If your household is similar to mine, it's highly possible that you still have buckets of your children's unfinished Halloween candy lying around your kitchen! And here it is now the week following Thanksgiving. In a non-liturgical world, it seems to be the natural progression that we should go ahead and begin our rightful enjoyment of "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" as we look for those Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. After all, as of November 1st, the radio stations here in Cincinnati began their yearly proclamation of the Christmas season. The never-ending cycle of the same 30 Christmas songs played endlessly as a way to "celebrate the real reason for the season" fills our ears ad nauseum. Now to be fair, we all enjoy Christmas music to a certain degree, but one must be reminded that it is not yet Christmas. Advent is yet to be upon us, and musically speaking, Advent and Christmas are two very different seasons with contrasting musical tones.
"Advent" is a term that derives from the 4th declension Latin noun "adventus", which means "arrival" or "coming". It is the season beginning this Sunday, December 3, and ending Sunday, December 24th, during which we look forward to the celebration of the Nativity with a sense of expectation and hope. Advent points back to the time when the ancient Israelites were crying out to God for a Messiah. With that in mind, Advent hymns have a tendency to be more introspective, subdued, and minor in key. During the season of Advent, in the Catholic church for example, even the instruments play at a quieter dynamic level. Advent hymns are often harder to find, which is why most churches simply skip to Christmas music. They are also not as "peppy" and "fun" as Christmas hymns. Their subject matter deals with looking forward to a coming Messiah, expecting, and waiting. However, it's not just any waiting: it's waiting for our very salvation. A prime example of such a hymn is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Although it is sung in English today, it was traditionally written in Latin in the 12th century.
On the other hand, Christmas is a celebration of God's covenant being fulfilled. And it's this expression of jubilant fulfillment of God's promises that makes us want to listen to those Christmas carols as soon as possible and for as long as possible. A Savior was indeed sent to earth, so there is joyful celebration in songs like "Joy to the World" and "Angels We Have Heard on High". Singing these songs makes us happy and helps us feel fulfilled and unified.
However, this joyful celebration technically doesn't begin until Christmas Day. The time of Advent provides the believer with a time of preparation and a time to focus on the hope that Christ indeed brings. This is essential to the Christian experience. Just as we prepare our hearts to receive Communion, we must prepare our hearts to receive God's gift of Christ. Last night I sat in my office and began planning the music for December for the church where I am employed as music director. Though I needed to plan through December 31st, I had to stop at December 24th because I couldn't make the mental and emotional shift from Advent to Christmas in one sitting. I will have to return to my work with a fresh frame of mind. I do indulge in Christmas music before December 25th to a degree, and I don't think it's wrong, but I am careful not to overlook Advent and the reminders it provides of what God has done for us. Both Advent and Christmas hymns deserve a place in our holiday tradition. And just remember, Christmas doesn't fall on Black Friday.
Please look for a follow-up post on my absolute favorite songs for Advent!