USA Today: When’s the Right Time to Carol?

(This column ran in USA Today on Monday. I find the issue of observing Advent fascinating in light of the larger culture’s willingness to launch into Christmas celebrations as early as possible. Just FYI to clarify, Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards did state in our interview that he can see the other side on this issue, and has even proposed starting Advent two weeks earlier in the church calendar, so that Christians can adequately celebrate both Advent and the Christmas season).

By Laura Vanderkam

When it comes to singing, Americans know few tunes by heart beyond Happy Birthday and the Star-Spangled Banner— until December. Then, churchgoers hit the pews ready to belt out the classics. We want to sing Joy to the World, Away in a Manger and so forth which, after all, have been playing on the radio since Halloween.

Yet far from warming the hearts of clergy everywhere, this gusto makes many pastors and people who design services cringe. In the church calendar, Christmas doesn’t actually start until, well, Christmas. The four prior Sundays make up a time called Advent, a time of waiting and preparation before Christmas, with its own songs and liturgies. Liturgical purists feel that singing Christmas carols in Advent is akin to a 5-year-old ripping open his presents on Dec. 6. Though a bit Scroogish, I think these folks have a point. In our instant gratification culture, we could all stand to learn the countercultural truth that anticipating something joyous accounts for a big chunk of the pleasure.


People who aren’t regular churchgoers might be surprised to learn how high feelings run on both sides of this issue. For those focused on the church calendar, there really isn’t much room for debate. “You would not sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today on Good Friday,” notes the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of Worship Resources for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. Many of the Advent biblical texts focus on the Second Coming, with John the Baptist’s ministry in the desert set against that context. This apocalyptic vision doesn’t mesh well with the lyrics of Silent Night and, as Burton-Edwards points out, churches have no obligation to follow the secular vision of December. “You don’t throw in Christmas hymns for the sake of appeasing people who want to sing,” he says.

On the other hand, “it’s just a bummer to go to church week after week and never hear carols until Christmas Eve,” notes David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul and author of Making Sense of the Christian Faith. “I think we ought to lighten up a little.”

Partly, this is a practical matter. Pushing Christmas songs off until Dec. 24 doesn’t leave much time for enjoying them — or teaching them to children, Lose notes, who will thus learn their Christmas songs as mall background music. Plus, “the whole church year calendar is a remembrance,” he says. “Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.” Christians can celebrate that in Advent, or July if they want.

Some try to find ways to satisfy both camps. Marcia McFee, a Lake Tahoe-based worship consultant who teaches at several seminaries, notes that you can “marry Advent texts to carol tunes,” and “use carol tunes as gathering and leaving instrumental music.”

Just hearing Christmas melodies — with different words or no words — can put churchgoers in a festive spirit while maintaining liturgical purity. Some Christmas carols have lyrics that are appropriate for the third or fourth Sundays of Advent, and churches can expand their repertoire of Advent hymns (some modern hymn writers, such as Kathleen Pluth of Alexandria, Va., have focused on creating more material just for this season). Over time, songs such as Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence can become as familiar as Joy to the World if church musicians work on educating those in the pews. Churches can also reclaim the 12 days of Christmas (Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the beginning of Epiphany), holding more services during this time that feature enough carols to make up for the early December dearth.

Of course, that requires people to show up for these services. Many people travel or visit family during this time, though it’s not clear that churches need to accommodate this. Either way, the focus on whether to carol or not to carol misses a larger point: Longing for something good that you know is coming is an enjoyable emotion in its own right. It’s also an emotion we don’t experience much these days.

The joy of … waiting

Once upon a time, kids had to wait a whole year for The Wizard of Oz to air on TV; now you can pop in a DVD of any show you want any time. Books show up on our Kindles in an instant, as do songs on our iPods. Churches can be different, inviting people to wait and hope, both as a spiritual discipline and also as a recognition of what psychologists are learning about human happiness. Happy people wring as much positive emotion from experiences as possible by spending time anticipating them.

Easier said than done, of course. “The desire to open Christmas presents early is very strong, even for adults,” Kathleen Pluth says. But ideally, Advent services can make people revel in the joy of anticipation — of singing Joy to the World in a few weeks’ time.

