Monday, December 01, 2008

U2 "new" Christmas song: "...but i believe in the Israelite"

With the delay of a promising new album until February (hopefully),
U2 fans were of course thrilled to hear that the boys had recorded a special song for release today (World AIDS day) with the launch of RED Wire Music

But even I was taken aback at what it was.

First, U2 is not (with a few amazing exceptions) at their best at cover songs.
It is a cover of Greg Lake's (ELP) 1975 "I Believe in Father Christmas."

It was actually basically a new song for me.

The vibe of U2's version is great (Edge's chime etc), it's basically a prayer(like all songs they write or beg/borrow/steal/steal back) and hey, the lyrics even mention the Virgin Birth and heaven and hell...
and Bono's third favorite word (hallelujah) ...(:

Though it usually seen as an "anti-commercialism of Christmas song":

"I find it appalling when people say it's politically incorrect to talk about Christmas, you've got to talk about 'The Holiday Season.' Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas." -Lake
"People say it's antireligious...when in reality it was really objecting to the commerciality of Christmas.. it's about the joy of giving" -Lake, audio here

There is some debate over how much for (or against) Christ the original lyric it is. Many see it as disillusioned atheist's profession of hope without Christ. Some even see it as a Lake's way of confessing conversion to Christ:

"They sold me a dream of Christmas,
They sold me a silent night,
They told me a fairy story,
Till I believed in the Israelite.

Could it be that Bono has (in a similar "theological correction" sense as he did with "People Get Ready" see 10/6/05 post here) changed the original "till i believed in the Israelite" (the narrator is talked into believing) to "But I believed". Which changes...everything. No longer is the narrator lamenting being sold a bill of goods about Christmas/Christ, but celebrating belief in Christ in spite of the religious way "they" manipulated him into "believing."

LATER NOTE: As always, I should've checked Beth's blog first. I just found her post on facebook:

Beth is delighted at U2's completely reworking the theology of ELP's "Father Christmas" for their cover of it today, by only changing, wait for it.... *two words*.

ok ok it's been pointed out to me that a switch from past to present tense should count as a word. THREE words.
Oh, now I hear the other lyric tweak, Bono says "I believe," dropping the d, and the doubt.
...DELIGHTED, indeed! Thanks, Beth! She found more:

I had to smile in admiration at the very minor but very thoughtful lyric changes that turn Lake's text into something not just potentially, but authentically, U2ey. Did you catch them? "They sold me a Merry Christmas, they sold me a Silent Night, they sold me a fairy story..." is transmuted into something more like Popmart's "I wanted to meet God but they sold me religion" by one little shift: no longer did "they" keep selling "till I believed in the Israelite"; no, they can try to sell such holiday fantasies all they want "but I believe in the Israelite."

And the end of the original second verse, one assumes the implication is that the once-hopeful little boy awakes, exhausted and bleary-eyed, to witness his father dressed as Santa and realize the whole thing's a shuck ("I awoke with a yawn in the first light of dawn and saw him -- and through his disguise.") But U2 create a whole different feel by taking out that one little "and," so that the narrator now says that he watched in hope, woke at dawn, and "I saw him through his disguise." Another idea that we've heard many times before from this band.
Beth Maynard

Regrading the subtle, sneaky, subversive "through his disguise" change, catch Bono's subtle "holy smirk" as he is about to convert that line; he knows exactly what he's doing! the official version already, by clicking below; buy the song to support a good cause:

Inevitably, it's  on YouTube:

As is Lake's 1975 video, filmed in Israel:

..and his 1994 version:

ELP (and not just P) finally recorded the song as a group.
Here below Greg Lake and his co-writer are interviewed about the song.."it's about the sadness of a child discovering things aren't all they're cracked up to be..." Lake even talks about uh, hiring a stripper for the song:

As the song says:
"The Christmas we get, we deserve."

I dare to believe, though Bono didn't change that last line, in the U2 version, he didn't have to. It now means something completely different. It's not only the prophetic punchline now, it's a theology of grace....again.
Some wonder (see ELP review here) by his later lyrics and interviews if Lake even became a Christian.


2010 update from Steve Stockman:

Songs For A Healthy Soul - I Believe In Father Christmas by U2


  1. Can you please explain that last "Christmas we get we deserve" bit a little more? I really love the song, but I don't understand how this is connected to God's grace. I thought grace was our getting what we don't deserve or earn.

  2. great question...that part wasn't clear.

    Partly, I meant Bono can be seen as pushing grace over the top...making it "even better than the real thing."

    Not that the old definition you quoted goes, but we realize in sense, even though we don't deserve grace, Jesus teats us as if we do.

    I still like Ric Mullins line "Hell is better than we deserve."

    And in a sense...sounds pretty Calvinist.//and tooclose to karma, even"whatever kind of Christmas we get, we deserve it..

    I take Bono to perhaps mean, "If you trust Jesus, you get what you technically don't deserve, but Jesus treats you as if you do.

    If you don' still get what you deserve..."

    Thus the heaven and hell line.

    I dunno, it just feels like the last line is loaded.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!