I hate the song. I love the season. I hate the song because I love the season.

For me, going shopping anywhere—usually the grocery store, because I avoid everywhere else like the plague—between Thanksgiving and December 25 is an exercise in self-control. The minute I hear someone warbling “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” it’s all I can do to keep from steering my shopping cart straight into the woman wearing the Santa hat.

Don’t get me wrong: I love music. I even love Christmas music (and by that I mean music about the birth of Jesus). I love to sing that third verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”: “Mild he lays his glory by / Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give us second birth.” But I do not want to hear these words sung by Bing Crosby, and I do not want to hear them until December 24.

Part of why I resent the omnipresence of “Christmas” music, both sacred and secular, is that it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. Yes, I am one of those liturgical police, roaming the halls of Christendom and smacking with a ruler those who say “Alleluia” during Lent or those who think Christmas is over on December 25. That’s when it’s just beginning! My Christmas tree, if I had one, would stay up until Epiphany, because there are TWELVE days of Christmas, people! The song has it right (sort of).

Advent is supposed to be a time of solemn, thoughtful preparation for celebrating Jesus Christ’s incarnation. I like to think of it as a time to sweep away all the excess distractions, making everything as bare as the stable where God first came to dwell in human form. “Jingle Bells” interrupts my solemn preparation, rains on my meditative little parade.

Now, I’m well acquainted with Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16, and I often have to repent of passing judgment on less liturgically oriented Christians. I shouldn’t expect that the liturgical seasons will have the same meaning for all Christians that they do for me. They are by no means essentials of the faith, but they are helpful to me and to many others. Yet, given that many Christians don’t celebrate the season the same way I do, I realize it’s a bit ridiculous to get huffy about the way the secular world is appropriating “my” holiday.

It’s not surprising that the subtitle of a recent Wall Street Journal article caught my eye: “Holiday music is inescapable. Daniel J. Levitin on the ancient drive to listen to familiar songs, the psychological effects of music and why ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is so annoying.”

“Yes!” I thought. “Finally someone will explain to me why ‘Pa rum pa pum pum’ drives me nuts, in a logical, rational way that doesn’t make me seem like a Grinch.” No such luck. The article wasn’t even that deep, let alone helpful in rationalization of grumpiness. But one paragraph really got me thinking. Levitin writes:

“Holiday tunes are supposed to get us feeling at least a bit religious or spiritual, aren’t they? Historically they have worked well in this way. Music’s role in religious and spiritual ceremonies may be as old as religion itself. Although human religions differ markedly from one another, all religious rituals are characterized by a demarcation of time and place — on this day we stand here in this special spot, or interact with sacred objects that we don’t normally interact with — and by the reciting of music or text that is designed to take us out of ourselves, out of routine, and uplift us with higher thoughts. Ritual and religious music helps to differentiate this day or activity from the rest of our secular activities. Because we tend to hear these songs only during this season, they serve as a unique memory cue, unlocking a neural flood of memories related to the holidays.”

My first response was, “Exactly! Real Christmas music marks off something special and sacred, which is exactly why I get annoyed when it’s desacralized and profaned by being played in a store.” Then I realized how very un-Christian and un-incarnational that reaction was. Jesus was not born in the Holy of Holies, set off behind a curtain. He was born in a stable, outside a busy inn. He came to be with us not just in the spare, solemn places of our lives, but in the chaotic, messy, harried ones as well. Where today are American people at their emptiest and most broken, if not at the shopping malls and Wal-Marts? Jesus is there in their midst, whether they know what Advent is or not. Mr. Levitin is wrong: Christmas music celebrates the breaking of boundaries around the sacred, the Advent of God among us.

(However, Jesus who came to dwell among us also drove the moneychangers and the bird-sellers out of the temple, telling them, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). We could definitely use a liturgical holy day to celebrate the cleansing of the temple; just try and commercialize that, retailers!)

This personal epiphany (sorry—pun fully intended) doesn’t change the fact that I’d still rather not hear Christmas music in stores—ever. But I do hope and pray that Christmas music at Wal-Mart can remind me of the power of Jesus to break into our lives, wherever we are.


  1. Efficient post, Carissa. You cover a lot of ground quickly — your post will make a nice addition to a conversation I’ve been having with friends recently, inspired by both our liturgical solemnity and a local Christian radio station’s insistence on playing wretched wretched versions of both sacred and secular Christmas music 24/7 ever since Thanksgiving. (Which they continue to play, rather arbitrarily, until Jan. 1 — but not until the actual end of Christmastide.) Perhaps we will be inspired to worship rather than rant, even while listening to Bing Crosby knock-off “holiday” songs at the gas pump.

  2. Thanks, Mink. Ben and Rich have also been discussing sacred vs. secular Christmas extensively on the past couple of podcasts, going beyond just the music-in-stores issue.

    Also, thanks, Rich, for the very appropriate photo.

  3. First things first: the reason “Little Drummer Boy” is so dreadful may be summed up like so: the song is musically bankrupt. The problem has little to do with the sentiment or the lyricism, but wholly rests on the relentless doldrums produced in the song’s unimaginative rhythm.

    Now to the rest.

    Where to start? Okay, how ’bout with Advent. Not the real thing but the fabricated seasonal ritual. Despite the fact that the period is misnamed and should have perhaps been named something actually appropriate (like Anticipation, perhaps), I’m fine with those who wish to celebrate it. It’s right up there with my reasons for wanting to celebrate National High-Five Day every year.

