A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

'Tis the Season. . . for not singing Christmas carols

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, for those who keep track of such things. For those who don't, it's three weeks before Christmas, and time to get a move on with the shopping. And of course, for those who don't follow the liturgical year, this is the perfect time to begin singing Christmas carols. After all, the Incarnation is too important an event to restrict to just one Sunday (especially since some churches won't even be holding services this Christmas). We can never spend too much time celebrating Jesus' birth. Why not start singing those carols a few weeks early?

Why not, indeed? I was thinking of that today, as I contrasted the two liturgical services I attended with my husband this weekend (one Reformed, one Catholic) with the "Advent service" offered by a non-liturgical church I attended a year or two ago at around the same time of year. At this particular church, the Advent service consisted of reading the nativity story from one of the Gospels and singing Christmas carols. The choir performed some lovely songs. It was all, I think, essentially a substitute for the traditional Christmas Eve or Christmas morning services held in many churches. And it wasn't that bad of an idea- except that they called it an "Advent" service, when it was, in fact, a Christmas service. It was not about waiting for Christ: it was about celebrating His birth. To be sure, the birth of Christ is a noble event worthy of much celebration. That's why we have Christmas (and lots of Christmas- see more below!). However, that is not what Advent is for.

The season of Advent, as liturgists and pastors tell people over and over again, is a season of preparation, repentance, and hopeful (even joyful) expectation. The lectionary readings for Advent range from slightly ominous to very optimistic. We are told to watch, because we do not know the hour or day; we are told that the Messiah is coming to lovingly shepherd His people. Advent is an eschatologically rich season. We look back on the time before Christ's coming, and we look ahead to His eventual return. There is a specific repetoire of music used in Advent which, at its best, encourages us in our longing for Christ's return while reminding us of Israel's long wait for the Incarnation. The most famous advent hymn is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" based on the "O Antiphons" from which the season reportedly takes its name (because they repeat "Veni," the Latin word for "Come"), but there are other classics, too: "Creator of the Stars of Night," and "On Jordan's Bank," for example.

Since Advent has its own repertoire of music -some of it very good indeed- there is no need to bring out the Christmas carols. I would go further, though, and ask: what purpose does it serve to sing "Silent Night" in early December? The whole point of Advent is that it is a time of preparation for Christmas. Now, there are some events for which preparation requires practice. A play, for instance, needs to be rehearsed. So does a wedding service: one has to rehearse the ceremony. But a wedding is also the perfect example of an event for which one must put off the celebration. In the Christian church, couples do not prepare for marriage by acting as if they are married -that is, by living together and celebrating their relationship physically. Orthodox (that's a small "o," in case you were wondering) Christians are, in fact, considerably upset by the current secular trend in which couples act as if they were married without ever having made the committment. One does not best prepare for a sacramental/covenental union by pretending it already exists. Nor, from a liturgical mindset, does one prepare for a great religious feast by emphasizing the very thing one is preparing for.

Some might argue that pretending that Jesus has not yet come (by waiting until December 24 to sing Christmas carols) is in itself false, but I would simply remind such people that, after all, we ARE still waiting for the second coming. Part of the beauty of Advent is that it is a means of expressing our own anticipation through the rich biblical language of the Messianic prophets. We learn about waiting by aligning ourselves with those people who waited for centuries for the Branch of Jesse, the Daystar, the Wisdom from on high. We weaken the eschatological thrust of the season if we underscore the "yet to arrive" part of the "yet to arrive/already here" tension found in the Christian attitude towards the Messiah.

What about the objection that Christmas is too important to be celebrated only on one day, and the Christmas carols simply too good to be used only once a year? Well, as liturgically-minded readers may have already guessed, I think the answer lies in encouraging the celebration of Christmas as a season rather than a day. In the calendar used by most (Western) liturgical churches, the Christmas season is a distinct season from Advent. Christmas itself is an "octave." As a feast, it technically lasts 8 days, not just one, and the traditional Christmas time lasts until January 6, Epiphany: those are the "Twelve Days of Christmas" of obnoxiously-repetitive caroling fame. That's plenty of time to sing those carols, isn't it? (Not to mention that we celebrate the Incarnation in other ways throughout the liturgical year.) Families might find ways of returning to a "twelve days of Christmas" mentality rather than putting all the focus on the morning of December 25.

To most of my readers, this is all old hat. So why bother repeating it? Well, the truth is, I'm repeating it because I myself am prone to forgetting why it is that we don't sing Christmas carols during Advent. In the past, I've been guilty of including them in the musical selections for Advent "parties." I figured that it was more ecumenical to sing songs that everyone knew: there aren't as many Advent songs which are common across denominational boundaries. Further, since not everyone at the events in question came from a liturgical background, it only made sense to let people sing the songs which they were used to singing at this time of year. A couple of years ago, I even defended my use of Christmas songs to an acquaintance who thought that I ought to be using the opportunity as a chance to educate less liturgically-oriented Christians on the meaning of Advent.

I've come to think that my well-meaning critic was right after all. I could have made a better use of the event in question as a chance to encourage celebration of Advent as a season with a value (and a beauty) of its own, rather than jumping ahead to Christmas. And I'm writing this blog in part to mark my resolution to do better in the future, should the occasion come up again. I don't plan on raining on anyone's parade, mind you. I'm not going to stop people from singing Christmas carols before December 24 if that's how they want to celebrate Christ's coming. I'm also not going to refuse to sing carols before Christmas vigil, if I'm in a setting where others are singing. But I'm also not planning on encouraging pre-Christmas carol singing anymore. There's nothing wrong with it- but there are better ways to prepare.


Blogger Kevin Jones said...

I wrote an advent song!

Or maybe it's just an anti-Santa song.

Anyway, check out

Were you there when they Marketed My Lord?

2:19 AM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

I don't know if that counts as an anti-Santa song: it's more an anti-consumer-culture song. But the jolly old elf predated consumer culture, so it may not be fair to blame him for that!

Loved the "were you there when they focus-grouped His word" verse, by the way.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Best Christmas said...

Best Christmas Songs - The Top 100 Christmas Songs of All Time !, and Graphics, ecards, Carols.Love songs, words, Freie Weihnachtslieder.Best Christmas Songs, lirics, Weihnachtslieder, listen, all, online,funny, xmas, online, xmas, funny, carols, kids, card, favorite, greeting, cute, favorites, holiday, beautiful, cute.

9:55 AM  

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