I have high-church friends who valiantly fight against the encroachment of Christmas hymns during Advent. Some of them admit that they’ve lost this battle, but others fight on, insisting that Christmas carols mustn’t be sung until December 25. During this part of December, they say, we should only be singing Advent hymns.
They rarely admit what is probably the biggest obstacle to getting others to stick to this tradition: Our Christmas carols are pretty great, but most Advent hymns are pretty weak.
Frankly, it’s odd to even speak of “most Advent hymns,” plural, since most people — even most church people — would be hard pressed to come up with a list of them that didn’t start and end with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
I like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but it dates back to the 8th century and it’s modern English version is more than 150 years old. You’d think we’d have added a few more tunes to our Advent playlist over the past 1,000 years or so. (And, no, I don’t think Michael W. Smith’s “Emmanuel” counts. Sorry.)
I know I’ve sung many Advent hymns over the years in church, but none stuck with me. I can’t think of any that we’ve turned to that made me think, “Ooh, this one — I like this one!”
“Ave Maria” ought to count, but we Protestants get a bit squirrelly about singing that one. (That’s partly due to very old theological disputes, but mainly I think Protestants avoid that song because it’d be too much like the Rolling Stones playing “Hey Jude.” Stepping on the other guys’ signature song just seems rude, maybe?)
And “Gabriel’s Message” is lovely, but I only know that one because Sting sang it on the first Very Special Christmas album.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is another great song, but the Advent connection there seems strained. In the church where I grew up we sang that one year ’round, treating it as simply a revival/testimony song, which is more what it still seems like to me. It is, after all, mostly past tense — “Jesus sought me when a stranger” — and not the conditional, future-tense that I think marks the distinction between Advent hymns and Christmas carols.
I like that future-tense and that tension about the future. I like songs that try to capture that.
That’s why I love the idea of this song, even if ultimately I like that idea more than the song itself.
The text there is from a famous quote from Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” That’s as good a summary of what Advent means as anything you’ll find.
It comes from Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, which is also extremely pertinent to the topic of Advent. Advent — and the Christmas that follows it — only makes sense in the context of ordinary people living under empire.
This is why I think Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is a good candidate for inclusion on our list of Advent hymns.
On a more playful note, here’s a popular song that declares it’s Advent-season status right in the title: “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” You’re familiar with the Chipmunks version, but Rosie Thomas helps us hear the lovely song underneath all that: