Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Christmas is perhaps the easiest time of year to pick songs, with more classic options than you can fit into all the services. I’m a firm believer that it’s important to meet expectations and to give people their fill of the well loved carols which they sing year after year. But at the same time I think it’s also really important to do one or two things in a service that are a bit different and hopefully help people encounter God in an unexpected moment - especially those who don’t come to church during the rest of the year. This post is going to focus on ideas for those moments and as a result mostly focuses on the middle of the service where there is more scope for creativity with congregational song.
You can find a YouTube playlist here with many of the songs suggested below.
I would imagine most people beginning a service with a well known carol but especially for online services there might be an option of starting with something that more immediately makes people think, or perhaps doing this in your second song. The opening of the Gospel of John is a wonderfully evocative text which could be used in a call to worship and In the beginning (Resound) is a great song to build on that. With the strange context of 2020 you might find Even in the strangest times (Fischy) a bit of an icebreaker which connects this with the feeling of having your world turned upside down which Mary and Joseph must have felt. Once in royal David’s city is a classic carol to begin a Christmas service with but can lead us to quite a sanitised and romanticised view of the Nativity. If you want to turn this on its head the Once in Judah’s least known city (WGRG), a rewriting of this carol set to the same tune, could be a chance to challenge some of the assumptions around this.
Of course make sure you sing the final verse of any Advent candle lighting song you’ve been using.
If you have been using a short song before the reading of scripture in Advent then you could continue this pattern into Christmas and use an Alleluia. The well known South African chorus (CH 752) could be used reflectively, perhaps at a midnight service, while settings by Norah Duncan (CH 751) and Abraham Maraire (CH 767) are more upbeat and each in three parts which can be easily learned and built up one at a time. You could also use Of the Father’s love begotten which can be sung as a hymn (CH 319) or as a worship song (New Scottish). The first verse or two could be sung before scripture is read and the final verse sung afterwards. A Christmas Alleluia (CCLI) could also be used after the reading of the Gospel as an opportunity to reflect on it and build up a chorus of praise.
If you are reading the Nativity story from Luke then you can also sing a Gloria in the middle of the reading instead of reading it to capture the drama of the heavenly host appearing. This could be with a full congregation in a simple chorus such as the Taizé (CH 760 / CP 61) or Peruvian (CH 762) settings, or with a choir or group of singers which would allow you to do something more complicated such as Gloria 2 (WGRG) or Gloria in excelsis Deo (recording / book).
It can be easy for us to miss out the Psalms altogether but they can help us to frame the Gospel story as part of the broader Christan story. In a time of Climate Crisis it’s also worth noting that they feature all of creation singing praise so they can also be an opportunity for us to take a step back from an anthropocentric view of Salvation. Using tunes which are associated with Christmas might make it easier to include them though. For Psalm 96 Sing to the Lord a new song (PFAS 96F) is set to Es ist ein’ ros’ entsprungen and for Psalm 97 God reigns! Earth rejoices! (PFAS 97A) is set to Noel nouvelet. Joy to the world (CH 320 / MP 393) is already a familiar song inspired by Psalm 98 and some verses from Psalm 96 and there are also a couple of contemporary versions of this with added choruses from Chris Tomlin (CCLI) and Hillsong (CCLI). If you are open to using a setting of a psalm with an original tune then Let’s sing to the Lord (CH 126) or From life's beginning (Resound) are both settings of Psalm 98 which are very catchy.
After a sermon can always be a great place to introduce a new song as you can contextualise it and people can have a good sense of why it is a meaningful thing to sing. This could be an opportunity to use a song which speaks to the place of the Christmas story in the full life of Jesus by using songs like Immanuel (MP 1045 / CCLI), Noel (CCLI), Hope has a name (CCLI), or the bluegrass inspired From the cradle to the cross (GIA). You could also reflect on the hope that the Christmas message brings with a song like There is no child so small (GIA) which challenges us to consider children who are hungry or refugees or in the middle of conflict, or You bring peace (Resound) which is inspired by Isaiah 9 and considers that this promise comes to those in dark places.
You might just want a more general song to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and a song such as Adore (CCLI / Common) has a chorus which could be picked up easily even if the full song was too much to learn. Who would think that what was needed (God's surprise) (CH 295) may be a song you’ve avoided singing congregationally if the tune is not well known. However, there are a number of other options such as Scarlet Ribbons (WGRG), Beach Spring or Hyfrydol which could be used. If you have focused on Isaiah 9 then Wonderful counsellor (Resound) is a simple song with three easy harmony parts which can be built up reflecting on the names which Jesus is called in verse 6. For those reading this in Scotland you might also want to consider Ma wee bit dearie (WGRG) and Ho ro ho ro (WGRG) which are two lullabies written in the Scots language.
If I went to a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service which didn’t finish with either ‘Hark the herald’ or ‘O come all ye faithful” I would be scandalised!