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The Church's War on Christmas

The church waged a long and sometimes heated war on Christmas. Laws were enacted against it. Sermons were shouted against it. It was all pretty much insisting, year after year, that Christmas is a humbug and people who love Jesus ought to ignore it. Surprised?  That’s because it’s a war we lost.

The Forgotten War on Christmas

Like all wars, the memory of this particular one has become a little blurred. It is the winners of wars that usually get to frame how or even if they are remembered. There is a great deal of Christmas mythology happily embraced by believers today. I’m not talking about the common additions to the nativity story of animals and drummer boys and Magi at the stable (they came well after the birth). Most people who’ve read the Bible know the story has become a little embellished over time.

No, this is our mythology about Christmas, itself. The celebration. And the church’s determination not to celebrate it. It sounds like a kind of alternate history, when, in fact, it is a more accurate account of what happened. It is filled with surprises. For example, the reason for many years it was against the law in Boston for schools to close on Christmas day, was specifically because of the city’s strong Christian heritage.

Of course, some Christians have celebrated the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 since at least the fourth century. But, for the majority of the Protestants of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even eighteenth centuries, the clarion cry, “Let’s keep Christ at the center of Christmas,” would be nonsense. You may as well have shouted, “Let’s keep Christ at the center of Oktoberfest!”  They steadfastly refused to celebrate Christmas because they did not think Christ was ever in Christmas. They believed the annual celebration of Christmas undermined the faith of the true church.

As most people know, the annual observance of the nativity occurring shortly after the winter solstice was not widely practiced until the era of Constantine in the fourth century. An earlier observance associated with the baptism of Jesus, often called Epiphany, was held on the 6th of January. Since this was celebrating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, most ancient Christian traditions adopted this date to celebrate the nativity (another kind of beginning). In the Latin west, however, a date twelve days earlier came to be adopted. And, yes, this is the reason people sang about the twelve days of Christmas.  

Unlike the events of “Holy Week” (the last supper, trial, crucifixion and resurrection), the birth of Jesus did not draw much attention in the first couple of centuries. At least in part, this parallels the lack of attention it receives in the New Testament. Two chapters in Matthew, two in Luke (with one of those mostly about the birth of John the Baptist), and a possible description in Revelation 12 are pretty much all there is. His lineage from King David is brought up far more often than his virgin birth. Neither the book of Acts nor the 21 epistles of the New Testament give the events of the nativity any attention whatsoever. This is not to suggest the accounts of the virgin birth were not widely known and accepted. But, the story of how he was born in Bethlehem was not the subject of interest and religious devotion it will become in later centuries.

What Started the War? 

It is, in fact, the great Protestant insistence, sola scriptura, that led Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and virtually all Reformed and Anabaptist churches to specifically reject and consistently ignore Christmas. Since the birth in Bethlehem is not a major theme in the New Testament, it might be reasoned, neither should it be a major theme is real back-to-the-Bible churches.

A second reason these Protestant churches opposed Christmas was rooted in their antipathy to all things Roman Catholic. Priestly vestments and incense, monks and nuns, artwork and organs were all purged from worship. The use of so-called “Holy Days” (later shortened to holidays) was what Roman Catholics did and so it would be what many Protestants would certainly not do. In other words, they were determined to keep the Mass out of Christ-Mass.

Their final reason for specifically opposing Christmas, however, may be the most surprising. Even if someone decided annual Holy Days were perfectly acceptable, there was still a major objection. Christmas, at least by the era of the Reformation, was widely associated with overeating, overdrinking, and a great deal of decidedly unchristian behavior (sometimes described as “over-mating”). Western Europe had brought into the practices surrounding Christmas some pre-Christian traditions like mistletoe and Yule logs. Most of all, though, they brought a lot of good old fashioned winter solstice partying.

And so, other than Lutherans and the Church of England, Protestants simply refused to engage in anything that looked like Christmas. Even in England, one of the things Puritans wanted to purify was getting rid of Christmas. In fact, some decidedly conservative Protestant groups still continue the practice of making sure Christmas music, decorations, or announcements are not a part of their worship in December. This is not a new practice learned from the Grinch. It is the traditional practice of most Protestants simply preserved.

