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Secular Christmas Carols

Updated on July 4, 2011

The truth is that I prefer the traditional Christmas carols, the ones with an explicit religious theme. I like them because they are romantic. At our house, around Christmas time we play the classical Christmas medleys. Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Little Drummer Boy, The First Noel. Interspersed on the same CDs are also secular songs, such as A White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, and Let it Snow. I like them less, not because I am a believer, but because they are less meaningful and evocative. To some extent, it's the literary critic in me that finds a song like Winter Wonderland to be empty and vapid.

However, when it comes to the Christmas concert at my daughter's school, I feel less comfortable hearing those same religious songs that I love in the mouths of the children. Why? Because most of those children are believers, and they don't understand that not everybody else is. They may also not know that one isn't obliged to believe. After all, they are in a government run school, and they may see the singing of the same songs they sing in church in their school as a clear message that theirs is not just the dominant religion, but also a state sponsored one.

Children Singing Christmas Carols

Image Credit: The Wikipedia
Image Credit: The Wikipedia

Church Choir Sings "Go and Tell it on the Mountain

Dolly Parton sings "Go and Tell it On the Mountain"

Grandfather Clauses

So it happens that every year, when I go to the Christmas pageant at my daughter's school, I tend to feel a little bit uncomfortable, and I squirm a little in my seat, as I listen to the children singing Silent Night or Away in a Manger. It's not that I don't love those songs. I just don't think they belong in the public school. But I never say anything about it. After all, I moved to a rural location where everybody except for me is a Christian. They are kind, generous people, and most of them really don't know about separation of church and state. They don't mean me any harm. They probably have no idea that I'm not comfortable with this. It wouldn't be fair to ask them to change their way of life just for me. So I say nothing.

However, this year, when my daughter came home and told me they would be singing "Go Tell it on the Mountain, Jesus Christ is born!" I was truly shocked. Why? Because, to me, that's not a Christmas carol! That's a religious song. That's like something people would sing in Bible camp!

Okay, I realize that my reaction is completely irrational. If you judge the lyrics of Go Tell It on the Mountain side by side with the lyrics to Silent Night, they are both equally religious and equally Christian. There is no logical justification for the way I feel. It's just that after years of exposure to Silent Night I have become somewhat de-senstized to the religious message.  I feel that in some way, singing Silent Night at the public school's Christmas concert is allowed by some sort of grandfather clause, but we should all agree to not keep introducing new religious songs as public, state sponsored Christmas carols.

Christmas is a national holiday. As such, it has a secular meaning as well as a religious one. Why not stick to secular songs in state sponsored celebrations?

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Cultural Bias in Christmas Carols

I shared my feelings with a friend of mine who is a music teacher and she strongly disagreed. "You don't know how hard it is to get kids excited about singing," she said. "Choir directors are always looking for something fresh and with a good beat, something that the kids will like. Plus, this is an African-American spiritual, and they probably chose it be more inclusive."

I'm not against spirituals. My favorite spiritual is Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and it doesn't mention Jesus until one of the later verses, one of the ones that people hardly ever get to. Why don't they choose that one, if they want a spiritual.

Well, apparently it's not about Christmas. Swing Low Sweet Chariot is more appropriate for Easter.

Anyway, if they're just looking for something with a strong beat, why not go for Jingle Bell Rock? Admittedly, it's a completely vacuous song, but you can dance to it!

Stille Nacht

Original Score to Stille Nacht

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Bias, Message and Subtlety

Do I have a bias in favor of Silent Night and against Go Tell It On the Mountain because I like European music better than African-American music? I had to do some soul searching to find the answer. I think my reaction to Go Tell It On the Mountain has more to do with the lyrics, and much less with the style of composition.

The average religious Christmas carol is like a three minute commercial for Christianity. But the really great commercials are the ones that hide the message within a tapestry of images that have universal appeal. "Go tell it on the mountain, Jesus Christ is born!" is not subtle. It preaches to the choir. If you're not already a Christian, the lyrics won't convert you. It's like being hit over the head with a bludgeon. The message is about as subtle as "Drink Coca-Cola!"

Coca-Cola Commercial: "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing

Christmas Version of the Same Coke Commercial

Songs as Advertising

How would you like to go to your child's Christmas concert and find all the children singing a Coke commercial -- a hymn in praise of Coca-Cola? How would you feel if that happened? Well, to some extent, it might depend on which Coca-Cola jingle they were singing. I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing is a great Coca-Cola song because it's almost not about Coca-Cola at all! It's about universal brotherhood! It's a song that unites. Notice how the lyrics draw you in. There isn't a mention of Coca-Cola until the second verse, and by then you're hooked.

I'd like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That's the real thing

As a lapsed Coca-Cola groupie, that song still gives me the shivers. Can you see the looks of rapture on the faces of those singers? Apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves -- who doesn't want that? Every Christmas carol should aspire to this level of appeal. Silent Night has it. Go Tell It on the Mountain doesn't.

"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace." Not a single mention of Jesus Christ by name! Lots of beautiful, peaceful, natural images. And that virgin with the child? It could be anyone. That's why I don't find that song offensive. For all I know, it could be about me and my family.

In contrast, Go Tell It on the Mountain is not only saying drink Coca-Cola. It's telling you to tell all your friends to drink Coca-Cola, too. It has the brand name right there in big letters, and it exhorts us to go and spread the faith. It's not just a Christian song. It's evangelical.

As a lyricist, I object to it, not because it's propaganda, but rather because it fails as propaganda. Every song has a bias. Every song is selling something. The good songs are subtle about it.

Bing Crosby: White Christmas

Separation of Church and State

The government should not be involved in religion for the same reason that it should not be involved in the economy. We don't want the State telling us whether to drink Coke or Pepsi or make our own soda pop. That's a personal matter between ourselves and our conscience.

The Founders understood this. They knew that even if you did like to drink Cola, no two people could agree on the best brand to drink. So it doesn't matter if the majority of people in America are Christians. There are so many different brands!

The other day my daughter asked me why we have so many churches in this area. Actually, we have four churches, but for a village with a population just above four hundred, that's a lot of churches. "How come there are so many of them?"

"Well, people around here are very religious," I answered, not paying much attention. "They like to go to church."

My daughter rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know that. But why four churches? Why not just one?"

It was a good question. We have one post office. One grocery store. One restaurant. One school. But four churches!

"Well," I said. "It's because even though they all believe in more or less the same thing, there are some things they don't agree on. These things seem very small to us. But they are very important to them. They like to go to church with people who agree with them about everything."

If the people in our area can't all sit down to Church together every Sunday, why do they think that it's okay to sing songs that market religious dogma in the school that we all share?

But to give them credit where it's due, they are not doing this on purpose. It just really hasn't occurred to them that anyone would want to separate Church and State, in the same way that they don't separate the economy from education.

Last time I went to a parent-teacher conference, along with my daughter's report card I received a packet of coupons for Yoplait Yogurt. Every once in a while the phone rings during dinner and we receive a pre-recorded message from the school's principal exhorting us all to go to McDonalds as a sign of support for the school. I'm always disconcerted by the sight of my daughter's teacher handing out free cookies at McDonalds or taking orders for french fries. To the local educators, though, it's all in a days work.

Which is why I don't make a fuss. This year my daughter will be singing Go Tell It On the Mountain along with all the other fifth graders. And I will be up there in the bleachers, my face plastered with the most supportive grin I can muster. But I wish they were singing White Christmas instead. Or if they must sing a jingle to Christianity, couldn't they at least choose one more lightly sprinkled with SEO?

(c) 2009 Aya Katz

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Josh Groban: "I'll Be Home for Christmas"

Bing Crosby Christmas Songs

Josh Groban Christmas Songs

When Sword Met Bow


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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Well, of course, there is more to life than fighting over religion. I also stay away from the places where people are just being intentionally provocative.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      5 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I like reading hubs people like you write about religion, but not when atheists and Christians get in cat and dog fights about it. I feel I have become more apathetic about it over time, and just do not care enough about it.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Julia, I'm so glad you agree that the feds should not be involved in education.

      As for religious fanatics who harass people online for sharing their views, I think they are very tedious, and it's understandable your not wanting to deal with them.

      I find religion to be an interesting topic sometimes, but only if people are willing to sit down quietly and have a rational conversation.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      5 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Actually, Aya I agree with you that public education should be left to the states. I think a lot of bad came of the feds getting involved with public education during the end of the Clinton years, and the beginning of no child left behind under Bush. Let each state fund its own public schools, I have no problem with that. I do find it interesting that public school teachers in your area have to go to McDonalds to raise funds, and I think less of that would be happening if money was not diverted to other stuff. Also, never like the fund raising things public schools would send around out here, and now they have put an end to those with some new legislation passed in our state. Kids used to have to peddle cards and other merchandise to people in the neighborhood, and that would always feel weird.

