Why can’t we sing Christmas carols in church during Advent?

Question

“Why can’t we sing Christmas carols in church during Advent?” (Green Bay)

Answer

As the seasons change, so too does the rhythm of the church’s year. This helps us all to appreciate the beauty of time and God’s presence in our lives. However, keeping pace with sacred time is becoming much more difficult these days. If you look at the culture today, it can seem that this time of year is one enormous Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas extravaganza. Keeping Christ, not just in Christmas, but at the center of our lives, can be an uphill battle.

Just as with the seasons of nature, there is a beautiful rhythm to the liturgical year. This helps us to understand life transitions and how the rituals of the church year prepare us to receive Jesus in every season. Time itself has been marked by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For example, “B.C.” stands for the English phrase “before Christ” and “A.D.” stands for the Latin phrase “anno domini” which means “the year of the Lord”—denoting what year this counting from the year we mark as when Jesus was born.

Teaching our young people to understand sacred time, when everything else seems to blend together, is integral to growing in faith. While it is tempting to live in the future and celebrate events whenever we want, ultimately this diminishes our ability to embrace the here-and-now. Advent is not just a precursor or “prelude” to Christmas, but a journey in and of itself, with Christmas as the destination. At the heart of Advent is a sense of anticipation and hope as we prepare for the birth of Christ.

So why are we asked to reserve Christmas carols for the Christmas season (in other words, starting with the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve?) It is not because the church is a Grinch, but because Advent is its own season and we are asked to celebrate it in its own right.

Advent begins the liturgical year and with it comes the unfolding of beautiful readings that build toward the birth of Christ, from one week to another, along with complementary music, colors and rituals. The lighting of the Advent wreath or the many creative ways that sacred time is counted are among many people’s favorite childhood traditions — such as Advent calendars. Being faithful to the meaning and purpose of Advent helps us to witness to a counter-cultural reality — namely to embrace the present moment and not give in to the culture’s emphasis on instant gratification, even when it comes to musical preferences.

As Catholics, we also know that Christmas Day is not the end of the Nativity season but the beginning. It is just the start of our Christmas celebration, marked by beautiful feast days — like that of the Holy Family (Dec. 29) or of Mary, the Mother of God (Jan. 1)— that contain their own sense of joy and festivity.

While it is tempting to skip right to Christmas after Thanksgiving, staying true to our Catholic faith means also being true to the marking of sacred time. Explaining the meaning and purpose of Advent helps us to disciple people as to why we wait and prepare for the birth of Jesus Christ. Our Advent prayer helps us to do that, especially our Advent music. During the season of Advent, we watch, we wait and we prepare. So when Christmas comes, as it always does, it is that much sweeter and more meaningful for our waiting.

Stanz is director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay.


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