So, we come to the end of another long, long “holiday season” that now begins sometime before Thanksgiving and lasts until at least New Years Day and, this year, anyway, through the day after that. Let me say first that I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s “holiday season” because it afforded special opportunities to spend time with family. I have absolutely no complaints about the family or religious aspects of these holidays and the season surrounding them–except that it’s difficult to separate those wonderful aspects from the not-so-wonderful ones. And that the church-related events have dwindled considerably over the years.
This is a side bar but not a totally irrelevant one. I wonder how many people know that, for the most part, the Puritans and their religious offspring (up through the 18th century and some into the 19th century) did not observe Christmas at all. To them it was a pagan holiday. There is some debate about it, but some historians believe even Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, author and composer of Joy to the World! did not celebrate Christmas. (One thing I’ve learned from hosting this blog is that any time I make a statement someone is going to contradict it. So, let me say, yes…I know there’s debate about this.) Joy to the World! was not written as a “Christmas carol.” It was written to celebrate and anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ and his kingdom on earth. (To me the lyrics sound very premillennial, but I’m not sure Watts intended that.) All that is simply to say that “Christmas” has not always been a holiday embraced by all Christians; many strongly opposed it. Even Luther condemned bringing trees into houses and decorating them. (I believe there’s a verse in Jeremiah that condemns it as well!)
Okay, back to my main message. I absolutely love watching my granddaughter (now 2.5 years old) enjoy her first Christmas–the first one where she actually understood some of what was going on. And I very much enjoyed the family gathering, feasting and gift-giving and game-playing, etc. What I DIDN’T enjoy was the extreme commercializing of Christmas and all that went along with that: near riots in stores (apparently there was an actual riot in the Mall of America!), crowds of people rushing around in the streets and malls and grocery stores, competition to see who can give the most impressive gifts (not in my family!), and, above all…Santa Claus.
Okay, now I know I’ve touched a nerve with some people. Fine…if you like Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny), fine for you. I don’t. Thank God (!) the church where we attend now doesn’t have a man dressed in a Santa Claus costume come into the church with a sack full of little presents for the children and give a kind of “children’s sermon” and hand out the gifts. (Yes, that actually happened in one church we attended some years ago!)
It may sound petty to some of you, but I really do think Santa Claus is something we could all do without. This one figure, totally divorced from his original saintly personage of history, has become far too visible leading up to Christmas. The songs (“he sees you when you’re sleeping….”), the picture cards featuring him, the mall
“opportunity” to sit on his lap and have your picture taken with him, but especially…the deception aimed at children! To my way of thinking, allowing children to believe in Santa Claus is simply wrong–especially for Christians. What are they going to think about parents’ veracity and sincerity when they learn the truth? How many harbor doubts about God because their parents told them God and Santa Claus are watching them and then they found out (usually from a friend at school) that Santa Claus is a myth?
I was raised in a very strict fundamentalist (Pentecostal) home and church. Santa Claus was pretty much treated as demonic. That’s one thing I don’t regret about my strict upbringing. I don’t think I ever missed out on anything by not believing in Santa Claus. (And I’m sure I was one of those children who went around demythologizing him to friends at school!) And I know I didn’t miss out on anything by not believing in the Easter Bunny! We raised our daughters without those symbols and I am sure they didn’t miss out on anything important.
I’m not one of those (like my friend Rodney Clapp) who advocates Christians giving Christmas back to the pagans (the majority of Americans) because it has become a pagan holiday (again as it was in Roman times). On the other hand, I can respect that. I value SOME traditions and customs and practices of this overly long holiday season. I love our church’s Advent observance (even though that wasn’t part of my upbringing–we considered churches that observed the church calendar liberal or dead). I love Christmas Eve service. I love the annual Christmas concert we attend at a large church in the area. (We also attend that church’s Easter concert and twice now we’ve found ourselves sitting very near George and Laura Bush!) I love the warmth of family eating together, singing together and playing games together near the decorated tree and crackling fire in the fireplace. I love watching my granddaughter open presents on Christmas morning.
