What Child Is This: The Great Donkeys/Ass Swap

by Nadine on December 5, 2016

[Christmas collage: EskimoShan's etsy shop]

This is my first (and probably last?) Christmas rant. Because I’m a huge fan of the season and have little to complain about — with the exception that it always creeps up on me and my apartment is still half-decorated with Ursula’s first-birthday stuff. Her birthday was in June.

I digress.

Yesterday afternoon, our little family of three attended our church’s annual Christmas carol service. It was lovely. And even though I spent most of it making sure my kid didn’t get tripped on — she decided to lie down on the floor behind unsuspecting strangers — I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

And then they sang the wrong version of What Child Is This?

Not “alternate.” “Wrong.”

Traditionally, the second verse of the song goes like this:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

We sang an “updated” verse:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Four reasons why churches need to get their heads out of their donkeys and just sing the original line:

1. Plural vs. singular.

“Ox” and “ass” are singular nouns. So “donkeys” just added more animals to the song. (If you’re going to assume that “ox and ass” is actually a plural phrase, it’s got to be “oxen and donkeys” or “ox and donkey.”)

2. Syllables.

“Donkeys” screws up the rhythm of the line. While you’re taking creative liberties, why not just go with “mule”? Sheesh.

3. The writer.

Once upon a time, an editor added really crappy things to an article I wrote. It was bad. I yelled at her over the phone. I got serious complaints about the article because of her changes. (The Florida Department of Citrus was ticked off. Don’t ask.) In conclusion, don’t mess with the writer’s words if you can’t make ‘em better.

Let’s give William Chatterton Dix a little respect.

4. It’s Christmas! Let the kids have their fun.

When else do you get to say “ass” at church and get away with it? I have very fond memories of giggling my way through this song. Don’t take that away from the next generation.

Rant over.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Carpenter December 22, 2016 at 3:42 pm

I was putting together our church’s slides for “What Child is This?” and the lyrics I was copying had “donkey”. You convinced me to switch it back to the original! :)

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