    But to imagine that their is something inherently holy or good about dividing the Christmas season into Advent and Christmas and Epiphany or whatever is, well, silly. Seeing as how Christmas as a Christian celebration is merely the fabrication of some popular Christian leaders centuries after Christ’s first advent (not unlike Forty Days of Purpose), I believe it becomes harmful to the church to make Christmas a part of the liturgy. When something becomes part of the liturgy, honest Christians who don’t appreciate the religiosity that’s been imported into the Christmas holiday will feel pressured to change their views in order to be as quote-unquote good as the others in their midst who are happily participating in this foreign addition to the liturgy.

    Personally, besides the damage I think high liturgies do to the conscience of believers (prompting them to obedience to a new and man-made law to govern their faith), I have no use for the organization of one’s thoughts and expression that such structures like the church calendar seek to grid upon my life. I’m sad that the church is typically so seasonal in its practices that even low-liturgy churches keep awesome hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” trapped in December. These are songs that are good to be sung any day of the week throughout the year.

    I mean, look. I’m not stupid. I really am not. I don’t need some calendric kind of mnemonic device to remind me why I’m in church every Sunday. I don’t forget. Heck, it’s impossible to forget. We sit at the Lord’s Table every week. Pageantry might be neat for some. Maybe some people need it. But for me? It just gets in the way.

    Really, if Christians aren’t celebrating Christ’s incarnation every day (and specifically, every week), something’s wrong. If they aren’t spending every day in solemn reflection on what his coming (and his coming again) means, somethings wrong. And if the believer isn’t doing these things daily and weekly, then absolving him of the responsibility by making it a once-a-year, for-reals-this-time celebration of solemnity and incarnation is not the solution by a long shot.

    Again, if you want to go the high-liturgical route of honouring the church calendar, then please do so. But don’t imagine it’s a better way to do things. It’s just different. You might feel like it’s value-added, but in the end, it’s just value shuffled around from somewhere else.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  4. Well, The Dane, I could get into an argument with you about the value of liturgy, but I doubt that would do either of us any good. Instead, I’ll just repeat a relevant paragraph from above:

    “Now, I’m well acquainted with Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16, and I often have to repent of passing judgment on less liturgically oriented Christians. I shouldn’t expect that the liturgical seasons will have the same meaning for all Christians that they do for me. They are by no means essentials of the faith, but they are helpful to me and to many others.”

  5. Love this! I especially love the idea that Christmas rituals–Christian rituals in general–should help us to break down boundaries between our “sacred” and “secular” lives to instead celebrate the God who is with us. I’ve been thinking about the way we take the mess and pain and fear and blood and messiness of birth out of our Christmas stories and nativities. Just blogged about it, in fact. A holy, sacred, Christ-in-all-the-crevices-and-moments-of-life Christmas to you!

    The Musers last blog post..Christmas Musings: Blood and Shit at the Birth

  6. I can’t claim to be as liturgically inclined as my otteresque offspring blogger. So I wish to thank her for never having smacked me with a ruler for saying “Alleluia!” during Lent. In practice, she takes Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16 rather seriously.

    But I do see the wisdom of devoting ourselves to a period of reflection during the time leading up to major Chrisitan celebrations, such as of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, a period of reflection in which we come to understand within our spirits the problem being resolved by what we celebrate.

    Granted celebrating those great truths may be done every day of the year, and at some level should be. But our culture is inclined to cut straight to celebration (and consquent splurging) without pausing to understand the depth and breadth of the victory being celebrated. We rob ourselves in that way. There is a drama to salvation, and it ought to be played out in our hearts and minds.

    My experience as a pastor suggests that the small handfuls who have gathered for Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday services tend to have much deeper joy on Easter Sunday than the multitudes who show up prepared only by an egg hunt, chocolate bunnies, and thoughts of Spring.

    Christmas carols sung in ways that show that the singer clearly lacks a clue may do more to immunize people against the gospel rather than to extend the gospel into secular space. Yet when true words are sung, no matter how poorly, we never know what may take hold. Christmas carols in malls and on radios are the only ways some people hear about Jesus. The issue is worth prayerful, studious reflection.

  7. I think part of my problem is with the made-up character of these so-called Christian celebrations. Unless we’re Orthodox or Roman, our rule and authority as believers is the canonical Scriptures. If these celebrations were ordained in holy writ, that would be one thing, but despite good intentions, there is nothing innately Christian about these celebrations.

    Even if we pretend that these weren’t just co-opted pagan celebrations.

    As these aren’t truly Christian celebrations, but merely celebrations in which Christians take part, the only spiritual requirement is that any involvement by us be practiced to the glory of God. If one skips all the religious trappings and focuses on the secular and does so consciously to the glory of God, that person is doing good. If one takes part in the religious trappings and focusing on the meditative opportunity presented by the church calendar, that person also is doing good.

    Not better, certainly. But good.

    I’m fine with the church calendar so long as people regard it in the sense that, Oh, hey! This is kind of a neat way of looking at things. And you know what? I bet it would be helpful to me to check it out. That’s fine and good and great. So long as it stays there.

    My problem is that it has a tendency not to stay there. And Carissa’s post points this out. While she acknowledges Paul’s admonitions and doesn’t lord her calendar love over others, she points out that this is not her initial reaction. By God’s grace, she points out, her reactions are tempered by remembering Scripture and thinking about these things more deeply. And though she succeeds in backing away from the legalistic tendencies these things come to engender, it’s pretty clear that she is more circumspect than the average bear.

    Again, I’m fine with Carissa’s interest Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Arbour Day, etc. In a way, I’m just echoing the warning that frolics through her article here.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

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