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The Advent vs. Christmas debate


Advent first… or do we skip right to Christmas?

Perhaps society is to blame for the full-blown Christmas decorations that appear in churches as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey carcass is thrown into the pot for soup. After all, when Christmas shows up in stores as early as September, who can blame worshipers for wanting the sanctuary halls to be decked as well?

But with Christmas decorations and songs coming early in December, what happens to the season of Advent — those four weeks of waiting and listening to the prophet’s cry in the wilderness inviting us to slow down, reflect and prepare the way of the Lord? How are churches navigating when to decorate and what to sing so that the spiritual richness of Advent is not forgotten?

Presbyterians Today readers weigh in on the Advent versus Christmas debate. — Donna Frischknecht Jackson


A time to educate

We generally decorate the first Sunday in Advent. I often take the opportunity to talk to the kids about the symbols of the tree and candles during children’s times. Often the adults are educated, too. It takes time to help a congregation understand the liturgical seasons. — Rev. Nancy McClure, Juniata Valley Shared Ministry, a shared ministry among three Presbyterian churches in Juniata and Perry Counties, Pennsylvania

Keeping Advent separate

I stick with Advent hymns until Christmas Eve, and there are no decorations other than the Advent wreath and appropriate liturgical colors. I really try to differentiate Advent from Christmas, as I think it’s important to emphasize waiting. — Rev. Salvatore Seirmarco, director of mission and pastoral care, United Methodist Communities at Bristol Glen, a validated ministry in Newton Presbytery

I’m happy with Advent during Advent and Christmas during Christmas. What really irks me, though, is not continuing Christmas, especially the decorations and music, through the full Christmas season (from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6) and not singing Epiphany carols at their time. — Samuel Pete Hoyle, member, Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Williamsburg, Virginia

Sometimes joy is needed — early

This year, we are going full Christmas during the Advent season. It has been a hard year in our congregation and we want to focus on joy. The congregation is excited. We stuck to proper Advent practices for several years, but not this one. — Rev. Jennifer Dawson, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Parsons, Kansas

Every church context is different

I once had a pastor who was adamantly opposed to Christmas carols before Christmas Eve. Here’s the thing to remember: Advent is not in the Bible. It is a human construct. So, what is the purpose of the season, Advent through Epiphany? What does it mean to the people in your church? What can be done to enrich their experience? Then do that, and don’t worry about decorations or Advent studies or church events as separate issues. Think of everything in the context of meaning and fellowship. — Laura Monteros, clerk of session, Pasadena Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, California

We move into Christmas pretty quickly. People are already in the Christmas mindset, and they are eager and ready to hear about Christmas. The teacher in me can’t stand to say to eager learners, “No, it’s not proper to talk about Christmas; we’ve got to spend several weeks with John the Baptist and Isaiah first.” If we do that, then I don’t blame people for turning everywhere but the church to celebrate and learn about Christmas throughout December. — Rev. Shawn Coons, pastor, Fairview Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana

Currently, I serve a church that “hangs the greens” after worship on the first Sunday of Advent. The only things present in the sanctuary of an Advent/Christmas nature prior to the decorating are the purple paraments and the Advent wreath and candles. I use at least one Christmas carol during the season of Advent, mostly to counteract the commercialism that prevails at that time of year. I learned a long time ago that there are some battles I will never win in the church. Whether to sing Christmas carols during Advent is one of them. — Rev. Denise Group, temporary supply pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Boone, Iowa

Songs teach sacred story

I love the season of Advent, but I’ve discovered that when it comes to singing Christmas songs early, I say “use them or lose them.” We’re starting to have people who don’t even know the first verses of once-popular sacred Christmas carols, but they know every lyric to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I decided last year to go all in with the Christmas carols starting the first week of Advent. I do, however, start with the more somber hymns and progress to the more exuberant ones. — Rev. Katja Gruening, Sandusky Presbyterian Church, Sandusky, and First Presbyterian Church of Yale, both in Michigan

Bring on Christmas

I’m all in for Christmas. The kids don’t learn the full story and carols anywhere else but church, as only secular songs are played publicly. And I feel I’m ceding the ground to commercialization to let them have the last word. I typically do one Christmas carol the first week of Advent, two carols the second week of Advent, and so on. I’d rather celebrate when people are celebrating, and how cool is it that Christmas is so much fun! Basically everyone wants a piece of the magic. — Rev. Katy Stenta, pastor, New Covenant Presbyterian Church, Albany, New York

Jesus never said to celebrate his birth anyway, so I’m not going to fight to wait until the 24th to sing carols. I’m fine with being happy about Jesus coming to earth any time of year. — Rev. Susan Presley, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mendota, Illinois

Building toward Christmas

We decorate after worship the Sunday before Advent and everyone stays to help. Every week after that a few of us “elves” add a few more decorations to the sanctuary — one more tree, a few more greens, a few more lights. I hang one banner every week, one for hope, joy, love and peace. The sanctuary decorations get fuller and fuller as Christmas approaches. By Christmas Eve it’s as decked out as it’s going to get. We leave all the decorations up until Epiphany. As for the hymns, it’s Advent hymns until Christmas, then Christmas hymns until Epiphany. We do a lessons and carols service the Sunday after Christmas, when we sing a bunch of Christmas carols, since we get to do that for only a short period every year. We follow that with hot chocolate and candy canes for fellowship. — Kim Vanbrimmer, commissioned pastor, Orange Beach Presbyterian Church, Orange Beach, Alabama

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