No Carols for You!

Of all the things seminary did to ruin Christianity for me, the worst was teaching me about Advent.

To review: in the church calendar, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. In its original form, Advent was intended to be a lot like Lent, a season of preparing one's heart for the new life symbolized in the holiday that marks the season's conclusion. Christmas being a lesser holiday than Easter, the Big Daddy of them all, Advent's spiritual prep was more muted, less extreme. There was no "shriving" during Advent. It simply meant hopeful expectation. The lesser status of the Christmas holiday also meant Advent's hope could have a broader focus than the very specific arrival of a baby: one was looking for all sorts of ways for God's saving justice to break through into the world.

And then came Dickens.

To be fair, Charles Dickens was just one of a host of 19th century influences that caused Christmas to transform from a minor church holiday that triggered, outside church walls, drunken rioting (and to be even more fair, it didn't take much to trigger drunken rioting in early industrial England) to a time of warmth, good will, family feasting, and gift given, and ultimately to the commercial monstrosity it has become. A Marxist analysis of the role of Christmas in pacifying the overworked masses would take far more space than I want to spend, especially since my topic for this post is extremely specific; so I'll leave it at this: Christmas as a multi-week, all-encompassing festival is a recent phenomenon.

In the days when Advent was still a time of preparation for something indeterminate, and Christmas was a festival that did not begin until December 25, and lasted only until January 6 (yes, that makes twelve days), there was never a problem with singing Christmas hymns prior to Christmas Eve. There just weren't that many of them, and people expected to sing them during the holiday, not before it. Advent was safe from Christmas intrusion. With that said, there was nothing in this practice to keep people from singing seasonal carols in the taverns, songs about wassail, fir trees, yule logs, and whatever other secular traditions marked the coming of winter. Those songs also tended to be far merrier than the hymns about the mystery of the Incarnation, which is how Christmas was generally seen in the church prior to the arrival of Victorian sentimentality: this baby was God in the flesh.

But then, as I said, along came the Victorians, schmaltzing everything up and expanding Christmas to a much larger event, an event that came to dwarf all other church-related holidays. Such a great moment could not be contained in a day, or even twelve days, so Christmas grew to become a season. And with that season came music that, again, could not be contained in that single day, and seemed stale and anti-climactic if restricted to the twelve days after that day.

Christmas carolers, who originally were more like trick-or-treaters, banging on one's door and singing rowdy winter drinking songs until given money or food, became more respectable, and sang songs about the birth of Jesus. These songs became popular in their own right, and Advent as a season of vague preparation bit the dust. From now on, Advent was all about being in the right spirit for Christmas.

I came to seminary believing this was the way things should be. How could I not? From Thanksgiving on, everywhere I went was permeated with Christmas carols, both sacred and secular. I loved these songs, loved the way so many of them could be reworked into jazz standards, loved playing them in brass choirs, singing them in four-part harmony, played them on my phonograph and Walkman. And I wondered why we weren't singing them in the seminary chapel. We always had in church, whether it was my father's church or the other churches I attended while in college and grad school.

And then I found out. It only took one lecture from worship professor Marjorie Procter-Smith to set me straight: Advent is not about Christmas. Only Advent-specific carols, which don't mention the baby Jesus, should be sung during Advent.

Just like that, Christmas was ruined for me. Not because the professor held any sway with me--I found her to be overly dogmatic, a quality I have never respected--but because I knew instantly that she was right. Since the first time I saw "A Charlie Brown Christmas," when I was five or six years old, I'd known there was a problem with the way this holiday is celebrated in European cultures, that we've blown it up to be far too big, to promise far more than it can deliver on, and set ourselves up for an annual cycle of hope and disappointment that does the church no favors. I knew Christmas needed to be reined in, kept within the confines of its place in the calendar. Marjorie had just given me the weapon I needed to do just that.

For the remainder of my shortish career in ministry, I sought to keep Advent as Christmas-carol-free as possible. I selected hymns from the paltry Advent section of the hymnal, most of which are in minor keys and give only inklings of the warm cheerful holiday to come. I also kept my sermons decidedly vague about whatever it was that we were supposed to be hoping for. The result: throughout the month of December, my church services were the one hour a week devoid of Christmas.

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it fosters an Ebenezer Scrooge/Grinch attitude toward the holiday in general. "Couldn't we please just sing one Christmas carol?" "No! It's not Christmas until December 25!" "But it's everywhere else." "Everywhere else is wrong!"

Maybe you see where this is going. I've known many pastors--and I must include myself in this category for at least the first few years of my ministry--who became Advent Nazis, bitterly fighting to tamp down the encroachment of Christmas in the one place that ought to know how to celebrate it properly. And yet, many of these pastors (myself included) permitted the church to be decorated with evergreen wreaths and Christmas trees festooned with lights and ornaments, fully in sync with the presence of such decorations in shopping malls, not to mention welcoming Christmas bazaars into their fellowship halls in November. Christmas-themed parties were celebrated by youth groups and women's circles, Sundays schools staged pageants, carols were played on carillons in the church tower; but the one place we drew the line was Sunday morning, 11 a.m. The rest of the time we just fumed about how much we'd already lost.

Eventually, I began to relax my white-knuckled grip on keeping Advent Christmas-free. I'd permit a carol or two done singalong style. I'd program hymns that, while associated with Christmas, didn't get into the manger specifics: "Joy to the World," "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming." What triggered this relaxation of standards? A simple realization: the church exists in the world, and is constituted by the people in the pews. Throughout December, their world is bursting with Christmas. Pretending it's not is like making church a place that never mentions poverty, divorce, economic inequality, recessions, political scandals, all trends that dominate headlines or gossip circles but still don't come close to the saturation of Christmas in the lives of ordinary people.

I no longer have to play this balancing act. During my years as a church musician, my senior pastors were responsible for making music choices: I just played the piano, picked anthems for the choir that fit with general sermon themes, and let my inner critic take the season off (or tried to; it's pretty hard for me not to analyze a sermon for every flaw of rhetoric, theology, and delivery).

School has been another matter. School districts go through cycles with respect to the presence of holiday themes in classrooms. During my first year of full-time music teaching, Beaverton was ruthless in its rejection of all expressions of holiday cheer, most likely in reaction to criticism by Evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other religious groups. In Banks, I received conflicting messages: Santa and Rudolph were fine, but be extremely cautious about anything that could be construed as religious. In my current gig, I've heard from a colleague who's being asked to put on a Christmas singalong using only general "winter songs," and wonders whether he should just refuse to do it because, as with Advent "carols," there just isn't much that's kid-appropriate. My own principal has requested that I keep it secular, and I'm fine with that: these are the songs these children want to sing. Those who like religious carols are almost certainly singing them in church. They're all saturated with this music already; in fact, the "Winter Workshop" craft activity in our cafeteria has an all-Christmas radio station playing as background music.

I understand that, for some, Christmas music, whether sacred or secular, is offensive because it is not part of their own faith or cultural tradition. For Jews and Muslims, Santa is a symbol from the same Teutonic tradition that handed them centuries of oppression and genocide. For Jehovah's Witnesses, any holiday celebration is an affront to God. For atheists, the fact that "Santa" is an adaptation of "saint," and that "Christmas" literally means "Christ's Mass," is enough to want to push the whole show out of every public setting. For some evangelicals and Catholics, there's not enough Christ in Christmas, and secular expressions are to be eschewed.

The reality is that our culture is so steeped in Christmas that we cannot avoid it, and that much of what we experience in this atmosphere is pleasing to us. This is true for our children, as well. Whether or not they understand the context of this music, they are hearing it, humming along with it, singing along to the extent they can understand it (and often, delightfully, adjusting the words so they make sense to them). They love the sound of jingle bells, love the smells of Christmas cooking, love the sense that all of this is oriented toward their happiness; and so yes, I will be teaching my students secular Christmas songs next week, and leading the whole school in singing about Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph on Friday afternoon. We'll have a lovely time, I don't believe anyone (myself included) will be psychically wounded by the experience, and then we'll all head off for our Winter Break. (And yes, I understand the irony of calling it "Winter Break" when all of this has been about how we know why it happens when it does.)

Merry Christmas!


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  2. Tremendous thoughts Mark. There is a tall glass of something you and I are destined to share sometime. What if we allowed this Season of the year to be a time of celebration, a time of thankfulness, a time of giving, a time of reaching out to those in need. What if we allowed people to celebrate this season of the year how they chose, according the persuasions and teachings that they held dear and sacred. And equally celebrating appreciating and reaching out to those who chose not to partake in those persuasions and teachings, simply for the sake of the Season. It seems to me that would be the most wondeful time of the year.


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