“Do You Hear What I Hear” is my favorite Christmas song. I like it musically, it’s a good telling of Jesus’ birth, there’s a bit of narrative to it, and when sung by Johnny Mathis it’s amazing. However, I want to examine the song better. This is how Wikipedia describes the song’s history
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a Christmas song written in October 1962, with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker. The pair, married at the time, wrote it as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has sold tens of millions of copies and has been covered by hundreds of artists.
Reading further they both lived in here in Connecticut. I live in a really cool state with a really dumb government. Apparently the two divorced although Wikipedia doesn’t say why. Originally performed by the Harry Simeone Chorale, it was Bing Crosby’s cover that made it a hit. Mathis is still my favorite but if Crosby is who made it popular and since I can’t find Mathis’ version with on-screen lyrics we’ll be using Crosby’s to look into the story of this song.
While anyone who knows the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth might question certain parts of the song, I don’t think it was meant to actually tell Jesus’ birth so much as an allegorical account of the message of peace at Christmas in light of the Missile Crisis. However, one event flows into another and follows possibly others made aware of the Savior’s birth.
First the Night Wind tells the lamb (an animal often used as a symbol for Jesus–and was even used in at least one of his parables that I can immediately recall) that it saw the star that led the Magi to Jesus, not at the manger of the inn where the babe was born but, according to a number of scholars, at his home before the family was forced to hide in Egypt until Herod’s death since Herod wanted to kill him thanks to misunderstanding what kingdom Jesus is king of.
The lamb then reports to the shepherd boy watching the flock that he hears a song. Most likely this is the choir of angels who appeared to other shepherds proclaiming the good news of the Savior’s birth. (This messes up the chronology although the star could have followed Jesus home, where the Magi caught up to it. Miracles and all that.) I can’t tell you if the boy was in the same field or just far enough over that the lamb could at least hear it. This verse is where the title comes from, although I couldn’t tell you why they chose this one over the others. Or maybe I can, but I’ll get to that. The remaining two verses do not reference actual Biblical events, and are pure allegory.
After all, the only king in the account is Herod, and we know why he wouldn’t be the king of the final verse, so I doubt the boy went to Herod. Now here’s what I (over)think happened. The Wind got the lamb’s attention by discussing the star. The lamb paid attention and can then hear the song of the angels proclaiming that a babe was born who was Christ the Lord, and told his protector. The boy then goes to the king with the news of the baby who deserved praise and worship. I think the lyrics stop short of the rest of the story, which is good because it would be redundant to tell the whole thing stuffed into one verse and just have the other characters repeat the same stuff over and over. This song has no chorus and it works to the piece.
Finally it’s the king, who I see (and this could just be me) as breaking the fourth wall, or at least bending it when he tells the people that they should pray for peace (again, written at a time when the peace was fragile and the Cold War might turn into the classic bloody death toll variety). The king’s statement is “pray for peace, people everywhere“. He’s talking to everyone and while this could mean his own subjects, you could also read it as telling the rest of the world (the Biblical call to “preach the Gospel to the world for a witness” in Matthew 24:14), like the audience hearing the song, that Jesus will bring us “goodness and light”, that by following this babe in a manger we will have peace. Peace is something that even today, at the tail end of 2014, seems to be a weakening state with crime, terrorists, and riots in the streets, plus a constant state of war in the Middle East. Thus we have our chain of events.
- WIND: Something important is happening.
- LAMB: It’s a message.
- SHEPHERD BOY: It’s a very important message.
- KING: Here is the message.
You get carried along, wondering what’s so important until finally the build-up leads to a message of peace and prayer, the message that the baby Jesus would soon bring to the world himself. It doesn’t get more Christmas than that. Maybe that’s why the title came from the lamb’s statement. It could be the lamb (Jesus) telling us (the listener being spoken to by the king) to pray for peace, or the lamb, at the poking of the Night Wind, hearing the message and starting the message chain to the shepherd and then the ruler of the land. And then we hear what the lamb heard. Even if I am overthinking all of that, it makes sense.
Below, I’ve added the Johnny Mathis version, which is now added to the BW Yule Log. Mathis puts something into it that hits me more. Enjoy.