Easter 2024

16 December 2004
engineering - Christmas carol

"The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there's a problem with a road, they always try to add something," [Hans] Monderman says. "To my mind, it's much better to remove things."

-McNichol, Tom. "Roads Gone Wild." Wired Magazine 12 December 2004.

next exit, a really long rambling article that ultimately compares liturgy to traffic for some reasonRemove things: that's a radical approach to traffic engineering, Hans. But I like it. I really do. And it has me thinking about what we can remove from our Americanized "Christvent" (a societal merging of church and state, Advent and Christmas that seems to happen this time of year) that will make us more faithful to each other and to the biblical narrative we celebrate.

There's a lot I want to remove from people sometimes: the credit cards, the right to vote, etc.

But to start with, let's take away "The first Nowell."

Why would you want to take away that perfectly innocent 17th century English carol?

Most people don't think carefully about the words of this carol. If they did, they would be confused, especially if they examined the corresponding gospel passages. For instance, the shepherds see the star "shining in the East," but later it settles over "the northwest."

Well, where the star is depends on where you are looking at it from.

Your preposition is dangling

I mean, it depends on from where you are looking at it.

Right. And how does it "come to rest," exactly? Not to mention that according to the gospels, the shepherds never saw the star . . .

They didn't?

No. Clearly Matthew and Luke didn't compare notes on this. Luke writes about shepherds and angels (not wise guys), and Matthew writes about astrologers and a star (not sheep herders). And don't even get John started. He's too busy rambling on about "in the beginning was the Word and blah, blah, blah."

To what extent can "The first Nowell" be blamed for the sappy, conflated birth narrative celebrated in this country? Did we get our mixed up shepherds-see-the-star story from this carol, or is the carol's popularity due to an errant way of thinking? Either way, "The first Nowell" is at least partly responsible for an American Christvent pageant atmosphere that doesn't allow us to examine these two distinct events, shepherds and magi, on their own terms.

This carol is so tainted for me that at the words "the star drew nigh to the northwest" I have inexplicable visions of an astrological anomaly coming to hover over Puget Sound as if sanctifying all of Microsoft and announcing Bill Gates as the Messiah.

So, everything happens at once in this carol, but why?

Good question! Isn't it amazing enough that the shepherds heard the terrifying song of the angels? And hasn't the opening of this song begun the Gloria, a staple of the liturgy, for thousands of years?

Isn't it incredible enough to contemplate the rich symbolism in the presence and presents of the magi: a journey to Herod and ultimately Jesus with the royalty of expensive gold, the sweetness and of fragrant incense, the bitterness of embalming myrrh as cargo?

Apparently not! The two events are blended on "frappe" and the result is poetic and theological goop.

Well, it's not really about the words. It's about the tune.

Oh really? You mean a tune that Erik Routley calls "so familiar that it is seldom realised [sic] what a very peculiar tune it in fact is?" You mean a tune that was probably once a descant to another tune? A tune whose stanzas and refrain consist of essentially the same musical material? Singing this tune's praises makes about as much sense as achieving National Anthem singability through key change.

Yeah, but [singing:] Nowell, Nowell . . .

Okay, Nowell. What does that even mean? My father scrambled the letters in out "Noel" decoration to spell the name of the college my sister attends. It's also fun to spell "Leon." That makes about as much sense as anything else.

Surely some people know what "Nowell" means.

I would bet the proportion of Americans who know the location of Iraq is comparable to the number of Christians who know how to translate "Nowell."

Okay, what does it mean?

I'll tell you after the article, Hans. But when you take into account the mixed-up narrative and, for most people, the meaningless "Nowell," you have to realize that this carol amounts to unbounded sentimentality. Is this really of adequate musical consequence for the liturgy?

I see your point. So that's why you want to get rid of it.

From Christian worship, yes. Christvent exists because we give in to society's demand for instant gratification through sentimentality in our worship.

Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. "I love it!" Monderman says at last. "Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can't expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road."

If our liturgy is like busy traffic circle, which I think it is, how can we engineer it so that we are "looking out for each other"? What would our Christmas and especially our Advent liturgies look like if they were created light of God's expectations and not those of society?

Let's start removing things and find out.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Update, 1 January 2005: Another good article about the emergent traffic anti-engineering movement.
Baker, Linda. "Why don't we do it in the road?" 20 May 2004.

Tangents: Potential four-letter names for first-born son: Hans, Luke, John, Erik, Leon.

The opposite of Christvent is "Admas." When glossy advertising material outweighs informational newsprint in the Sunday paper, this is Admas. Or it's Mt. Ansel Admas, or Admas the band, or Admas Limited Health Consultants, or a font development project, or an Ethiopian college, or it really is advertising.


Post a Comment

The page you're reading is part of

©MMXVII a site for fun and prophet

Organ and church music, esoteric liturgics, and a site that changes color with the liturgical year.


