Pondering on Christmas Carols and Hymns during Worship


I have been pondering something lately.  I hesitate to write about it, because I fully expect that many of you will disagree with me and probably want to rake me over the coals.  But, I have to get this off my chest. I think I have changed my mind about Christmas Carols and Hymns during worship, and particularly when they can and should not be used in worship.

Common practice among many mainline Christian traditions is that in Advent (the liturgical season which begins the church year and prepares us both for the coming of the Christ child as well as his return) we defer Christmas hymns and carols until the twelve days of Christmas.  These twelve days are generally December 24th, Christmas Eve, through January 5th, the day before the Epiphany of Our Lord.   The thought of deferring these carols is that by doing so, we have the benefit of preserving the meaning of Advent as preparation, as well as being ready to celebrate the arrival of the Christ child when the day finally arrives. It is also thought that by doing so, we keep “Christmas as Christmas” and “Advent as Advent” in seeming opposition to the expectations and practices of the predominant earthly culture.

Now, I am not opposed to this practice.  I grew up believing soundly in this practice.  But, lately I have been wondering if perhaps it might be time to rethink this. Now before you dismiss me as another apologist or as one who is conceding to culture, please keep reading to hear me out.

I offer this out of my own experience as a congregational worship coordinator, a music leader in another congregation, and as one who has done consulting in yet another congregation.  Pure and simply, I have seen more and more Sunday School aged youth in congregations who simply do not even know or recognize traditional and fundamentally beautiful Christmas carols like “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.”  Now before we bemoan this, let me say, I did actually grow up singing and learning these carols as a young child.  My first solo was in elementary school when I sang “Go Tell it on the Mountain” for special music in the Christmas Day service of my home congregation.  So perhaps I am not one who can accurately speak to this.  But from my perspective it seems that children and young people are increasingly lacking an exposure and understanding of Christmas songs and hymns. If they are exposed to the melodies, they certainly don’t know the deeper stories around them much at all. [1]

What I am saying is this, we are doing a disservice to children and young people by not exposing them to these meaningful carol and hymn tunes in worship more often.  If we honestly believe that just singing them during the twelve days of Christmas is enough, we deceive ourselves.  Why?  Because outside of Christmas Eve most people do not attend church around Christmas.  The Sunday before and Sunday(s) immediately after Christmas are some of the traditionally lowest attendance Sundays of the year.  So, if one doesn’t sing a carol on Christmas Eve, there is a great chance they won’t sing it or be exposed to it at all.

Nativity in Poland

In generations past, children, and those who attended Sunday School were exposed to these Christmas Carols in a number of venues.  They likely prepared them for some sort of Sunday School program (or even perhaps a “Christmas Pageant”).  They may have sung them in school in choir or music classes.  They may have sung them while out caroling in the community or at area nursing homes or care facilities, as classes or in other school related groups. They likely heard them on television in such Christmas specials like the “Charlie Brown Christmas.”  This is all true.

As you can probably see where I am going with this, we no longer find ourselves in that time period.  Today, many congregations have either done away with the Sunday School program, or have greatly reduced the amount of expectations that come with it (perhaps not even having it during worship).  In many schools the thought of singing anything remotely related to being faith based or sacred is simply out of the question.  And, when we look at Christmas specials on TV today, yes, there are reruns of “Charlie Brown Christmas,” but how many new specials actually feature the sorts of carols we might sing out of a hymnal?  How many will feature a child reciting Luke 2  from memory?

We can bemoan this all we want.  But I don’t think that’s the missional approach to take here at all.  Instead, I say let’s roll up our sleeves and get creative. If we really value the future of the church, we can’t keep doing what we have been doing and expect different results.  People and life don’t work like that.  The ways of worshiping and doing the work of the church might change or shift some, but the core, the heart of the good news of the Gospel remains constant. This is what is the mission of the church.  All the other stuff, even the practice of refraining from singing Christmas carols during Advent is adiaphora (extra stuff that really doesn’t matter for salvation).

