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Back in September, I walked into my local grocery store, and was surprised to find myself face-to-face with a new display of Christmas trees on sale. Year by year, Christmas decorations — and music — are appearing earlier and earlier, encroaching on other holidays and celebrations. One of the main casualties of this trend is the liturgical period of Advent, not just in our homes, but even in some parishes. Christmas classics such as “Silent Night” appear at Mass in some churches before the first Advent candle is even lit.
I certainly understand this trend; I’m as big (or bigger) a Christmas fan as the next guy, and I admit that I started listening to Christmas carols shortly after Halloween — yes, I jumped the gun a bit. However, even if you’re Christmas fanatic like me, don’t forget about Advent. It’s an important season that prepares our minds, hearts, and souls to celebrate Christmas, which starts (not ends) on December 25 and runs until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in early January (the exact date varies from year to year; this year, it’s January 8).
So, what’s the difference between Advent music and Christmas music?
Christmas music, properly speaking, is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and the events that surrounded it, such as the visit of the shepherds and the magi, and even the flight into Egypt. Think “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “We Three Kings,” “Coventry Carol” …Advent music, by contrast, is focused on the preparation and anticipation of that event.
Advent music has three aspects. First, we remember the centuries of expectation of Jesus’ birth, foretold by the prophets and eagerly awaited by a people keenly aware of their need for a Savior. Second, we identify with that need and expectation as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s spiritual coming at Christmas; each year, through our celebration of the Christmas liturgy, that mystery becomes present by the power of the Holy Spirit, and transforms our lives. When we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel!” we really mean it! Lastly, there is also an eschatological aspect: we are preparing for the Lord’s final coming.
Consequently, Advent music tends to cite Old Testament prophecies regarding the identity and birth of the Messiah (in the Gregorian chant “Rorate Caeli,” for example), as well as John the Baptist’s calls to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming (“On Jordan’s Bank”). It also speaks of when Jesus will return on the last day (“The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns”).
Advent has its own rich liturgical and musical tradition. Although its repertoire is more limited than that of Christmas, it is no less marvelous or meaningful.
To help give this wonderful season its place, I’ve prepared a playlist of beautiful Advent music, ranging from ancient Gregorian chant to contemporary compositions, with a variety of things in between, in no particular order (except that the longest pieces — Bach cantatas — are at the end). There should be something for everyone here; if you hit one you don’t like, just skip ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
To watch the whole YouTube playlist, which will play through all 37 songs automatically if you let it run;For a short selection of some of my favorites, just scroll further down the page.