This year, like every year, thousands of Australians will flock to local parks with picnic baskets in hand, ready to participate in the annual Carols By Candlelight.
Playlists will include all the regular tunes. Who even needs a copy of the words when so we have all been singing ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Silent Night’ since we were five years old?
This year, I joined my local choir just in time for Christmas Carol rehearsals, excited to get stuck into practising my favourites. But after a big year where the mistreatment of women was thrust into the spotlight on a global scale, I suddenly found the gender imbalance of these songs is shining brighter than the Christmas star.
Jesus was “born that man no more may die”. We sing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’.
The talk is of Kings, Shepherds, God (He, of course) and the much exalted boy-child. Poor old Mary is the only female to get a look in and despite being hardcore enough to give birth in the dead of night while surrounded by livestock, she’s referred to as the “Mother mild”.
Christmas Carols are a wall to wall boy’s club. Jesus was “born that man no more may die”. We sing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’. Thanks to the arrival of everyone’s cherished incarnate deity, we are reminded that “man will live forever more”.
It is a sad irony that traditional Christmas songs are so male-dominated, particularly when the bulk of the preparation for this annual tribute to Christianity is done by women.
Even modern Yuletide jingles pay homage to gender stereotypes. When a female does get a mention she’s either kissing Santa or encouraging him to hurry down the chimney to bring her jewellery. The poor woman in ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, after clearly saying “No”, finds herself asking “Say what’s in this drink?”
You can argue that a lot of these lyrics reflect the way things were written in years gone by. But things are changing.
One of my fellow carollers, artist Juliet Holmes à Court suggested our choir update the lyrics of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ to “we will live forever more” instead of “man will live forever more”.
Like me, Holmes à Court loves these songs and appreciates the opportunity Christmas carols present for communities to come together. But she feels the misogynistic overtones just don’t wash anymore.
“We sing the songs because it’s tradition,” says Juliet, “and people hide behind that, saying tradition is the reason why we stick to the old lyrics.”
Christmas carols are too closely stitched into the fabric of western culture to be scrapped or completely re-written, and they don’t have to be.
But, as Juliet points out, humans have been changing things up since the dawn of time. “You can argue that it is tradition to mess with tradition!” she exclaims, “Changing ‘man’ to ‘we’ is a little thing, but it means a lot.”
And change is important. Christmas, like Hollywood and like the bulk of children’s literature, is an area where female characters either hover on the fringes or play stereotypes. The festive season paints yet another picture in which girls are less prevalent, promoting the subtle message that they are less important.
Christmas carols are too closely stitched into the fabric of western culture to be scrapped or completely re-written, and they don’t have to be. But we have added the concept of Santa and his elves over the years and have created Australian versions so we can have something to relate to. A similar evolution towards being more inclusive of women won’t destroy the songs, the meaning or the holiday.
Clea Sherman is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Her favourite Christmas Carol is Little Drummer Girl.