• Karen Pennington

The Problem With Nursery Rhymes: Rediscovering The Most Epic Gift

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

I've come to realize that traditional nursery rhymes can be pretty disturbing. In fact, some of them can be downright creepy. This idea really hit home with me yesterday as I held my sleeping granddaughter in my arms and took the time to considered the lyrics to the "baby songs" playing on Youtube that served to lull her to sleep.


The first and tamest song in the loop recounted the tale of a small insect who tried its hardest to climb a vertical slope towards its goal, only to be washed away by a violent onset of flood-like rain (aka "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"). Some sources cite the origins of this tale as an early 20th century commentary on the plight of the poor in America.


Next I heard a tune of injustice, about a hard working shepherd who was not able to keep any of his sheep's wool, because everyone else took it from him (aka Baa Baa Black Sheep). I discovered that this reflects a political commentary on the high taxations from both the church and the British government on the sheep trade in 13th Century. The shepherds had such high taxes and fees that they were left with little to nothing for themselves. Remind me again why we are singing about this to our babies?


Finally, and most disturbingly, I there was a song about a baby rocking in its cradle, high in the treetop, until an overpowering gust of wind breaks the entire tree limb. This causes the baby, the cradle and the entire section of the tree to come violently crashing to the ground (aka "Rockabye Baby"). This turns out to be another political commentary concerning the 18th century monarch James II, questioning the legitimacy of his heir to the throne and predicting that his entire family dynasty, the Stuarts, would be destroyed. Yes, friends, these are the songs that have been lulling our children to sleep for centuries.


I write partly in jest about these lullabies, most of which have tunes played without the lyrics nowadays. But this does call into question what legends, stories and hopes we are passing on to our children. It also begs the question of which stories we are rehearsing in our own minds.


Where the 17th, through early 20th centuries seemed marked by these dark history lessons set to music for our children, the 20th century seemed to switch to a lighter, happier version of story telling in the form of fairytales and superheroes. Super upbeat... super positive... super encouraging... and always a happy ending... and yet almost completely untrue.


What truly astounds me is that in Christ we have a story that is more empowering, more incredible, and more engaging that any fiction that has ever been written. And to top it all off, it's 100% true! In fact, most modern epics of heroism have elements of a savior that are rooted and influence by the original and greatest protagonist of all time and history, made up imitations of the real deal.


Consider the words of Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV):

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.


"For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian*. For all the boots of the tramping warrior and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.


"For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this."


In Jesus Christ we have the humblest servant, the greatest superhero and the ultimate conqueror of everything that is wrong in the world. Now that's a tale worth telling about to our children. That's a song worth singing to our babies. That's a story well worth celebrating, not just during Advent, but every single day of our lives.



*Midian was a neighboring nation that often oppressed and overpowered Israel, God's people in the Old Testament. In this passage it represents any force that comes against us as children of God.


Image by Tom Burgess from Pixabay





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