Reasons to Sing Christmas Carols during Advent

I’ve already written here and here with some theological reflections on celebrating Christmas in the midst of Advent. Here are some less lofty reasons, but ones I find compelling in their own way:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason (I just made that up): Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, I like to think of the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas ripens over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December, so why not musically too?

So on Advent 1 we sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones—this year it’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” because it fits my sermon. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with an “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. On Advent 4, we might do one Advent Hymn and the rest Christmas. That said, this year I might back off on that slightly, since Advent 4 is on the 19th, still several days before Christmas.

2. The numerical reason: Advent is twice as long as the Christmas season, and yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the PCUSA hymnal). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind your back.

3. The pedagogical reason: In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I remember this clearly from my childhood. Actually, what I remember most clearly is the time we had a Jewish girl in our class and she taught us the dreidel song. The fact that that experience was so memorable 30 years later suggests that the rest of the time, we were singing songs from my tradition as a default.

Unlike some people, I don’t pine for those days. However, the shift in our culture means that it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” They aren’t going to to get that immersion if we limit Christmas carols to Christmastide. (Also, many of our families are traveling during winter break, and while they will attend Christmas Eve services, attending Sunday services while on vacation is not as certain, to say the least. So kids may not get exposed to some of these hymns in worship at all.)

4. The musical reason: As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason: This one probably doesn’t need to be discussed, but: Life is difficult, for a great many people. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people really appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and if only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do! Because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words are powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace”? Goose bumps, baby!

In short, it is not kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Silver Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Until then, I’m going to say that three verses of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” IS counter-cultural, even on December 12.)

6. The evangelistic reason: December is a pretty well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It is a good time to be attentive to visitors. As such, it is an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darnit, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but, whew!, they can join in on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

OK… I’m ready to hear your counter-arguments.

Image: I mean, just look at Snap, Crackle and Pop in that picture. Do you think they’d look so joyful if they were singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?

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21 thoughts on “Reasons to Sing Christmas Carols during Advent

  1. Songbird says:

    I agree completely, on all fronts.
    But I’m new in my church, and they told me they observe Advent.
    Then I looked in the well-marked office copy of the hymnal to discover they never sing the Advent hymns.
    So I am perplexed. Also, our hymnal (the UCC Red Hymnal, a dreaded beast from the 1970s) has a very poor selection of Christmas carols, making choosing them hard enough for Christmas Eve.
    We’re using Advent music on Advent 1 and 2, and then I’ll start to bring in other things, one on Advent 3 and more on Advent 4. In between there’s a Christmas pageant, full of carols.
    And I think we may make a booklet of carols to use from Christmas Pageant onward (Dec. 12), even if it’s illegal. For all the reasons you stated, making it easier for people to be touched by music that means something to them is pastoral and edifying.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Very interesting! Good luck as you sort all that out. You suppose “we observe Advent” means “we have a wreath”?

      We have started singing the more contemporary doxology almost every week, which is important to me, but really bothers some people. I don’t want to say that Christmas carols are a political decision, but there’s no doubt that one has to choose one’s battles.

      I could probably add that as an additional rationale—we’re entering the transformation training that our presbytery offers. That’s going to stretch people a lot. A little “comfort and joy” will ground people in the midst of what could be a lot of change.

  2. MB says:

    I think this is the best response to the either / or argument – why not both / and!

    Love it!

  3. stephen says:

    I not only agree – I agree more! By the 4th Sunday of Advent, I am pretty much into singing Christmas carols/hymns for all three hymns – and for all the reasons you mention, plus I’d emphasize one reason even more: children are no longer singing/learning Christmas carols outside of church very much. I noticed on the long drive over Thanksgiving how most of the Christmas music on the radio leaned heavily on the secular Christmas side of the ledger. Increasingly, it seems if we the church don’t sing Christmas carols, where will our children hear them?

  4. Notshychirev says:

    Hmmm…

    Perhaps I suck at being a small church pastor. This would not be the first time I’ve had that thought based upon the experiences and thoughtful explanations of my colleagues and friends.

    We sing Christmas stuff as a part of lessons and carols (regular worship on the 19th) and Christmas Eve (24th) and TEN carols in whole or in part on Christmas 1 (26th). We sing Advent Dec. 5 and 12 and at least one on the 19th, and in the Service of the Longest Night. That’s roughly half the December music will be carols and half will be Advent. But I steadfastly will not program Christmas hymns in Advent 1, 2 or 3–even if that means writing my own, since so many of ours are downers or more apocalyptic than preparatory.

