Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sacred or Secular?

I've been attending, participating in, directing Christmas programs for *ahem* nearly 50 years.

(That in itself is difficult to believe!)

For all that time a beloved Christmas carol has been "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."

I have always grouped it in the secular category when dividing Christmas carols as sacred or secular.

Secular (non-religious) in the same sense as "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls," "Up on the Housetop," etc.

As opposed to sacred (religious) which includes "Joy to the World," "Silent Night," "Away in the Manger," etc.

Until last week.


Last week I attended the Christmas program at a local private, church-affiliated school where both sacred and secular Christmas carols were included.

[I mention this because at many public schools in the USA sacred carols are not allowed.]

The bell choir played several tunes.  The director announced that since the program was near the Catholic feast day for St. Nicholas it was appropriate to play "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."


That caught my attention.

Never had I associated the "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" as a sacred song much less with a Catholic feast day, but this director had apparently done her research.

It made me wonder about that connection.

Had I been singing/directing a sacred carol unknowingly all these years?


As I revisit the lyrics, I notice that other than the title of "Saint" (sometimes abbreviated "St.") and "Santa" there is no obvious religious reference to the song.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,
Lean your ear this way;
Don't you tell a single soul
What I'm going to say,
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
Now my dear old man,
Whisper what you'll bring to me;
Tell me if you can.
When the clock is striking twelve,
When I'm fast asleep,
Down the chimney broad and black
With your pack you'll creep;
All the stockings you will find
Hanging in a row;
Mine will be the shortest one;
You'll be sure to know.
Johnny wants a pair of skates;
Susy wants a sled;
Nellie wants a story book,
one she hasn't read
As for me, I hardly know
so I'll go to rest;
Choose for me, dear Santa Claus,
What you think is best.
[Underlining is meant to draw your attention to those terms.]
I think that, while others in the world may assign this carol a religious connotation, I shall continue to consider it a secular carol.
It is more about the gifts that children, young and old alike, request from Saint Nicholas/St. Nick/Santa Claus/Father Christmas (or any other moniker for the "jolly old elf"). It aptly describes children secretly telling Santa of their wishes and the magical idea that he will come down the chimney on Christmas eve and encounter the stockings carefully hung.
If I write much more I'll find myself reciting "The Night Before Christmas."
And it's too soon for that, right?

Only 5 more days!

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