Christmas Carols Gone Awry

[December 6, 2013]

For children, Christmas is a time of wonder, if not outright bafflement, because of the archaic vocabulary and syntax of Christmas carols. This produces interpretations that our devout ancestors never had in mind. Here are some of my childhood mishearings of these songs. How about yours?

* “For in thy Dock Street shineth…”

       (“Little Town of Bethlehem”)

I knew what “Dock Street” meant, because my home town was a seaport. But if something was shining there, it was a little creepy.              

* “O come, O come Emmanuel,

And Ransom Captive Israel…”

             (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”)

Who is Ransom Captive? Why is Jesus bringing him along?

* “The first Noel the angels did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay…”

                (“The First Noel”)

When the angels said “Noel” for the first time, it was in order to “certain” some shepherds, that is, to reassure them.                                   

* “We three kings of Orientar…”

    (“We Three Kings”)              

So the land of Orientar has three kings?

* “The cattle are lowing…”

    (“Away in a Manger”)

They’re getting shorter and shorter.                          

* “God rest ye, merry gentlemen…”

     (“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”)

Merry gentlemen, it’s time to go to bed!      

* “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen…”

    (“Good King Wenceslaus”)

Where to start? I had no idea what was going on there.

* “He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove…”

    (“Joy to the World”)

Makes ‘em prove it on a blackboard.

* “Frankincense to offer have I,

Incense owns a deity nigh…”

    (“We Three Kings”)

You can actually own a deity?

* “Round yon Virgin Mother and Child…”

     (“Silent Night”)

How round was she?

* “While shepherds washed their flocks by night,

All seated on the ground…”

                (“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”)

You’d think it would be easier to shampoo a sheep standing up, in daylight.

* “Then entered in those wise men three

Full reverently upon their knee…”

                (“The First Noel”)

They came scooting in on their knees.

* “Haste, haste to bring him laud…”

    (“What Child is This”)

Whatever it is (lard, maybe?), he needs it in a hurry.

* “Come, Peasant King, to own him…”

    (“What Child is This”)

So apparently you can own a deity, at least if you’re a Peasant King.

* “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom,

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb…”

    (“We Three Kings”)

Whoa! Where did that come from?!

If you’ve got your own Christmas carol mishearings, add them in the comments below.

Update on 2013-12-06 15:58 by Frederica

These kinds of song mishearings have acquired the name “mondegreens,” from the person who heard the line from an old ballad, “they laid him on the green,” as “Lady Mondegreen.”

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.



  1. LOL. I had a few of the similar mis-hearings for the above caroles. My only addition though, is not a carole, but the lyrics of Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him all creatures here below, etc. It wasn't until I was in my early 40's that I actually read the words and saw that I had been singing them incorrectly, as " Praise him all creatures HEAR ME LOW."!!!! And as I write this I am recalling when my one daughter was about 3, she was rocking her baby doll while singing, "Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord , He is trampling down the VILLAGE WHERE THE GRAPES ARE REALLY STORED."

  2. actualy the line was "Good King winces loss went out on his feets uneven

    but we must not forget the rest of the hymnal………. such as Gladly, my cross-eyed bear
    or that line "make mine ears attent" in which I tried to imagine my ears either bent over into two small tests, or possibly detached and made into on tent…….neither sounded very comfortable

  3. Adeste Fidelis is full of rich lines. Start giggling at "Lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb." Onward to "We too will thither…" I hope that's nothing like twerking. But the best line is "Child, for us sinners, poor and in the manger." Isn't it awfully crowded in there?

  4. When our kids were little, my husband used to travel a lot, and would call home frequently from different hotels to tell them about his day, and pray for them before they got tucked into bed. So imagine my surprise when one day I overheard my daughter sing in her booster seat what she referred to as the "hotel song" from church. I was puzzled, and asked her how it goes. Impatiently, she recited it for me:"You know, Mama, Glory to God in the Hyatt!!!

  5. Our daughter's favorite Christmas carol when she was little was "Ding Dong Merrily On High," which she thought contained the words, "Hosanna in a building." She now plays carillons, but I can't convince her to play that particularly appropriate carol – too cheesy to play it from a bell tower. And she doesn't do cheesy.

  6. When my son was little, he heard a recording of "The Christmas Song," and after the line "They know that Santa's on his way, he's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh," he asked in utter bafflement why Santa had lots of poison goodies on his sleigh. (One day he told me he wanted to listen to "Angels Pickin' on Me," and it took me a minute to figure out that he was referring to "This World Is Not My Home," the refrain of which goes "Angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world anymore…")

  7. My 5-year-old daughter was in fits one day because I wouldn't sing the "letters receive" song….you know…"Letters receive the king" (Let earth receive her king–Joy to the World.)

  8. Why would the herald angels sing "Hark", and why would there be more than one angel named "Harold"?

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