Looking for Carol Spreadsheets?

Hungry? Try the Liturgical Guide to Altoids Consumption

Thirsty? Try the Tibia Liquida

The Eric Harding Thiman Fan Page: The greatest composer you've never even heard of.

Infrequently Asked Questions

picture of a chicken

Questions? Problems? email the sexton.


The author of this website is an organist whom the New York Times calls “repeatedly, insisting that he pay for his subscription”. He likes to read parking meters, music, Indianapolis Monthly, and weather forecasts in Celsius, particularly whilst wearing cassock and surplice. He serves lasagna, overhand, as an example to many, and on ecclesiastical juries. He mixes salads, drinks, and metaphors. He takes photos, lots of dinner mints, and a little bit of time to get to know.




Anglicans Online
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Book of Common Prayer
Brain Pickings
The Daily Office
The Lectionary Page
Sed Angli
Ship of Fools
The Sub-Dean's Stall
Vested Interest - Trinity Church in the City of Boston


Andrew Kotylo - Concert Organist
Anne Timberlake
Bonnie Whiting, percussion
conjectural navel gazing: jesus in lint form
Friday Night Organ Pump
Halbert Gober Organs, Inc.
in time of daffodils
Joby Bell, organist
Musical Perceptions
Musings of a Synesthete
My Life as Style, Condition, Commodity.
Nathan Medley, Countertenor
Notes on Music & Liturgy
The Parker Quartet
Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers
Steven Rickards
That Which We Have Heard & Known
This Side of Lost
Wayward Sisters
Zachary Wadsworth | composer

Archenemies Aviary



Advent (Medfield MA)
All Saints, Ashmont (Boston MA)
All Saints (Indianapolis IN)
Atonement (Bronx NY)
Broadway UMC (Indianapolis IN)
Cathedral of All Saints (Albany NY)
Christ Church (Bronxville NY)
Christ Church (Madison IN)
Christ Church (New Haven CT)
Christ Church Cathedral (Indianapolis IN)
Christ's Church (Rye NY)
Church of St. Stephen (Hamden CT)
Congregational (Belmont CA)
Coventry Cathedral (UK)
First UMC (Lancaster SC)
Gloria Dei ELCA (Iowa City IA)
Immanuel Lutheran (St Paul MN)
Immanuel Lutheran (Webster NY)
John Knox PCUSA (Houston TX)
St Andrew (Marblehead MA)
St Andrew's, Oregon Hill (Richmond VA)
St Bartholomew the Great, (London, England)
St James's (Lake Delaware NY)
St James's (Richmond VA)
St James Cathedral (Chicago IL)
St Mary's Cathedral (Memphis TN)
St Matthew and St Timothy (NYC)
St Paul's (Cleveland Heights OH)
St Paul's (Indianapolis IN)
St Paul's Cathedral (Buffalo NY)
St Paul's, K Street (Washington DC)
St Peter's (Lakewood OH)
St Peter's ELCA (NYC)
St Stephen's (Richmond VA
St Thomas (New Haven CT)
St Thomas ELCA (Bloomington IN)
Second PCUSA (Indianapolis IN)
Towson Presbyterian Church (MD)
Tremont Temple Baptist (Boston MA)
Trinity (Indianapolis IN)
Trinity on the Green (New Haven CT)


BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong
New College (Oxford, England)
St John's College (Cambridge, England)
St Thomas (New York NY)


Like the site? Buy the shirt.

Areyou . . .

selling diphthongs?
Yes, but they're not the kind you buy on Wheel of Fortune.

the owner of a bower at Bucklesfordberry?
Full daintily it is dight.

interested in touch lamps?
And fountain pens.

this site used to be better:

March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
August 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
December 2012
January 2013
March 2013
April 2013
May 2013
June 2013
July 2013
August 2013
September 2013
October 2013
November 2013
December 2013
January 2014
February 2014
March 2014
April 2014
May 2014
June 2014
August 2014
September 2014
October 2014
November 2014
December 2014
January 2015
February 2015
April 2015
May 2015
June 2015
July 2015
August 2015
September 2015
October 2015
November 2015
December 2015
January 2016
February 2016
March 2016
April 2016
June 2016
July 2016
August 2016
September 2016
October 2016
November 2016
December 2016
January 2017
February 2017
March 2017
April 2017
May 2017
June 2017
July 2017
August 2017
September 2017
October 2017
November 2017
December 2017
January 2018
February 2018
March 2018
April 2018
May 2018
June 2018
August 2018
September 2018
October 2018
December 2018
February 2019
March 2019
October 2019
December 2019
September 2020
December 2020
January 2021
September 2021
October 2021
December 2021
November 2022
December 2022
March 2023
July 2023
March 2024
April 2024