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.