It’s hard to be a parent in season of Advent, especially when celebrating in the American tradition. The arduous effort of dashing through the snow from shop to shop in order to ensure a visit from old St. Nick is sure to take its toll, and when you get home there is the equally challenging task of keeping the kids focused on the true meaning of the celebration: The Nativity of Christ.
This year Catholic artist and father of three Matt Maher is releasing a children’s book alongside his new album, The Advent of Christmas, with the goal of helping parents take a moment to remind their children what the season is all about.
Combining lyrics from the album with beautiful illustrations by Mercè Tous, Maher’s book explains the meaning behind the Advent wreath and the season, in a format all children will understand.
Musically, the album is a wonderful mix of Christmas tunes, both standards and original, arranged in a variety of musical styles. Get ready for a jazzy “Jingle Bells,” a bluegrass “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and a profoundly beautiful cover of Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message.”
Matt had a chance to sit down with Aleteia to talk about his latest releases:
What inspired you to write a children’s book?
I love that that’s your first question, like “Okay, we get the record thing, but really? A kids book?”
Yeah, I have 3 kids and bedtime stories are a pretty consistent thing in my house. I was working on these songs for this album and we were getting ready for Christmas. So every night after dinner, the kids each had a classic chocolate Advent calendar and then we would read one of these scriptures.
For me it became a thing where I was asking myself “How do I talk to my kids about Advent?” It’s originally a penitential season! It’s about preparing for the birth of Jesus, but then it’s also about thinking about the second coming and the end of all things, which is kinda heavy for a three-year-old to think about.
I realized is that’s why we have symbols and that’s why they’re so important, and there’s a real simplicity to just three purple candles and one pink. My daughter asked me “Why is that one pink?” I’m like “Well, the other three weeks are about making room for Jesus and this week is called ‘Gaudete.’”
It became a way for unpacking the season of Advent in a bedtime story because – and there’s a great quote by Chesterton about this – kids basically want you to repeat things over and over and over again. They never get tired of it. For instance, I’ve had so many fans who are parents say, “Your music is the only thing my kids want to listen to in the mini-van.” To which I apologise. [He laughs] It’s like a weird form of Groundhog Day.
But I remember thinking to myself “Maybe if they’re listening to this album and they’re reading a book laced with lyrics and titles of songs throughout the record, then it can become a simple, connected way to break open the season.”
And really that’s what it is. The Church says parents are the chief catechists of the children. We’re just trying to take that commitment as seriously as we can … without being too serious.
Has your appreciation of the season of Advent always been with you or has it developed in your adulthood?
I’ve always had a sense that this is a very special time of year. In some ways I think it’s written into the fabric of the seasons themselves.
One of the groups of people I’m going to thank when I get to heaven are the Church Fathers who decided that we should celebrate the birth of Jesus in the darkest time of the year, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. That was about the best art and environment decision you could make.You have the liturgical calendar and then Western civilization basically has its season moving in patterns with the calendar. For me how can you not tell that something is changing when the leaves get beautiful and then everything starts to die and the days get colder.
And I loved how Christmas music was not defined by any one particular musical genre. It’s the one time of year where music is defined by lyrical content.
How has having kids influenced the way you celebrate Advent?
When children get to the age where they’re really having a sense of the mystery and the anticipation of the season, it really reawakens those same thoughts and feelings in you. Christmas is the one time of year where a lot of people take the past and pull it into the present. Sometimes they judge the present according to the past, but memories can be really deceptive.
I think kids are the antidote to that. They help you live in the moment. For me, it’s watching my sons unwrap toys on Christmas morning or watching them see snow for the first time, or being with them and they start asking questions …
My oldest is seven and I remember him being four years old on Christmas Eve. During the homily at the 4:30 Mass he runs up to the celebrant and tells him they need to get the Avengers to help save baby Jesus.
