Tried To Outlaw Christmas (The Contemporary Meaning of Christmas)
long ago during the Christmas season here in New York, the police department engaged
in a legal battle with the leaders of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. It
seems that for several months some of the city's homeless citizens had been camping
out on the front steps of the historic church, located in the very heart of the
city's most luxurious shopping district. Church officials wanted to continue serving
the homeless, arguing that the city had failed to provide adequate shelter as
required by law. The mayor preferred that the homeless use the city's shelters,
some suggested, because he preferred that the problems of the homeless remain
out of sight, or worse, out of mind.
Whatever one's view of this particular
courtroom battle, the contrast between the buying and selling of luxuries on Fifth
Avenue and the stark reality of poverty in a land of plenty requires further reflection.
Indeed, Christmas has always tended to bring into sharp relief some of the deepest
contradictions of culture, if not of religion itself.
always been some sense of complexity in the celebration of Christmas. So much
so that in days of old the church attempted to have Christmas banned. It was in
England during the tenure of Oliver Cromwell. His Puritan Party passed legislation
outlawing Christmas. In England there would be no more lavish and raucous celebration,
no more commercial exploitation, there would be no more Christmas, period.
But the people were outraged. There was rioting in the streets. Secret Christmas
celebrations broke out all over England. But Cromwell retaliated. Parliament decreed
penalties of imprisonment for anyone caught celebrating the holiday. Each year,
by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before
Christmas, reminding people that "Christmas and all other superstitious festivals"
should not be observed, businesses should remain open. There were to be no displays
of Christmas decorations. During the year 1647 popular riots broke out in various
places demanding the legalization of Christmas. But the Puritan government stood
firm and proceeded to break up Christmas celebrations by force of arms. People
were arrested and in many instances jailed. The Puritans seemed surprised by the
strength of popular resistance to their anti-Christmas policies, but they would
not alter their policies or compromise their principles. They simply went down
to defeat in the next elections. The Puritans were thrown out of power -- and
Christmas was back on the march.
In cold New England, the zeal of the
Puritans persisted long after it had faded away in England. The holiday remained
outlawed in Massachusetts until the second half of the nineteenth century!
While we think of Christmas as something we've been doing since time immemorial,
our present practices are virtual novelties. It was not until immigrants from
Ireland and from the continent began arriving in great numbers that Christmas
in America began to flourish. The Germans brought their Christmas tree. The Irish
placed lights in their windows. Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe brought
their native carols as well as the radical idea of staying home from work on Christmas
Day! Very soon their neighbors, charmed by these unfamiliar, but appealing innovations,
followed the pattern set by the new immigrant groups and invented new customs
of their own.
Eventually a powerful surge of enthusiasm swept resistance
away. In the end, neither the moral authority of the church, nor the power of
the state, could prevent the spirit of Christmas with all its excess from erupting
throughout the nation. The spirit of Christmas has a life of its own, undisciplined,
unorganized, chaotic, overly-commercial, ever-present, ... Invincible!
All efforts to reform it or change it have failed, despite countless efforts
to do so. So my feeling is, if you can't beat it, join it.
it would mean to celebrate the deeper meanings of Christmas in a time of rampant
commercialism and militarism? With our nation involved in a war on terror as well
as in Iraq and Afghanistan, what does it mean to celebrate the Prince of Peace?
If we cannot restore this season to its pristine beauty, what we can
do is recapture something of its deeper meaning even in the midst of its most
exuberant excess. We know in the plainest terms what the spirit of Christmas is
all about. We know what happened, when and where and why. Shepherds came to the
stable. And three magi. The ox and the ass looked on in wonder. No living creature
was exempt from astonishment. Even the stars looked down with a peculiar gleam.
Tradition holds that at the moment of our Savior's birth, all nature was hushed
as if time itself had missed a beat. And in the shock of that stillness, all creatures
knew what had happened. In a language too deep for words there was a universal
revelation of God's eternal love.
