Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 25, 2007

Two Carols: Oriental, and Merry But Not So Gentle

Today, the last in our “fancy archaic words from Christmas carols” discussion series.

First song up: We Three Kings of Orient Are, by John H. Hopkins

Before looking at the carol itself, a reminder: officially, scripturally, there’s nothing in the text that says they were kings, or that there were three of them. The text in Matthew more strongly suggests that they were astrologer/astronomers from Babylon, at least according to my old Harper’s Bible Commentary book here. But they would at least have been wealthy, maybe even powerful or tribal leaders of some kind, in order to have the resources to make the journey in the first place (and to bring such nice gifts). As for the number three, that comes from the three gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense (is that some French version of incense?), and myrrh (a sap or tree resin, probably from Ethiopia, whose scent was highly valued). But who’s to say there weren’t six Magi, each with two pots of these gifts? Or twenty Magi, with various amounts of these substances, plus maybe some food or other essential baby gear… since this was after all Jesus’ baby shower!

Anyway… on to the song itself. There’s only three words I want to point out: Orient, moor, and yonder.

First, Orient: while in the modern era we’re used to thinking of China,  or maybe India, as “the Orient”, all the word really means is “east”[from the Latin word oriens meaning “east” (lit. “rising” < orior “rise”), as in where the sun rises. ] And in ancient times Orient referred to the Middle East, moreso than to the Far East. So traditionally, the Magi were thought to have come from Babylon or Persia (modern-day Iran). But Ethiopia, mentioned above, is also east of Palestine. So one or more of the Magi could just as easily have been African as Middle Eastern. Anyway, the fun of these guys is that theoretically they’re from anywhere, from everywhere —they may even have been from “enemy” nations– but still they came to honor the birth of the Hebrew Messiah. See? Jesus was always meant to be “a uniter, not a divider”. President Bush and his cronies seem to have lost track of that part of God’s plan, apparently.

Second word study: “moor”, referring to a muddy, maybe even foggy, stretch of land. [Merriam Webster: “a boggy area; especially : one that is peaty and dominated by grasses and sedges” ] With this word we see that this is primarily a British Christmas carol, because there are probably very few boggy areas that the Magi would have had to cross anywhere near those arid, Middle Eastern climates. The word is poetically used, followed by “mountain”, to suggest they had a long hard road to get to Bethlehem, lots of ups and downs. So they probably didn’t literally slog through the mud, but it paints an effective picture for any Brit (or anyone else) who ever had to walk a long way.

[Side note: I checked whether this word had anything to do with Moor, the term often used to refer to the Muslim conquerors of Spain and various European regions. On quick glance, it does not – the capitalized version has it’s roots in the name “Mauritania”, a region/nation in Africa.]

Third word: yonder, as in “yonder star”. [Etymology: Middle English, from yond + -er. Date: 14th century ] The meaning refers to something that is somewhat distant, yet visible or otherwise known to the speaker and the hearer. It’s loosely related to the word beyond. I just wanted to look at it because here in the U.S., yonder, said with a certain drawl, is one of those classic words that suggests (maybe in a negative way) someone from the South who has a funny way of talkin’. (Remember Sling Blade? – “I like the way you talk. Mmm hmm.” …Good ol’ Karl.) It’s unfortunate that “yonder” has dropped out of Northern usage. It’s just a good word. We don’t have another synonym that really means the same thing. A thesaurus says “farther” will work, but I disagree. Farther does no imply it’s an object or area that we can still see.

Finally, a look at my favorite carol: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” was first published in Britain in 1833. It’s another “author unknown” carol, and it’s mentioned in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I love it for two reasons: one – the melody uses alot of minor key notes, so it has a certain somber, winterlike mood I like alot; two – the essential theological points made in this carol are really strong. Stuff like “to save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray” really hits the nail on the head, not to mention the line “the Son of God by name”, a slap in the face to all those who would reduce Jesus to just some well-intentioned itinerant preacher or mere human prophet. 

As for individual words: we’ll look at only two –“dismay” from the first verse, and “efface” from the last verse. It’s a very long song if you sing all the existing verses, and I assume very few people do anymore.

The Wikipedia entry suggests this song was written partly to remind drunken revelers not to get too rowdy or fight with each other, but to honor the day and what it means. If you think about it, it does have that steady, rolling-along, drinking song kind of feel about it. So in that context, “let nothing you dismay” basically means: “Hey you dopes, don’t take offense at each other’s drunken insults and go ruining the party for the rest of us!” Or to use a post-modern phrase: “Give it a rest!”

The lesser-known last verse ends with these four lines:

And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth efface.

The first two lines again reflect the peacemaking role the song is meant to play, reminding the “merry” gentlemen (merry as in drunk, either giggling or brawling, depending upon whether one is a happy drunk or an angry one) to REST. And then tacked on the end, the final trump card: “all other doth efface”. This essentially means that on God’s calendar, this day (this “tide”) is more important than all others, in that Christ’s coming effectively erases all our sins (drunken or otherwise) and gives us a fresh start. God became human, took a real flesh and bone face, thus ennobling the human race, finally — and in dying a human death and rising again, God/Jesus became a sacrifice for us, to erase our guilt. The word origin is from Latin. [Etymology: Middle English effacen, from French effacer, from Old French esfacier : es-, out (from Latin ex-, ex-) + face, face; see face.] So it means to un-face, or in this case, to rub out or take away the shameful face of sin from our human character. So basically, God Rest Ye is a forgiveness song: forgive each other, as God first forgave you, and as God continues to do, if you will accept it.

So as we launch into the homestretch this Christmas season, whether you’re crossing moor and mountain or just driving across town, pray for peace while you’re enjoying that ham or turkey; forgive your crazy family (and friends, and enemies, and all nations everywhere, drunk or sober, Christian or not) for they’re still God’s gift to you; and above all, take “comfort and joy” in both Jesus’ birth AND in His final gift, the deliverance of our flawed and foolish race from Satan’s power. This was a delivery and a gift that came not on Christmas, or even on Epiphany (when the Magi and their contributions are honored), but on Easter morning.

Merry Christmas! And God Bless Us, Every One.


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