      I am not anti-Jehovah's witnesses, but I find it creepy that women in this organization will send grimacing emails to people who question their beliefs. Of course many religions do that, and that is why I took the hub down. Not interested in talking about religion that much, and it became a bit too much drama for me.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      My contacts with Jehovah's Witnesses have been very limited -- only when they came to the door to talk to us. Some of their literature made interesting points about obscure passages in the Old Testament, and once or twice during my childhood my father and I tried to talk to them about it, only to find out that the people who wrote the pamphlet may have known the original text, but the people who came to our door did not and had nothing to say about it. They were not original thinkers. So we stopped trying to converse with them.

      I never complain at my daughter's school, because I am the newcomer here, and I did not come to make trouble for other people. I don't mind sharing my thoughts about this, but I am certainly not trying to overturn everything for the people who live here and who have done things this way for a long time.

      I don't think there is anything wrong with neighbors in a small rural area pitching in voluntarily to have a public school all their kids can go to. I do not like the idea of the Federal government being involved in education, though.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      5 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Well when my mom was new to Southern California she did not have a lot of friends, and the Jehovah's Witnesses come to people's door and act friendly, which pulls people in. We finally realized how odd they are, for us anyway, and eventually left this group. Among the Jehovah's Witnesses they think you can only literally show loyalty to God, and no political discussion, voting, is allowed. That is why they do not salute the flag. The hub I wrote was quite revealing because a lot of former witnesses came to it, and were venting. Then I had several women writing me angry emails to take it down, so I do not know, maybe my hub had to do something with people leaving that church, and oh so sad. People have the right to knowledge on the Internet, but I was not interested in having more religious discussions about a religion that changes itself every 15 years when its prediction of the world fails to come.

      Well the point about keeping Christ in Christmas is that Christmas was originally a state sponsored religion long ago because the Roman Empire wanted people to convert to Christianity around 325 once the Roman emperors had accepted it. The Roman Empire was well known for always forcing their subjects to convert to the gods that they wanted to worship, which is why at first Christians were sacrificed to lions because they refused to adopt state mandated gods. European leaders often fought battles over various state sponsored religions, and some really horrible things have happened with religion because of it. In the modern era people have fallen away from religion for this reason.

      I have no problem with religion, and I even believe in God. But my definition of that God does not have much to do with how various churches define religion. I just find it ironic that Christians get mad that the celebration has become more sanitized now with Santa rather than Jesus, especially when the origins of Christmas were in the sun festival. The decorating of the tree and caroling were all European traditions that pre-date Christianity actually.

      However, I do agree that government should not be in the business of sponsoring religion. I was a bit uncomfortable in teaching when they allowed this one teacher to have religious meetings at school, and I think that was a bit interesting. Not against it, but if it was down in the city that would probably have not been allowed. We can discuss religion at school in the context of learning what other people think. If you daughter was growing up in California they would probably still sing some of those same songs, but not Go Tell it on the Mountain for instance. There are people from a lot of other religions here, and in California they will drop songs from school when parents complain. We have not got as strict as Oregon like the lady above was saying, but I think the only reason they do keep a lot of the Christian based songs is because yeah a lot of people are Christian. However, school out here do drop things when people complain, and they take parent complaints seriously.

      I have nothing against the concept of public education because many of my ancestors were public school educators. There have been public schools in many parts of the country for over two hundred years. I would actually like to see more money directed towards education than war. There are private school options for parents who do not like the public school, but my ideas about education and wanting to continue to regulate the economy are what are making me slightly more Democrat leaning towards Green Party, and why would probably never be a libertarian. I do respect your views though.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Julia. That must have been terrible not to be allowed to sing the songs with the rest of the class. I am careful not to put my daughter in this kind of unpleasant, socially isolating situation, so she has always been allowed to try to blend in as much as she wants to. She sings all sorts of Christmas songs, both religious and secular, and she says the pledge along with everyone else even though it has god in it and makes a strong anti-states' rights statement. I don't feel that my daughter should have to martyr herself socially fighting for the constitution, but we do discuss at home and in private why all these things are not okay. At school, she stays out of controversy and keeps her opinion to herself.

