Advent 2011: “Looking For Baby Jesus Under the Trash”

Last week, we began our journey through the advent season by taking a look at an early Christian hymn, penned over 2000 years ago.  If you haven’t read the post, you can find it here at: Advent 2011: The Slave Who Refused to Rape.  Now, as we make our way through the second week of Advent of the Christ, I want to introduce to you another song called “I Believe in Father Christmas.”  While many of you may be familiar with the original version of this tune, written by Greg Lake and Peter Sinifield in the 1970s, I want to acquaint you with a more recent version that was only released two years ago.  I want you to take a listen to this updated version by U2 in the player below, and as you do so, I’d like for you to follow along with the lyrics.  See if you can figure out what the song is about.

They said there’d be snow at Christmas
They said there’d be peace on Earth
But instead it just keeps on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin’s birth
I remember on Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell, that Christmas tree smell
and eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And sold me a fairy story
But I believed in the Israelite
I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
‘Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
May all anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart, let your road be clear
They said there’dbe snow at Christmas
They said there’d be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.

If this is your first time hearing this tune, you might not realize how subversive the lead singer of U2 is being with the lyrics.  Take a look again at the second verse.  In the original version, the lyrics read as follows:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
‘Til I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
‘Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

When Greg Lake and Peter Sinifield set out protest the commercialization of Christmas, they did so as two men who were grieving the loss of childhood innocence and belief.  For them, the values of Christmas, which included forgiveness and acceptance, had been buried under a mountain of mythology that included everything from “Father Christmas” to “fairy stories” to “the Israelite,” Himself.  But when it came time for U2 to cover this song, at the launch of the online subscription service, RedWire, Bono found that he could not sing these lyrics.  For Bono, “the Israelite” is no myth. So instead of singing “Til I believed in the Israelite,” he subtly altered the lyric and sang: “But I believed in the Israelite.”  Do you see the difference?

For Lake and Sinifield, the Christian story is just one more story in a series of lies that we tell our children.  But for Bono, “the Israelite” is not in question.  “The Israelite” is the very source of forgiveness, and it is His story that must stand out amidst all of the false claims that are made in a season of myths and half-truths.

Now go back to the 2:04 mark of the video above. Listen to how he elevates his voice into a falsetto, setting this segment of the song apart.  In the original version by Lake, the vocalization is the same throughout the entirety of the piece.  But Bono is trying something different here.  The song is going to conclude with a choice between Heaven or Hell and the listener is going to “get what we deserve.”  By rising into the falsetto immediately before this choice is to be made, Bono highlights a set of lyrics that call upon the rich imagery of Isaiah 40:3, a text used every year during the season of Advent.

“Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight road through the wasteland for our God!”

Quite remarkable, isn’t it?  Here, in a song that is sick with despair over the false stories that govern our lives, Bono asks the listener to cut through the wasteland and a make “clear road” for the way Lord.

And so, in this season of consumption, in this season of falsehoods and “fairy stories,” I say to you:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas.
I wish you a brave New Year.
May all anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart, and let your road be clear.

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2 Responses to Advent 2011: “Looking For Baby Jesus Under the Trash”

  1. Josh Bryant says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Josh The Younger says:

    Mr. Bryant… I have no idea how you found all this out, but I love it! Of course, I haven’t listened to that much music from the 1970s, so perhaps that explains my ignorance. Seriously though, anything you post on U2, and I’m hooked right away. 😉

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