There’s a war during the Christmas season that’s different than the supposed “war on Christmas” that people are waging when they say they want for your holy days to be happy. This other war is fought between clergy and other theo-nerds who are militantly committed to following the liturgical calendar which means not singing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve and those who say liturgy, schmiturgy, as long as people are getting saved, who cares what we sing when. The battle-lines break down in interesting ways that deviate from the usual culture war entrenchments, though progressives somewhat tend to go high-church and evangelicals somewhat tend to go low-church. Normally, I’m opposed to early Christmas carol singing because I think Advent is supposed to be about acknowledging all that is not right in the world instead of whitewashing reality with “the most wonderful time of the year,” but as I was watching a heated debate in that most charitable of all internet forums, the United Methodist Clergy facebook group, I saw a good friend from seminary speak up in defense of Christmas carols from a perspective I hadn’t considered.
Specifically, my friend Josefina wrote:
I refuse to let my “Christmas” be held hostage to the Advent calendar when our entire country is grieving, divided, and living in fear of the police ~ spend your energy praying for the good police officers stuck in the middle of this mess… surely there is something that aligns more with things that break the heart of God than when we sing out Christmas songs!
And that pretty much blew my mind. Because what I hadn’t considered is the thought that people who are going through difficult times might really be comforted by singing Christmas carols in the same way that Israelites were comforted by the manically joyful psalms that they sang in the midst of hardship or the way that African American gospel music has always constituted an upbeat, rebellious fist-pump against oppression by emphatically declaring the victory of God’s deliverance.
And yet, I have to respect the fact that these songs provide comfort to people who are hurting. I don’t experience it myself, but it happens apparently. In my privilege, I don’t need to be comforted. I need to be disquieted so that I can be part of the advent of the new world Christ has established that doesn’t seem any less fragile than a baby in a manger. To me, the loud Christmas muzak that all the stores are playing doesn’t have a damn thing to do with this fragile new world. To me, it suffocates the true spirit of Christmas by imposing a mandatory peppiness on us. I’m not going to judge people for singing Christmas carols early, but what I will not tolerate is a Christmas that bullies wounded people into putting on really big, fake smiles because that’s the prescribed method for getting into the holiday spirit.
Whatever else Advent is, it needs to create space. If it lifts your spirits to sing Christmas carols, knock yourself out. If you’d rather spend the month abiding in the desperate hope of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, that’s more my speed. Just let others have space to welcome Jesus the way that they need to do so. And not only that, but proactively create space for feelings that aren’t gypper and cheery. One of the more meaningful worship services they have at Burke United Methodist Church where I used to serve is the Blue Christmas service in which people who are mourning loss are given the space to grieve; we decorate a blue artificial Christmas tree with ornaments reminding us of the people we’ve lost. At the same time, I don’t want to shoot down anyone’s balloon who is genuinely joyful and excited about Christmas. My sons are super-giddy. They made us decorate for Christmas even though we haven’t completely made it out of our moving boxes yet. Their joy needs space too. It too is a totally legitimate part of Advent.