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.


3 thoughts on “USA Today: When’s the Right Time to Carol?

  1. No one wants to talk religion, huh? Okay, I’ll bite… .

    I know keeping the traditional calendar is important to some faiths, and I respect that. I have friends who are Orthodox, and I appreciate the way the calendar dictates the rhythm of fasting and feasting in their lives. But most of us don’t schedule our lives that way. Most of us are organizing and goal-setting in January, looking for lazy days in summer, and doing back-to-school in the fall. When that’s the rhythm of your year, a long Christmas season can be a spiritual boost.

    I’m not as busy as I used to be, but it’s still far too easy to get distracted. And with so many responsibilities, it can be a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit. I try to start the Christmas music on November 1st. The music is beautiful and fun, and nothing seems to touch you sprifitually the way music does. It’s like an old friend coming back to put things into perspective. In some ways, two months isn’t nearly enough time to celebrate the promise fulfilled by the Savior’s birth. We should be celebrating Christmas and Easter every single day.

    As for the benefits of delayed gratification and the joys of anticipation… waiting until November 1st to start Christmas music IS waiting for our family. I created the rule that no Christmas songs could be sung until after Halloween several years ago. It was July. Perhaps you aren’t raising children who will sing Christmas carols year-round, so starting the Christmas season on November 1st may seem early to you. But for us, it’s right on time.

    1. @Michelle: thanks for your comment. As David Lose said (not in my column but elsewhere), the arguments against singing Christmas carols early sound a wee bit like the arguments against celebrating communion every week. We are celebrating miracles, and so we should be celebrating them as often as we can! There are many wonderful Christmas songs. And it’s not like most churches deny access to, say, choirs that wish to rent their spaces to perform Christmas concerts, so only holding out during Sunday services may not be terribly consistent. I guess I’ve been viewing it more that there are wonderful Advent themes to celebrate too.

  2. My birthday is Christmas Eve and I was raised on an organ bench by a pipe organist, so I have a few thoughts on this important subject. I hope I don’t come across as overly pedantic.

    What we do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning is not the same as what we do for the other 166.5 hours. The difference for me can be summed up in one word: “community.”

    Some folks say, “Why go to church? I can pray at home.” Well, sure. In fact, Jesus recommends that highly. But Sunday service time is time spent in community with others, and what we do there builds and nourishes us as a community in ways that also feed us as individual members of that community.

    So …

    Keeping to the liturgical calendar on Sunday morning is important. It reminds us of who we are and where we (and our faith) came from, and it is as instructive to adults as it is to children.

    It’s also a lovely sanctuary from the commercial brouhaha infecting more and more of our lives. As you wrote, Laura, the marketing of Christmas begins right after Halloween (and sometimes before). It’s nice to know there is a place where we aren’t rushed into doing anything except contemplating our life in Christ and how we might prepare to welcome the baby Jesus once more, metaphorically speaking of course.

    Our Episcopal hymnal has tons of Advent hymns, including one sung to the same tune as “All glory, laud and honor” which we normally sing only on Palm Sunday so it can be great fun to sing it in Advent.

    One solution to those itching to sing carols in church can be a Lessons & Carols service. L&C can be done anytime (I once attended a “Lessons & Hymns” for Easter) and the Episcopal “Book of Occasional Services” has two formats, one for Advent and one for Christmas. We’re doing our L&C on the Sunday after Christmas this year, but some years we do one on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, depending on the whims of the liturgical decision-makers. Seems to me it wouldn’t be inappropriate to do it on the First Sunday — I’ll have to ask my favorite liturgical expert.

    I used to be such a rigid Advent purist at home that my husband began to hate Christmas because everything was such a rush at the end of Advent. Fortunately I came to my senses and now the only mandate at home is that we don’t get the tree until a week before Christmas because that’s my sister’s birthday and it’s a lovely living tradition we both love.

    This means I now wear my Christmas earrings & socks & things more than just twelve days a year. What a delightful discovery that was!

    (The thought of adding two weeks to Advent sends chills up my spine, and not just because of the implications for Advent wreaths. Honestly, that’s a non-starter for me. Brrr!)

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