Posts Tagged 'commercialized Christian culture'

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible” (updated)

reportcard.jpgSo, the good news is that for all of my handwringing about Greek this semester, it wound up being more of a bright spot on my transcript than I would have thought. It’s still a variety of “B” rather than a variety of “A”, but it’s a better variety than I figured possible, and it’s certainly not a variety of “C”. I’m still probably going to try to sit in on third semester Greek again next fall as a refresher (since, because of scheduling issues, I can’t take the fourth semester until next year), but the unmitigated disaster I was convinced was inevitable on Wednesday afternoon appears to have been nonetheless avoided.

unchristmas.gifThere’s an article in the Associated Press about Protestants who don’t celebrate Christmas (hat tip: Dr. Philip Blosser), and it provides an interesting overview of the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States. In a nutshell, Protestant America was at best uncomfortable with and at worst hostile towards Christmas until the 19th century, when it shifted towards being more of a secular, family holiday and less of a religious observance associated with Catholics. In other words, it was largely because it took on commercial aspects (at least according to this piece) that its liturgical trappings were tolerated. Still, despite this “domestication,” certain Protestant groups retain the objection into our own time:

Christians like the United Church of God reject the holiday [because they] say divine instruction, rather than culture and society, should determine whether the holiday is appropriate.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible,” said Clyde Kilough, president of the United Church of God, which has branches all over the world. “The theological question is quite simple: Is it acceptable to God for humans to choose to worship him by adopting paganism’s most popular celebrations and calling them Christian?”

I have to say, there’s a part of me that has absolutely no problem with this attitude. What reason do Christians who reject the liturgical calendar as a whole have to keep Christmas as an observance? Aren’t they trying to have it both ways? Here’s the follow-up question, though—do these same groups reject Easter? If not, why not? It seems to me they’d have to, to stay consistent.

Here’s what is, for me, the money quote:

[T]he mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

Christmas benefited from a 19th century “domestication of religion,” said University of Texas history professor Penne Restad, in which faith and family were intertwined in a complementary set of values and beliefs.

Christmas became acceptable as a family-centered holiday, Restad said, once it lost its overtly religious significance.

At the same time, aspects of the holiday like decorated trees and gift-giving became status symbols for an aspirant middle class. When Christmas began its march toward dominance among holidays, it was because of a change in the culture, not theology.

“In America, the saying is that the minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister,” Restad said. “This was more of a sociological change than a religious one. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church (emphasis mine).”

The minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church. That’s a mouthful, folks, and one that strikes me as bearing some real consideration.

All that said, I have to say I’d love for the guys at Get Religion to offer their thoughts on this story; I’m sure there’s a lot here I’m missing.

UPDATE: Fr. Stephen Freeman has some words which are directly applicable to the matter at hand:

…[T]radition is not only normal – it is inevitable… We cannot, without great violence, declare that there will be no traditions. This has been sought through the centuries by various iconoclast regimes (Puritans come to mind the easiest). But they never completely succeed. Today, the descendants of Puritans will seek Christmas trees whether they believe in God or not. The tradition is stronger even than the belief. But the tradition wasn’t given in order to destroy the belief, but to live it out.

Christmas extended in both directions

nativityicxc.jpgAlden Swan, who does some interesting blogging about Christianity and culture, posted a piece called “The Joy of Christmas Insanity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I was speaking with someone a week or so ago about how fast Christmas seems to be coming; it always seems to catch me by surprise, which just adds to the stress. […] Christmas now begins in late October or early November, and by December it’s in full swing, with parties, decorations, music, movies, concerts, shopping and food. It is an all-out celebration, involving all aspects of our lives. Those who are of other religions (or no religion) have by now realized that “the train, it won’t stop going…” and they either join in ignoring the religious aspects, or live in misery.

Eating, drinking, singing, spending lots of money buying gifts, giving to charity, all can be expressions of joy, even if we don’t realize it.

For those of us who are Christians, I don’t think we need to detract at all from the secular aspects of the holiday; I think that joy, even the non-spiritual version, is something that humans need to express for their emotional health. In America, we’re a pretty joy-constipated bunch. So, let everyone celebrate. But, Christians indeed have a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world (I think it’s okay to have both), and we get to express that, too.

Think about all that for a moment. Christmas gets going in October—I was noticing a few Christmas decorations out shortly before Halloween, as I recall—and “is an all-out celebration” basically until the shopping season wears off, sometime shortly after New Year’s.

As Mr. Swan also puts it, “It seems that there are two ways to deal with the oncoming train: either we live in denial (and get creamed), or we run headlong into it.” For purposes of contrast, let me offer the following as a possible third way.

On 15 November, Orthodox Christians (those following Byzantine practice, anyway, since Western Rite does things a little differently) begin to observe the Nativity Fast, or Advent. It is a forty day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Much like Great Lent before Easter, ideally we abstain from animal products (although often, in practice, this fast is not as severe as the Lenten period), hopefully our parish situation is such that we are able to attend additional services throughout the week to make up for spiritually what we are denying ourselves physically, and we look for ways to be Christ to those who need it.

Some understand this period to be penitential, for the purpose of self-examination; it is also often explained as a time where the faithful prepare themselves for the coming of Christ into the world. However it is understood, on 25 December, the faithful participate liturgically in the moment where eternal reality and historical reality intersected, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observe this, as we observe all major feasts, with a Divine Liturgy; Christmas is the “Christ Mass,” after all. Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood and dwell within us.

Then, after all this preparation, the party starts. Remember “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well, that’s what we actually do. Maybe not with lords a-leaping in a pear tree, but after the forty days of fasting, we’re ready to celebrate in body and soul. Gifts and singing and dancing and rich food and sweets and so on now have a spiritual context, and we’re thankful for it. The Bridegroom is now with us, and we feast. It is truly “a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world.”

For us, feasting and fasting must be understood in terms of each other—fasting prepares for feasting, feasting has been prepared for by fasting. Great Lent and Easter are the same idea on an even bigger scale. On a smaller, day-to-day level, this plays out even in how we receive Holy Communion: if we intend to commune on a Sunday, we prepare for that feast with prayer and by fasting starting the night before.

Without intending to offer judgment, compare this to our cultural mindset where we extend Christmas in both directions, starting the party in the October and going on for two and half months or so (by which point we’ve probably gained twenty pounds).

One more wrinkle—if you’re following the Julian Calendar, you celebrate on 7 January, by which point the secular party has completely stopped and everybody has moved on. I’m told there’s a real spiritual peace in observing the Nativity at a time when the world has finally quieted down; I can only imagine.

Not that Mr. Swan has asked my opinion, but it seems to me that we need not convince ourselves that our only options are to grumpily swim against the tide or to surf the wave.


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