      However, someday I hope all of these injustices will be done away with. It's not that we need to keep Christ out of Christmas. We need to keep the state and religion separate. We need to keep the state and the economy separate. And we need to keep the state out of education.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      5 years ago from Southern California, USA

      In fourth grade we sang both Christmas and Hanukkah songs because our teacher had originally been a music teacher, and she wanted us to know about all the winter celebrations . When I was little I was not allowed to sing Christmas songs, and it was for the reason that my mom wanted us to attend the Jehovah's Witnesses for awhile, until we realized how odd that church was. Some people like it,but it is not for us. I actually deleted hubs I had in the past talking about the oddities of Jehovah's Witnesses because I used to get lambasted with comments and emails telling me how wrong I was to point out the absurdities of that religion, but since I am not big on organized religion anyway, I am not sure why they cared. So it was not until fourth grade I was actually able to sing songs with the class. I had to sit there and watch everyone else sing, and boy is that fun.

      By the time I got to high school they were a bit more strict about blurring separation of church and state at school, and told kids they could not draw pictures of Jesus on artwork for classrooms, and it had to be Santa.

      When it comes to the anger some Christians have about how they think Christ has been taken out of Christmas, I just never felt that way because I learned early on that Christmas was originally a winter solstice festival among the Romans, and around 325 AD it became the official birthday of Christ because the Roman empire now wanted people to convert to Christianity. So Christmas has always had state sponsored religion to it, and in some ways I prefer the more secular aspects of it today. I just like to decorate and look at pretty things at Christmas, but not go overboard with the holiday.

      However, I agree with you the old Christmas songs are often more beautiful than the more commercialized ones.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Carp, I wasn't sure about this before I wrote the article, but in the process of researching I found out that the commercial came first and the popular non-commercial version followed after. Sometimes a jingle becomes a folk song!

      See this link:

      It's also present in the main body of the article, but I suppose it's easy to miss.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      As for "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", it was a hit before it was in a commercial. The original second verse:

      I'd like to teach the world to sing

      In perfect harmony

      I'd like to hold it in my arms

      And keep it company

      [3rd verse]


      (group 1) (group 2)

      I'd like to teach the world to sing That's the song I hear

      In perfect harmony Let the world sing today

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      EmpressFelicity, thanks for your comment! It does indeed feel uncomfortable to be evangelized, but sometimes the best thing to do is to grin and bear it.

      As for the purveyors of earthly goods, they are bound to follow a similar path to that practiced by those who promise treasures in heaven. After all, selling is selling.

    • EmpressFelicity profile image


      8 years ago from Kent, England, UK

      Your comment about evangelism hit the nail on the head. Religious evangelism makes me *very* uncomfortable; it relies on verbal tricks such as emotional blackmail and to the unbeliever, it just comes across as smug. I suppose it's because religious faith is subjective (after all, you can't *prove* there's a God), so the evangeliser has to fall back on appeals to emotion.

      It's scary that your child's teachers are in effect acting as salespeople for McDonalds. I don't know whether McDonalds does this in Britain (where I'm from) but you do get supermarkets doling out loads of vouchers to parents at checkouts for their children's schools to buy equipment such as computers. Obviously the big corporations follow the Jesuit dictum, which is basically "get 'em while they're young".

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Crazy888, thanks! It does snow here, but it hasn't snowed yet this winter. We have what is considered a moderate climate. We enjoy all four seasons, but not too much of any one of them. However, it did freeze this morning, and my daughter had to get a pitcher of water from indoors to water our chickens.

      I hope it does snow for Christmas!

    • Crazy888 profile image


      8 years ago

      Aya this hub is awsome. Does it snow where you live? Christmas s not complette with out a New England chill!

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Moon Daisy, thanks! I am glad that your daughter's experience in kindergarten is a positive one. There is, however, a danger in marking "every religious festival." There are more religions than any of us are aware of, and if a state run school tries to follow this policy what may happen is the establisment of multiple state sponsored religions. The religions of few followers will have their festivals go unmarked, and the result will be that certain religions will get state recognition while others will become "unofficial cults" with no rights. This is the situation in Israel, where I was born and spent some of my growing up years. It causes a lot of harm. Far better to let religious observances take place privately than to elevate popular religions at the expense of unpopular or newer ones.

    • Moon Daisy profile image

      Moon Daisy 

      8 years ago from London

      Thanks for a great hub! I agree with your sentiments exactly. The traditional 'Christian' carols do have the most spirit, authenticity and the best tunes as well! (Although maybe I'm swayed by my own memories of singing these songs at school many moons ago..)

