“We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts, we travel so far. (sic)”
The little voice sings from the back of the car. My son, strapped into his carseat, is singing one of his favorite songs.
“Field and fountain, moor and mountain. Following yonder star.”
And now, with gusto,
“Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!” westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!”
This is followed by a short pause, a blessed moment of silence, that rare delight for a mother of young children. And then:
“We three kings of Orient are . . .”
It begins again.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” I tell myself, and sing along. And then, to preserve my sanity, instead of cycling through the first verse and chorus over and over, I begin singing the rest of the verses.
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again.”
“Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a deity nigh.”
“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”
In between car rides I look up the verses to be sure that I have them right, but since it is his favorite song, I have plenty of opportunity to practice. The little boy strapped into the carseat doesn’t know these words, but he listens, and he learns them. And sings them, over and over.
Fast forward about ten years to the present. My son, now in middle school, still knows all the words to “We Three Kings.” And because of that, he can also tell me the traditional gifts that the Magi brought and the meanings behind them. Gold, of course, is easy, but he also understands that frankincense was, and still is, used to honor God.
And myrrh? Why did the Magi bring myrrh to the baby Jesus? “Because he’s gonna die.” Biblical history as told by a thirteen-year-old.
He gets it.
Through hundreds of repetitions of this Epiphany carol, he has internalized some of the traditions of our faith.
Well-known carols do this for our children, and for us as well. My family stops listening to our Christmas playlists on Epiphany, and the children are old enough now that they don’t usually break out in song from the back seat. But for years, Christmas carols were the best-known songs they knew, and as a result, “Silent Night” or “O Come, All Ye Faithful” might accompany a car trip at any time of the year. Now that I look back on those years of off-season Christmas carols, they seem to me to be a kind of stealth Christian formation. Which, for young children, may be the best kind.
So, if I hear some out-of-season carols in my car next week or next month, I will try to have a better attitude about them than I once did. I may even start some up myself, and see if my boys join in.
[Lyric Credit: “We Three Kings” written by John H Hopkins, Jr., property of Public Domain]