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As the holidays approach, I often remember my days as a student in music class. My high school music teacher lived for Christmas carols. I spoke with him recently as I was working on our new Christmas album, “Joy–An Irish Christmas,” and his enthusiasm is as strong as ever. He even wants Christmas carols played at his funeral.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because these songs tell the story of the faith like no other songs can,” he told me.
I wholeheartedly agree. Carols blend a story form of writing with simple melodies, and they’ve resulted in a unique hybrid of English folk music and church music traditions. In that sense, the carol has impacted my own songwriting more than any other form.
Our new Christmas album gave me a chance to relish in my love for carols by writing some of my very own. Yet we also decided to honor some of our age-old favorites, so profound in the stories they tell, by pairing them with new compositions. When it comes to celebrating Christmas, I think people want fresh sounds–but they also want to sing what they know.
I love the fact that some of the most beloved carols essentially originated as rebel songs. In England during the 15th century, Catholics were forbidden to sing in the English language, or to even sing at all for the most part. Yet carols were the one exception. Additionally, certain factions of Puritanism during the late 16th century forbid any outward display of emotion. But again, carols remained the one type of song that allowed people to celebrate with their lips, instruments and even dancing. For those forbidden to even smile or smirk during the remainder of the year, this was much cause for rejoicing!
Today, carols continue to be one of the few remaining conduits that allow us to proclaim our faith in the public square. Amazingly, they’re heralded on secular radio, used in advertisements and sung on television throughout the holiday season. These songs allow us to celebrate our faith authentically and share it with others.
We would do well as worship leaders to remember that non-churchgoers are far more inclined to attend a church service during the Christmas season where songs are easy and enjoyable to sing rather than a church trying to put on the slickest possible show. The music of carols, written by some of the finest hymn writers of all time (such as Wesley, Watts and Rossetti) and arranged by equally outstanding composers (Handel, Holst and Mendelssohn) speaks for itself. We have wonderful songs to use! And Christmas gives us a wide open door to use those songs to impact culture like no other time of the year.
May we set aside time this Christmas season to give of ourselves joyfully and wholeheartedly to the music we choose and the services we plan. And in doing so we’ll join with the Christians of ages past who’ve told the story of our faith through the carols they sing.