      But I don't think it's right that children still sing Christmas carols in (non-religious) state schools (especially if they're not learning traditional songs from other religions too). There are so many children who are not Christian, and there doesn't seem any justification for it.

      My daughter recently joined the nursery (kindergarten) attached our local state school, and so far I've been impressed with their approach to religion. Whenever there is a religious festival for any religion they dedicate the day to it, and have special stories, songs and activities related to that holiday. Plus they have special 'cultural days', where the children can bring in items associated with their religion and the whole class get to see them and learn about them.

      However, in the run up to Christmas I'm wondering what will happen. I'm interested to know whether they'll hold a nativity or do some other non-religious concert; I know that a lot of non-faith schools still do put on a nativity.

      There are plenty of state church schools around, (in fact most of the schools round here are church schools - my daughter's is the only secular school for miles). And if parents want their children to have a Christian education then they have the choice of sending them to one of those. In non-faith schools, faith shouldn't come into it, except for teaching comparative religion.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Hot Dorkage, thanks for your heartfelt comment! It's a very emotional and a very confusing topic. I can sympathize with how your daughter feels when teaching music in the Oregon public schools. I don't like those sanitized secular winter songs, either.

      We are neither Christian nor Jewish in my household. We do have a Christmas tree, because for us Christmas is an American holiday. When my daughter has a sleepover at a friend's house and the friend goes to church the next morning, my daughter goes to church with her. I'm certainly not trying to keep the prevailing culture from my daughter, and it's not about her religious viewpoint that I'm worried.

      I do worry about the other children, though, who haven't been taught anything about the first amendment and who don't know that the Christian viewpoint is not the law of the land.

      I think it would be great to sing the first couple of verses of most traditional Christmas songs, because in the classical songs, there is usually a beautiful description of a baby in a manger or a star in the sky, and who could possibly object to that? The more doctrinaire material usually appears in later, more obscure verses.

      On the other hand, there are also secular Christmas carols that do mention Christmas, but are not religious. They are about more personal feelings concerning hearth and home. Among these I number White Christmas and I'll Be Home for Christmas. The feelings they evoke are genuine and universal.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 

      8 years ago from Oregon, USA

      My daughter is a music teacher in public schools. In Oregon they don't allow Xmas carols in public schools -- in fact they can't even mention Christmas. It's "winter celebration." Only those vapid secular holiday songs with winter substituted for Xmas, makes them even worse. And I share your disdain for them, they are about the fat surrounding the meat, not the meat.

      I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for. I think that very young kids can learn ABOUT religion without belonging to the religion. It is also important to kids to know the dominant culture. And the phoniness of the sanitized stuff they do in school is apparent to everyone even if they can't articulate it.

      My folks always emphasized the difference between what we actually believe and what people do. It totally solved the bifurcated Santa vs. the baby Jesus Xmas conundrum for me. Dad got it right. He said look the naked baby Jesus won't sell any bicycles. Pop culture has focused on the gift giving, partying, buying and selling. People GET that. The whole baby Jesus outsider poor people thing is foreign and uncomfortable to us. Just look how we treat contemporary poor people and outsiders. It's much easier to spend a lot of money and party and somehow feel we're participating in the spirit of Christmas. And singing those hackneyed carols arouses the religious sentiment, but Winter Wonderland doesn't.

      My daughter's best friend is Jewish. They have an Xmas tree because they like the custom and they play instrumental versions of all the Xmas carols because it gives them a sense of belonging. They do both Hannukah and Xmas gifts. (They make out pretty good gift wise.) The marketers etc, learned early on that making Christmas an inclusive celebration pumps up that jingle jangle kaching!

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nets, that is a lively tune! Bow and I danced to it. There's something a little incongruous in matching those words to that tune. I suppose that's what's subtle about the song. I think I might be a little more amused if this were the song they were singing. But it is not necessarily more appropriate.

    • nhkatz profile image


      8 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana


      How would you feel if they were making them sing "Lord of the Dance?"

      I guess it's more appropriate for Easter, but it has a very upbeat melody and a great filk tradition.

      I find the lyrics exceptionally well written too. My favorite verse is:

      "I danced on the Sabbath and I healed the lame,

      But the Holy People said it was a shame.

      They whipped me and they stripped me and they hung me high,

      And they left me there on a cross to die."


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