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Matthew 13.53-58

John 7.40-44

Galatians 4.3-7

Decriminalizing Christmas

Second Sunday of Advent

I don’t know how I missed this item in the police blotter – it might be because it was in 1662, when a resident in my former community, William Hoar of Beverly, MA, was arrested for drinking in excess, or as the charge has it, “presented for suffering tippling in his house by those who came to keep Christmas there.” Hoar and some of his drinking companions had, during the Christmas season, also invaded the house of the local minister, the Rev. John Hale, “in order to consume his food and loot his goods.”  In the 17th century, this was the accustomed manner of celebrating Christmas, a custom recorded in “The Wassail Song,” where merry-makers go from house to house, demand food and drink, sing bawdy songs, and stay until the alcohol is depleted and then move on to the next house.

This time of year, more than any other, is when the pulpits of Christendom rail against the excesses of the Christmas holiday.  Too much commercialism! (Right?)  Too much eating and drinking!  Too much greed, and not nearly enough attention to what ought to be the center of the season.  Here is what one colleague had to say about it all:

          “The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ.  How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays… after a holy manner.  But they are consumed in¼ revellings, in excess of wine, [and] in mad mirth¼”

These words are from a sermon that was preached in Boston in 1687 by New England preacher and President of Harvard College, Increase Mather.  Increase’s better-known son, Cotton Mather, held the same opinion of Christmas as his father, writing in his diary, “I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my [own] flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a frolick, a revelling feast, and a [dance],” and he went on to include the excesses of the holiday in “a Black List of some evil customs which begin to appear among us.”  And a half century later, another clergyman observed that the way many people behaved at Christmas was “a scandal to religion, an encouraging of wickedness, a pretense for drunkenness, and rioting, and wantonness.”  If in our own day the worst charge the pulpit can find to level against Christmas is that it is too materialistic, it is almost enough to make us grateful - praising the holiday with faint damnation, as it were.

The cry from many pulpits this time of year is “Put Christ back in Christmas!”  But we may well be justified in asking the question, Just how much of Christ has there actually been in Christmas over the years?  Several years ago writer Stephen Nissenbaum authored a wickedly delicious book titled, The Battle for Christmas, in which he presented considerable historical evidence that Christmas in our day and age is far and away the most religious it has ever been.

Now, of course, in biblical times, nobody celebrated Christmas.  Indeed, the early church shows no sign whatsoever of observing the birth of Jesus, let alone of knowing much about it.  In the gospel of John, for example, there was some debate about whether Jesus was really the Christ, because they knew Jesus to be from Galilee, while the scriptures say the Christ was supposed to have come from Bethlehem:  “Some said, ‘Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” Has not the scripture said that the Christ descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”  The story of the nativity that you and I know so well, which places Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, was clearly foreign to some of Jesus' contemporaries.  In Matthew, even the people who knew Jesus’ family history didn’t know there was anything special about him:  “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” they asked; “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?  Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?   And are not all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all this?”  And in Galatians, the only place where the apostle Paul ever mentions Jesus’ birth, he doesn’t seem to know very much about it:  “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”  Except for the two independent accounts in Matthew and Luke, the Bible is remarkably silent about everything you and I mean when we think about Jesus’ birth.

So it ought not to be too surprising when we learn that the church in earliest American colonial times, not only did not celebrate Christmas, but actually was dead set against its celebration.  The Puritans used to say that if God had intended for the anniversary of the nativity to be observed, God would surely have given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred.  One preacher reminded his congregation that the weather in Judea during late December was simply too cold for shepherds to be living outdoors with their flocks.  And those puritan clergy meant business too.  Under their direction, the Massachusetts General Court ruled in 1659 that the celebration of Christmas was to be considered a criminal offense.  There was a fine of five shillings levied against anyone who was “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.”  Next time you hear me wonder out loud why the church of our day would rather celebrate Christmas Eve than Christmas Day, please remind me about that five shilling fine.

