The truth about “XMas”

So every year about this time you start seeing people all over the place posting and writing and shouting and reciting about how we should not “take Christ out of Christmas”. And I agree, by the way. Whole-heartedly. But I ran across an article the other day that I thought was pretty fascinating. It addressed this whole thing that happens every year around Christmas and where it all started. You might remember if you’re over 40. It was seen printed that way in an ad or something and the Christian community was instantly up in arms about it.

For years there has been a belief that this was a deliberate, modern attempt by media to take Christ out of Christmas or somehow disrespect His name in some way. The very site or mention of this abbreviation still runs many Christians hot. But I was doing some reading on-line a few days ago and I started to see a lot of articles addressing this. I decided to read one of them and I was pretty amazed at what I found out.  First of all, the use of the abbreviation “Xmas” isn’t new or modern, nor was it started in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog…or their parents, or their parents’ parents’.

It turns out this abbreviation started around 400 years ago…and it was started by Christians. The use of the “X” itself derives from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letterxtian of the word Χριστός, translating as “Christ”. The first letter isn’t even an x in Greek, but our letter x in English is the closest thing we have to what it looks like. Later Christians began using the first two letters of that word, the Greek letters chi (c or C) and rho (r or R). These letters were used in the early church to create the chi-rho monogram (see Christian Symbols: Christmas Ornaments), a symbol that by the fourth century became part of the official battle standard of the emperor Constantine.

Some accounts say that during the time of great persecution, Christians began using the X and this symbol here on their houses, in print as a way to safely identify themselves as Christians. Even when it did show up in print it wasn’t any time recently. Try 1436, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type. Back then it was all done by hand, so it was very tedious and very expensive. So things got abbreviated a LOT.

In religious publications, the church began to use the abbreviation C, or simply X, for the word “Christ” to cut down on the cost of the books and pamphlets. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and “Xmas” became an accepted way of printing “Christmas” (along with the abbreviations Xian and Xianity).

So, first of all, having the understanding we now have about the origin of the “x”, the first thing we can toss out the window is the pronunciation of the word as “ex-mass”. “Xmas’ is pronounced the same as Christmas, because the x literally translated from the Greek means Christ. There’s no conspiracy to “x-out Christ from Christmas; at least not with that particular abbreviation.

But here’s the thing. First of all, I think this is a pretty glaring illustration of just how easily we adopt and follow pretty-much whatever we’re told as believers. “Blown about by every wind and doctrine”, I seem to remember reading somewhere. Nobody has ever really looked into this. Nobody cared enough to put that much effort into it. But isn’t it ironic that we can be that passionate and that angry and that emotional about something we don’t think is worth the effort to look up and verify for ourselves?

Let’s forget about that part though. Honestly that’s not something most people do. But aren’t there more important things to get angry about? To be passionate or adamant about? And how important is it really, that we keep this holiday about Christ? Aside from mentioning Him a lot, and singing some Carols, and having a Christmas program, don’t we pretty-much go on with business as usual, just like everyone else?

Aren’t we placing the same amount of emphasis on the commercialism and buying and presents and decorating as everybody else? And how little does it take to push you off track with our convictions anyway? Is someone using an x really going to take Christ out of it for you just because you saw it abbreviated?  Aside from the annual church observations, what are we doing every year to really keep Christ as the focus of this holiday?

Because I’m thinking those who really “get it” are the ones who see things like “xmas” and are not the least bothered by it. Seeing it abbreviated this way doesn’t change a thing about what I believe, and therefore is no reason for me to get upset. It’s kinda like this one preacher who, every Easter Sunday, spends his entire Easter Sermon methodically proving that Jesus didn’t actually rise on a Sunday, but on a Saturday. Almost obsessively. Even the faces on his congregation when the camera pans seem to say “I don’t care!!” As my pastor said Sunday morning, “I know He was born. I know He died. And I know He rose again. That’s all that matters.”

Here are some sources I referred to for some of the subject matter in this. Be warned though, not all of these are exactly “pro Christian”.

http://westangeleschurch.org/5-top-christmas-myths-answered/

http://www.cresourcei.org/symbols/xmasorigin.htm/

http://queerlandia.com/2011/12/26/keeping-christ-in-christmas-how-xtians-created-xmas/

 

 

How To Take Your Group Christmas Caroling And Actually Sound Good

If your choir, praise team or other group has never gone Christmas caroling you absolutely must. Our church choir has done this for several years now, and I can’t even begin to put into words here what a rewarding, absolutely wonderful feeling it is to go out and do this once a year. We have arrangements with about 4 or 5 locations who expect us to come out once a year and have scheduled our visit. (It’s very important, by the way, that you call ahead and get permission from the locations you’d like to visit ahead of time.)

We simply pile into our cars and follow each other from location to location, visiting  nursing homes and other chosen locations that have been arranged in advance. If your ministry has a small bus or van, that would be even better. But I can’t tell you what it’s like to see the faces of people in Wal-mart when we begin to sing and the sound starts to carry throughout the store. Or the smile on the faces of the residents at the nursing homes when we finish singing and begin talking and visiting with them. Often we have trouble leaving a particular location because people keep asking us to come to their section or department and sing.

One main reason, I believe, that it touches people so much is because we actually sing songs that lend themselves well to being sung a cappella. the nursing homes actually get a lot of people coming by to sing, as you can imagine. But it’s very common for both residents and staff members to comment to us about how much better we sound than most who come through. The secret? I carefully chose the songs we sing every year to insure that they are songs that actually sound good a cappella. Then we just learn pretty basic 3 part harmony and actually rehearse for our caroling outing. I note which keys we do each song and then at the location I put us in the right key using a simple pitch pipe.

The mistake many groups make when going out to sing is that they simply choose Christmas songs from their Sunday morning song list, or songs written to be sung with music. These songs were written around heavy musical arrangements, so they don’t often transfer well to being sung a cappella.

The worse thing when you’re singing a cappella is to have large spaces where nothing’s really happening except this awkward clapping and stomping where music would normally be playing. So the key to going out caroling and actually sounding good is to choose standard Christmas carols that have constant lyrical movement and no dead spaces or required leaders. With minimal effort I was able to find a handful of these and easily create simple 3 part harmony arrangements for them.

[youtube 6fBFjbCGoZo]

Here are my top 5 Christmas Carols that sound great A Cappella.

1. Joy To The World

2. Oh Come All Ye Faithful

3. Hark The Harold Angels Sing

4. Angels We Have Heard On High

5. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

 

Now, here’s how to go out caroling with these songs and sound so good they’ll want you back every year. The first 3 tips definitely need to be done by the musician and/or parts instructor/director.

1. Assign a key to each song.

Keep these keys as close in proximity to each other as the vocal arrangement will allow. This way it’s easy to quickly identify the key with a pitch pipe or even the little piano app on your I-Phone

2. Create a simple 3 part vocal arrangement for each song, soprano alto and tenor.

Do SATB if you have that luxury. Writing the arrangements should be as simple as taking the well-known melody line from each song, assigning it to Soprano or Alto and then writing harmony around that. We just use SAT every year and it sounds just fine for caroling.

3. Dedicate one rehearsal to learning the vocal harmony.

The entire rehearsal should be done a cappella with only a pitch pipe or your piano app to give the key.

4. Use lyric sheets!

This is the one time it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected for the choir or group to sing with lyric sheets in front of them. It makes everything that much easier to perfect, and it actually looks more christmas-y, lol . One of our administrators usually puts our lyric sheets into nice red or green folders so it looks good as we stand and sing.

5. Coordinate your colors.

It never hurts to look good out there, and when you’re all wearing similar colors it’s very easy to identify you as a group. We usually simply wear red tops and denim bottoms.

If you guys can put this together this year- even as few as 3 songs- try going out caroling this year. This is an annual event for our church choir. Attendance is not “mandatory”, per se, so we usually have a small group of 10 people or less. But with the right songs and just basic 3 part harmony, it really makes an impact every year. You really haven’t understood the true meaning of music ministry until you take it outside the walls and do something like this. It’s an amazing feeling, and once you do it you’ll be hooked.

