I love Christmas, but to be honest, I haven’t always loved Christmas music. I love new songs, writing songs, and making beautiful musical moments to glorify Jesus. But sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my persistent desire for “new,” with the traditional elements of standard Christmas carols. The lyrics can be hard to pronounce, the chords don’t get any easier (even with a capo), and a lot of the instrumentation is exactly the same. At times, worship leading in December has felt restrictive because of these limitations.
I think we as creatives, artists, and worship leaders, tend to prefer a blank canvas. No rules, no guidelines, just pure creativity. But what’s ironic about limitations, is that they require even more creativity to make something beautiful. There’s so much meaning and unique perspective hidden in the lyrics of these timeless, seasonal hymns. Maybe all that’s needed are some simple changes to the music and the melody. A fresh musical arrangement can tell the same story in a new light, and hopefully connect with the congregation in a fresh way.
So here are 4 ways to spruce up those Christmas carols... see what I did there…
In my experience as a worship leader, December rolls around, and people want to hear carols at church. I’ve even had pastors that have wanted the service to be exclusively Christmas songs each weekend, starting right after Thanksgiving! I’ve also had pastors who gave me complete freedom, letting me choose how many we do a weekend, and when we start introducing them into our worship sets. Sometimes those songs aren’t as easy to respond to as a typical worship song. I had to figure out a way to sing hymns that were appropriate for the season, while still having an engaging and responsive worship service.
A hack I’ve learned is to combine as many carols as possible into a medley. Hint, most of the “Angel” carols go great together! Try finding a key where you can sing multiple carols in the same vocal register. Get creative with it. Write a simple chord progression that works underneath the melody of a couple of carols, and combine them all together! Be conscious of the lyrical content, so that when you combine the lyrics, the song still tells a cohesive story. And just like that, you have a completely new, unique, and special arrangement just for your church! Plus, you can cover about 3 Christmas songs in 5 minutes, leaving plenty of room for other types of worshipful moments in your set.
Who defined what Christmas music had to sound like musically? Who made the rules? Who decided that a minor subdominant chord with an added 6 (look it up) is “Christmas-y?” Why do we have to use orchestral sounds, or xylophones, or a ton of jingle bells, if we don’t during the 11 other months of the year?
Christmas music doesn’t have to sound like Bing Crosby elevator music (nothing against you Bing, you’re a legend)! Realistically, there are some restraints, but at the same time there’s also more freedom than usual to experiment with different genres and musical vibes. Think of your church while doing this...does your congregation prefer country music? Maybe whip up a country chord progression (3 chords and the truth) and do a mashup with some carols. Is your congregation more into Taylor Swift’s Folklore album? Put on your coziest musical cardigan, and arrange a Fleet Foxes/Bon Iver track with some verbed-out oo’s and some stomp-claps. When the arrangements are more inspiring, it becomes easier to lead more passionately and connect with your people in a new way.
There’s two aspects to this; musical and lyrical. Musically, analyze the instrumental medleys to your favorite songs. Why do you like that drum intro? What kick pattern is that? What makes your favorite lead line so special...what intervals are in it? What effects are being used on the instruments? Be scientific about what inspires you. It’s amazing how clarifying and helpful it is, once you realize why you like what you like. After you have collected musical data on your favorite songs, start experimenting with carol arrangements. Use drum samples and add a really cool drum intro. Try out the lead line on a different instrument. It won’t be long before you stumble across something new. Once you understand what inspires you, it gets easier to recreate those special moments.
Lyrically, something I’ve seen work recently is writing a new chorus, bridge, or tag that complements the original carol. It can really help engagement by writing a new chorus specifically for your church. We have some examples of this on the “We Sing To You Jesus: Carols For Worship (Live)” album. To me, this is a great compromise, because you get to keep some of the old with the new. Honor tradition and sing “a new song” (Psalm 96:1 ESV) all at the same time.
Some Christmas carols aren’t as easy to engage with as some of the congregational worship songs we sing every week. The response to these carols can also tend to be more passive, as people take in the weighty and less common lyrics in these advent hymns. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes you want to end a carol with something easy to sing and respond to, that just invites expressive worship.
I think you can have the best of both worlds by tagging a very congregational, worshipful chorus of a familiar song at the end of the carol. Pick something in the same key, with a melody range that’s close to the carol. Some of the most powerful moments in worship I can remember came when tagging an anthemic chorus at the end of a deep, rich worship song. It can be a really powerful way to finish the carol, end on a high note, and connect with a familiar song in a new context.
The motivation behind these tips are not meant to be self-serving for us as worship leaders.The reality is, as a creative, it’s hard to be inspired consistently. Do the work to make inspiration more common in your context. If you’re inspired, it makes it that much easier to lead and connect with your people.
There will always be a tension between creativity and traditions. However, there in the balance, lies a great opportunity to connect with a wide range of people. When creativity is humbly used to serve, it is a wonderful tool to help tell the greatest story ever told. Jesus, coming to save His people. Sing the same story, in a new way.