If you’ve visited a store or turned on the television lately, you probably know that Christmas is already in full swing, according to most retailers.
“The rest of the world is celebrating Christmas already. Just look in the stores,” observed Kathryn Weider, music director at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Brighton.
In case the Christmas trees displayed in store windows weren’t a clear enough signal that shoppers had better start their holiday buying, for weeks stores have been pumping Christmas music into the ears of potential customers through their stores and their television commercials.
In Catholic churches, however, the music is telling a different story, a story of waiting and anticipation, Weider said.
“The church’s focus is on anticipation, so the Christmas carols really don’t get used until Dec. 24,” she added.
Waiting for Jesus
The season of Advent is just as important to Catholics as the celebration of Christmas is, said Ginny Miller, music minister at Rochester’s Cathedral Community, associate director of the diocesan Office of Liturgy and diocesan music-resource person. Advent is not merely something to be rushed through so we can get to Christmas. Rather, we should appreciate this four-week period of waiting, just as we should learn to appreciate the other times of waiting we experience in our lives, she said.
“Our lives are about waiting. We really need to be in that in-between time of Advent and realize it’s a sacred and holy time and to see how it connects to our lives. Music helps us do that,” Miller said.
Trixie Meteyer, music director and organist at St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, said it makes sense to wait until Christmas to begin celebrating the birth of Jesus. We usually don’t have parties to celebrate the births of other babies until they actually are born, so why would we celebrate the birth of Jesus before the date we celebrate as his birthday, asked Meteyer, who was raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism.
“One thing I love about the Catholic Church is we don’t start singing about the baby Jesus being born until the day he’s born,” Meteyer said. “A lot of the Protestant churches start singing Christmas carols by the second week in December.”
The music used in churches during Advent has a different sound than Christmas music and even the music used during the other liturgical seasons, Miller said. Music ministers and liturgical musicians help set the tone of Advent through their music. By playing and singing music that sounds different, they can let people know Advent has begun, and “it’s not business as usual,” she said.
“Probably it’s a little bit more subdued, because you’re going to work up to Christmas, and Christmas is going to be this big, blowout festival. (Advent music) is going to be a little softer, a little gentler and a little less, so you can do more later,” Miller said.
Music directors not only choose different hymns during Advent, but they also often change the Mass settings, or the music that accompanies certain prayers of the Mass, such as the “Holy, Holy, Holy” or the “Great Amen,” Meteyer said.
“There are different sets of notes that go with the same words. One might be slow and one might be fast,” she said. “(During Advent) we often go to a simpler setting of the Mass music. There are more things in a minor key. It’s maybe more reflective.”
Setting the tone
The sound or setting of a particular hymn is just one of the factors music ministers and directors consider when choosing what music to use during Advent, Miller said. First, they look at the Scripture readings for each weekend’s liturgies and try to find songs that match or relate to those readings. There also are different requirements for different parts of the Mass, she said.
“If we’re looking for a Communion song we’re looking for something that’s easy to remember, because people can’t be carrying books when they’re going up to Communion,” Miller said.
Jack Fiannaca, music director for St. Cecilia Parish in Irondequoit, also said he tries to choose music that demonstrates beautiful musical melody or harmony as well as meaningful lyrics. He also tries to take into account the congregation’s repertoire, as well as occasional requests from the pastor and parishioners.
“A major objective is vocal participation by the congregation,” said Fiannaca, who considers, “What songs are in the hymnals in the pews? With what songs are they already familiar?… New music is occasionally introduced to expand their repertoire.”
Anne Hull, leader of the folk group that plays at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Spencerport, said she regularly meets with several of her fellow singers and musicians to choose which songs the group will use.
“We consider all the different styles of music that are available to us. We try to look at our history as a church, our history as a parish … so that we can touch everyone in the community with something they’re bound to like or bound to know,” Hull said.
It’s not unusual, for example, for the group to use a folk song, a traditional song and a gospel song, all during one Mass. Hull and the other musicians also try to find songs that may be relevant not only to the Scripture readings, but also to events happening in the world and in the parish, she said.
“That’s why you can’t just use the same music you selected the year before. It’s a different world and a different church, and we’re looking at everything with new eyes,” Miller said.
The three parishes of the Cathedral Community, for example, will each use the song “Walk in the Reign” during this Advent season, although each parish will use the song in a slightly different way, Miller said. The lyrics to the song, written in 1990 by Rory Cooney, talk about freedom coming, healing being near and God always being with his people, even when they’re scared, she said.
The Cathedral Community is going through a transition period right now, Miller noted. Two of the community’s three worship sites — Holy Rosary and Most Precious Blood parishes — will no longer be used for worship beginning in March 2008, and parishioners will instead worship together at Sacred Heart Cathedral, according to Father John Mulligan, pastor.
The song will hopefully be comforting to parishioners, as through this song God is telling them, “I’m going to be with you during all of this. You’re not going to do it alone,” Miller said.
Bill Grimmer, liturgical musician at St. Mary Parish in Bath, said the people who choose the hymns for Advent liturgies also are challenged to find music that will connect the Advent season with the Christmas season, up through the Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism.
“In many churches there is specific music for each season, but rarely do you find a song or songs that can be sung throughout the whole period,” he said.
Grimmer and Meteyer both said they often use “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to provide continuity at least through the Advent season. It’s used as the gathering song at the Bath parish, where the congregation sings two verses of the song each week. In Canandaigua, the song is used during the opening procession, when Meteyer plays one verse of the song before the congregation joins in to sing another two verses.
“It’s a long hymn, so by doing it two verses at a time it gets us all the way through it, and it provides a continuity for the season,” Meteyer said. “This has worked quite well, and since it is the only time of year we introduce a processional this way, it seems like an effective way to set Advent apart from the other seasons.”