“Once a year,” wrote Brennan Manning in Reflections for Ragamuffins, “the Christmas season strikes both the sacred and secular spheres of life with sledgehammer force: suddenly Jesus Christ is everywhere.”
It’s true. When I walk through the grocery store, trying to remember if I have vanilla extract in the pantry, I hear Nat King Cole crooning, “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the background. My daughter comes home from preschool singing, “Joy to the World” (they have been practicing for next week’s school Christmas performance). On Sunday mornings, the hymns include “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”
Christmas music is the soundtrack to my life in December. Yet those of us who try our best to center the Incarnation throughout the season experience both joy and exasperation as we hear rich carols shuffled together with “Santa Baby” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
We worry that the saturation of Christmas music in everyday December life has watered down the meaning and worshipfulness of spiritual carols. It’s hard not to wonder: Has the singing of Christmas carols become an exercise in sentimentality and nostalgia? Do they still have a place in congregational worship?
During the first week of December this year, the most popular songs used in US churches, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), were all Christmas carols. The top five were “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Joy to the World (Unspeakable Joy)”—Chris Tomlin’s 2009 arrangement.
Most churches continue to embrace the carols we know and love, yet some leaders are ambivalent, worried that too-familiar tunes are distracting from worship instead of adding to it.
A few years ago, I visited my parents’ church in early December. The foyer and auditorium stage were decorated with poinsettias; Christmas trees with shimmering ornaments and white lights; and trendy wreaths with matte, dusty-green leaves.
Before the service, my mom mentioned that the church wouldn’t include many Christmas carols for December services. Leaders had decided that Sunday services ought to remain focused on worship-as-usual rather than becoming carol sing-alongs.
Bob Kauflin, director of Sovereign Grace Music and author of True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God, addressed a similar concern earlier this month. In an article titled “Reclaiming Christmas Carols for our Worship,” Kauflin wrote, “There’s a difference between songs that focus on the arrival of a season and ones that focus on the arrival of a Savior.”
The church, Kauflin argues, can “fight against becoming numb to the stunning truths of Christmas carols” by paying attention to the lyrics, which may spill from our mouths on autopilot but actually tell the story of one of the most profound parts of the gospel.
Carols like “Away in a Manger” are easy targets for carol critics who believe they may not be theologically rich enough to begin with. Lyrics like “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” are sweet but liberally poetic (surely the fully human baby Jesus cried, as any parent will attest).
But even this Christmas lullaby moves me to tears when I snap out of the holiday music trance and consider the utter vulnerability, nakedness, dependence, and intimacy of the Word made flesh, poured into the form of a newborn. Perhaps we discount the value of the storytelling and imagination that carols can bring to worship.
The most popular worship songs of the past year, hits like “The Goodness of God” and “Build My Life,” for example, are self-reflective and self-referential. They invite the worshiper to sing, “All my life you have been faithful” and “I will build my life upon your love.” They are explicitly personal and set in the here and now of the singer’s life.
Some carols similarly invite singers to reflect on the meaning of Christmas individually, and some don’t. The first three verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” imagine the night and setting of the Nativity; the fourth brings the singer and historical moment together:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!
“Silent Night,” a staple of most Christmas Eve services, doesn’t have a directly personal turn. The closing stanza is simply an imagined encounter with the Christ child:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
The Incarnation is mysterious, but it is grounded in a physical event, time, and place. Singing the account of the Incarnation—even the imagined details—is an exercise in worship that centers that story, assuming that the worshiper knows the implications without needing to sing “I” or “me.”
One objection to the overuse of Christmas carols in worship is not that their lyrics lack depth or meaning; it is that their appeal is primarily nostalgic. Perhaps, even if the texts themselves are valuable, they resonate with congregations primarily because of their association with the Christmas season, reaching back into memories of our childhoods.
“Let us consider why people are in a rush to sing Christmas carols anyway,” wrote theologian Marva Dawn in A Royal Waste of Time. “Unfortunately, it is often merely for sentimental reasons or because they are not as morally convicting as are the texts of Advent. To rush the season is to cater to our penchant for instant gratification.”
Ouch. I have to admit, I bristle a little at the suggestion that my love of congregational carol-singing is tied to empty sentimentality or a preference for therapeutic spirituality. Personally, I would welcome the introduction of Christmas carols to Sunday worship throughout December.
I wonder, though: Is nostalgia the best description of our emotional relationship with carols? And whatever that emotional relationship is, nostalgia or not, is it necessarily at odds with worship?
Nostalgia has a bad reputation as an out-of-touch longing for bygone days when things were easier, better, more comfortable, more familiar. And when we say something has “sentimental value,” we imply that its only usefulness is in its ability to appeal to emotional attachment. It is only a cheap approximation of beauty. But nostalgia can also be a natural, healthy return to a meaningful memory.
“Like an article of clothing or an aroma,” wrote sociologist and music scholar Tia DeNora in Music in Everyday Life, “music is part of the material and aesthetic environment in which it was once playing, in which the past, now an artefact of memory and its constitution, was once a present.”
DeNora refers to music’s ability to act as a “container” for past experience, one that is a source of meaning in the present. But the experience of feeling an emotional tie to the past through music isn’t inherently escapist. On the contrary, it can add meaning to the present. That God-given emotional response can enhance musical worship.
Is it possible that someone singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve can mentally escape to a past memory or bask in self-centered emotion? Of course. Is it also possible for me to do the same thing when I sing, “This Is My Father’s World” on any other Sunday? Yes. The tune of that hymn stirs my heart without fail.
There is danger in allowing insidious sentimentality to invade musical worship. In A Peculiar Orthodoxy, theologian Jeremy Begbie warns of sentimentality that “evades or trivializes evil,” is “emotionally self-indulgent,” and “avoids costly action.” When the music of our congregational worship becomes a means by which we cheapen, trivialize, or over-individualize the present, there is a need for reorientation.
Perhaps you are feeling a need to “reclaim” carols in worship, that they have been detrimentally commandeered by sentimentality and consumer culture, that they have been stripped of their meaning and significance.
Bob Kauflin suggests that, while our feelings about Christmas music may be complicated, love for our neighbors can help us navigate the season: “Our eagerness to join in with gusto as our neighbors belt out ‘Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh’ shows we want to rub shoulders with them, share their joys and sorrows.”
The words and music of Christmas carols, whether sung by a congregation or by Pentatonix over the radio, proclaim the arrival of Christ. The warm, joyful feelings you have while singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” are a response to a wondrous truth and an emotional response to the music and everything that surrounds it.
“Remotely or proximately,” wrote Brennan Manning, “He is toasted in every cup of Christmas cheer. Each sprig of holly is a hint of his holiness, each cluster of mistletoe a sign he is here.”