Reclaiming Christmas Carols for Our Worship
Celebrating Christ through Song
As my wife, Julie, and I were raising our six kids, we were a hard and fast “no Christmas music until Thanksgiving” family. For some reason, we savored the pain of waiting until that fourth Thursday in November to wake up to songs that heralded the Christmas season with its unique sights, smells, and sounds.
But over time, the sounds of Christmas have come earlier and earlier, not only in our home but in our culture. As far back as early November, strains of Michael Bublé, Frank Sinatra, and Mariah Carey start filling the air. No other holiday comes close to boasting such an exhaustive repertoire. Classical, folk, country, jazz, pop, traditional, rock, and even metal Christmas offerings abound. And to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 12:12, of the writing of new Christmas songs there seems to be no end.
That may be because Christmas carols are a welcome respite from the weary world we live in. In the midst of confusing, chaotic, and despairing times, they give expression to the hope, peace, and joy we’re all longing for. Whether it’s “All I Want for Christmas,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “The Christmas Song,” or “Joy to the World,” they’re all part of a seasonal soundtrack that momentarily lifts our burdens and cares.
But not all Christmas songs are created equal. There’s a difference between songs that focus on the arrival of a season and ones that focus on the arrival of the Savior. It’s a tragedy when we Christians fail to notice that difference and without even realizing it, find ourselves unaffected by the truths we’re singing.
How can we make sure the carols that celebrate God becoming man to save us continue to move us to wonder and worship? Here are a few ideas.
Study the Incarnation
We can tend to see Christmas through the lens of a manger scene where the focus lies more on shepherds, angels, and animals than what it all means. But theologian J. I. Packer reminds us that the identity of the baby lying in the straw is where “the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. . . . Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.” Christmas is the one time of year that we can devote unhurried time to exploring one of the greatest events of history: the eternal Creator has taken on our flesh in the form of a baby. Or as Charles Wesley once put it, “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”
Books like Pleased to Dwell by Peter Mead, The Person of Christ by Stephen J. Wellum, Knowing God by J. I. Packer, or even St. Athanasius on the Incarnation can provide fresh fuel for glorying in the humility of the Son of God. Or you can just set aside time to read the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and marvel again at the intricate details of God’s plan to send a Savior.
Remember What Christmas Leads To
Paul writes in his letter to the Galatian church: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Christ’s coming can never be separated from the purpose for which he came: to redeem us. He was born to die. We’ve gotten into the habit of isolating the birth of Christ as a separate event, disconnected from his perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and triumphant return.
But Christmas isn’t a standalone. The glory of the infant Jesus lying in a cradle is that it led to the man Christ Jesus hanging on a cross. As some versions of “What Child Is This?” remind us:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Take Note of Songs with Good Theology
And that brings us to a third way we can fight against becoming numb to the stunning truths of Christmas carols: read the lyrics. It’s one thing to think of Christmas carols as signs of the season; it’s another thing altogether to think of them as theology. I said earlier that not all Christmas songs are created equal. “Deck the Halls” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are just fun to sing. Other songs like “Angels We Have Heard on High” or “Silent Night” reference Christ’s birth but don’t expound on its meaning or significance. But another group of carols flesh out why Jesus came and contain lyrics (often not included in popular versions) that feed our souls and point us to the glory of Christ.
Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
—“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley
No more let sin or sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
—“Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts
He Who is mighty has done a great thing
Taken on flesh, conquered death's sting
Shattered the darkness and lifted our shame.
—“He Who is Mighty,” Kate DeGraide, Rebecca Elliott
Though an infant now we view Him, He shall fill His Father’s throne
Gather all the nations to Him; every knee shall then bow down.
—“Angels from the Realms of Glory,” James Montgomery
“Fear not, then” said the angel, “let nothing you affright;
This day is born a Savior, of a pure Virgin bright
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”
—“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” Anonymous
These lyrics contain eternal truths that comfort our souls, renew our faith, and deepen our passion for the humble King who will one day receive the praise of all creation (Phil. 2:9–10). In fact, songs like these are appropriate to sing any time of year! And as you start to pay more attention to the truths they communicate, don't be surprised if the more sentimental associations with Christmas begin to fade “in the light of his glory and grace.”
Christ’s coming can never be separated from the purpose for which he came: to redeem us.
Don’t Be a Grinch
One last thought. Cultivating a love for Christmas carols with rich theology doesn’t mean we need to look down on those who enjoy secular Christmas songs. We aren’t more pleasing to God because we only sing songs about Christ at Christmas. It’s okay to listen to and enjoy songs that simply highlight the joy of being together, the onset of winter, the sorrow of missed loved ones, or St. Nick making a clatter on the rooftop. They’re an expression of common grace, a transparent wish for the joy, peace, and hope that only knowing the Savior can bring.
Our eagerness to join in with gusto as our neighbors belt out “Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” shows we want to rub shoulders with them, share their joys and sorrows, and ultimately point them to the one who would “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77)—just like the child born in a manger did so many years ago.
So as you sing this Christmas—and every Christmas—may your days be merry and bright. But let that be primarily because the serpent-crushing, death-defeating, sin-overcoming, shame-covering Savior has come.
Joy to the world!
Bob Kauflin is the author of True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God.