Choosing Music for the Atrium

November 2023

by Catherine Maresca

Advent and Christmas are wonderful seasons for singing with children. We may sing as we light Advent candles, gather around a creche, walk in a procession, or in communal prayer.

But some parts of the most popular carols for this time of year are not appropriate for children. Here are some criteria for choosing the best age-appropriate music.

Lyrics: Children are impressionable AND they love to sing. In some way they carry the theology of the lyrics they sing with them out of the atrium and into their lives. Christmas carols are beloved, but their lyrics, especially after the first verse, are often difficult to understand (old words or distorted grammar due to rhyming) or theologically inappropriate. With this in mind, songs should: 

  • Have developmentally appropriate ideas and language
  • Have gender inclusive references to both people and God, 
  • Be connected in some way to the essential themes of our faith
  • Represent a variety of cultures
  • Have carefully selected verses or choruses to sing with the 3-6-year-old children at Christmas. You can see a sample selection for Advent and Christmas in Sing with Joy. 
  • Offer young children songs where one word or name can be changed to create multiple verses.
  • Offer longer songs to 6-12-year-old children. Theology for this age group needs to be more about incarnation than sin and saving. Several songs fitting these parameters can be found in Songs of Love.

While we adults are familiar with oddly phrased lyrics, try to hear these phrases as though you are just 4 years old: Hark! The herald angels sing; …how still we see thee lie; …round yon virgin; …of Orient are; …ransom captive Israel; … It came upon the midnight clear…

Melodies: 

  • Offer Christmas melodies printed to play on the music maker throughout Advent and Christmas, and invite children learning various instruments to play during prayer services. This gives them the experience of beloved melodies without the confounding words.
  • Have notes in the most comfortable range for children to sing, between Middle C and the C above Middle C. Sustained singing of notes too high or too low is not good for their developing voices.
  • Offer melodies that can be sung and enjoyed by the children.
  • Offer older children rounds, harmonies, and/or several verses to sing, as well as songs that match their longing for justice, communion, peace… Many songs can align with the presentations, but since their singing is often at the prayer table/service, songs of worship, lament, hope, and celebration…are also important.

Thanks for your careful consideration of these choices. It’s a bit like choosing the best materials from a wide selection of materials of lesser value. Let’s be selective, choosing the best of our songs for a lifetime of prayer for the children in our care to carry into Christmas seasons for years to come.

We made an Advent playlist! Click here to listen on Spotify, and here to listen on Amazon Music.

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