If singing some Christmas carols, or at least teaching them during Advent is out of the question, what are other ways that we might build these Christmas hymns into worship throughout the year?

If you are a Lutheran and like numbers and graphs, then see the following chart.

Number of Hymns By Liturgical Season  (in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Book of Worship)
Number of Hymns By Liturgical Season
(in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Book of Worship)

As you can see, there are a greater number of hymns that are listed in the Christmas season (covering calendar dates of December 24-January 5).  (Granted, between these two hymnals there were changes into certain categorization of hymns).  But the distribution is similar enough.  Advent (the liturgical season which occurs mostly in December and very late November) has slightly less hymns then Christmas, but Epiphany and the time after Epiphany (a season which is usually longer and sometimes much longer running from January through February or March) then either Christmas or Advent has a much smaller number of hymns.  It’s interesting that so many of the great hymns of the church were written for such a relatively short liturgical season.  Perhaps we could incorporate these somehow into Epiphany?  Obviously, the lectionary or selected readings which are shaping worship dictate song and hymn choice, but I have a guess that with the right imaginative mind, there could be a way to tie a few of these hymns/carols in throughout the church year at different times.  Maybe even tie in some Advent hymns before Advent to teach them ahead of time, particularly in the month of November which often features readings in the lectionary which are about end times. The possibilities are probably endless.

Now returning to the larger point about Christmas carols and the future of the church.  Obviously this is a much deeper discussion then what I am posing here, and it hints at many questions that are being actively pondered within faith formation circles and discussions.  I offer my reflections mainly to spark thought and imagination, but also to ask “why do we do what we do” and is “why we do what we do” still a good reason in spite of a potential loss of exposure of some of the better and more meaningful pieces of Christmas carols and hymnody for a future generation?  I for one, am not so sure anymore.

One final exercise.  Take a hymn or carol, any hymn or carol and read the words.  For the sake of this exercise, I just opened to “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Now read the text, and then sing it as best you can.  Doesn’t that message stay with you?  It’s amazing what power these tunes have, and what pictures the text paints if we let it.  When picking hymns, and refraining from picking hymns, think about the children that might be in worship and think what would you like them to learn and hear?  What tune would you like to hear them singing later in the week while they are playing outside or humming while working on homework?

I want to continue this possibility, but especially when it comes to the Christmas songs of the church, we have to give the future of the church opportunities to hear and be exposed to them.  Settling for just the twelve days around Christmas really may not be the best solution anymore.  What do you think?


Notes, Sources, and References:

[1] I want to clarify something here.  Even though children and young people are often thought of as the future of the church, they are also the past and present of the church, just like we all are.  They are leaders now, and they are capable and their voices count now.  I fundamentally believe this because we affirm that we are all children of God.  As adults we shouldn’t burden them automatically by saying they are the “future of the church.”  We shouldn’t burden them with a responsibility that is say 20 years down the road that:  1) they might not want; 2) as a larger church, we might not have done a great job at nurturing them, mentioning and helping them grow in their understanding of God and of themselves.  We have to admit this, and also view and affirm children as equal participants and members of the body of Christ.

“Away in a Manger,” North American text, James R. Murray, Public Domain.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

Lutheran Book of Worship, (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1978).

“O Come, All Ye Faithful,” John Francis Wade, tr. Frederick Oakeley, Public Domain.

“Silent Night, Holy Night,”  Joseph Mohr, tr. John F. Young, Franz Gruber, Public Domain.

4 thoughts on “Pondering on Christmas Carols and Hymns during Worship

  1. Thank you MaryAnn!

    I just read some of the posts you have written on the topic. Wow, excellent stuff! I have to edit this post and add some links to your blog. I loved your summary, but I also particularly loved your post: http://theblueroomblog.org/reason-to-sing-christmas-carols-during-advent/#comments.

    I love the rhythm and pattern you propose for the ratio of Advent and Christmas hymns during Advent, and might just end up trying that myself (at least by weeks 3 and 4).

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