I love Christmas music. As soon as Dec. 1 arrives, I hit play on my extensive playlist of festive songs.
My favourite isn’t Wonderful Christmastime or Six White Boomers or Christmas in Hollis or The Christmas Song, although those are all high in my estimation. My absolute favourite Christmas song is O Come O Come Emmanuel. I have 11 different versions of the hymn in my music library.
If you haven’t heard it, O Come O Come Emmanuel is on the darker side of the holiday music spectrum. It is often slow, gloomy, dirge-like. The lyrics are written from a perspective of loneliness, exile and mourning. It is written from the point of view of “captive Israel,” which historically experienced a period of exile and captivity at the hands of the Babylonians, and later was occupied by the Roman Empire.
Yet, the hymn has an optimistic undertone – “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel,” goes the refrain. The reason I love the song is its subdued hopefulness.
While Christmas does not carry a religious significance for everyone, Christians like myself attribute great importance not to not only the holiday itself, but the days preceding it. This is known as the Advent season, whose name is derived from the Latin word for “arrival.”
In an article for Vox, critic Alissa Wilkinson explained the Advent, which is predicated on the act of anticipation. “Part of the observance of Advent, celebrated for the four Sundays before Christmas, is reenacting the centuries of anticipation of the birth of Jesus as written about by prophets like Isaiah in the Old Testament,” Wilkinson writes.
She points out that Christian theology also contains a belief in the second coming, when “Jesus will return to set things right in the world.” Advent, then, is about remembering that first anticipation while living with the second.
Growing up, my family’s observance of Advent was symbolic. Both at home and at church, we would light a candle every Sundays. Each candle represented a different part of the nativity story – Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels – and a different attribute associated with the season of advent – hope, joy and faith.
Lately, my Advent practices have become more personal and internal – I view it as a time of reflection and prayer as I live within the anticipation of a future joy. Christmas, then, is the celebration of that joy.
O Come O Come Emmanuel perfectly captures the anticipation of this time. It is about waiting for joy in the midst of life’s dark periods, about hoping for a moment when the “gloomy clouds of night” are dispersed. It is a reminder to stay positive, to keep going, to continue looking forward in spite of tough times.
Regardless of what you celebrate at this time of the year, or of how you celebrate it, my wish this holiday season is that you would also have a future hope and joy to anticipate.