Let’s take a moment and step into a judgment free zone. Make sure no one from church is glancing over your shoulder. Put on headphones. Pull up your music app. Dim the screen … and hit play on “Joy to the World!” Shh, it’s okay. I won’t tell.
When is it okay to start listening to Christmas music? This is not a trick question—I am not the worship police, but I am very aware that we Christians can be particularly judgy about music. For years, I, too, did not want to acknowledge Christmas music in Advent, not least because I love Advent and its hymns (“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People!”). However, for one segment of our communities, even the idea that Christmas music could appear before sundown on December 24th is evidence of the terrible sin that inflicts our world, right up there with Starbucks cups in plain red/green and inflatable Santas.
But I want to ask the question seriously: when is it okay to start listening to Christmas music?
Not ‘hearing’ Christmas music, because that starts in October with Mariah Carey, but choosing to listen to, hum along with, or even sing Christmas music. I would like to take a moment and reflect on the middle way between abstinence only listening and full on “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I see this middle way of Christmas music through one of Advent’s main metaphors—preparing for the birth of a child. It’s an experience that may help us navigate our preparation for Jesus.
During pregnancy, when is it okay to set up the nursery? Eight weeks along is probably too soon to choose paint colors, but at some stage, cribs need to be built and space cleared. When does it become acceptable to coo over small articles of clothing? When is it legit to gaze wistfully off into the distance, fantasizing about a new life in our world? When do we remind ourselves of the lullabies that we will need, singing as we boil bottles for the first time and gazing in horror at the futures that will emerge at the changing table? When is it okay to imagine being a parent, or to imagine the child?
Whatever time we choose during the long months of pregnant expectation, we surely need a sliding scale. At a certain point, we need to accept that the pregnancy is going forward. We need to accept the real-and-too-little-talked-about possibility of miscarriage as one potential outcome, and yet start living like a real, crying, hungry little baby is coming. And once we accept that reality, we need to prepare—rehearse our songs, research car seats, weep at the cost, smile to ourselves when no one is watching.
Once we accept the reality of a child, we go from preparing to practicing. Clearing space is not enough. We need to be ready, and as any athlete or musician can tell us, drills and scales are not enough. We must move on to practice, to playing our games and our compositions like we will when the real occasion arises. We need to practice, to do the thing that needs doing like it’s already here, even though it’s not here quite yet.
In this way, I think it’s important that we listen to Christmas music, even sing it, during Advent. Christmas music is not diminished by its early appearance. Just as it’s different to sing a lullaby to a real child, or play in real game, or perform a piece for an audience, Christmas music is different when sung at Christmas. It’s the difference between the idea of a child and a real one. Yet, even the idea of a child can bring us joy. Christmas music in Advent is our practicing of joy, a joy whose fuller actuality is still coming.
If you need to withhold all Christmas music till the twelve days, I won’t judge. Life is long and complex, and we all need different tactics in our journey to living as friends of God. But if you find yourself smiling at the opening notes of “Hark, the Herald Angels,” go for it. Practicing Christmas doesn’t demean its actual arrival.
Joy, interestingly, is not lessened by its practice.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Pexels]
How are you practicing for Christmas?