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Can We Sing Christmas Carols During Advent?

with a list of Traditional, Contemporary, and Instrumental Songs for Advent

Dennis Bratcher

Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent.  Since our family has long observed Advent, before church I had unpacked the Advent wreath and placed it on the table.  I unwrapped a new set of Advent candles and placed them in the wreath, all ready to light the first candle at lunch after church.  On the way to church, I found myself singing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel!"  This was the Sunday of Expectation in which we begin to look forward to the Coming of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God by which he again revealed to the world that he is a "God with us."

As the service of worship began, the first song that we sang was "Joy to the World," a Christmas song!* I tried to sing it, and celebrate the coming of Jesus the Christ.  But it wasn't quite right.  It was not yet Christmas.  I simply wasn't prepared to sing Christmas songs yet.  It was too soon.  Where was the expectation, the longing that Israel had expressed for 500 years before the birth of Jesus?  And even though I had seen Christmas decorations in the stores since August, I was not yet ready to jump from ordinary worship to Christmas celebration.  By the second Christmas song, I simply could not sing. The joy did not yet have any meaning and rang hollow, because it was simply too superficial without some context.  It was not true joy yet.

This experience highlights one of the problems faced when churches and traditions that have never observed the seasons of the church year, or are just beginning to obverse them, try to incorporate those seasons into worship. Too often, the trappings of the season are put into place without any real sense of the purpose of the cycle of seasons within a larger context of worship and theology.

It is only in commercial advertising that the Christmas season begins the first of December (or the first of August!). In the Christian calendar, the Christmas Season does not begin until December 25th and lasts until January 6 (Epiphany). Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, not the celebration of it. It is included with Christmas the same way that Lent is included with Easter. However, Advent is just as different from Christmas as Lent is from Easter.

It is important, in terms of the purpose of Christian Holy Days as teaching tools of the Faith, that Advent and Christmas be different, with different emphases, especially on the first two Sundays of Advent. These need to emphasize expectation and longing, a preparation for celebration much as Lent is a preparation for Easter. Without that, the season becomes one long celebration without any context for that celebration and with little contact with the reality of life that gave birth to the season in the first place.

Of course there is a progression to the services of Advent. By the third Sunday, which is usually the Sunday of Proclamation with the Magi or the Shepherds, or the Sunday of Joy, we can begin celebrating, not because it is all finished but because the promise is moving to reality, because we have heard from God and have the promise in concrete terms. It is in that movement from distant longing and crying out on the first Sunday, to hope and immediate expectation on the Second, to Joy and proclamation on the Third Sunday, that prepares us for praise and celebration on the Fourth Sunday as the year moves into the Christmas Season. If done well, that liturgical movement takes people along in the journey of their lives, as they enact their own experiences in worship. It gives people a structure in which to take the vagueness of their own distant longings as they identify with Israel’s longings, and brings them to an expressed hope and faith that God is, indeed, "with us."  It is this journey that gives people a context for celebration

After such preparation, Christmas then becomes the truly wondrous event that it is, not the warm fuzzy that is portrayed on too many Christmas cards and in the media. Rather, it is the realization that, truly, there is reason to hope and faith in God, that what he has once done in real human history, in real human lives, he can do, and is doing, in the lives of people today! It brings people, not just to an existential moment where they feel good about the world, but to a deeply felt faith in the "long Advent," a faith that God will not leave the world the way it is forever but will come once again to "ransom captive Israel."

What the world needs now is, not love, but hope. Without hope, without some sense that this is not all there is, that there truly is a God who will come and restore all things, there will never be much love, at least not the kind of love that is truly Christian. And it is this hope, this expectation moving toward faith, that Advent properly observed as a preparation for Christmas can express so well.

On the way home from church in the car, I once again sang "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." That is what Advent is about.

*From a historical perspective, the consensus is that Isaac Watts did not originally write Joy to the World in 1719 as a Christmas song. Rather it was an adaptation of Psalm 98 to celebrate the final reign of God on earth. However, in the ensuing three centuries it has most certainly become a Christmas song.  I understand that some Church traditions use the song as an Advent song, maintaining the connection with Psalm 98.

