Our current Christmas celebration habits are a uniquely post-WW2 phenomena. Much of the excess we experience stands at odds with the way Western society approached the holiday only a few years ago. This shift has lessons for any congregation attempting to manage expectations and change as they try to embrace the new realities of the 21st century.
Wikipedia tell us that following victory during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647. They did so because of the secular nature of the celebration: way too much alcohol, bands of young men going from house to house demanding food, etc. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration.
In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Moravian settlers in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes.
Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. Over in England, by the 1820s sectarian tension had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. These writers imagined Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens‘ book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion as opposed to communal celebration and hedonistic excess.
In America, interest in Christmas was revived in the 1820s by several short stories by Washington Irving. Irving’s stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions that were widely imitated by his American readers.
Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas) created great interest in the man in the red suit. The poem popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. In her 1850 book “The First Christmas in New England”, Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree.
Christmas was eventually declared a United States Federal holiday in 1870. Thus, for more than 200 years, the celebration of Christmas ebbed and flowed in the life of the average American home as societal forces fought for dominance.
Is there not something here for us to learn about our efforts to find 21st century relevance and meaning in the life of our congregations?
Think about it: each Advent season, our churches have the opportunity to offer an alternative understanding of reality to the American public. We insist that his time of year is filled with powerful spiritual lessons if one is willing to push through the noise and static of culture and look beneath the surface. It is a privilege and a joy to be a truth-teller in the midst of the cultural lies that surround us.
We understand the massive disadvantage we have as we face off against the retail economic engine that drives two-thirds of the American economy. We acknowledge that we speak a word of moderation in a season of excess. We find meaning in offering an alternative celebration rich in power and history, even if it seems seriously outdated. We sing songs others have never heard. We use words that need interpretation. We tell stories overlooked by most. We declare our smallness in this divine story while while others revel in the attention they draw to themselves. At our best, we stand alongside culture and offer a prophetic critique and a reinterpretation of reality they find nowhere else.
It is our future, is it not? Being a minority voice in a larger conversation is not just for Christmas, it is the future of the American church. We no longer are in a position to dominate and dictate to culture how it will behave or believe. Instead, we are now free to be salt and light, as we seek to influence rather than rule.
Many find this minority status traumatizing and debilitating. They mistakenly try to conform themselves to the culture, and in doing so lose their identity and voice.
I think Heaven is rejoicing and celebrating that we no longer hold a place of dominance, but assume an attitude of humility and dependence. On such a spirit was His kingdom founded, and is it sustained.