Religion Today

Friday, December 21, 2012

Who Was Against Christmas?

Picture the following scenario: Crowds of Americans rioting in the streets. Two opposing groups shout loudly, vying to have their messages heard and heeded. The groups meet. Confrontation ensues. Fistfights break out. Church windows are smashed.
What are these rioters fighting about? Christmas. One group favors celebrating Christmas. The other opposes all Christmas observances. Is this an imaginary future event? No, it is history. It happened in Boston on Christmas day in 1706.
In America’s increasing love-affair with Christmas (both the Christian and commercial versions), we have forgotten that there was a time when much of European and American Christianity thought that Christmas should not be celebrated.
Who thought this? In the riot described above, the anti-Christmas group consisted largely of Congregationalists (Puritan descendants), Baptists and Presbyterians, while the pro-Christmas group comprised mostly Anglicans (Episcopalians). The notion that Christians of any stripe should not want to celebrate Christmas is so foreign to our present concept of the holiday that we need to review some history to understand it.
Before the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism celebrated the “Christ Mass.” It was one of many special masses and feasts of the Catholic Church that celebrated key events in Jesus’ life or the birthdays of saints. The three main Protestant movements that ultimately came to America had three different reactions to this situation.
First, although the Anglican Church developed a Protestant theology, it kept much of Catholic liturgy, including festivals that celebrated aspects of Christ’s life and the feast days of many saints. It gave special emphasis to the celebration of Christmas.
Second, after Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, special liturgical observances began to be frowned upon. The Lutherans thought that the celebrations of saints’ days were too much and cancelled them. But they still emphasized observing events in Jesus’ life, and so continued with joyous Christmas festivities.
Third, the Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them.
The Calvinist position became quite influential in Great Britain, even though it never altered the position of the Anglican Church. John Knox brought Calvinism as Presbyterianism to Scotland, where Christmas was banned in 1583. The Puritans brought Calvinism into England, where it became influential in circles both within and outside of the Anglican Church. During the Civil War in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed Christmas observance. It was brought back at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.
From England, both sides brought their Christmas beliefs to America. The Puritans (who later became the Congregationalists) were joined by Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists (despite their founders’ pro-Christmas predilections), and Baptists on the anti-Christmas side, while the Anglicans dominated the pro-Christmas side. The Baptists were later joined by the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed.
In Boston, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was lifted in 1681 when the British government took over the colony, the governor still had to be protected by an armed guard on his way to church on Christmas 1686. When the colony reverted to local control in 1689, Christmas again fell out of favor.
The objection to Christmas by Americans was two-fold. First, for Calvinist theology, it reflected the “pagan character” of Catholic worship. Christmas was not a biblical holiday and had not even become a Christian festival before the late 300s. It was a creation of the church, not of Christ.
Second, the holiday was accompanied by extensive revelry. Celebrations were not primarily worshipful, but involved feasting, game playing, heavy drinking, shooting and gambling. For the over-indulgers, it brought out the worst of their excesses. Since the holiday celebrated the Savior’s birth, such immoral behavior was seen as sacrilegious.
During the 18th century, Christmas observance began to be more accepted. Church-goers turned their attention to purifying the holiday of its excesses, rather than rejecting it altogether. By the 1750s, even New England hymnbooks contained Christmas carols. By the early 1800s, Christmas was observed with an emphasis on family and children.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Other states followed suit; even Massachusetts legalized Christmas in 1856, almost 200 years after its ban. But the last state, Oklahoma, did not join in until 1907. In this way, Christmas became the first religious holiday in which its celebration is sanctioned by law across the United States

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

White Christmas

OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as muzak.
Maybe I am overdoing it. But even if only half of us enjoy the song, it illustrates the tune’s popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song in the United States, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.
The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just an interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the “Jeopardy” quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas for more than half a century.
Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar. In 1954, a second film, along the same theme, was released with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song, “White Christmas.”
The 1950s were a pivotal time in 20th century America. Young people returned from World War II, got married and started families. Families required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship near them.
In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People attended the new churches in droves and, for those who could not, the new technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.
In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells and writing Christmas cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”
Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and holding on to relationships after WWII -- in particular, finding marriage partners. The two male leads are song-and-dance men, both ex-soldiers and still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who the movie implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps create them.
The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,” singing about “snow” and “happy holiday.”
How should we interpret the popularity of the secular song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the 1950s? The answer is simple: American society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at another. To say “happy holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did not say “merry Christmas” in another.
The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of religious and non-religious expression, and did not find it threatening.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,