Away and in Danger – and other unsentimental Christmas Carols

The rumour has got out in the Christian community I lead that I ‘hate’ Away in a Manger’. Of course, this is tantamount to Christmas blasphemy, so I feel I must make a defense and an explanation.

I can melt like the rest of us at a sweetly sung version of Away in a Manger. However, it has always struck me as a classic version of the kind of carol that emerged from that era of Dickensian niceness and over-sentimentality that continues to equate Christmas with a certain kind of feeling rather than a certain story. We don’t want to let an awkward story get in the way of that feeling we all want at Christmas; (open fires, mulled wine, candle light and well-behaved children singing sweetly), do we?

Except that the story of course was there to make things awkward. From the moment the Angel appeared to Mary things got pretty awkward. Jesus from his very conception probes, prods and cajoles at our sense of soporific comfort. And every generation has dealt with awkwardness and challenge in various ways, often aided and abetted by the church. A Barcelona friend of mine tells me of a character in the Spanish nativity called El Caganer. This character, a staple of Spanish nativity sets, is a man squatting the corner with his trousers round his ankles! El Caganer translates as ‘The Great Defecator’ and was probably introduced into the nativity scene to thumb a nose at the power, privilege and aloofness of the church. It was as if Spanish peasants were saying ‘this is our story too! You can’t sanitise this awkward story for us you know! Here’s a man shitting in the corner!”

Rather than writing in a character into the story to try and remind people the rawness, reality, pain and politics of the story I have taken to rewriting the words to some well-known carols. I have taken the worst offenders, in my opinion. Those carols that ooze sentimentality and seem to have lost all sense of the power and subversiveness of the story.

Away and in Danger

Away, amongst strangers, who gave them no bed
The new born Lord Jesus
Lay down his wet head
The stars in the night sky
Looked down in dismay
‘This was the Christ!? Asleep on some hay!?’


The cattle are lowing, this baby awakes
And just like a baby, a great din he does make.
‘I love you, Lord Jesus?
But please do not cry,
It makes you look human
Not aloof or on high.’

Be near me, Lord Jesus, get up from the hay
Grow into a man and be near me I pray
Bless all the children
In pain and despair
And don’t stop you’re crying
It shows that you care.

O Occupied Zone of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
In captivity you lie
Amidst your nervous, terror-ed sleep
The sentinels pass by.
In occupied streets shining
An endless burning light,
The hopes and fears of exiles’ tears
Are met in Him tonight.

How naturally, how painfully
the wondrous gift is given!
And God imparts to broken hearts
the promised reign of heaven;
Keen ears have heard his coming
But in this world of din
Where Roman soldier’s madness holds;
The liberator breaks in.


Sleepless Night

Sleepless night, horrible night
Baby cried, half the time
Round we walked this Mother and Child
Holy Infant not tender or mild
Sleep is desperately need-ed
Sleep is all that I need.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Shepherd’s came, what a sight!
Covered in poo and smelt like a bar
Brought their sheep, that’s going to far!
I can’t wait for the morn
I can’t wait for the morn.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Son of God? Yes, alright.
Asleep at last, just look at his face,
See the dawn of ordinary grace!
Jesus Lord at your birth
Jesus Lord at your birth.


Happy Christmas!