I am going to let you in on a little secret.
I love Christmas carols.
Yes, you heard correctly.
I love Christmas carols so much that I wish we sang them the whole year round! (Although, I too have been known to occasionally roll my eyes when I hear ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ in department stores at the beginning of September!)
I am not talking about those carols which sentimentalise Christmas and leave Jesus as a non-crying, placid and cherubic-like baby. I am referring to those traditional gospel-soaked Christmas carols which tell of the hope that came into the world when Jesus was born to Mary in that stable in Bethlehem all those years ago.
I am speaking of those carols which place Jesus at the centre of God’s saving plan for the world and declare the salvation that this child would one day bring.
I haven’t always loved Christmas carols though.
After my dear Mum died two weeks after Christmas over a decade ago, I couldn’t imagine how Christmas could be anything but painful ever again. Even though I knew the true meaning of Christmas, all of the smells, sounds, traditions and trimmings of Christmas were just a painful reminder that Mum was no longer here.
I remember feeling a sense of dread as my family got ready to celebrate our first Christmas without Mum. Then, one Sunday night in church in the weeks leading up to Christmas we sang the carol ‘O Holy Night’ by Adolphe Adam.
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
I am not sure I can articulate what happened within my heart as we sang those words. The sadness was still there. But the despair in my heart and mind was lifted, and in its place was a sense of peace and comfort.
That’s the power of the right words paired with the right music. I believe that God uses these moments to reveal His truth to His people in a truly unique way, and for that I give Him thanks and praise!
There is something powerful that happens when you sing words of truth. Often the disconnect that can sometimes exist between heart and mind can be strengthened or repaired.
But it was not just that one carol which I came to love. Suddenly, these Christmas carols which I had been singing for most of my life—on autopilot, without much thought for the words—took on new meanings.
So what’s all this got to do with young people and children?
It is clear in Scripture that singing is to be an integral part of the life of God’s people. In Psalm 96:2 David writes:
Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
I want to suggest four reasons why it is good to sing carols with young people and children:
1. We live in a consumer-driven, individualistic world that tries to trick our children into thinking that Christmas is all about presents. Carols remind our children that Jesus is the reason for the season.
2. The words of certain Christmas carols can teach young people and children how Jesus’ incarnation is central to God’s plan of salvation for the world.
3. Carols can give young people and children the words to tell the story of Christmas for themselves.
4. Traditional Christmas carols are accessible to those who may visit our churches during the Christmas season. My minister, Justin Moffatt writes that:
Christmas Carols are probably the only Gospel-based songs that have a natural intersection with most of the people in secular society. They may not sing them because they believe the Gospel. But in shopping malls and on TV, in part because of the memories that carols bring, you’ll find people humming and singing profound words about incarnation, salvation, divine judgement and resurrection. ou’ll find them singing: “Born that man no more may die”. That’s a happy intersection I’m willing to run with for the cause of the gospel in Australia!
So how can we sing carols with children?
For the past three Christmases, some members of our church (young and old) have rehearsed and performed Born is the King, a user-friendly nativity play carol service written by Laurel Moffatt. The play tells of the good news about Jesus’ arrival and is based on the accounts of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew 1:18-2:11 and Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-20.
One of the things I love most about Born is the King is the way traditional Christmas carols (O Come O Come Emmanuel; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Angels We Have Heard on High; The First Noel; Joy to the World) are woven into the fabric of the play in such a way that they help to tell the story of how God’s chosen king came into the world.
Laurel Moffatt says of the decision to include carols in Born is the King:
Some of the best carols that we sing at Christmas tell the story of Jesus so well, and so beautifully, both in word and song, that it is a pleasure to sing and learn from them.
As I reflect on the three years that we have run Born is the King, one of the things that stands out to me the most is the way our children sing the carols with familiarity, enthusiasm, and excitement.
Some tips for singing carols with children and young people
1. Choose a couple of carols to sing with children. Practice them and then have the children sing them for other members of your congregation.
2. Talk about your favourite carols. Ask children if they have a favourite Christmas carol. Share why and encourage children to explain the meaning of the song in their own words.
3. Explain tricky concepts and words from carols in a way that children can understand.