    The mystery of the incarnation and the wonder of it to me has two parts: the anticipation/preparation and the celebration. In our Advent services, including our Service of the Longest Night, I try to program music and prayers and sermons that offer an anecdote to Clear Channel Christmas and the overwhelming consumer orgy the season has become in the greater culture by refocussing through the Advent promises.

    I find, and I hope the people agree….they don’t rumble, so I assume?…that the beauty and the longing in Advent hymns is necessary.

    Just as we are a people who can’t lament, it seems to me we are a people that can’t wait, that cannot find the opportunity for growth in longing for something and preparing for its coming…we want it now.

    I don’t want to be the person who stands at the door of the church screaming “No CAROLS TIL THE 24TH” but I also think we sacrifice an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth when we don’t mark Advent–joyfully, hopefully, peacefully and lovingly.

    Just as it is Easter every day…it is Christmas every day….the resurrection and the incarnation are rehearsed not because we need thee holidays to remember they happened…but because the practice of remembering why and for whom and how they happened shapes us.

    I love a good party…but my stubborn soul just can’t justify letting go of what I strongly feel is the formational experience of Advent just so people can sing more carols.

    Apparently, I am I Get Off My Lawn Fogie when it comes to Advent.

    All that being said…when people I respect so much disagree…clearly I need to do some strong thinking…

    • MaryAnn says:

      This is an excellent explication of why Advent is such an important season. Don’t discount that.

      Also, the pedagogical piece is not as important in churches where there aren’t children, so you get a pass on that. And your people are being nurtured spiritually, so what you do works in your context. Full stop.

      • MaryAnn says:

        OK, not quite a full stop:

        What is behind this perspective: that preparation, and waiting, shouldn’t include singing Christmas songs? Why can’t that be PART of the preparation rather than the dastardly thing that impedes or short-circuits the process?

        Picturing ourselves in the place of fulfillment—trying on the new identity, testing new words and ideas and perspectives—is a part of preparation. I can think of numerous preparatory events in our lives in which we “rehearse” the thing we’re preparing for, all the while knowing that the rehearsal is not the same as the thing itself. I prepared for ordained ministry by completing an internship. I prepared for childbirth and motherhod by taking a breastfeeding class and touring the hospital and being around other people’s babies and practicing pain-coping techniques, and countless other things. I also did a lot of spiritual stuff too, soul-searching and discernment. That’s why I can’t see this as anything other than a both/and proposition.

        I completely agree about the need for intentionality. On that we are on the same page, no doubt.

  5. Grace says:

    I absolutely agree about the semi-permeable membrane, and I object much more to Christmas decorations in stores before November 20 than to Christians putting up greens in church before December 20. I embrace a lot of Christmas elements in my own personal Advent observance – I listen to the Christmas Revels during December, no question – and I enjoy the preparations, and certainly don’t grudge others who do the same.

    However, as far as corporate worship is concerned, our hymnal has TONS of good Advent hymns, so many that even with four hymns to a Sunday we can’t get through them all in four Sundays. And many of them are well-known and well-loved – “Comfort, Comfort Ye,” “Sleepers, Wake,” “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness,” “People Look East”. As far as I can tell, these are welcomed and sung with enthusiasm. Heck, one of our parish leaders would pillory me if he didn’t get to sing “Lo, He Comes” during Advent.

    Lessons & Carols on the evening of Advent IV moves from Advent to Christmas, transitioning about halfway through.

    We do three services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Lessons & Carols on the Sunday after Christmas, and an Epiphany Feast of Lights pageant on the second Sunday after Christmas. Between those five services (I’m not even counting Christmas morning, because nobody comes on Christmas morning, and if they do they’re not the type to object to Advent hymns), I get to sing at least seven or eight Christmas carols twice each, several three times over, and a dozen more at least once. Anyone who comes to any of the Christmas Eve services gets most of the Greatest Hits, even if that’s the only service they attend between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6.

    Granted, this is a high-ish urban Episcopal destination parish with 150 on a Sunday, where one lifelong member cares enough about the details of Advent that she spent several thousand dollars to donate a set of Sarum blue vestments and paraments. So, atypical in several ways. But it’s a good fit for me liturgically!