It’s ridiculous, but at the same time I’ll never experience Mass on Christmas Eve the same way ever again and that’s a good thing. I think in some ways God made me a father so I could learn how to be a son again. Christmas and Advent are some of those moments where you really step into your role as a parent and rediscover what it means to be a child of God.
The great thing about kids too is that you have to really simplify what it is you’re trying to communicate. You don’t get to rest on the self-assuredness of your vocabulary. You have to make it simpler to understand. You go back to the basics and it’s really important.
What advice do you have for parents who want to implant an appreciation of Advent in their children?
Man, isn’t it funny how you make a kids book and now people are asking you for parenting advice?
I would say just try to be present. Advent is about this announcement “Prepare the way,” and I think there are a lot of different ways you can get ready for Christmas. Advent is about simplifying your life, but it’s about doing it so that you can actually celebrate the Christmas as a season, and not get sick of it in one day.
I guess my advice for parents would be: try to figure out the schedule to eat a meal together, whether it’s at morning or night, find a way to read scripture together, and to end each day with a family prayer. It doesn’t have to be long or overly complicated.
Do stuff that feels a little intentional and in the moment. The great thing about Advent is that it lasts four weeks. You don’t have to expect immediate results. Sometimes being intentional and spending time together can take a while to bear fruit.
The last thing I would say is that there are a lot of people who come from broken homes and did not grow up with a traditional family in the Christmas season. My advice to these people is don’t go it alone. Advent exists to pull us outside of ourselves and help us be reminded that we are part of a bigger story.
You explore a lot of different styles in this album. What was the thought process which led to a jazzy Jingle Bells and a bluegrass Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?
I studied theory and composition and jazz in college, but then I started leading worship music at church, and with that music there were already musical parameters already established. Christmas music, however, doesn’t seem to operate within that. Most of the great Christmas songs, the classics, are almost written like show tunes or jazz standards.
For example, “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme, goes through so many key changes. It’s really harmonically complex music. Then there’s the heyday of the development of the American traditions of Christmas, with Burl Ives and the subsequent explosion of the record industry, when everyone started making Christmas records. That tradition just keeps on continuing and it’s all part of the subgenre of “holiday” and “Christmas” music. It’s supposed to cross genres and feel a little broad.
“Hark, the Herald Angels,” a lot of people don’t know this, was written by Charles Wesley, who wrote pretty much every great Methodist hymn. He had a charismatic experience., basically a spiritual awakening, and his response was to continue to write some of the most profound hymns that Christendom still has.
When I read the words of “Hark, the Heralds Angels Sing,” on a human level, just the amount of joy that comes from it, one of the memories I associate with that kind of joy was from growing up in Newfoundland. particularly around the holidays, how people would come together at someone’s house and spend hours on end talking. Eventually people would start pulling out instruments and have a nice sing-along.
I wanted it to feel a little less like a cathedral on Christmas morning and more like a pub in Dublin. Almost like there’s a level of joy that is reverently irreverent.
Which is your all time favorite Christmas song?
From a liturgical view, “O Holy Night.” As someone who writes a lot of congregational music, I love melodies that people want to sing together. The range of that melody and how it keeps slowly ascending is just stunning.
It was written to be sung on Christmas Eve at Mass, by a French priest. In a really subtle way, the melody twists and turns and the key change hints at maybe some of the surrounding feelings of trepidation that may have existed in the narrative of Joseph and Mary traveling and, with no room to stay.
The lyrics are stunning too. In the second verse it says “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease. Truly he taught us to love one another, His law is love and His Gospel is peace.” It’s just really profound. It’s beautiful poetry, it’s beautiful lyrics, and it’s beautiful to hear people sing. Even when it’s just one cantor who can’t quite get the high note.
If you’re asking for my favorite from the American tradition, I’d probably say “White Christmas.” Mostly because I have so many auditory memories of Bing Crosby’s voice and my Dad’s singing together. It was always cranked up so loud on our stereo, but my dad would sing along really loud.
If I stood between the stereo and my dad I would get Bing in one ear and my Dad in another and that’s just a really great memory.
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