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A Balancing Act: Advent and Christmas

Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

It’s a struggle every year: how can I balance the quiet expectation of the Advent season with the rush and excitement of Christmas? You would think that as a church musician in an Episcopal church, I’d get plenty of Advent, but that’s not the case. As many of you know, I’m sure, if you’re involved in church, you’re spending the four weeks of Advent in a rush to be ready for Christmas: getting the kids ready for the pageant, prepping for the church Christmas dinner, practicing your Christmas choir music. Then you leave church, and our stores, radios, and neighborhoods are full of reindeer and bright lights. It feels like it’s Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. What can you do?

There are all sorts of answers to that question, but here I am writing a blog for the Center for Congregational Song, so I have to say: community singing can help set the mood for Advent. I’ve been angst-ing over how to bring more Advent into my family and church life this season, perhaps more so than in previous years. My son is growing up, and it feels more imperative than ever that I figure out how to bring Advent into our home—without being the “Scrooge” mom who won’t allow anything fun before December 25th. And in my work as a church musician, I help plan beautiful worship services of expectation on Sundays, but during the week I’m singing Christmas songs and ringing jingle bells with the children in our parish school.

I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc.

All of this came to a head this past Thursday. I’ve been leading a new weekday gathering at our church for parents and young children. Each week we have about a dozen parents and small children gather to sing songs, play instruments, and play or do a craft together. This past week we made plans to meet at the local assisted living facility to sing Christmas songs with the residents. I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc. It didn’t help that it was about 90 degrees in the facility, and there was a bit of a holdup before we could start singing. The children were getting restless, and the elderly residents were giving us a skeptical look. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in planning something like this so close to Christmas.

But then we started singing. The children calmed down. The residents perked up, and even those who had been confused a moment before, sang as loudly as anyone.

There’s something about making eye contact with others while you’re singing together that ignites a little flame in your chest. What do you call that? Love? Belonging? Joy? God? It brings a sort of hush even in the midst of commotion. It was the Advent moment I had been hoping for all month, and a perfect way to set our hearts in the right place as we wait for Emmanuel, God with us.

Do you struggle to experience Advent in the midst of all the busyness December brings? What have been your moments of Advent hush this season? Does group singing play a part in any of that? Happy Advent and Merry Christmas, everyone!


2 thoughts on “A Balancing Act: Advent and Christmas”

  1. I’m an Episcopal Musician too, and I also struggle with the liturgical vs. secular preparation for Christmas. Somehow I’ve come to think that denying ourselves of the Christmas Carols that we love until Dec 24 is actually hurting our celebration of the actual day. We have a big carol sing at our church on Advent III. I’ve even started adding some child-friendly secular songs at the end, because it’s great to hear all ages singing together. I used to be a purist – NO Christmas hymns or carols until the day! But I’m mellowing with age.
    Oh – and I also don’t schedule a BIG Christmas program during the month of December. Everything we do (three nights of a live, outdoor nativity scene and the big carol sing – 200 came last night) is designed to be low stress for all involved. Church is the last place people need to be stressed.

  2. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has been commissioned annually by “The Presbyterian Outlook” magazine to write new Advent hymn texts, often to Christmas carol tunes or other well-known tunes. These hymn texts, based on the Advent lectionary readings, can be found on the magazine’s web site with the option of downloading them with music: You can find the hymns for each year of the lectionary at

    Here is the first Advent hymn that Carolyn wrote, almost 20 years ago, that recognizes the stress and joy of this special season:

    God, We Await Your Advent Here
    MARYTON (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee”)

    God, we await your advent here:
    When will these desert lands rejoice?
    When will new blossoms bright appear
    And all earth praise you with one voice?

    We live in deserts we have made;
    Gifts of your love we pass right by.
    We seek possessions, more each day,
    And then in thirst for joy, we cry.

    God, we prepare for Jesus’ birth —
    Searching for gifts from store to store!
    Yet when you sent your Christ to earth,
    You gave us joy worth so much more.

    When in the love of Christ we grow,
    Streams in this desert shall abound.
    Then by your Spirit we will know:
    True wealth in Jesus Christ is found.

    Biblical References: Isaiah 35:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:6-7
    Tune: Henry Percy Smith, 1874 (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee”)
    Text: Copyright © 1998 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
    Copied from “Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship” by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (Geneva Press).
    Email: New Hymns:

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