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sufjan plays christmas songs, but my church doesn't

By the time the three-hour Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice finished last night, my desire for Christmas music had been more than sated. Sufjan, Rosie, and the band covered it all: holy hymns in hushed four-part harmony, spectacular costumed performances critiquing American culture and "christmas," and jolly sing-a-longs of tunes chosen by the "wheel! of! Christmas!" I wore my handmade "christmas unicorn" shirt and ate fish-n-chips beforehand and tried not to think about children being gunned down in kindgergarten classrooms, but when in encore Suf sang To Be Alone with You, and then John Wayne Gacy, Jr., what could I do?

But back to what I wanted to say, about Christmas music.  Did I tell you that last year, we didn't sing a single Christmas song at my church?  I didn't understand it, because for my whole church life, the first Sunday of Advent has been the first Sunday for Christmas carols, and sure, maybe we'd just start with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but each Sunday we'd add a few more, until Christmas Day and then All Christmas Music All the Time.

You probably already know this, but I didn't: that in Catholic and Episcopal church traditions, at least, there is a distinct difference between the music of Advent and the music of Christmas.  My episcopal church didn't play any Christmas music last year because it was playing the songs of Advent - I had just never heard them before, and didn't recognize them.

And, actually, recognizing this difference in music has helped me understand better how to celebrate the season of Advent.  I told you that in the past, I've always felt like observance of Advent meant achieving some deep meditative state contemplating the image of baby Jesus, and that it never worked for me.  Writing through this season of Advent, and listening to Advent music, is helping me understand that the joyful focus on baby Jesus is for Christmas, and that the focus of Advent is wholly different.

I like it, now, that my church doesn't play Christmas songs until Christmas day. I've long been infatuated with the idea of following the church calendar, but I think my infatuation is maturing into a deeper appreciation of its value, maybe especially as a way to disconnect our holy day from the materialistic, commercialized holiday season that reigns in America throughout December.  

Maybe next year I'll remember that the day after Thanksgiving isn't the day for "Joy to the World," just yet. Maybe I'll put up Advent decorations that weekend, but not Christmas decorations.  Maybe we'll celebrate St Nicholas and St Lucia, and wait to play Sufjan's Silver and Gold album until Christmas Day, and the twelve days of Christmas following. (There's a nice post along these lines at The Other Journal, if you want to click over and read it.)

Sufjan seemed utterly exhausted last night, really even before the show began. He admitted at one point that he hates Christmas.  Being the Christmas unicorn is exhausting, after all - chasing that mythical Christmas of your personal nostalgia, wearing a credit card on your wrist, attempting to be this thing which is pagan and magical and American and hysterical and Christian, all at once.  Maybe the long wait of Advent is part of the answer.


{PS: I have a little work-in-progress spotify list of Advent songs, calm and quiet for your Sunday rest. (If you're in a Reader/email, click through to see it.)}