The Common Good

What Are You Singing: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Whoops. I was joking with a co-worker today about writing a subversive post about how the song “Do You Hear What I Hear” is an extended metaphor for the Roman Empire’s takeover of Christianity, contorting Jesus’ message for its own ends. “Listen to what I say,” orders the unnamed king, as he urges adoration of Jesus and calls for peace — Pax Romana

Peace image: © nito/ Shutterstock.com
Peace image: © nito/ Shutterstock.com

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I did a quick Wikipedia search, and learned exactly how wrong I was. Rather than a subversive message about the twisting of the Gospel, “Do You Hear What I Hear” was actually a call for peace during the turbulence of the 1960s.  

I mean, think about it: the song talks about the humbleness of the announcement of Jesus’ birth – only the night wind and the little lamb have heard about it. This whisper gets passed up to ever-increasing degrees of authority (a grassroots movement if we’ve ever seen one), until the king himself is calling for peace. 

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

The song also calls for economic justice – a shepherd boy approaches the king to let him know that as he’s enjoying the warmth of his palace, a child is shivering in the cold. “Come on, King,” he says, “Let’s bring him what he deserves.” (This is presumably taken from the King’s own storehouse). 

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

We’re led to assume that the humbleness of the manger scene leads to the king’s conversion. He calls for peace, and maybe offers up some of his warmth and riches as he seeks the goodness his kingdom so badly needs. 

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

The song’s authors, Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne, explicitly tie their lyrics to the threat of nuclear war in 1962 when it was written: a direct call to our political leaders for an end to militarism and a prayer for peace.

Regney, who died in 2002, was certainly familiar with military conflict, as he was a Nazi army deserter and French resistance fighter during World War II. Some sources say that the couple’s emotions surrounding it were so high that they were unable even to perform the song. 

We can thank Bing Crosby that we’re still singing this carol, a call to peace in the face of crisis. 

Janelle Tupper is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners. 

Peace image: © nito | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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