Advent and Christmas are liturgical seasons. Advent comes first and lasts about four weeks (there are always 4 Sundays of Advent). Only after Advent is complete does Christmas take place. December 25 marks the beginning of Christmas and goes through January 5.
How very different this is in today’s popular cultural. First of all, within popular culture, there is no Advent to speak of. Some have probably heard of “Advent calendars” in which every day a window of sorts is opened, or maybe into which a coin is inserted. Beyond that, Advent suffers from very low recognition outside of the church.
The fact is, the cultural season of Christmas begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on December 25. It’s during this period of time that the airwaves are filled with Christmas music. And what happens to that music on December 26, the actual second day of Christmas? It suddenly vanishes! Why? Because Christmas is over. At least, that’s how it feels. Emotionally, it feels like the Christmas season takes place in December and concludes on Christmas Day.
But the truth is, despite what popular culture says is so, the weeks leading up to December 25 is actually a time of preparing for Christmas. That’s what Advent is about. It’s a time of preparation—not so much for the big Christmas party at work or the big choir cantata at church—but for the coming of God into our world. And then, on December 25 we finally celebrate the birth of Christ. Ideally, it’s between December 25 and January 5 that the airwaves would be filled with Christmas music.
As I see it, because you and I have a foot firmly planted in both worlds—the liturgical, church world as well as popular culture—the goal is to find a workable balance, to be able to enjoy the cultural season of Christmas throughout December, with its wonderful music, movies, food, gathering, etc., while also observing a holy Advent in which we intentionally hold back on the celebrations and also look ahead to our Lord’s return. At this time of year, we kind of have to do both at the same time.
In the church, the clash between Advent and Christmas is usually felt in worship. I’m talking about the debate of whether we sing only Advent hymns/songs during Advent, or do we also include Christmas hymn/carols during Advent? Through the years, I’ve comfortably settled in somewhere in the middle. Our hymnal contains 16 Advent hymns, 7 of which the average congregation is familiar. That covers about two weeks of singing. Then there’s the fact that most often the season of Christmas contains only 1 Sunday in which to sing over 30 Christmas hymns and carols found in our hymnal. Even in the occasional year when there are 2 Sundays of Christmas, that’s way too many songs to cram into the official season of Christmas.
So, as a way of musically honoring the separate-but-connected seasons of Advent and Christmas, here’s what you can expect from me in the four weeks of Advent: week 1: Advent hymns. Week 2: Advent hymns, then close with a transitional hymn. Weeks 3 and 4: Christmas carols with the “fully-charged” Christmas carols (eg., Joy to the World) saved for Christmas Eve and the Sunday(s) of Christmas.
You are invited to observe and celebrate the holy season of Advent. It’s an important season. Then, by all means, celebrate the birth of Jesus with lots of great singing and rejoicing. Let’s do them both.