Christmas Music: Three Theses

And then they’ll do something I hate most of all.
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
will stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing.
They’ll stand hand in hand, and those Whos will start singing.
And they’ll sing, and they’ll sing, and they’ll sing, sing, sing, sing!

Hark, the Herald Angels SingIt doesn’t take the growl of the Grinch to remind us that singing is one of the hallmarks of the Christmas season.  From groups of bundled-up carolers to peaceful evenings around the fireplace to candlelight Christmas Eve services, music has long played a major part in our holiday celebrations.

What’s peculiar about Christmas music is its transcendence of both sacred and secular contexts.  It’s not at all unusual to hear “What Child Is This?” on a pop radio station around the holidays, even though similar references to Jesus Christ at any other time of year would be anathema.  By the same token, songs with no trace of Christian flavoring have a strange habit of poking their noses into the life and worship of the church around Christmastime.  Thus, while Christmas music can rightly be a cause for joy, it should also be a cause for caution.  Reflecting on this puzzling relationship, I’ve attempted to make a few clarifying points—hopefully helpful ones.

1.  There are only two categories of worship music: inspired and uninspired.

This first statement pertains to our ordinary Lord’s Day worship.  Whether we realize it or not, we often give Christmas music its own drawer in our hymnological filing cabinet.  We make various selections from the other drawers throughout the year, but there’s a lock on the Christmas drawer: it’s not opened until the end of November, and it’s closed as soon as January begins.  This explains why we might look around confusedly when “Silent Night” is picked at a hymn sing in August, and why we might find “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” as a Christmas Eve song jarring.

I’d like to propose a different classification scheme—one that’s already implied in our Psalter Hymnal.  At the top level, there are only two kinds of worship music: divinely inspired (psalms and Scriptural songs) and uninspired (hymns et al.).  With a few exceptions, then, the majority of our Christmas carols would fall into the “uninspired” category.

“Why does this matter?” you may be asking in frustration.  Here’s why: When we view “Christmas music” as an independent entity, it’s easy to become lax.  Hymns, we maintain, must remain accurate to Scripture, but it’s okay to throw in some poetic flourishes at Christmastime (“The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”).  Doctrinal accuracy is important for all our songs…unless they’re carols (“Light and life to all he brings,” #339).  The warnings about “artificiality, sentimentality, and individualism” stated in the URCNA Songbook Committee’s Guidelines for Selecting Songs (p. 3 in this document), we reason, certainly can’t apply during such a sentimental time of year.

It’s hard to rebel against this view, but I am convinced that we must do so if we are to preserve the integrity of our worship.  Christmas carols are uninspired songs, and as such they must be evaluated just as thoroughly as the rest of our hymnody!  Sadly, this may mean that we have to eliminate some of our favorite holiday hymns from the corporate worship service.  But don’t rush to put “Away in a Manger” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” out at the curb just yet.  There’s another key distinction to make:

2.  There is a difference between music for teaching and music for worship.

According to many accounts, “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” (among other carols) were created specifically as teaching songs for children.  While the content of these selections isn’t necessarily suited for a Sunday worship service, they can still serve an important role—namely, instructing little ones in the true meaning of Christmas.  More “Educational” Christmas carols for adults exist too, such as “Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn” (#346).  Outside corporate worship, I would assert that we can freely take advantage of these songs as powerful teaching tools, provided they are Biblical and God-glorifying.

3.  There is a difference between music for personal enjoyment and music for worship.

In our Reformed churches, we strive to regulate our corporate worship according to God’s commands and Biblical principles.  While this imposes careful restrictions on the music we use in a formal service, it has no bearing on the selections we make at home for personal enjoyment.  True, our listening music should remain edifying and wholesome.  Filling our ears at home with the psalms and hymns we sing in worship has immense benefits.  Still, if you simply can’t resist blasting “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” now and then during the month of December—I’m not going to argue!

In conclusion, I hope my views of Christmas music are far from Grinchy.  We have every reason to celebrate the birth of our Savior in joyful song.  Let us merely remember that even during the holiday season, we appear each Lord’s Day before the same holy God.  The music of our worship services, then, should be chosen not primarily for our enjoyment, but for his glory.


3 Responses to “Christmas Music: Three Theses”

  1. 1 Victoria Wiegand December 5, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Very well stated, as usual, Michael! I’m hoping to be able to see you all at Christmas and will look forward to a rousing “Deck the Halls” at home with you all!! Before or after worship service, of course!

    Aunt V

  1. 1 The Dawn of Redeeming Grace? « URC Psalmody Trackback on December 8, 2012 at 6:03 am

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