Advent and Christmas Music in the Midst of COVID-19
By Diana Sanchez-Bushong
How do you plan for Advent and Christmas music when you don’t know what to plan for? Who to plan for? Where to plan for?
What we do know is why we plan for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season. It’s a season of anticipation, of hope, and of God made flesh. It’s a season of lights, joy, and the sparkling eyes of children. It’s the season of singing favorite Christmas carols and enjoying friends and family. But this season may be very different. All the givens from past years are in jeopardy of feeling like shadows of the past. So, how do we help our communities of faith celebrate this season?
First, we acknowledge that there are differing opinions about whether we should gather in person for worship during Advent and Christmas. Many congregations are continuing their online worship presence, even when and if they begin to offer in-person worship.
Second, we decide to plan for worship and music that might be scaled down from past years.
Finally, we find ways of creating worship for Advent and Christmas that still engages worshipers and asks them to fully participate in the retelling of the Christmas story.
Have we done it this way before? No, but it’s an opportunity to think creatively and pastorally, knowing the needs and limitations of those entrusted to us.
Here are some suggestions on making these liturgical elements participatory for online worshipers.
HANGING OF THE GREENS
This celebration is traditionally done on the first Sunday of Advent, which is November 29 this year. Consider how to help your congregation members who are worshiping at home to participate in the service. Prepare them ahead of time and ask them to have the pieces ready for hanging: wreath, garlands, tree (may be a small symbolic one), symbols for Christ, stars, crosses, and triangles (can be made out of paper to hang on the tree).
Below are some services to consider:
There are some great suggestions music in those services, but if you are planning an online experience, you may want to use one or two pieces that can be repeated throughout the liturgical acts. In particular, consider “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” 207, The United Methodist Hymnal, and “People Look East,” 202, The United Methodist Hymnal.
ADVENT WREATH LIGHTING EACH SUNDAY
A great song to go with lighting the Advent wreath, whether at home or in church, is “Light the Advent Candle,” The Faith We Sing, 2090. Another idea is to use a refrain from a carol or hymn to sing at the end of the liturgy. One that works well with this theme is “Celebrate Love” found in The Faith We Sing, 2073. And finally, a more contemporary song, “Welcome to Our World,” found in Worship & Song, 3067, may be used on Christmas Eve as a very effective solo.
LESSONS AND CAROLS
- “Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmastide” at the Reformed Worship website
- “Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” Discipleship Ministries
- “An Advent Service of Lessons and Carols,” Discipleship Ministries
The Service of Lessons and Carols is one of the best ways to tell the Christmas story. After each reading, a carol may be sung by the congregation, soloist, or ensemble. Getting children and youth involved in this retelling is encouraged, as they can read a scripture, sing a solo, or lead a song. These can be pre-recorded from a variety of venues, which make it more appealing to watch. You can encourage families to have the pieces of the nativity ready for children to make the readings more tactile. Remember that for online worship, less is more! Consider keeping the service short by singing fewer verses or shortening the lessons when possible.
You can shorten these lessons and carols by using lessons 3, 5, 6, 7, 8. The final lesson would be the benediction.
Here are just a few cantatas for smaller ensembles that can be tailored to your community. Some of these offer rehearsal tracks as well as performing tracks.
- Tapestry of Light
- Sing A Song of Christmas
- A Song Is Born
- Candles and Carols (This one gives the opportunity for others to get involved lighting the family wreath as part of the liturgy.)
For many churches, the Christmas Cantata is the highlight of the season. Choirs prepare for weeks to tell the Christmas story in song and narration. This year, the cantata may be a combination of virtual choir pieces prepared ahead of time alongside some videos and live leadership at the church. As storytellers, consider what you have available and how you can plan to make this a new, yet special experience for everyone. Pre-recorded videos allow for more venues and greater participation. A live component can offer a feeling of immediacy and intimacy in the service. Plan on how you can get the congregation involved.
Across the world, Christmas Eve is one of the most family friendly and intimate services of the Christian year. If you are still offering online-only services on Christmas Eve or offering online service for families that are not able to join in a group activity, consider how to help them part of this special event. A Christmas Eve service that offers children the opportunity to dress up as part of the story is a great way for a family to get involved. Some family members may play several characters. Another option is to use a nativity.
- “Children’s Christmas Eve Service,” Discipleship Ministries
- “Children’s Christmas Eve Service,” Duke University Chapel (PDF)
- Christmas Eve Order of Worship, Discipleship Ministries
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
The first Sunday after Christmas offers a great opportunity to sing all the Christmas carols that you didn’t get to sing during the weeks of Advent! Try developing a couple of medleys (one at the opening and one at the close of worship) that provide a verse or two of each carol. Below are some medleys from carols found in The United Methodist Hymnal. If you have additional songbooks, you may wish to add some contemporary carols or develop a medley from carols from around the world!
Songs in the key of G that work well together are “There’s a Song in the Air,” 249; “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” 229; and finish with “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” 251.
Songs in the key of F are more numerous; and you can put together some interesting medleys, such as “Love Came Down at Christmas,” 242; “In the Bleak Midwinter,” 221; and “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” 224. An angel medley could include “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” 218; “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” 220; and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” 238.
Have fun creating your own medleys!
WATCHNIGHT/NEW YEAR’S EVE
The Watchnight service is a beloved service in many of our communities. Check the links below for ideas and information on developing your own service this year.
THE COVENANT SERVICE – FIRST SUNDAY IN JANUARY
The final Sunday in the worship series for Year B of the lectionary, January 3, 2021, is an excellent day to include a covenant renewal service. Here is a resource for you to consider as you plan for that day:
Think about ways to make this service more interactive in person and online. How can you help worshipers prepare in advance so that they can fully participate in this service? How can you help worshipers tie together the themes of Christmas (this Sunday is the tenth day of Christmas), the worship series theme of “Welcome Home” and the theme of starting a new year and reaffirming our covenant as followers of Christ? This is a threshold moment as we begin a new year and wrap up this season.