The song was originally not intended as a Christmas song, per se, even though the lyrics are about the manger scene, but rather as a lively dance number for French nobility. I never would have guessed that, but the quick tempo and the fact that the song is in 3/8 time certainly make more sense when viewed through that lens.
Before we get into the lyrics, let's consider the question many of you have probably wondered about as you've heard this song: Who are Jeanette and Isabella? It's tricky to know for sure, since much is lost to history, but the two women seem to be the subject of a painting by chiaroscuro artist (I knew all those art history classes in high school would come in useful someday) George de la Tour titled The Newborn Christ. Two milkmaids are holding the infant Jesus shortly after His birth. The origins of this song are at or before this time, so one led to the other, but I'm not entirely sure in which order.
In our song, Jeanette and Isabella are two young women who are summoned to the stable at the Savior's birth. They are to bring a torch for light and to announce His birth to the people of (presumably) Bethlehem. They do so, but in their excitement, they are a little too exuberant, leading others to shush them for fear of waking the tiny King.
It is wrong when the Child is sleeping
It is wrong to talk so loud
Silence, all, as you gather around
Lest your noise should waken Jesus
Hush! hush! see how fast He slumbers
Hush! hush! see how fast He sleeps!
There's a lesson there for us, if we care to look for it. The birth of the Savior was certainly a joyful occasion; countless generations had looked forward to it, and for some, it even marked the commutation of certain death at the hands of those who did not believe. Angels heralded His birth, and a bright new star appeared over Bethlehem. Yet for all the excitement of the moment, for all the happiness and glee and fervor, it was still a sacred thing, to be treated with reverence. The shepherds came to pay their respects to the newborn King by bowing and observing with wondering awe. Jeanette and Isabella were a little noisier, and for that they were gently rebuked. "Softly to the little stable," we sing in the last verse, and I imagine they did so, a little quieter and a little more meekly.
It's very easy for us to get caught up in the excitement of Christmas. We look forward to opening gifts, to watching fun movies, to laughing with our families and friends, and to drinking eggnog by the fire. (I am not convinced that anyone actually drinks eggnog.) It's tempting to allow ourselves to give in to the thrill of the occasion rather than the reverence of it. Christmas is a time for us to reflect on the birth of our Savior and on the holiness of that night. There's a lot to shout about, but we may want to take a moment and exercise a little temperance as we celebrate the season. Just as Jeanette and Isabella were told to "hush, hush" so as not to wake the sleeping baby, we too may want to take a moment to quietly ponder how "beautiful is the mother; ...beautiful is the Son" so as not to chase away the Spirit of the moment.
Previously in this series
In the Bleak Midwinter
Little Drummer Boy