(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.