When I played handbells as part of the music ministry of a local Presbyterian church, I was surprised to learn that in the traditional liturgical calendar, most of December isn’t Christmas time. Instead, it is a season called Advent that looks forward to Christmas time. Christmas itself begins on Christmas Eve and lasts through January 7. And by the same token, I learned that Advent has its own music tradition while playing in the bell choir. What has surprised me, however, is that some of those pieces of Advent music have found their way into Latter-day Saint hymnals over the years.
First, though, what exactly is Advent? President Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained it this way:
As an old family tradition, our family has always celebrated the Advent of Christmas. Starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, we would get together on Sunday afternoons, light wax candles on a pine Advent wreath, enjoy delicious homemade cookies, and read passages of scriptures that center on the Christ. We read accounts of ancient prophets who yearned for the coming of the Messiah.
We read scriptures that proclaim the wondrous story of His birth. Each week by singing beautiful Christmas songs and having a fun time together, our family tried to refocus on the true meaning of the season. I must admit that delicious hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and tasty homemade cookies helped a lot to catch the joyful feeling of the Christmas season! (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Seeing Christmas Through New Eyes,” Christmas Devotional, 2010.)
Thus, it is a period of four weeks that focus on preparing for the coming of the Christ that includes traditions of lighting candles on a wreath.
That being said, what are the Advent carols that have been a part of our music tradition? They are far and few between and are scattered across hymnals and songbooks in different times and places (mostly Sweden, actually), but I’ll go through each of the Advent Carols of which I’m aware.
“Watchmen! Tell us of the Night”
This Advent Carol is written as a conversation between two people about the signs of Jesus’s imminent birth. It was included in the 1841 Nauvoo hymnal. The entire hymnbook was text only, so there is no tune associated with this carol in our tradition and it is not clear what tune the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo would have used. Outside of our tradition, though, it is usually sung to the the beautiful Aberystwyth tune.
The title gives this song away as being an Advent carol. It is included in the Swedish children’s songbook published by the Church. Properly called “Adventstid kom till mitt ensamma hus”, it is a 1972 composition by Carl Bertil Agnestig that has become popular to have children sing in school during the Advent season. The lyrics are about celebrating Advent with a candle and allowing God’s gift to fill the house with light.
“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”
This Advent Carol is included in our Swedish hymnal. The English translation has also been rendered as “Prepare the way, O Zion,” and the lyrics focus on receiving Jesus as a king.
The above three songs are all of the Advent songs that I’ve found in Latter-day Saint hymnals. I would also mention “Come, Lord Jesus” from the Savior of the World musical as an honorary mention for being an Advent song created in a Latter-day Saint context.