Christmas carols are, it seems, intended to fill holiday shoppers with good cheer. Good cheer opens wallets and purses and everybody is happy until January’s bills make their epiphany. Until then, sing songs of gladness. Princeton University, one of the few financially stable institutions of higher education, each year gives a gift to the community. Some Sunday in Advent a free university Chapel Choir concert is given in a campus chapel the size of a modest medieval European cathedral. The music varies from year-to-year, but seldom is the church not full with locals taking time out from holiday shopping or grading papers. One of the carols yesterday, was the 1914 French piece, “Christmas Carol for Homeless Children.”
Princeton, like most schools, does have a heart buried beneath its deep, cold, jobless front. Chapel choirs like to shake up the status quo by throwing in an occasional piece that requires somber thoughts and social consciousness amid the joy. The French carol dates from that fearsome first year of World War One, a time when France was especially under the gun. The wish for the world at the time was peace – material gain had not yet become the measure of God’s grace. The hymn is sober and wrenching:
We have no more house nor home!
Enemies took all we had;
all gone, all gone,
even our own little bed!
The school they burnt;
they burnt our teacher, too.
They burnt the church and also the Lord Jesus Christ,
the poor old beggar too who could not get away!
Singing it in French may take away the vinegar of the words, but wartime is not the only circumstance that finds people without sufficient means. Even unchecked capitalism will lead to the same results. Only, instead of the Lord Jesus Christ being burnt, he is sold in the markets to make a tidy profit.