The Christmas Season is not so much a season as it is a collection of feasts, each reflecting a facet of the meaning of the incarnation. Together, this complex of feasts helps us understand what it means to name Jesus Christ “Emmanuel”—”God who is with us.” The major festivals of the Christmas Season are deeply theological rather than historical. That is, unlike the Paschal Triduum, which is linked to the time of year that Jesus died, these celebrations are not linked in any way to the actual date of Jesus’ birth. We don’t know what time of year that was (though it was probably in or about the year 6 or 4 bce, and he was probably born in Bethlehem). Instead, the Christmas feasts highlight the theological meaning of Jesus and his mother: Jesus is truly human as well as truly divine; his mission as the Christ is to the whole world; that mission involves such routine parts of human existence as family life; and we are involved in Christ’s mission through baptism. The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God (January 1) focuses on Mary’s unique place in salvation history as well as on the intimate involvement of human beings in the fulfillment of the divine plan: God has chosen to act through us to reveal the meaning of creation.
MUSIC FOR THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
Just as the rest of the world seems to be ending its Christmas celebration, the Church and its Christmas liturgy are only getting started, setting aside Advent restraint and beginning nearly three weeks of feasting. Pastoral musicians sometimes find planning for the Christmas Season to be surprisingly challenging because there are high expectations by the community for glorious music but also the prospect of missing choir members and instrumentalists leaving for family visits. How can pastoral musicians prepare music for joyful celebrations that will extend through the entire Christmas Season?
Festive. Use festive yet easily sung settings of the acclamations, responses, and other Mass texts. After the simpler music of Advent, choose the most joyful settings of the Alleluia and Eucharistic Prayer acclamations that you can find and use them throughout the entire season. Consider though that there may be many visitors at parish liturgies during the Christmas Season, so the settings should also be relatively familiar. Give especially careful consideration to the Gloria during Christmas time, since its opening line is drawn directly from the infancy narrative of Luke’s Gospel.
Appropriate. Choose appropriate psalm settings. If possible, use the responsorial psalm of the day for each Sunday and feast. In some communities, however, it may be more appropriate to use the seasonal responsorial psalm—Psalm 98 until Epiphany and Psalm 72 for Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. A musical setting of Psalm 98 may also be used for the Communion procession throughout the Christmas Season.
Prepare. Prepare music that will serve the movement of the season. Good music planning will help the community to celebrate both the unity of the season and its various dimensions. Familiar Christmas carols and hymns throughout these weeks help the assembly to experience the continuity of the season long after the card shops have begun selling Valentines.
The first part of the Christmas Season (up to Epiphany) focuses on the incarnation, the mystery of God taking on our human nature in Christ. Choose familiar carols that proclaim the birth of Christ, such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Consider as well songs related to the particular feast being celebrated, such as “Once in Royal David’s City” on Holy Family and “Sing of Mary” on the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (January 1).
The second part of the season (Epiphany to Baptism of the Lord) celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world, the various dimensions of which are marvelously expressed in a hymn like “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” On Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and thus to the whole world suggests songs like “As with Gladness Men of Old” and “We Three Kings.” Several fine texts have appeared to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, including “When John Baptized by Jordan’s River.” Liturgy planners might consider the celebration of baptism during Mass on this feast or beginning the liturgy with the rite of sprinkling.
Simple. The Christmas Season is a very demanding one for choirs, cantors, and other musicians. Avoid the pitfall of selecting music that is beyond the ability of the singers or that demands more rehearsal and refinement than will be possible. The community’s prayer will be better served by a simpler piece sung well than by a more ambitious one that causes discomfort for choir and congregation alike! Amid the festivity of the season, let the music proclaim the message of Christ’s coming in the ordinary, familiar, and simple.
(This introduction has been excerpted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)