 

How To Plan Engaging Christmas Worship Services

I found this article on ChurchLeaderInsights.com. It’s one of several sites I’ll be telling you about in a future blog post that I believe can be really beneficial to you as you strive to grow and improve your worship team. What I love about this article is that while the title suggests it will include content specific only to Christmas, the content really covers the one thing most worship teams struggle with all year ’round; getting our audiences engaged in worship. I’ve never seen someone explain WHY they aren’t engaged as well as Jason does in this article:

 

…the congregation doesn’t experience the worship set the way you and I do.

They aren’t hearing what we hear (or should I say feeling what we feel).

We’re actually playing the music, feeling the connection with other musicians, onstage and amplified.  In short . . . we’re fully invested.  Whereas the congregation can oftentimes feel like bystanders, simply observing what’s happening onstage.

Ever heard it explained that way? Me either, but that makes so much sense doesn’t it? So anyway, check out the rest of the article here. I think it’ll bless you!

Christmas Theme Ideas And Songs For Gospel Choir

Today I’m happy to introduce to you guys someone I’ve been asking to write for the website for at least a couple of years now. Her name is Joan Hall, aka Joan The Choir Lady. Joan is an expert on all things related to Gospel Choirs. I featured an article of hers one year that was a great list of Choir songs for Easter. Today Joan is going to give us some ideas for Christmas songs. I’ve also included a link to her extremely popular article “Best Christmas Songs For Gospel Choir” below.

Take it away Joan!
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The story of Advent and Christmas is rich with meaning. As music ministers, we can find many themes and subjects to inspire choices for Christmas music to use in ministry. Even some songs that were not written with Christmas in mind can be beautiful expressions of the spirit of the season.

Here is a list of topics that are related to Christmas. For each one, I have a few suggestions of songs that fit, and I hope these inspire you to think of other songs as well that relate to the same topic that would be great for your choir or group.

These are major subject themes that relate to the Christmas season:

Baby Songs.
“And they came with haste , and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:16.

Everybody loves babies, and songs about Jesus as an infant inspire feelings of love and tenderness that are a beautiful part of “the Christmas spirit”.

Christmas carols like What Child Is This and Away in a Manger.
Mary Did You Know? (Lowry & Greene)
Sweet Little Jesus Boy (Mahalia Jackson and lots of other artists)
Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child (Traditional)

Songs about beholding and adoring Jesus
“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down , and worshipped him:” – Matthew 2:11.

These are different from the “baby” songs because instead of focusing on Jesus himself, they focus on our own feelings and acts of worship toward him. This worship is what all of the visitors did when they were in the presence of Jesus, and these songs encourage us to do the same. There are lots of songs that are not actually Christmas songs that would be great in a Christmas service because they fit in with this same theme of reverent adoration and intimate worship.

O Come All Ye Faithful / O Come Let Us Adore Him (Christmas carol)
Emmanuel (Norman Hutchins)
Now Behold the Lamb (Kirk Franklin)
Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes) – “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that You’re my God.”
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (Hymn) – “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”

Other events from the Christmas story.

Along with the birth scene, there were other events that were a part of the arrival of Jesus – the prophecies to Mary and Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds on the hillside, the treachery of Herod. Songs that recreate these happenings are an important part of keeping the Christmas story alive.

Carols: The First Noel, While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, We Three Kings, the Coventry Carol
Rise Up Shepherd and Follow (Traditional)
Go Tell It On the Mountain (Traditional)
When Christ Was Born (Joan Hall). This one is an original song of mine. You can hear it here –
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Songs about the Advent of the Savior. “ . . . and he shall send them a saviour , and a great one, and he shall deliver them.” – Isaiah 19:20.

This is the reason WHY we needed Christmas. There was no one who was able to save mankind before Jesus came. Songs that deal with the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus or songs about our need for a Savior remind us of the hope that Christmas brings to our lives today.

Carols: O Come O Come Emmanuel
Still the Lamb (Mary, Mary)
Hero (Kirk Franklin). While there are some lyrics in this that are Easter-related, the main message, especially in the opening verses, is that we needed someone to come on the scene to be our deliverer. That’s Christmas.
Choruses from Handel’s Messiah: And He Shall Purify, For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Songs About “The Light Of The World. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . .” – Isaiah 9:2,6. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” – John 1:4-5.

Songs about the light of Christ are a part of the Christmas story and also fit in with the “look” that we associate with Christmas (the lights on the tree, the lights on the houses, all that pretty stuff).

Carols: Silent Night. Pay attention to the lyrics of “Silent Night”. There’s a lot about light shining in darkness – “All is bright round yon virgin”, “Glories stream from heaven afar”, “love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face.” I think this song is more about light than it is about babies.
Walk in the Light. Either the regular version or the Christmas version
Jesus Is the Light (either the hymn or the Hezekiah Walker song)

Following The Examples Of The Angels – corporate praise. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:13-14.

This is different from the intimate personal worship that the wise men experienced. This is worshipers coming together to make a joyful noise of praise. This includes songs about the angels, songs that use the same words the angels sang (in Latin, it’s “Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.”), or any other proclamations of praise.

Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory, etc.
Rockin’ Jerusalem (Traditional spiritual)
Glory (Joan Hall). This is another original one
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Oh Bless the Name (New Jersey Mass Choir)
Worthy Is the Lamb (Daryl Coley)
Choruses from the Messiah: Glory to God or the Hallelujah Chorus

“Keep Christ in Christmas” Songs. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” – Matthew 22:21

In the ungodly, materialistic world that we live in, these songs remind us where we as Christians need to keep our focus during Christmas. Yes, it’s true that the winter solstice celebrations are older than Christianity, and I’m OK with secular people doing the holidays whatever other way they want to do them, but we who believe in Jesus can be at peace with the secular world and still have a holy holiday of our own. These songs are not trying to tell other people what to do, they’re reminding US of what WE want to do. It’s especially important for our children to hear messages like this so that they will remember that even if the rest of the world sees Christmas as a time of “gimme, gimme, gimme”, we are focused on the Lord.

Jesus Is the Reason (Kirk Franklin)
The Real Meaning of Christmas (The Winans)
No Christmas without You (John P. Kee, Kirk Franklin)

My hope is that these suggestions will give you ideas to broaden and enrich the Christmas repertoire of your choir or singing group. May you and yours have a beautiful and blessed holiday season, always with a song in your heart.

[Editor’s note: Be sure to check out Joan’s article “Best Christmas Songs For Gospel Choir”, which I think is one of the best lists out there on the subject.   And don’t forget to tell her where you found it! -Ron]

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Author bio: Joan Hall has been singing in, playing for, teaching, directing, and writing for gospel choirs for over 25 years. Her writings about gospel choir directing can be found on Squidoo  and on her blog called “The Church Choir” .

Joan is also the founder and owner of ChoirParts.com , an online store that sells downloadable Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass practice tracks for choir songs. You can also follow ChoirParts.com on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheChoirLady.

How your musical gift is like a Sweet Potato Pie

Thanksgiving day in America is steeped in tradition, the most important of which is the tradition for families and friends all over the country to come together and break bread. While everyone has their own favorite food staples, you’re almost sure to find Sweet Potato Pie on the menu at most gatherings. So I thought it would be a fun, visual way to look at a basic, fundamental truth regarding how all singers and musicians in music ministry should see their gift.  I’ll use myself and a fictitious friend in this little story to make it easy.

So imagine with me for a few minutes. It’s Thanks Giving day. I’ve spent all night long making my prize-winning Sweet Potato Pie. But I have to go in to work for a half a day and I don’t want the pie to arrive to the family dinner too late for everyone to enjoy. So I ask my friend to take it with her to the family dinner and I’ll join everyone later.

A few hours later at the family gathering everyone has finished dinner and is starting on the dessert table. A few people get a slice of the Sweet Potato Pie and start raving to my friend about it. “Oh my God Janice this pie is amazing!” “Girl you did your thing with this!” The complements keep coming as word gets around the house about how good the pie is. Meanwhile Janice is glowing and enjoying all the complements. Smiling and thanking everyone for the kind words. “Oh, thank you! God bless you! I’m so glad you like it so much!”

