Both this year and last year, I have been (directly or indirectly) told that we did not sing a particular song on Christmas Day historically sung on Christmas Day here at Calvary: Ere Zij God (A Dutch hymn based upon the words of the heavenly host in Luke chapter 2, proclaiming the Glory of God with the birth of Jesus Christ). I know that this song holds a special place for most, if not all, Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, especially those whose roots trace back to the wave of Dutch immigration after the Second World War. There are reasons why we did not sing the song on Christmas Day, but I can assure you it was no deliberate move by the leadership to intentionally remove this song from our repertoire (I feel like some people took it that way and I’m not sure why). We did use the song as our doxology yesterday morning.
This song is somewhat of a perplexing one for me as I’ve not always known what to do with it. There are many people for whom ‘Christmas is not Christmas unless we sing Ere zij God.’ We have other members for whom the song represents a distant past that we should not be promoting if we are to reach our Canadian society with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have others who do not share the heritage and do not know any Dutch at all, and are neither here nor there on the song.
I’ll say from the outset so that it is very clear that I have no skin in the game whatsoever on this one. I do not share the Dutch roots/heritage of most in our congregation. I had never even heard of this song until we sang it at Kristal’s parents’ church the first Christmas we were dating back in 2005. I have sung it many times since and am confident in my ability to sing it in both Dutch and English. It does not matter to me at all whether we do or do not sing it. It is not my purpose here to convince anyone one way or the other whether we should. Rather, I want to engage in some of the points made in favour and against with the hopes of helping us all understand how others think and feel about it.
Why We Shouldn’t Sing Ere zij God at Christmas
Here are a few reasons I have heard why we should not sing Ere Zij God at Christmas.
We are Becoming less Dutch
This song speaks to a heritage and history that is not shared by many new people who are joining our church, most of whom are coming from non-Dutch and non-CRC background. This trend is likely to continue since, statistically, most church growth comes from new people joining the church and Dutch immigration is significantly lower than it has been in the past. Consider, too, that we are already in the third and fourth generations of Dutch immigrant families who have a very different outlook on community, history, and even denominational loyalty than their ancestors do. As is the case with our American brothers and sisters whose Dutch ancestors immigrated over a hundred years ago, the Dutch identity will likely continue to fade. So, to insist on continuing to sing this song at Christmas is out of touch with our reality.
We also acknowledge in this, that a resurgence has happened in the North American church towards missions, since so many new immigrants are coming to our country from non-European nations. In order to reach a world that does not know Jesus, we, like Paul, are encouraged to “become all things to all people, so that by some means [we] might save some”. It is a brave new world. To insist on carrying on ethnic traditions that are foreign to the very people we are trying to reach seems at the very least to be out of touch with our cultural context. But it certainly raises the question as to why this particular tradition is so important that we would be willing to do that.
The stronger form of this reason for not singing Ere zij God that I have heard is that it is at best insensitive and at worst offensive to those who do not share the Dutch heritage. It indirectly communicates “You can’t truly be one of us unless you learn to sing this Dutch song”. This is perhaps overstating the case because the reason people come to our church is because of who we are and they generally feel welcome. This one song can hardly undo every other thing that we are doing to make people feel like they belong here.
Tradition for Tradition’s Sake is Dangerous to the Life of the Church
If we are honest, for most of us who expect to sing this song at Christmas, it is because it has been traditionally sung at Christmas in Canadian Christian Reformed Churches. It is just something we have always done. Understandably, to let go of such a deeply held tradition is hard. We fear losing something of our identity as individuals or as a church. Letting go of it represents a ‘changing of the guard’; that we are no longer the church we once were.
As is the case with any tradition, the line between tradition and traditionalism is often quite fine. Traditions are good as long as we remember why we do them and what significance they have for us. To do something just because we’ve always done it is traditionalism and means we’ve either forgotten why we even do it in the first place, or never had good reason to do it in the first place. Churches full of traditionalism do not survive because they become rigid and unbending in their definition of what the church should be and do. Churches with healthy traditions have an appropriate link with their past without letting it stifle their present and future.
