Many non-liturgical churches begin singing Christmas songs immediately after Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas Day. But the church calendar recommends something different – namely, four weeks of Advent, as a time of expectant preparation for Christ’s coming, and then the beginning of Christmas on Christmas Eve, lasting twelve days thereafter.
If we were to follow the church calendar strictly, as many Anglican churches do, then we would not sing any true Christmas songs (Hark the Herald, Joy to the World, Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, etc.) until Christmas Eve, and during Advent we would sing a mixture of Advent songs (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Lo He Comes on Clouds Descending, etc.) and typical worship songs that we sing in the remainder of the year. In the past it was the practice of my own church—Resurrection Anglican in Woodstock, GA—to follow the church calendar with respect to the choice of music, and delay Christmas songs until Christmas Eve.
But since I became the music director at Resurrection a few years ago, and also in previous music director roles, I have always preferred to add a select group of Christmas songs to the hymns during Advent. Generally I favor following the church calendar closely, as I think it is full of wisdom, and I certainly understand why a church would choose to hew closely to the traditional practice. So I wanted to explain why in this case I depart slightly from tradition.
Practical Musical Considerations
The first reason I proposed making this change is that most congregations know very few true Advent songs. Those who grew up in the Episcopal or Catholic church will probably know more, but I would only expect others to know two or three. As a result, even though we will repeat several songs during Advent (given the short duration of the season), there are not enough known Advent songs to fill up a service that needs 7-8 songs every week.
By way of explanation, here are the Advent songs I would expect many parishioners to know, though the last two especially are still not as widely known:
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
- Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
- Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Other Advent songs are great as well, but are not quite as widely known:
- Lo He Comes On Clouds Descending
- Hark a Thrilling Voice Is Sounding
- Savior of the Nations Come
- Hark the Glad Sound, the Savior Comes
Because of the small selection of hymns most congregations know, Advent by necessity ends up being either (1) a little Advent and a lot of Ordinary Time, or (2) a little Advent and a lot of Christmas, at least as music is concerned. Choosing between these two options, I prefer option 2.
Even if Christmas songs are premature, Advent is obviously linked to Christmas, so I think the Christmas songs are more relevant to the Advent season than normal worship songs and hymns. At least with Christmas songs we are still indicating that Advent is a different time of year than the long Ordinary Time we have just exited.
However, a caveat is in order here. While I do sing Christmas songs during Advent, I don’t sing just any Christmas song. The most iconic Christmas songs (Hark the Herald, Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful) I still reserve for Christmas Eve and the ensuing twelve days of Christmas. I think it is best to hold back some of these songs to maintain a noticeable musical distinction between the two seasons, even if there is some overlap in my approach. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a great Christmas song, but it does not have quite the Christmas-Day association that Hark the Herald does (both because of its minor setting, and our culture’s typical use of the song). So sing that one during Advent, but not Hark the Herald.
I also like to structure the music in each service in such a way that it depicts the Advent to Christmas journey. So the first half of the service is always heavy on the true Advent songs, but as we enter Communion and close the service, the music becomes more Christmas-y. I think this also reinforces that Advent is a preparatory season leading us into Christmas. Of course we can help remedy this issue by teaching our congregations more Advent songs, and so I will do, but these musical considerations are not the only factors in my reasoning.
The Joy of the Christmas Season
December is without a doubt the most joyful time of year in our culture, and it seems a little odd to stifle this good tendency during the Advent season. While the expectant waiting and hoping that Advent encourages are tremendously meaningful and should not be diminished, all of us partake in Christmas celebration during the Advent season. Our church and work Christmas parties are during Advent. Our children’s Christmas play is during Advent. Many of us listen to Christmas music and participate in other festivities all prior to Christmas. We almost all put up our Christmas trees during Advent. At least in my opinion, these are all good things that draw us to God, even if they blur the clear delineations of the church calendar.
The “Christmas season” as popularly understood (that is, December) is perhaps the only season when the church can easily affirm core elements of popular culture. Obviously we don’t affirm the materialism that is too common around us, but sensible non-believers and believers alike know that Christmas is really about more than acquisition, and we can agree with those people in so much as Christmas tells a story of love, giving, and wonder. It’s the only time when the church and popular culture are still pointed roughly in the same direction, and at least implicitly for the same reason (Jesus’ birth), and music plays a crucial role in this convergence (even non-believers will sometimes sing about Jesus during Christmas).
So even though it goes against the church calendar a bit to sing Christmas songs in Advent, it seems unfortunate to me that Christmas songs would only be sung in church for two weeks when outside of the church so many Christians and non-believers are participating in the joy of the season for much longer. I think we should reinforce that joy even if it is mildly unorthodox.
Advent and the Second Coming
Lent is the main penitential season for the church, and it is effective partially because we do a good job of putting aside the joy of Easter during this period. We remove the word “Alleluia” from our lexicon. We enter into our repentance deeply and remove visible reminders of our Easter hope from services.
Advent is also a penitential season, but it is different in that we are not only reliving the historical Jewish longing for a Messiah, but we are also awaiting Christ’s second coming. While the Jews were still awaiting their true deliverance prior to Jesus’ coming, we have already seen the first-fruits of God’s Kingdom in the resurrection. Christ has conquered, and we are assured in his return and final victory over sin and death.
Many of the lesser-known Advent hymns, such as “Lo He Comes on Clouds Descending” and “Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding,” focus heavily on Christ’s final return and victory, and their joyful music and tempo reflect the subject matter. These hymns and others emphasize that there is a decidedly joyful side to Advent as well, beginning to partake in the joy of Christmas in a way that is foreign to Lent (which intentionally de-emphasizes our Easter joy for a time). After all, you can’t expectantly celebrate the second coming if you have not recognized the first coming at Christmas.
All this to say, the elements of Advent that focus on the second coming are already blurring the lines between Advent and Christmas. We are awaiting Christ, both as a re-enactment of waiting prior to Jesus’ birth, and as our current expectation for the second coming. But awaiting the second coming requires passing through the full story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. So Christmas is already implicitly present in many of the Advent hymns that have this future orientation. By also singing hymns that are traditionally done during the Christmas season, we are merely making this link more explicit.
Advent is a wonderful season and we should work to develop our musical repertoire to enter into it more deeply, but the three reasons above explain why I depart from tradition in my musical selections during Advent. I believe this approach helps us appreciate Advent while also partaking more fully in the joy of Christmas. After all, to paraphrase Jesus, mankind was not made for liturgy, but liturgy for mankind.