I can understand the reasons for the colonial church’s objections.  To begin with, the date of Christmas was settled on back in the fourth century, when the church decided to appropriate to its own purposes the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, which were celebrated around December 25.  You might remember my saying a few weeks ago how churches in Rome are built upon the foundations of earlier pagan temples, and how mosques in Istanbul are built on upon the foundations of earlier Christian churches?  Similarly, the date for the Christian celebration of Christmas is built on the foundation of the date of those earlier pagan festivals.  In late December, the harvest was finished and the meat freshly slaughtered, so there was plenty of good food and drink to be had, and the population took full advantage of it.  If you think the Christmas season goes on too long in our own day, consider that Christmas celebrations in Europe, and then later on in the colonies, began in early December and lasted well into the middle of January.  And it truly was an excuse for debauchery.  The closest thing we might have to compare with that celebration today would be if we were to combine New Year’s Eve with Mardi Gras, when it is basically a given that people are going to go out and indulge in excesses that would be frowned on the rest of the year.  Then, if you can imagine that New Year’s Eve Mardi Gras combination lasting from the beginning of December to the middle of January, you’ll begin to have an idea of how Christmas was celebrated in early America, which is why the clergy railed against it so, and the legislature all but banned it.  For that period of forty days, one clergyman writes, it was common for people to “rise early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, and continue until night, ’til wine inflame them.”  Men and women dressed in each others’ clothing, and displays of what they called “chambering,” or public acts of explicit lewdness, were not uncommon. Anybody who thinks the holiday is abused today ought to be grateful they didn’t live in seventeenth century America.

The celebration of Christmas as you and I know it did not begin to develop until the middle of the 19th century, and it wasn’t so much the church that cleaned up the rowdiness as it was the merchandisers.  Shopkeepers got tired of beggars and drunks cluttering the sidewalks at that time of year, and began a civic effort to make the holiday more special in the mind of the public.  The state of Connecticut went along by being the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday in 1845 – 1845, two and a quarter centuries after the pilgrims settled in New England!  While the church continued to rail against the celebration of Christmas, and everything that went along with it, it was the popular culture that made Christmas the holiday you and I know today.  Specifically, it was the merchants of New York City, the popularity of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” and Thomas Nast’s celebrated depictions of Santa Claus which, taken together, did more to shape the contemporary American Christmas celebration than anything the church had done before, or, until very recently, since.

Both American and European history bear out the fact that Christmas has been a civic and cultural holiday for longer, and more emphatically, than it has been a religious one.  And while the perception these days is that the holiday is growing more and more commercial, the reality is that it is actually becoming more and more religious, as the church is slowly but effectively recapturing the holiday from the culture.  As little as two hundred fifty years ago, not only did laborers have to work on Christmas Day, but churches were closed that day; the only time people were permitted to worship on Christmas was when the holiday fell on a Sunday.  When you and I hear the phrase, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” the most authentic response may well be that he is there more now than he has been for a long, long time, perhaps more than any time since he was born!  I think it is a wonderfully delicious irony that while it looks as though the church is losing the battle for Christmas, we actually have a stronger grasp on the holiday than ever before. 

Now I'll grant you:  advertising may begin earlier every year, and marketing techniques are certainly more effective than ever before, but the fact remains that more people are turning to the church at Christmas time.  People want their holiday to feel special, and even if they can’t put their finger on what it is they are looking for, they are quite certain that this is where they are going to find it.  Just look at our own church on Christmas Eve.  In my experience, nearly half of our Christmas Eve congregation consists of community members, and the rest are UCCers.  A couple of years ago, a community member who attended our Easter service posted a photo of it on her social media and wrote underneath, “I love my Christmas Eve church!”  You and I know there are many people who are either loosely within our church family orbit, or who are wholly unaffiliated with this, or any other church the rest of the year, yet who still know that the church is the place where they can find that something special that will bring meaning into their lives at Christmas time.  They won’t find it at the mall, they won’t see it on television, and they know it isn’t in the festive lights or at the local watering hole.  This is where both religious and secular society turn to have their deepest desires fulfilled.

In spite of all the complaining we hear about the holiday, the historical reality is that the church has succeeded in thoroughly Christianizing Christmas.  It doesn’t belong to the merchandisers any more, it doesn’t belong to the advertisers, it doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to anyone else.  If the title of Stephen Nissenbaum’s book is correct, if there is a battle for Christmas, I want to suggest this morning that battle is over, and the church of Jesus Christ has prevailed!  Christmas belongs to us, and it belongs to everyone!  What was once an unruly carnival season that distinguished itself primarily by depths of debauchery and exhibitions of excess, is now a time when the light and the glory of the angels’ song has finally reached into the heart of humanity and found its rightful home here.

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