Insights from Pastor Steve
Christmas celebrations were illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681, writes Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas). If God wanted us to celebrate Jesus’ birth, reasoned the theologians, the date would have been included in the Bible, but the birth date is missing. Besides, the weather in Judea in December was too cold for shepherds to remain outside overnight, so Jesus wasn’t born in the dead of winter. The Pilgrims remembered the excessive debauchery at Christmas time back in England and wanted to leave it all behind when they came to the new world to build “The City Upon a Hill.”
Factory owners were in agreement. Too much capital was invested in the mills and plants for them to lay idle for a day.
In 1687 the Reverend Increase Mather of Boston preached that the observance of “Christmas-keepers” was “highly dishonorable to the name of Christ.”
In the 3rd Century the Church began celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 in an effort to “baptize” the popular pagan celebration of Saturnalia. The first war over Christmas was declared by the church when it seized the winter solstice, the ancient Roman agricultural ritual that included gift-giving, merrymaking and role-reversals, and named it the birthday of Jesus. However, “The church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous,” writes Nissenbaum. “Those,” he continued, “for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival were in the minority.”
If we have failed in our “baptismal promise” and the day has become for Christians one of overwhelming excess, should we follow the lead of the Pilgrims and scrub the day from our liturgical calendar?
No. instead, let’s keep the day and enjoy its pagan features: holiday foods, cookies left for Santa, cards sent and received, year-end tax deductible charitable giving. But let’s not forget Jesus on December 25, let’s renew our friendship with the Christ child and make certain he is born anew in our lives on that day to live with us in all the days that follow.
Our home at Christmas includes a toy train running around the decorated Christmas tree, a dinner with lutefisk, ostkaka, peplarkakor and Kottbullar. But if we are to hold Saturnalia in custody, we must let Christ be born in our lives on December 25, and he must continue to live in us throughout the days and weeks to come.
Let’s honor Wenceslas, the 10th Century Duke of Bohemia, about whom we sing and who while out surveying his riches saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved by what he saw, the King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant’s door.
Honoring Good King Wenceslas, we will take the side of the poor calling for a US tax code that carries “surplus food and wine” through any sort of blizzard to the peasants, the poor, those in need. Let’s sing all the verses of the carol including the last line “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
Let’s honor St Francis of Assisi, who staged the first nativity scene in 1223. The hay first used and lying next to the manger, legend tells us, miraculously acquired the power to cure cattle disease and pestilences.
Honoring St. Francis, we will call for a health care program in the US that makes care available to all in need. We will encourage research money be used not to develop more weapons of destruction but be used to find cures for diseases afflicting all of us, including the disease of hunger and malnutrition.
On Christmas we join the chorus of angels singing, “Peace on earth and mercy mild,” remembering the returning WW2 vets and their stories of war’s devastation. They made commitment to develop peacemaking practices, including the establishment of the United Nations. We must continue their peacemaking work. Thomas Merton wrote: “Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”
On Christmas we will also join the world over singing “Joy to the world! the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare Him room……He rules the world with truth and grace…and makes the nation prove….the wonders of His love.”
Christmas blessings to one and all from Maureen and Pastor.
– Stephen H. Swanson