Singing Ere zij God at Christmas is a tradition we have had in this church for a long time (see below). It reminds our members of their roots and can be a source of comfort when placed in the context of where we are vs. where we have been. Where the singing of this song falls into traditionalism is apparent when people expect to sing it at Christmas, and are disheartened when we do not.
Why We Should Sing Ere zij God at Christmas
As I have engaged different people in this conversation, asking their opinions, I have also heard many reasons we should continue to sing Ere zij God at Christmas.
It is a Long-Standing Tradition that Reminds this Church of its Roots
Even though we are a changing community as noted above, the reality is that a large percentage of our congregation is still of Dutch descent. Most of our charter members are first generation Canadians and many of their children and grandchildren call this church their home. Our Dutch-ness as a community is still apparent in many of our attitudes, behaviours, and food choices. It was that Dutch-ness that initially bound that first generation of immigrants together in a strange and peculiar land in the 1950s. Things like dropjes, borenkool, almond cake, and singing Ere zij God are reminders of home – from whence they came.
As a church, we rehearse our historical story on a weekly basis in our worship services. Our story as Christians is looking back so that we can live today with a view to the future that God has in store for us. To look back not only at our Christian roots, but also our ethnic roots is a testimony to God’s faithfulness. However, which is more important? If given the choice between honoring our Christian roots or Dutch roots, which do we choose? Which should we choose?
It is a Christmas Song
Lyrically, the words of this song come from the choir of angels who appear to the shepherds in Luke 2:14. As many other Christmas songs are based upon the early chapters of Luke and Matthew’s gospels, this one is no different. To sing it at any other time of the year would be unusual to say the least. Definitely, it would be out of the ordinary to sing Silent Night, Joy to the World, or We Three Kings in the middle of July or August. Where this song is different, however, is that nobody gets upset if we don’t sing any of these other 3 songs at Christmastime (as far as I can remember, we didn’t sing Joy to the World at all this year, and nobody has said anything about that). Every year there are hundreds of options for songs at Advent and Christmas and many of them good. We can’t possibly sing them all, and inevitably some of our favourites get left out. That being said, should anyone be opposed to us singing it some time during the Christmas season and not necessarily on Christmas Day? Or even leaving it out one year?
It’s Just ONE Song we Sing ONCE per Year, What’s the Big Deal?
The presupposition behind this reason is that those choosing songs at Christmas are intentional about leaving this song out. I already said at the beginning that this was not the case. The thinking here clearly points to an acknowledgment, on the one hand, that the Dutch identity is slowly fading. At the same time, there is strong desire to hold on to that identity and not forget from whence we came as a church. It seems, on the surface, a reasonable compromise to allow ourselves to sing this song once per year. This line of reasoning is not all that different than presented during the “Worship Wars” of the late 90s and early 2000’s. But is compromise the goal?
When we consider the meaning of the word compromise, it means, essentially, for two opposing parties with different views, opinions, or desires to meet at a decision both sides are willing to accept (somewhere in the middle). But is it not closer to bartering when we apply a tit-for-tat mentality to our song selection (e.g. let us sing Ere Zij God and we’ll let you sing He Shall reign Forevermore)? For one, that’s not really compromise. Secondly, I return to the question as to whether compromise is really the goal. The starting point of any compromise is the existence of two parties with opposing views or desires. Without this precondition, there is no need for compromise. The goal of compromise is to reach a point where we both can agree even if it is not what we really want. However, where do God, grace, and the Gospel come into this process? Is God ultimately concerned with our happiness or our holiness? Is He more concerned about whether we get what we want or whether we are learning to love one-another self-sacrificially? The problem with any compromise is that it starts with “I want/you want”, never “what is God calling us to be and to do?”
We Sing Songs in Other Languages, Why Not Dutch Too?
