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OPINION - Unconstitutional caroling?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) What do you get when you lock a lawyer and a school administrator in a room? A statement like the one the Wausau School District released yesterday .

The executive summary: A lawyer hired by the district offered a legal opinion that caroling by a school music group is problematic. The district says elementary school students need more time in the fall to study for dreaded standardized tests, so holiday concerts should be delayed until the spring.

Both explanations are unconvincing.

Christmas caroling is not a religious activity. There is no proselytizing. Caroling doesn’t take place in a church. It doesn’t have any inherent Christian meaning. In fact, the origins of caroling are pagan – to hope to get food and drink (especially drink) from the homes the singers would visit. The high school carolers aren’t visiting homes. They perform at such non-religious venues as the Wausau parade and the Elks Club.

Suppose a hypothetical repertoire for caroling, made up of some of my favorite Christmas songs:

The Carol of the Bells

Once In Royal David’s City

Deck The Halls

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

The Holly and the Ivy

Sleigh Ride

The Wexford Carol

Good King Wenceslas

White Christmas

Joy To The World

Any problems? Would you care to argue that my selections are overly religious, and cross the line of faith-endorsement? Hardly. All songs are traditional and have stood the test of time as holiday classics.

Of my suggested list, only three can be claimed as Christian songs of faith:

  • Once In Royal David’s City tells the story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and the birth of the Christ-child. Yet it is also a carol of classical and historical significance; it is performed by hundreds of music groups each year as the opening of the traditional nine carols festival concerts. A classically trained vocalist or musician is expected to be able to perform it. 
  • The Wexford Carol is the oldest carol to have survived from early European Christmas celebrations. It dates to the 12th century, and is a historical piece. It sings of thanks on the night of the nativity.

  • Joy To The World, aside from White Christmas, is the most performed Christmas music in North America. It is overtly religious, celebrating God’s reconciliation with mankind. It is universally accepted in popular culture, performed by such religious stalwarts as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Andy Williams and The Supremes.

The remaining seven songs have no religious significance. The Carol of Bells is a Ukrainian folk song. Deck The Halls is traditionally a New Years song, and was discouraged by the Victorian church because it encouraged dancing. We Wish You A Merry Christmas is also a song of merriment, not piety. The Holly and The Ivy references Mary and Jesus, but is an English pagan song singing of good fortune and fertility. Sleigh Ride and White Christmas are pop standards from 1946 and 1942. Good King Wenceslas sings of charity to the poor, but has no spiritual overtones. The song itself is a historical fraud. Wenceslas was a wealthy duke who commissioned a song about himself where he was given the title ‘king’.

My point is there’s nothing to object to here --  these are songs of the season, enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike for generations. They could all be performed, in exactly the same order, at a school concert and withstand a legal challenge. How could what’s okay in a school auditorium suddenly be verboten if performed outdoors in the town square?

Unfortunately, my selections aren’t challenging enough for an honors choir. I Saw Three Ships and For Unto Us A Child is Born from The Messiah would make things more interesting for the kids. But, alas, that would make the secular-to-sacred ratio 1:1.

Chris Conley