Artistic Expression vs. "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Though we all find ourselves somewhere on the “Holiday Cheer Spectrum (HCS)” between the Grinch and Buddy the Elf, none of us can deny that the season of Advent is a unique time in the Church year. As worship team members, this is particularly evident, as we re-open the same dusty binder or remote Planning Center folder of Christmas songs for yet another ride through the circuit of holiday classics. While scrambling to find the band members brave enough to conquer charts with chord changes more reminiscent of jazz standards than worship choruses, simultaneously ensuring that every church member’s favorite carol is sung a satisfying amount of times over the span of four weeks, we may feel as though the very thing that should have us singing “fahoo fores dahoo dores” is the same thing stealing our Who pudding and rare Who roast beast. Sometimes, making Christmas music work makes musicians dislike Christmas music.

As a worship leader who prides himself in his ability to be artistically expressive, I can relate to feeling pigeon-holed by the holiday season. I feel trapped, knowing that the band can only deviate from the expected Christmas repertoire so much without seeming like it’s neglecting the season entirely, and can alter the execution of individual songs even less so.

This year in particular, I felt ensnared by a song that isn’t even religious in nature: “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As part of our Christmas celebration last year, we sang the popular gift-giving song with a decided amount of congregational participation, complete with hand motions, call-and-response, and specialized roles for each section of seats. This flurry of activity, combined with the songs already hectic, frenzied nature, made the instrumental side of things especially chaotic. How we got through the song mistake-free was beyond comprehension, and it didn’t seem worth it to go through so much trouble to create a moment over a song that was as directly tied to the true meaning of Christmas as the Abominable Snow Monster of The North.

I vowed that we wouldn’t reprise the song in 2015, and was fully intending to make good on my promise, until I had a fateful conversation with another church member (we’ll call her Cindy Lou), who asked me if I had any special plans for this year’s Christmas Celebration. After gushing about how excited I was about the various elements of the upcoming gathering, I remarked about how glad I was that we wouldn’t be doing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” again, expecting to hear a response that affirmed my distaste for the volatile song. Instead, I was surprised to hear Cindy say:

“Really? Bummer! That was everyone’s favorite part last year. It’s the main thing people remember. It was so much fun.” After trying to convince myself that she had no idea what she was talking about, I had to admit that there was obvious truth to what Cindy Lou had said, which rings true year-round.

In reality, pastoring people effectively with the music that you sing trumps your pursuit of musical expression, and it always should. Practically, this means that you shouldn’t alter the melody of familiar songs in a way that is too drastic for your congregation to follow, even if it sounds cool. It means that you probably shouldn’t sing songs that have compound meters or non-diatonic harmony, even though those things are awesome, since they’ll probably make it hard for your congregation to participate. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, in my case, pastoring my people effectively with the songs we sing means that we’re going to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” again this Sunday night, because it helps our people find real joy in a God who has given us something more precious than anything on earth: Himself.

Even though I don’t necessarily want to deal with Baroque bass lines, major two chords, or traditions that I think are dusty or played-out, those things are worth it if it means we get Christmas. If you feel trapped by the season sometimes, like I do, let's encourage each other to lean straight into it, fully convinced that God will change our hearts and allow us to find real joy in Him.