Later I arrive at the dinner after work ready to eat. it doesn’t take long for people to start coming up to me raving about how good my friend’s Sweet Potato Pie is. They go on and on about how great a cook she is, and how they’ve never had pie like that. And how I should really take some lessons from her!

I look at her and smile, but I don’t say anything. After all, I love her. She’s my friend. I would never embarrass her. But I know in my heart that SHE knows she didn’t bake that pie. She only delivered it. And I can’t understand why she wouldn’t give me the credit for it. Why wouldn’t she just say “oh thank you but actually Ron made it. I just delivered it for him”. I may never scold her or punish her or even mention it to her again. But the next time I need to choose someone to deliver something I created I’d be a lot more careful to choose someone whom I know won’t take the glory for themselves.

As singers, musicians, directors and worship leaders…whatever your gift is, we should all endeavor to think of our gifts just like that Sweet Potato Pie.  It’s not our creation. It doesn’t belong to us. We didn’t bake it, we were simply the ones God chose to deliver it to His people. So when the praises, kudos and complements come, we must always be sure to never take the credit for a pie we didn’t bake.

 

Vocal health for the holidays

The Christmas season is upon us, and with it comes all the usual things we think about this time of year. Lots more visiting, lots more shopping, running around- and for us, a lot more singing. So this time, maybe a little more-so than other times of the year, we really need to be a bit more aware of how we’re treating our voices. Here are some simple things to be mindful of this time of year.

1. Stay Healthy!

You can’t sing at your best if you’re sick, so job one for the busy singer is do as much as possible to stay healthy. Believe it or not the number one way to avoid getting sick is frequent hand-washing. Most of the “stuff” we end up with happens because we touched something with someone’s germs on it – a hand-rail, a door-knob, a phone- and then touched our face for some reason. Washing your hands often and/or keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer with you can go a long way towards keeping you crud-free.

In addition to that though, it’s just a good idea to do the normal things many of us overlook or just plain avoid. Like getting the Flu shot every year, bundling up well, staying dry and making sure we get important vitamins our immune system needs to work at it’s best.

2. Drink water!

It’s very important for everyone to drink water on a regular basis, but it’s even more important for a singer for a lot of obvious reasons. But here’s probably the most important reason this time of year. Usually most of us will get some kind of head cold despite our best efforts. When all that phlegm starts draining, it can sit in your throat and on your vocal cords, hindering your ability to sing at your best. Drinking water on a regular basis keeps phlegm thinner so it drains off your cords easier and there’s less build-up.

3. Watch what, when and how much you eat!

This time of year there is always an abundance of food.  And many of those foods can cause swelling or inflamation, even irritation of the vocal cords. Dairy products, for example, actually creates a lot of phlegm in the body and, for many singers,  should be avoided altogether for at least a day before a singing engagement. Other common holiday foods like sugar and pretty-much all white processed foods can cause problems for singers. The key is to eat everything in moderation.

NEVER eat a really big meal within two hours of a singing engagement. In addition to the extra bloating and weight it places on your stomach and diaphragm (which makes it harder for you to breathe properly for singing) eating a big meal before singing will make you tired, less alert and just more lethargic overall. That’s because after a big meal most of your body’s energy is being diverted to the task of digesting the food.

4. Warm up!

We know how important warming up is for singers (even though most of us still don’t do it), but when the weather turns cold it becomes even more important. Just like all the other muscles in your body, your vocal cords don’t work as good when they’re cold. Take some extra time before a holiday engagement and get your voice good and warmed up before singing.  You’ll be glad you did.

The key to vocal health during the holidays really isn’t much different than the rest of the year when you think about it. It”s not about living a life of deprivation by any stretch. It’s really more about simply doing things a little smarter, with a little more thought and with a little more moderation around those times when you have singing engagements planned. Of course, the most important thing you can do to keep your voice healthy all year round is to training it by taking vocal lessons! Get started with my free 5 day course below.

Image courtesy of magerymajestic FreeDigitalPhotos.net