The question came up recently as to why we don’t sing Christmas carols at Mass during Advent. The answer is very simple. Christmas and Advent are not the same season.
In comparison, during Lent we prepare for Easter, the resurrection of Christ. So, we do “Lent” stuff during Lent and on Easter Sunday we sing Easter songs about the resurrection. That seems perfectly natural. Christ has risen! So, let’s sing about it now!
Advent, however, has been hijacked by the retail industry, the popular media and people’s ignorance of the season. Advent is intended to be more like Lent. It is a time of sober reflection and penitence. Although it is a joyful preparation for the birth of Christ, it is not the celebration of the birth of Christ. So, at Mass, we do Advent stuff during Advent and Christmas stuff during Christmas. Since the family unit is the “domestic Church,” we need our home lives to reflect the Church calendar more than the retail calendar.
Think about how weird it would be if you went to a baby shower and someone broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Everyone would look at each other kind of funny as if to say, “Uh, excuse me, but the baby hasn’t been born yet. Why are you singing Happy Birthday?”
Christmas begins the moment of the first vigil on December 24th and lasts through the Baptism of the Lord. Christmas does not begin the day after Halloween or even the day after Thanksgiving. But we “use up” all of our Christmas celebratory energy during Advent and have nothing left for the actual Christmas season. We have allowed the retailers and our own ignorance to do this to us.
“O Come O Come Emanuel,” for example, is actually not a Christmas song. It is an Advent song. It is a beautiful way of anticipating the birth of our Lord (especially when sung as a chant as intended). “Joy to the World” is a Christmas song that makes sense to sing during Christmas, not Advent.
Of course, the kids will sing “Jingle Bells” and lots of other Christmas songs during Advent. There’s nothing wrong with having fun as we anticipate Christmas. However, if you are generally treating Advent the same as you treat Christmas, you’re off track. The meanings of the two seasons are different and the liturgical expressions of the two seasons are different.
Imagine gathering your family around the dinner table each night during Advent. Think about lighting the candles of the Advent wreath and chanting a verse or two of “O Come O Come Emanuel” as the family reflects on Mary’s pregnancy and what it means for the world. That is the “spirit” of Advent. The “Elf on a Shelf” can be fun, but how much does he know about Advent? What can he teach kids about Advent? That depends on how much the parents know about Advent and the importance of it.
All the hustle and bustle of the so called, “Christmas season” has stolen Advent and replaced much of our joy, peace and inner reflection with stress. It’s time we reclaimed the Advent season and understood the importance of celebrating it, especially in our homes. Or, we can just ignore it, get caught up in the all the “holiday hoopla” and worship at the feet of the retail/media gods. Which perspective do we want to embrace and teach to our children?