It’s easy for us pastor types to get upset about singing songs out of season. For the same reason that you shouldn’t sing Easter songs on Good Friday or during Lent (“Up from the grave he arose”? Not yet!), you shouldn’t sing Christmas songs in Advent. This is theologically sound and correct. It is the way we have celebrated Christmas for generations (before mass media Christmas music consumption). So why does just about every church sing Christmas carols during Advent?
I haven’t done any real research on this, but I imagine it has to do with preparation. Christmas songs are sung, not because we are singing them to celebrate the event itself (as we would with “Happy Birthday”), but because they contribute to feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia functions as a reminder to the mind and the heart of what it means and what it feels like to celebrate Christmas. When we sing Christmas carols during Advent, we do so because we want to celebrate Christmas better, not worse.
I would guess that this also has to do with the way we celebrate events in our culture today. Pastors know they’re swimming against the tide at both Easter and Christmas when we say that Lent/Advent is a time of preparation and the weeks afterward are the weeks of celebration. And yes, one major reason for this is that stores want to sell us goodies early to get ready for the celebration – earlier and earlier every year. (This, by the way, is the real war on Christmas – the one waged by the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.)
The question most pertinent for pastors in the midst of this is whether or not we give in. There are a lot of materials out there telling you why you shouldn’t give in, but for many pastors it isn’t an option. We end up either compromising or giving in completely to avoid looking like Scrooges who say “Bah! Humbug!” every time we hear a Christmas carol. I want to provide some theological grounding for singing Christmas songs during Advent in a way that respects the Christmas holiday.
- Christians should be comfortable with paradox.
We are an already/not-yet people. Christ’s Kingdom is here, but it is also coming. It’s coming right now, in this generation, but it’s probably going to be a while before Jesus returns in glory. In part, we mix up our already and our not-yet because God exists outside of time and space. A day is like a thousand years, and so on. When we sing Christmas songs during Advent, we celebrate that Christ has in fact been born, even as we wait for him. We can’t fully put on blinders when we go into church and pretend we’ve never celebrated Christmas before, so why should we pretend? Christ has been born! That’s the reality! Christ is coming! That’s the reality!
- Christ’s story is no longer linear
This goes along with the previous point. In “We Three Kings,” we celebrate Christ the newborn baby, Christ the reigning King, and most mysteriously, Christ sealed in a tomb and Christ raised to life. In a song about celebrating Christ’s birth, there’s a whole verse dedicated to Good Friday when Jesus is dead:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
When we tell Christ’s story in modern times, we “tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” and it is especially true for lectionary-following Christians that “success in circuit lies” (h/t Emily Dickinson). As we get ready for Jesus to be born, we celebrate communion and the sacrifice he made for us. When we grieve on Good Friday, we do so knowing that Easter Sunday is coming. We tell all the same stories over and over again in different patterns, making different comparisons, and being all the more enriched for it. So sing the Christmas carols that celebrate Christ’s birth, and then ask the difficult question: How can I prepare for Christ’s birth when Christ was already born 2,000 years ago?
- Christmas carols prepare our hearts
Christmas music makes us remember Christmas, and it makes our hearts remember what Christmas feels like. It makes us think of what Christmas was like when we were kids ourselves, and helps us gain back some of that child-like innocence and honesty that Jesus values so much. If we can use Christmas carols to heighten those feelings and think critically about them, Christmas carols will do a better job that unfamiliar Advent tunes at preparing us for Christ to enter our hearts again.
- Singing Christmas carols connects us to the community
This gets to the heart of the problem: the singing of Christmas carols in Advent is primarily not a project of the church, but a project of secular culture that wants us to go shopping early. And so, the singing of Christmas carols is also an evangelistic (one might even say “missional”) effort. When done wrong, a church that is too enthusiastic about not singing Christmas carols in Advent will appear pompous and judgmental. Singing those Christmas carols right when people are feeling like it’s time to go back to church helps them to see that the church is a little familiar and expected, and gives the thoughtful pastor an opportunity to have a conversation about the already/not-yet nature of the season.
So there you have it – the first four reasons I thought of to sing Christmas carols during Advent. You will note, however, that one key element in choosing to sing Christmas carols early is mindfulness – think critically about the carols, talk about them, take your blinders off! Not singing Christmas carols early can be like abstinence-only sex education that refuses to take part in the conversations and decisions that everyone else is having. Of course, singing them early and often without thought… well, you can extend the metaphor.
TL;DR – It’s ok to sing Christmas carols during Advent (because time is all messed up and it helps us celebrate Christmas anyway), but it’s ok not to also. If you do choose to sing early, do so thoughtfully.