Religion Today

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thanksgiving at Plymouth: The Christmas Substitute (or, You Can’t Stop a Good Party)

The celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in late November was not enacted until the 1870s. The official reason was to commemorate the landing at Plymouth of the nation’s Puritan forefathers and foremothers. The holiday’s national designation stemmed from two forces. The first was the unceasing will of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who spent 40 years of her adult life campaigning for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
The second was the Civil War and its aftermath. Thanksgiving celebrates the American nation and the country’s citizens’ unity within it and subordination to it. So, it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln issued the first national proclamation for its observance and that his successors, encouraged by Hale, instituted the national date of a Thursday in late November.
Before Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday, states held their own observances on a variety of dates under different names. As the location of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts commemorated the first arrival of the Puritans on the Mayflower at the site of Plymouth Rock, which they identified as Dec. 22.
In the town of Plymouth itself, public celebrations began to take place in 1798, and accounts of celebrations over the next 25 years appear in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 17. 
Plymouth’s observances contained three main parts: a religious ceremony that included a procession around the town and a sermon or “oration”; a large dinner followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to leaders past and present; and a festive ball filled with dancing and merriment. This last item is usually accompanied by thanks to the town’s women for organizing such an enjoyable evening.
Toasts feature prominently in the local news reports, which often list them. The 1798 dinner features 29 separate toasts. Unsurprisingly, later reports reveal worries about public drunkenness.
Plymouth’s annual observance of the “Pilgrim Anniversary” took place just three days before the traditional date of Christmas, Dec. 25. True to their Puritan heritage, most people in Massachusetts during the 18th and early 19th centuries did not celebrate Christmas.
On Dec. 25, shops were open their normal hours, children attended school and daily life continued as normal. Merrymakers often were prosecuted for disturbing the peace. Massachusetts continued this treatment of Christmas until well after the Civil War.
Puritans disliked Christmas intensely. It was not a biblically ordained celebration. Nowhere in scripture appears any encouragement for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the Reformation took place, many Protestants saw Christmas (and Easter) as part of Catholicism’s “pagan corruption” of Christianity and removed them. American Puritans held to this view long after most other Protestants abandoned it.
Perhaps more importantly, Puritans disapproved of the rowdiness, drunkenness and inappropriate actions that accompanied Christmas celebrations of the time. They believed the celebration of the Savior’s birth, who was God’s Son, should not be a time for encouraging irreligious behavior.
From the 1880s onward, despite changing attitudes in Massachusetts, American Christmas stories and poems decry and ridicule this dour Puritan denial of Christmas and its celebratory joy and festivities.
The stories usually imply and even state outright that the rejection of joyous activity on Christmas day is typical of daily life in New England: no one ever smiles; children are quiet and subdued; there is no pleasure in living; happiness is never expressed.
Such tales overlook the festivities of the Pilgrim festivals just three days before. Celebrating the foundation of America as a nation, these revelries are secular (despite occasional religious overtones). So drunkenness, and loud and exciting activities like dancing, do not offend religious sensibilities, because they do not take place on a religious holiday.
The people of Plymouth do not shun merriment; they don’t even shun it in late December. They simply avoid associating it with a day which their puritan heritage links to “pagan worship.” In many ways, they exemplify what is happening in Boston and other Massachusetts towns and cities. And, it should be noted, they engaged in the much despised activities that caused their Puritan forefathers to reject Christmas.
Plymouth’s early celebrations of what later became Thanksgiving, then, gave them a day of celebration that they could enjoy at the same time the rest of the country was celebrating Christmas. Their secular observance of the nation’s founding provided a substitute for Christmas religious festivities.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

How to be a Biblical Wife

When evangelical Christians want guidance about living their lives, the first place they go is the Bible. After all, they believe the Bible contains God’s truth for human interaction as well as divine worship.
So, what is the Bible’s guidance for how to be a good wife? There are lots of comments about being a mother, but surprisingly few rules and only a little more advice for how to be a wife. The New Testament has little more than an admonition for women to obey their husbands. That is such a broad and bland generalization that it can be interpreted in almost any direction one wishes.
Most of the Old Testament references to wives feature marriage rules, as in Leviticus 18. The best place to look is Proverbs 31:11-31. Here, the wife is an independent actor, even though subordinate to the husband. She should buy and sell land, and engage in farming, trade and commerce. She is expected to provide sage counsel to her husband and kind words to her family, feed and clothe them, and bring her husband “profit.”
Biblical stories about specific wives might also be a source of guidance. But which ones? And which actions should one emulate? Even if we eliminate “bad” wives like Jezebel, the “good” wives often do things we would not approve of in today’s world. Abraham’s wife Sarah and both of Jacob’s wives (Leah and Rachel) had their husbands get children with their slave women. Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, committed adultery with David, who later became her husband.
There are, of course, many prominent women in the Bible who are not known as wives. Some women were prophets, such as Miriam during the Exodus and Hulda at the time of King Josiah. They were respected and listened to, but provide no model for how to be a good wife.
God intervened in the lives of some biblical wives, but usually with regard to motherhood. Angels visited both Samson’s unnamed mother and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, to assure them about their children’s future. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, received a divine blessing when God opened her womb.
And don’t forget Deborah, who led the people Israel as a “judge.” She even gathered an army, appointed Barak as its general, and defeated the Canaanite army of Hazor. She was respected by the Israelites and led them for many decades, but nothing appears about her behavior as a wife.
That brings us to the most famous woman of scripture, Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the four gospels, she is nearly always referred to as a mother or a mother-to-be, but never as a wife. The stories tell how Joseph cares for her, but not how she cares for or relates to Joseph.
The two nativity stories describe her as a pregnant, yet an unmarried girl who gives birth. Elsewhere in the gospels, she appears as the adult Jesus’ mother, sometimes with her other children, sometimes with some disciples or women of Jesus’ followers.
Mary has become an important symbol for Christianity, especially for Catholicism, but her imagery is almost completely related to aspects of childbirth and motherhood. She is rarely held up as a model wife, because there are no tales of her and her relationship to her husband Joseph.
Indeed, to preserve the belief in Mary’s eternal virginity, the Catholic Church declared that the people clearly labeled in the gospels as Jesus’ “brothers” were actually cousins. In this view, Mary did not even have wifely conjugal relations.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the role of women in Christianity and in societies dominated by Christianity is controversial. The Bible, the textual foundation of the religion, provides little guidance for what wives should do or how wives should behave. Each religious culture must figure it out on its own.
Maybe Proverbs 31 should be used as a guide, with married women expected to both look after their household and to engage in commercial activity outside the home. Does this mean that Proverbs anticipated today’s American society where, rightly or wrongly, women seem to both pursue a job in the workplace and look after the family at home?

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