But I think that dilutes the emphasis of Advent, at least for the first two Sundays. The first Sunday of Advent is not yet about joyous celebration of either coming of Jesus. It is about hope, anticipation, and longing in the midst of the stark reality of a world dominated by oppression and injustice, the world in which we all live.  Much as the celebration of Easter needs to be set against the somberness of Lent and the darkness of Good Friday to have its full significance, so Christmas needs to be set against the profound longing for a new action of God. It is from that context that joy becomes more than wishful longing and emerges in Christmas and Epiphany as a profound act of Faith. 

If Advent begins in celebration and "Joy" it risks losing the deeper sense that God hears the cries of suffering people and enters history to bring deliverance and reconciliation to humanity. The celebration comes later in the Advent Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas as Hope turns to possibility and Anticipation dawns into a new reality. That is why Joy to the World is an appropriate song throughout the entire Church Year.  That is, except for the first two Sundays of Advent.

Traditional Songs for Advent

Full lyrics for these can be found at various places online, such as NetHymnal.

Christ, whose glory fills the skies

Come, thou long expected Jesus

Comfort, comfort ye, my people

Creator of the stars of night

Day of wrath! O day of mourning, Part 1 (English translation of Dies Irae)

Go, labor on! Spend and be spent

Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding (English translation of Vox clara ecce intonat)

Hark! The glad sound

Hark! The voice eternal

High o'er the lonely hills

Hosanna to the living Lord (for the first Sunday of Advent)

Let all mortal flesh keep silent  (English translation of Σιγησάτο παρα σαρξ βροτεία)

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates (for the first Sunday of Advent; two versions)

Lift up your heads, rejoice (for the third Sunday of Advent)

Light of those whose dreary dwelling

Little children, Advent bids you (for the fourth Sunday of Advent; Second Advent)

Lo! He comes, with clouds descending

Lord Christ, when first thou came to men (two versions)

O Come, Divine Messiah

O come, O come, Emmanuel! (English translation of Veni, veni Emanuel)

O Day of God, draw nigh

O North, with all thy vales of green

O very God of very God

O Savior, rend the heavens wide

O Word, that goest forth on high

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry

Rejoice, rejoice, believers!

Savior of the nations, come! (English translation of Veni Redemptor gentium)

Sleepers, wake!

The advent of our King

The day is surely drawing near (for the fourth Sunday of Advent; Second Advent)

The King shall come when morning dawns

The Lord will come and not be slow

The world is very evil (English Translation of Hora novissima)

Thy kingdom come! on bended knee

Thy kingdom come, O God

Wake, awake, for night is flying

Watchman, tell us of the night

When shades of night around us close

Modern and Contemporary Songs for Advent

Full lyrics for some of these can be found at various places online, such as NetHymnal; others are fully copyrighted and can be obtained only from publishers.

At the coming of the Lord

Be Immanuel in me

Before the starry universe

Breath of heaven (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

Child of wondrous love

Come, our Lord (also a song for Eucharist)

From David's city

Have mercy

Hear the prophets talking

I need a silent night (for the third or fourth Sunday of Advent)

Immanuel, Immanuel

Light a candle

People look east

Prayer for God's presence

Prepare us

The Advent candle shines with hope

There's a voice in the wilderness crying

This is my song (tune Finlandia; for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

To a maid engaged to Joseph (for the third or fourth Sunday of Advent)

Veiled in darkness Judah lay (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

We have a hope

Welcome to our world (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

When will the Savior come?

Advent Songs Sung to Christmas Tunes

Full lyrics for these can be found at various places online, such as NetHymnal; for links to downloadable .pdf files for use in church bulletins, see Advent Hymns Set to Christmas Tunes [external link]

The King shall come when morning dawns (using tune Antioch, Joy to the World)

Watchman, tell us of the night (using tune Mendelssohn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

The people that in darkness sat (using tune Christmas, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks)

Lo, He comes with clouds descending (using tune Regent Square, Angels from the Realms of Glory)

Of the Father's love begotten (using tune W Zlobie Lezy, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly)


Music and arrangement scores for these are fully copyrighted and can be obtained only from publishers.

Gabriel's Oboe
    (From the movie The Mission; various soundtracks are available online, including this one [external link]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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