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Jim McDermottDecember 23, 2021
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

At a recent America staff meeting, I learned of a horrifying tradition around Christmas carols. Some of you out there are apparently living under the terrible burden of believing that Christmas carols are only meant to be listened to until Christmas Day.

I had never heard of such a thing before. My first reaction was: “Who is telling Catholics this, because they are very bad people?”

Let me be clear, I understand Christmas Carol Fatigue. At this point, I honestly think it deserves a place in the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of mental disorders and health care benefits for anyone who begins to lose their mind when they wander into a Walmart or Costco and hear “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on repeat. “He sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake”? What kind of nightmare is this?

But to write off carols on Dec. 26, full stop, is like saying you are done with birthdays once you turn 21. Yes, you’ve had a big day, but you’re also missing the best stuff. (Life really does get better as you get older.)

As my dad once said when I tried to put the snowblower back in the garage after I did just the front sidewalk, “Hey you, we’re just getting started here!” In the Christian context Christmas is not a day, it’s a season, and one that goes at least two and a half weeks, to the Baptism of the Lord. Some people I know extend it all the way to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on Feb. 2!

“Season” is a funny word. From a secular point of view, this is just a way we demarcate a period of time. But for us Christians the term is more akin to the idea of a journey, or a story that we are moving through. Rather than the ending of Advent, the birth of Jesus is the beginning of something exciting and new. And Christmastide is the time in which we watch that story unfold and let it affect us.

For me, Christmas carols are an essential part of that ongoing experience of entering into the story of the Incarnation. Rather than a mallet pounding us over the head again and again like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, they are meant to help us savor more deeply what we experience at Christmas.

Or even just to help us get through Christmas in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I always imagine the month of December will be a calm, reflective time: me with a peppermint hot chocolate sitting in a café thinking about the year and writing in my journal.

Instead, I usually arrive at Jan. 1 like a person who has spent the month running for their life from a “Walking Dead”-sized horde of zombies. There is just so much that ends up piling on top of everything in the weeks before Christmas, there’s rarely time to contemplate anything.

During peak crazy times, carols can be like the unseen cave we escape into as the monsters race by. They offer a moment’s respite in which we can connect with our deeper selves and the Christmas liturgical experience. But to my mind, they are even more important after the main event of presents, family and plane trips is over. Because at that point they are really our main way back into the story, like the breadcrumbs God leaves to help us stay on that journey with Jesus.

And I’ll tell you something else: I think that can be true whether we are talking about a Christian Christmas carol or a more secular Christmas tune sung by Burl Ives or Natalie Cole. I don’t need the words to involve Jesus and a manger to be transported into a space of quiet and meditation; mostly I just need something a little wistful. Sorry, Mariah, you can have Dec. 1 through 24, but Christmastide is for other things.

There’s one more reason why you should feel free to listen to Christmas carols after Christmas, and it’s a pretty important one: because they are nice, and you deserve nice things. One of my biggest holiday takeaways from the pandemic was: “If something helps you, it’s worth continuing to do.” I put up Christmas lights and a tree in mid-November last year, and I did not take them down until I moved out of my residence in May 2021. And you know what? Having them up really did make things better.

Christmas is a season of blessing. It is a time when Scripture is filled with stories of gifts. So do not put away the carols (or the lights) until you have to. There’s so much there that God wants to give you.

And hey—another shameless plug!—if you’re looking for a way to really go deeper into some Christmas carols this season, check out “Hark!”, the great new America podcast about the stories behind the carols we love. We just finished our first season and are really proud of the work our production team did on it.

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