This is perhaps one of the more compelling arguments in favour of retaining the tradition. We do, from time to time, attempt to sing sings in Spanish or other global languages, often when our missionaries come to visit. These types of songs put us all on equal footing because English is the native tongue for most of us, and we all “butcher” the songs equally as a show of solidarity with one another and our brothers and sisters around the globe. The difference here, however, is that this church was not founded by immigrants from Latin America or Africa. There is a noticeable difference when we sing Ere Zij God than when we sing No Hay Dios (There’s No God as Great as You O Lord). People know it and they sing it with gumption and conviction, thereby (unintentionally) alienating those for whom Dutch is as foreign a language as Spanish or Swahili.
New People Can Learn Dutch (It’s Similar Enough to English)
Granted, we don’t expect them to learn the whole language, just the words to this song. And true enough, when you hear enough people around you singing it, you can eventually learn to sing it too. I can personally attest to this, but I will admit it was difficult at first. People point to me as an example of someone who does not know Dutch who has been able to learn it. However, I have always been good at picking up new languages – I think I’m just wired that way. Truthfully, Dutch is markedly different from English and many of the pronunciations of especially the diphthongs (vowel combinations like ei, ee, ou, etc.) are drastically different. Even for someone adept at languages, simply reading the words of the hymn and trying to pronounce it phonetically renders a completely different pronunciation than what we hear sung. For those to whom language does not come naturally, this is even more difficult to do.
[Aside: in all honesty, wanting to impress my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s Dutch family, I worked hard at practicing the song to myself whenever I was alone, hence why I am now able to sing it in Dutch. To which some of you might say “good for you”, while others might say “that’s completely unnecessary”. I never actually had to learn the song in Dutch to impress her family (I just thought I did), nor should anyone ever feel like they need to learn a song in a different language to impress anyone.]
Part of the problem with this line of reasoning is that it puts the newcomer in the uncomfortable position having to learn this song in order to fit in. It has, as its starting the point, the assertion that “we will sing this song” and therefore “you’d better learn it”. Now I know that none of us would ever word it this way, but that can be the way it comes across if we use this reason as part of the defence for singing the song at Christmas every year. Some of us, however, would quickly point out that we don’t expect newcomers to learn the song in Dutch, since we do project the lyrics in both English and Dutch. The final reason given in favour of singing this song to be addressed here.
We Project it in Both English and Dutch, People Who Don’t Know Dutch Can Sing in English
This is a more recent ‘compromise’ in most, if not all churches, who sing this song at Christmastime. Dutch is foreign to both newcomers and even our own children and grandchildren. In an effort to be more accommodating, we now project the lyrics in both languages. When the number of people who sing it in either language is roughly equal, it is easier to sing in one’s language of choice. However, when 80-90% of the congregation is singing in one language, it is very hard to sing it in another. This is especially true when the translated words have more or fewer syllables than the original. I have tried and I have spoken to others who have tried, and our experience has been similar: it is hard to sing this song in English when most everyone around is singing in Dutch. I eventually had to revert to Dutch because I kept losing my spot in the English lyrics. Now, I also wonder if that is because I originally learned the song in Dutch and so have a hard time flipping back and forth between the two languages. I’d be interested to hear someone’s experience who has only ever known it in English. What I can also say is that yesterday morning when we sung it, I heard more English than Dutch around me, and that made it easier for me to stay on track. I only lost my spot once or twice.
To go a little further on this one. In some conversations in trying to mediate the differing opinions on this song I have suggested that we project the lyrics only in English to try and even things out. That is to say, if we encourage more people to sing in English, it will be easier for people who don’t know the song (but do know English) to sing along. Some of the response I’ve received to this suggestion is along the lines of “then we might as well not sing it at all”. This belies a preference to sing the song in Dutch. If it’s truly a good song worth singing every Christmas, then which language we sing it in should not matter.
What strikes me most in all of this is the irony of this whole discussion, the actual name of the song: Glory to God. If we are divided over whether we should sing this song at Christmas (or even at all), then it has absolutely nothing to do with bringing God glory. It has everything to do with our own personal preferences (for or against singing it). God is most glorified in his church when people who shouldn’t love one another actually do; when the outside world sees people who do not always agree with each other loving and respecting one another as they work together for the common purposes of God’s Kingdom.