How We Lost 

But, as I already mentioned, this was not a war these determined Protestants were going to win. In part, it is because the rationale for not celebrating it fails to convince. The fact that it was not celebrated in the second century or that it is celebrated by Roman Catholics, ends up not being a convincing reason to reject it.

The other reason it grew to be accepted involves a little strategic disinformation. The raucous history of outrageous excesses that marked Christmas for many centuries has been quietly covered under a blanket of Victorian scenes of family gatherings and a short story (Charles Dickens personally thought among his poorest works) about a miserly old money-lender. The ghost of Christmas past is very selective about what old fashioned scenes get on our Christmas cards. Even in the era of Victoria Regina, far more time was invested in partying than in praying. Dickens’ story, although quaint, hardly demonstrates intense Christian devotion in any of its characters.

The war against Christmas was also lost because the church was unable to forever resist the persuasive power of commerce. Commercial interests, for whom the season of giving has become an essential component in their economic survival, reinforce the celebration of Christmas with heart-warming movies, music, and decorations. In this, we are usually willing partners. Along with our neighbors. And our churches. Christmas, as its importance in Japan surely illustrates, is big business, regardless of any religious origins. 

So, I’m Against Christmas? 

All this sounds like I’m ready to boil someone in their own plum pudding while I look for a stake of holly. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love Christmas. There are wonderful truths Christians recall and retell at this time of year. The miracle of the virgin birth, the mystery of the incarnation, the great faith of Zechariah and Joseph and Mary are all stories that are both true and meaningful.

I just don’t think of December 25 as our special day that all those shoppers, unbelievers, and semi-believers have stolen. It hasn’t really been “our” day for many centuries. Maybe it never was. I’m okay with that. For one thing, there is tremendous value in anything that brings families together to make memories. The whole life-cycle of families is validated in sights and sounds that carve those sweet memories into the minds of children who will, in just a few years, be re-enacting those same traditions to their children. In a culture that does much to pull families apart, it would be tragic to oppose one of the few things that still bring them together. 

I don’t care that Christmas is rooted more in Constantine than Christ. I don’t care that Yule logs were once connected to Norse gods. Christmas is family and Christmas is fun. Let’s make a snowman!  I just don’t think the church should be running around insisting it’s all too sacred for such frivolous nonsense.

I don’t brood about how everyone needs to “put Christ back in Christmas” to the point that I scowl at plastic Santas and refuse to sing Jingle Bells (which has nothing to do with Christmas anyway). My awareness of Christmas’ less than stellar history allows me to recognize the holiday has always been a mixture of good, bad, and dumb things. I can live with that. The Lawsons put up a tree, lights, and start listening to Christmas music (the must starts in late October).

I am thankful to be a spiritual descendant of those staunchly Christian Scots who looked Christmas squarely in the face and just said no. But, in the end, they are over there in Scottish cemeteries and I’m sitting in a house lit up with strings of lights listening to Bing Crosby. 

A Non-commercial Christian Christmas?

Can we have both?  An American Christmas and a Christian Christmas?  

Yes, and we don’t have to go out and invent a non-commercial decidedly Christian Christmas. It’s right there in the calendar staring at us every January 6. Yes, the old tradition of folding the nativity story into Epiphany has been the central Christian Christmas in my family for a number of years. This is especially nice if you have adult children involved in church ministry. New Christmas is crowded with church events. Old Christmas is not. It’s often impossible, for people in ministry to schedule a full family gathering on December 25. January 6 is generally unencumbered by special church events.

So, Linda and I get up on December 25, do nice Christmas breakfast and open Christmas stockings. We do it every year. It’s very traditional and very nice. But, on Epiphany, January 6, we (as many of our family able to be together) gather and read through passages on the Nativity, sing some carols, exchange presents, eat a big meal, and enjoy our last day of Christmas music until next October.

Losing a war isn't always bad. We just gave up complaining about putting Christ back in Christmas and decided to make the best of the American traditions that surround us. It also means that we, unlike many of you, do our Christmas shopping when stores aren't crowded and everything is hugely discounted. But, I won’t say anything else about that -because it’s too commercial.

So, happy Christmas to all. Blessed Epiphany to some. And to all a good night.

1 comment:

Chris M. said...

Terrifically entertaining and educational too.