    (And re your note about Snap, Crackle, Pop … “Let All Mortal Flesh” isn’t an Advent hymn, it’s a Communion hymn.)

    • MaryAnn says:

      Heh… not for the Presbyterians it’s not! Hymn #5, smack dab in the Advent section!

      • Grace says:

        Well then, somebody didn’t do their homework – it is in fact a translation of the Great Entrance in the Orthodox Liturgy of St. James, acclaiming the host as it is carried before the people! (I had this argument many times with the madrigal choir director in college, who insisted in including it in Christmas concerts.)

      • MaryAnn says:

        It’s possible they did their homework and decided to appropriate it for a new context and setting 🙂

  6. Dot says:

    I didn’t grow up even knowing there was a difference between Advent Hymns and Christmas carols. Even as an adult I still didn’t “get it!” I actually had a difficult time when I joined my current church because I missed singing the familiar Christams carols for the whole month of December. I also found it strange to continue Christmas songs after Christmas day. I continue to prefer the familiar happy carols for the whole season but that is just me and I now know it isn’t the usual way of thinking but it is still my preference. I might just go sing Silent Night by myself at the piano soon!

  7. Lisa says:

    I have reason # 4 for singing Christmas hymns on Advent 4 in my small church. Due to the transient nature of DC metro area residents, Advent 4 is likely the time ‘regulars’ will still be in town before setting off to visit relatives. We do our Children’s pageant and sing Christmas carols on Advent 4 to celebrate together as a community.

    I pretty much follow your pattern during the rest of Advent.
    And in regards to Let All Mortal Flesh – we’re singing it this Sunday – cause the hymnal says Advent.

  8. Rev Dr Mom says:

    I am too thoroughly Episcopalian to give up on making the distinction between Advent and Christmas pretty clear, but I do think there is something to be said for your pedagogical reason. Except our kids aren’t in church except for half the service, so if I’m going to use that reason I have to apply it outside the service as well.

    I would rather extend Christmas hymns longer into the new year (and it feels like we used to do that) but with secular Christmas starting so early people are TIRED of the idea of Christmas music by then. Which leads to another counter argument–advent music is a refuge from the inundation of Christmas music everywhere else.

    As for more contemporary music (re your doxology), I took a great class at YDS last summer on congregational singing and we learned a lot of global song. I hope to work more of that into our repertoire over the next year. There are lots of good resources out there I didn’t know about.

    • MaryAnn says:

      I do think there are obvious denominational differences here. I’ve got some guy on Twitter describing Christmas carols as “happy clappy,” “cool-whip,” and “meth.” I have to wonder what’s in *his* hymnal! 🙂 The ones in our hymnal are lovely and theologically rich. They witness to the incarnation, so how can they be superficial or superfluous? (He also makes the error a lot of people seem to make: assuming Advent hymns are rich and contemplative and Christmas hymns are jolly and clangy. Obvious counter-examples: Advent’s “People Look East” vs. Christmas’s “What Child is This?”)

      Incidentally, what happens when a church provides a refuge from Christmas music during December, and either extends them into January past people’s interest, OR avoids them in January because people are tired of them? Answer: no Christmas hymns sung corporately. Which is sad.

      Also, there is a qualitative difference between hearing a muzak “O Come All Ye Faithful” at Macy’s and singing it with a community of believers.

      I’m like a dog with a bone today… really need to turn this energy toward my sermon… But I enjoy these discussions!

  9. Grace says:

    Also, there is a qualitative difference between hearing a muzak “O Come All Ye Faithful” at Macy’s and singing it with a community of believers.

    Abso-freaking-lutely, and one of the reasons I avoid piped-in Christmas music as much as possible is because I get tired ENOUGH of the Christmas hymns.

    And you’re right that Advent hymns are definitely not all gloomy – quite the opposite, in my experience. I’m currently looking over the Blue Christmas service for next Sunday and finding that there really AREN’T many Advent hymns (other than plainchant) that fit all that well into a context that specifically invites people who are actively mourning. And, at the excellent suggestion of the pianist, I think we’ll be concluding that service with “I Wonder as I Wander”.

    • MaryAnn says:

      A good Adventy hymn that’s not in the PCUSA’s Advent section is Of the Father’s Love Begotten.

      There’s been a fun mini-discussion on Twitter about singing some of the joyful Christmas carols at other times—Christ the King Sunday, even Easter (Joy to the World). Carol Howard Merritt said in her first call they would sing them in July sometimes!

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