone who thought that such a lazy effort would be acceptable, only compounded by the craven grovelling of the producer who accepted it when he should, clearly, have given the author a good kicking and told him to go away and not come back until he could produce something with even a modicum of craft and artistry.

    • Hello Mark. Yes, it is painful to think that the man who wrote the lyrics for We Can Work it Out, For No One, Penny Lane, Fool on the Hill, Hey Jude etc wrote that piece of dross. What is worse is that someone told me – I think it might have been Bruce Dessau – that McCartney earns £400,000 every year in royalties from Wonderful Christmas Time ALONE. And the chorus doesn’t even scan properly.

  3. Daniel permalink

    I know this is an old post, but I’ll try to explain it.
    “Lo” does means “look”, but it’s being used in the more figurative sense of grabbing the listener’s attention rather than as a literal command for him look at something. So it’s probably saying something along the lines of, “Look and be astonished as you contemplate the mystery of the incarnation”.
    As for “abhor”, it seems that this part was borrowed from the Te Deum (a much older hymn). The original phrase in that hymn is “non horruísti Vírginis uterum”. The idea here is that Christ not only becomes man, but further humbles himself by living in his Mother’s womb for nine months as a helpless pre-born child. (Keep in mind, Christ is God, so He had full consciousness and full use of his reason not only as a mature adult but even when he was an embryo.) What would seem to be a horrible “confinement” was not abhorred by Him.
    As for why this was incorporated into the English translation of “O Come All Ye Faithful”, I really don’t know.

    • Thanks for this explanation, Daniel. Interesting. You might have seen from another post (“No, this is the worst Christmas carol lyric ever”) that I no longer regard “O Come All Ye Faithful as having the worst lyrics ever; that accolade now goes to “The Cherry Tree Carol”. Which features a fully-conscious and reasoning – indeed talking – in-utero Christ-child.

  4. Philip B permalink

    This is an even older post now, but I’ve only just come across it – having a sermon to prepare for tomorrow! So can I add to Daniel’s explanation? No doubt the translator was struggling to fit the metre and casting around for an alternative, but in choosing ‘abhor’ he shows a sound understanding of theological debate in the fifth century (as befits a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic priest). This is one of the issues that was debated at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and at Chalcedon in 451 – is Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God? Plenty of people trained in Greek thought would have seen every possible reason why God should ‘abhor’ the virgin’s womb. After all God was spirit (good) and coming from the womb was the ultimate expression of material physicality (bad in most Greek thought). The scandal of the incarnation, if you were an educated, cultured Greek, was that God takes on flesh and enters into the material world. To actually condescend to be in the womb; that was even worse. So there were theologians who argued that Christ had two natures, human and divine, and maybe Mary was mother to the human bit, but the divine bit held itself aloof. At Chalcedon the Church decided that Christ had only one nature: human and divine. So it’s not only the child Jesus that does not ‘abhor’ the womb; it’s God himself in the second person of the Trinity. There’s a very fundamental theological point being made here: that God does not just concern himself with all that fancy, angels in the clouds strumming at harps stuff, but God is there in the most mundane and obscenely human things: babies in mothers’ wombs, or when love expresses itself in wiping the bottom of an old person in the care home.

    • Dear Philip – thanks very much for this erudite explanation. I still don’t think it is a great line to sing, but at least I understand what it’s driving at now. Best wishes, Brandon

  5. Neil Sierocki permalink

    I just read A. W. Tozer’s blurb on these lyrics in “Meditations on The Trinity.” I googled those lyrica and your blog popped up. Maybe you’d be interested in seeing what he said?

  6. John of Gaunt permalink

    From someone who actually tried to find out tbe background rather than quoting some cod-history …

    • I find the tone of this comment a little unfriendly: but the attached piece is interesting. Merry Christmas!

  7. kitticarriker permalink

    I love this whole conversation! Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

%d bloggers like this: