1. The dramata-liturgical reason (I just made that up): Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, I like to think of the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas ripens over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December, so why not musically too?
So on Advent 1 we sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones—this year it’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” because it fits my sermon. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with an “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. On Advent 4, we might do one Advent Hymn and the rest Christmas. That said, this year I might back off on that slightly, since Advent 4 is on the 19th, still several days before Christmas.
2. The numerical reason: Advent is twice as long as the Christmas season, and yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the PCUSA hymnal). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind your back.
3. The pedagogical reason: In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I remember this clearly from my childhood. Actually, what I remember most clearly is the time we had a Jewish girl in our class and she taught us the dreidel song. The fact that that experience was so memorable 30 years later suggests that the rest of the time, we were singing songs from my tradition as a default.
Unlike some people, I don’t pine for those days. However, the shift in our culture means that it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” They aren’t going to to get that immersion if we limit Christmas carols to Christmastide. (Also, many of our families are traveling during winter break, and while they will attend Christmas Eve services, attending Sunday services while on vacation is not as certain, to say the least. So kids may not get exposed to some of these hymns in worship at all.)
4. The musical reason: As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)
5. The pastoral reason: This one probably doesn’t need to be discussed, but: Life is difficult, for a great many people. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people really appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and if only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do! Because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words are powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace”? Goose bumps, baby!
In short, it is not kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Silver Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Until then, I’m going to say that three verses of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” IS counter-cultural, even on December 12.)
6. The evangelistic reason: December is a pretty well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It is a good time to be attentive to visitors. As such, it is an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darnit, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but, whew!, they can join in on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
OK… I’m ready to hear your counter-arguments.
Image: I mean, just look at Snap, Crackle and Pop in that picture. Do you think they’d look so joyful if they were singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”?