If we want to keep Jesus as the reason for the season, then maybe it would be best if we dropped the gift-giving associated with Christmas.
Years ago, I joined a very conservative Presbyterian church that in many ways was a blessing to me and helped to shape a lot of my understanding of what the church is to be. Nevertheless, they did one thing that I thought was totally weird at the time: they did not celebrate Christmas. Or Easter. Or for that matter, any holy day except for the weekly Sabbath. In this, they were following the rationale of the 17th century Puritans and later, American Old School Presbyterians like Samuel Miller, that saw no biblical command for observing the purported day of Christ’s birth. I had never heard of anyone not celebrating Christmas and my experience in this church moved me to research the issue.
Few things have done more to solidify the reputation of the Puritans as dour killjoys than their non-observance of—nay, even legally banning—Christmas. The Westminster Assembly, which met from 1643 until 1647 and which produced the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, confronted this issue in December 1643 when they had to decide whether or not to suspend deliberations on Christmas to allow for worship and preaching. They decided to go ahead with Christmas observances at that time, given popular sentiment, but when they produced the Directory of Public Worship in 1644 they indicated in an appendix that holy days other than the Sabbath were not to be observed. Since the Westminster Assembly was technically only an ecclesiastical advisory body to Parliament, the abolishment of Christmas observances officially came in 1647, when Parliament passed laws requiring businesses to stay open and penalizing those that closed for Christmas. Those laws remained on the books in England until 1660, when the Restoration Parliament rescinded all the laws Parliament passed going back to the beginning of the English Civil War in 1640. In New England, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1659 banning the observance of Christmas and that stayed in effect until the crown’s governor repealed it in 1681.
The Puritans’ reasons for such bans are more complicated contextually than the critics’ caricatures make them out to be and it is beyond the focus of this blog post to go into much explanation now. I’ll save that for another time. For the moment, I will note two things in favor of the Puritans.
First, there were reacting to the fact that Christmas, by that point in time, had become largely an excuse for big-time partying, with little connection to Christ or Christianity. Consider a modern-day equivalent in Mardi Gras. Technically, Mardi Gras is a commemoration of Shrove Tuesday, that is, the last day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten fast. Observant Roman Catholics would clean their house of foods that were prohibited during Lent and make a little celebration of it before the weeks of austerity imposed by Lent. How much of that religiosity do you typically see in modern Mardi Gras celebrations? I mean, seriously? It is pretty clear that Mardi Gras is, for all intents and purposes, a pagan holiday. The Puritans in their day faced a similar situation with Christmas.
Second, England at the time of the Puritans still had an established church, unlike the situation in modern-day America. What that meant is that the observance or non-observance of Christmas, Easter, or even the Sabbath was not a matter of personal conscience; it was mandated and enforced by the state. Thus, shopkeepers were forced to close their stores, turn away business, go to church services, and, facing cultural pressures, expend a fair amount of money in Christmas “celebrations”—and failure to do so would result in social ostracization and possibly even in civil fines. Thus, for the Puritans to say that there was no biblical warrant for such holidays and so observance is not required, one can see how that position might actually be popular with some people. In our own day, we see pretty clearly the backlash against forced store closures (in this case, because of mask restrictions and social distancing requirements), so it should not be a totally alien matter even for us.
Although the Puritan restrictions were repealed by 1690 in both England and America, observance of Christmas did not return to the status quo that existed prior to the English Civil War, and in practice it was fairly muted, if observed at all, for the better part of a century. This low regard for Christmas among some Americans is one reason, for example, that during the American War for Independence, George Washington was able to secure the victory that he did in the Battle of Trenton. For the New England militias that made up Washington’s fledgling army, December 25th was just another day; for the Hessian mercenaries encamped at Trenton, it was Christmas and they were largely resting (or recovering) from Christmas Eve celebrations the night before. Thus, it was a complete surprise for them to be attacked by the Americans on Christmas Day.