What I don’t love is feeling pressure to get “just the right gift” for someone and fighting crowds at the stores and in the streets, addressing Christmas cards (this year we didn’t do it!), putting up Christmas lights on the outside of the house, etc., etc. But all those things are minor compared with Santa Claus. I despise him and the way he has taken over so much of the attention that should go to Jesus this time of year EVEN in Christian contexts.
What I MISS is the childrens’ Christmas pageant at church. When I was a kid it involved Saturday practices, costumes, learning a “part,” getting “Christmas candy” in a sack after the pageant and..of course, the play itself. I was always relieved when it was over, but I actually enjoyed being in it even if only as a shepherd or casual bystander outside the “stable.” I also miss Christmas caroling. And it just isn’t the same without snow, anyway! I miss gathering at the church on a (usually) Wednesday evening hear Christmas and going out around the neighborhood in groups with little song books and flashlights, stopping especially at homes of elderly people and “shut-ins” and singing carols for them. We often went to nursing homes and the people there were so appreciative (well, most of them). And then going back to the church for hot chocolate and baked Christmas treats.
And I miss our church’s New Years Eve “Watchnight Service.” Does any church do that anymore? I learned as an adult that the custom was started by the Moravian leader Ludwig Nicholas Count von Zinzendorf in the 1700s. (He also started the custom of Easter “Sunrise Service.”) The whole congregation, all ages, gathered at the church around 5:00 PM for a potluck dinner together. Then we went to the sanctuary for singing and “testimonies” of what God has done in people’s lives during the year. After that we had desserts and fellowship and then (usually) a Christian film. I still remember some of those awful films like “The Gospel Blimp” and “Without Onion” and, later, Billy Graham films like “The Restless Ones” and “For Pete’s Sake.” Then we would have the Lord’s Supper and right at midnight the organ would play as people prayed “around the altar” for Jesus to return (or something). (I remember as a teenager praying that Jesus would NOT return until I grew up and got married!) At our church we had a post-Watchnight Service tradition of everyone going to homes of people in the church for late night/early morning snacks and fellowship. I remember falling asleep at most of those events as my parents and other church folks chatted and sometimes prayed together into the wee hours of the morning.
Over the years Watchnight Services became shorter and shorter–beginning later and ending earlier. Then they stopped altogether. I wonder if any church still has a Watchnight Service anything like the ones I enjoyed as a kid? Or any at all? I haven’t seen one advertised on the “Religion Page” of a newspaper in years. The same with Easter Sunrise Service. As a kid I experienced it as a highlight of the year for our whole church. We gathered around 6:00 AM at the church for a worship service celebrating Jesus’ resurrection and then went together for breakfast at the Settlement House (our little church didn’t have a basement or fellowship hall). Then we all went back to the church for Sunday School and another Easter worship service. I miss singing “He Arose!” Later, when I was a teenager, our church joined with other evangelical churches for a “Union Easter Sunrise Service.” Then, gradually, that stopped as well.
I wonder what happened to those special events that most evangelical churches enjoyed and that were so much a part of my religious formation? And whatever happened to Sunday evening services–those more relaxed, informal gatherings? I don’t know of any church that still has a regular Sunday evening service outside of rural and small town churches. In the last three churches we’ve attended those cozy Sunday evening services where people suggested songs to sing and gave testimonies,etc., simply stopped without explanation.
My wife and I were talking about these changes and came up with the theory that they are due to TV. Even good Christian folks can’t tear themselves away from Sunday night TV. (When I was a kid we had TV sometimes, but I never saw The Wizard of Oz until I was an adult because it was always on Sunday evenings! We didn’t have VCRs and Tivos to record shows back then. But we do now, so why don’t people just record their favorite Sunday evening programs and watch them later?)
All in all, I must say that I barely recognize Christian church life anymore–it’s changed so dramatically. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But the most outstanding change is how little time we actually spend at church and how little we actually know our fellow congregants because, for the most part, we only see them on Sunday mornings. “Church culture” has changed dramatically. Does Christian life stay the same when church life changes so dramatically? I’m not sure it does.