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Truth be told, through the years there have been serious attempts to regulate holiday celebrations to insure the decent behavior called for by the apostle. You historians will recall England during the tenure of Oliver Cromwell. His Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas festivities. No more lavish and raucous celebration, no more commercial exploitation, there would be no more Christmas, period.
That did not go over well, to say the least. The people were outraged; there was rioting in the streets. In fact, Christmas celebrations were held in secret all over England. But Cromwell retaliated. Parliament decreed penalties of imprisonment for anyone caught celebrating the holiday. Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding people that Christmas and all other superstitious festivals should not be observed, and businesses should remain open. There were to be no displays of Christmas decorations.
In 1647 popular riots broke out in various places demanding the legalization of Christmas. But the puritan government stood firm and proceeded to break up celebrations by armed force. People were arrested and jailed. The Puritans seemed surprised by the strength of popular resistance to their anti-Christmas policies, but they would not alter them or compromise their principles. They simply went down to defeat in the next elections. The Puritans were thrown out of power -- Christmas was BACK
In America too we have a complicated history with Christmas. No surprise, it goes back to the Puritans, who despised it and considered the celebration un-Christian on these shores as well as the ones they left. They could not find December 25th in the Bible, which was their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date simply derived from Saturnalia, the Romans' wintertime celebration (which is NOT correct, by the way; the date is simply precisely nine months after the traditional Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th - do the math). On their first December 25th in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and made an ostentatious point of ignoring the day. From 1659 to 1681, Massachusetts went even further, making celebrating Christmas by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way a crime.
The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritans faded away. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing. Throughout the 1800's, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on December 25th because they do not accept the day as a Holy One. On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states. It did not become a federal holiday until 1870.
Christmas began to gain popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's Visit from St. Nicholas and Thomas Nast's drawings in Harper's Weekly which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and shooting and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. And we have been battling that ever since with a notable lack of success and to the great relief of the nation's retailers who do their best business of the year just prior to Christmas. (1)
While most of us think of Christmas as something we have been doing forever, our present practices are relatively new. It was not until immigrants from Ireland and from the continent began arriving in great numbers that Christmas in America began to flourish. The Germans brought the Christmas tree. The Irish placed lights in their windows. Catholics from Eastern Europe brought their native carols as well as the idea of staying home from work on Christmas Day Very soon their neighbors followed suit. In the end, neither the authority of the church nor the power of the state could prevent the spirit of Christmas with all its excess from breaking out, parties and all.
To be sure, our text for this first Sunday in Advent has an orientation toward the future: "The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light."
I continue to insist that we American Christians celebrate TWO holidays at this time of year, one secular and one sacred. One holiday has fir trees, tinsel and trappings, and these days begins with TV commercials as soon as the Back-to-School specials are done in September. The other holiday has a humble birth, lowly shepherds, heavenly angels, God in human flesh, and begins on Christmas Eve. TWO Christmas celebrations. Very different, but I would insist that they need not be mutually exclusive. If we can learn to separate them, then we have no reason not to enjoy both.
If you are like me, before December 24th, you will be going to the parties, sending Christmas cards, decorating the house, and probably spending more money than you had planned. But when the holy night arrives, you are going to leave the noisy party and join the commemoration of something beyond imagining - the incarnation, the coming of the Lord of all the universe in human flesh in the person of the Babe of Bethlehem. Amazing!
Indeed, you are invited to your first party of the year. Right here. Right now. The "joyful feast." Food and drink...offered by the one whose birth we celebrate, the reason for the season.
1. Historical details are from an article by Adam Cohen, "This Season's War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else," New York Times, 12/4/05