In our neck of the woods, as soon as November rolls around, there’s a local radio station playing round-the-clock Christmas music. It’s the usual fare: classic crooners with silver bells and sleigh rides, pop stars plying sentimental dreck, and jangly holiday mall rock. It’s possible after spending December in this cloud of “Christmas” music, to emerge not knowing the words to a single carol or hymn—they’re just not on the playlist.
If your radio isn’t playing traditional carols and hymns and your church doesn’t sing them during Advent, how will your family learn them?
And why should they?
First, your family can learn a lot of doctrine from Christmas carols! Not only are they fun to sing, but the music draws from centuries of our Christian musical heritage and the lyrics illuminate major theological truths.
Christ’s redemptive work in reversing the curse? “Joy to the World!”
Hope in God amidst times of pain? “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear!”
The Incarnation? “O Come, All Ye Faithful!”
The responsibility of privileged Christians to care for the poor? “Good King Wenceslas!”
Secondly, Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation. Learning holiday hymns can be a way to ready your family for the Christmas season. As a practical matter, if we only sing carols during the twelve days of Christmas or for a service or two, retention isn’t happening. That’s why my family conscientiously brought carol-singing into our advent home practice.
Here’s how we did it: by accident.
One year at the church St. Nicholas festival, we bid on a basket filled with used Christmas books. One was a quirky “treasury”—a literary jumble of Christmas poetry, recipes, short stories, and a few seasonal paintings by Norman Rockwell. It also featured a whole section of illustrated Christmas carols.
Our first night with our new/old treasury, my husband read the children a few poems, and then launched into a musical rendition of “Joy to the World!” Now, God bless him, my husband can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he does not lack for enthusiasm. He sang every. single. verse.
The kids didn’t mind a bit, and all that December, Christmas carols became part of the bedtime routine. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was the most requested number, with our preschoolers belting out “God and sinners wreck-a-siled!”
Besides singing the songs together, we also played them at the piano and on the CD player throughout the Advent season. This is all easy to do: Christmas treasuries are inexpensive at used book sites or stores. Streaming music channels and albums are easy to find.
Maybe you’ll try bringing traditional Christian carols and hymns into your home this Advent? When the 12 days of Christmas arrive, you may sing those carols a little louder at church (even if you aren’t in tune), knowing the words by heart. And with the angels and the preschoolers, you will rejoice at the miracle of Christmas: God and sinners, reconciled!
Here are a few recordings including carols sung in traditional style from our Anglican tradition. Please recommend any other favorites in our comments below!
James Galway’s Christmas Carol
Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns & Carols by Robert Shaw and the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
King’s College Choir: O Come All Ye Faithful
The Great British Carol Collection by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Carols for a Victorian Christmas by the Choir of Magdalen College
Christmas at Downton Abbey (really!)
Wee Sing for Christmas (this includes secular and traditional songs and is sung by/geared for children)
Two albums featuring carols in a radio-show/dramatic format are
Psalty’s Family Christmas Sing-a-long
Thank you for your thoughtful comments! Taking children caroling is a lovely idea.
Your photos brought back so many good memories–the pages were from the same book I had as a child and the first music/songs I learned to sing! I still remember all the verses.
Helen-Louise Boling says
Another benefit: if you are ever somewhere in a group of people under duress, carols are something that can be used to bring or show unity. Example: military unit during Desert Storm, or see the [fictional] scene in A. J. Cronin’s Keys to the Kingdom: Roman Catholic priest and Protestant missionaries in the 40’s in China, singing carols to keep up their own spirit and show the Chinese a brave front.
Karen K says
Great idea! Another way is to take the family caroling. That was a tradition that gave purpose to learning the carols (have you ever tried to hold a song sheet in the wind with mittens on with a flashlight?) as well as reinforced the words as they often were repeated over the 5-9 stops that we made.