After the Revolution, however, American interest in celebrating Christmas picked up as part of the emerging Romantic sensibilities of the age. One of the earliest popularizers of such celebration was the New York writer, Washington Irving, in his book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. Irving’s book was a travelogue of a trip he took to Britain in about 1822, and he had a lengthy section in it in which he recounts a festive celebration of the holiday, contrasted with a tedious Christmas Day church service. Irving’s account of a convivial observance of the season seemed to capture at least some imaginations back in his native New York, since a few years later Presbyterian minister and Princeton Seminary professor Samuel Miller felt compelled to write a tract in 1825 defending Presbyterian non-observance of Christmas. It made little headway. Embrace of a sentimentalized Christmas grew over the years and was particularly crystalized by Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol in 1848. While Christmas was ostensibly intended to observe the Nativity of Christ, in practice, thanks to Irving, Dickens, and others, Christ became increasingly less important to Christmas than an ephemeral “Christmas spirit.” Much of the “traditions” that we now associate with Christmas actually date back to the mid-nineteenth century. What is less well known but equally as true is that much of the commercialization that we now lament about the Christmas season in our own day dates back to the same period. Christmas is only tangentially related to Christ and that has been true for a long time.
The Puritan effort to ban Christmas outright failed, but the Puritans were right to ask the question of whether this is really honoring to the Lord or even good for ourselves. The background music in the stores may be playing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but the reality for so many people is that the season is frenetically busy and undeniably stressful. We try to buy our way to some “magical Christmas moment,” only to find it to be fleeting and unfulfilling. Indeed, the consumerist liturgy of the season drives an untenable dichotomy between what we have been told we should expect of Christmas and the reality of emptiness and loneliness that we experience in rare moments of quietness. It is an untenable dichotomy because the more emptiness we feel, the more we seek to fill that gap with more gifts and sentimentality, which cannot really fulfill, thereby only widening the gap further.
I do not see this idea of a culturally consumerist liturgy surrounding Christmas as merely a rhetorical turn of phrase. James K. A. Smith, in his book, You Are What You Love, talks about the power of cultural liturgies to shape the cycles and rhythms of our lives, our habits, our expectations, our loves and our hopes. I believe that in the case of Christmas, we are inculcated into this consumerist liturgy from our earliest years. Santa Claus is all about gift-giving and every kid knows that the volume and quality of the gifts they get at Christmas far and away exceeds that which they get at any other time of the year, including on their own birthdays. And it is the gift-giving that drives much of the season, starting with Black Friday sales in November and continuing throughout December. The smarmy sentimentality of television programming through the season tries to soften the stark edge of rank consumerism, while at the same time feeding the narrative that gifts will make you happy. And the consumerist liturgy is inclusive: it does not matter what you actually believe about Jesus as long as you are out spending your money. Jesus, ironically, is incidental to the holiday that bears His name and is purportedly for His honor.
So, what should be done? It is not enough to make a nod to Jesus as the “reason for the season” through an occasional reference or prayer. That only puts a “Christian” gloss on things, without fundamentally changing the consumerist liturgy dominating our thoughts and actions. Rather, one has to break the liturgy more fundamentally and overwrite it with a different liturgy. A key way this can be done is to push any gift-giving away from Christmas to New Year’s, so as to sever the connection between Christmas and gifts; New Year’s, after all, has no particularly Christian connotations. We should make Christmas again a religious holiday, observing it with Christmas Eve services at church and family worship on Christmas day proper. This could seem like it will make Christmas boring—and that is precisely the point. It is in the ordinariness of worship that real significance of Christmas can be most clearly seen. The Incarnation of Christ was part of His humiliation, not His exaltation, an emptying rather than a glorification. But it is in that divine condescension that we have a more intangible yet far more real and significant gift, communion with Christ, God with us. Let’s celebrate that, rather than what is under some evergreen tree.