According to legend, it was revealed
to every class of creature. From the very stones which were believed to be at
the bottom of the scale of creation to the angels at its summit. The miracle was
made known to the stone for there were earthquakes throughout the Mediterranean
world at the hour of his birth. The miracle was made known to the plants, for
in certain regions the vines suddenly flowered, bore grapes, and produced wine.
It was made known to the animals, to the ox and the ass present at the manger,
who were gifted with human speech to praise our savior's birth. It was made known
to the angels, for the whole host of heaven had come down to earth and shone around
that cave with a brilliance that turned night into day.
legend the meaning of this most holy time was made clear in the last instance
to the human beings, for we were the ones with minds clouded with preconceptions
and hearts torn by conflicting desires. The angels and the stones of the field,
the birds and the beasts knew instantly what was happening, but we human creatures
could not understand lest we abandon our habitual ways of perceiving the world.
Even though King Herod was making preparations for war at that very moment,
on Christmas Eve all nature sang together in harmony; the stars and the shepherds,
the ox and the ass, Mary and Joseph. The robin's breast is red, one legend tells,
because it fluttered its little wings to quicken the dying fire which had been
lit to warm the Christ child as he lay in the manger. As the fire grew brighter
and brighter, the feathers of the robin's breast caught the glow from the flames
and have remained red ever since.
What all these myths and legends have
in common is the sense of unity and serenity in God's whole creation. The peace
which we celebrate this season is nothing less than the peace of God. It is not
a blessing to be enjoyed by humans alone; it is a peace which belongs to this
whole creation. The purpose of Christ's coming was not to save something as vague
and immaterial as the human soul, the real purpose was and is to restore God's
peace to the whole creation. Things animate and inanimate, plant and animal, resources
natural and supernatural must be restored to their original harmony if we are
to be saved.
As oxen and ass, cattle and sheep, stones and stars, shepherds
and kings came to the stable in that moment of wonder, so let us be still for
a moment this Christmas and in that moment of silence rededicate ourselves to
be the peace makers God has called each and everyone of us to be.
the midst of all the hustle and bustle, carve out for your self a moment of peace
and serenity, to get in touch with the spirit of Christmas. Perhaps it can be
that quiet time before everyone else in your household has begun to stir, or after
they have retired, if you are a night owl. A time for quiet reflection in which
you can let the spirit of Christmas speak, and let God's peace stir within you,
touching your deepest being.
Admittedly this simple suggestion is not
always easy to carry off, especially during a busy holiday season like this. And
it's not only the busyness of the season, it's the strain and pressure at work,
or the news of the world which seems to drown out the deeper stirrings of the
still small voice from within. Yes, this world is threatened by violence and by
war at this very hour. Violence in our streets, war in distant places like Afghanistan
or Iraq. How it must be for the families of those soldiers who are this very moment
camped out on some mountainside in the still troubled Balkans.
place anyone would choose to spend Christmas. Anymore than Mary and Joseph chose
Bethlehem. For they too were acting upon orders issued by a higher authority.
In two millennium since that first Christmas morning we have not found a way to
weave the miracle of Christmas into the affairs of nations and empires, let alone
make it a permanent part of our daily lives, such that we would no longer need
these external props to remind us of what we have forgotten, neglected, or ignored.
So we need to be self conscious, deliberate and intent upon the task. Carving
out that island of peace and serenity in which the spirit of Christmas can come
shining through. And the strange thing is, the spirit of Christmas does manage
to find a way of expressing itself despite all the things we do to keep it at
bay; God's peace has a way of reaching out to touch and transform us, intent though
we may be in upon lesser things.
Long ago Howard Thurman put it this
way. "The spirit of Christmas--what is it? It is the rainbow arched over
the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of
life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother's nest, it claims its right
to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths
straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stirred with
the newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day,
the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier
than hate, that right is more confident that wrong, that good is more permanent
At its best the spirit of Christmas is a mirror in which
we see reflected the very best that life can be; at Christmas we see ourselves,
moved by generosity, inspired by hope, uplifted by love, encouraged by hope, not
only for ourselves but for this whole creation, even, and perhaps most especially
for those things we usually find unlovable. The homeless family is transformed
in our sight into the very image of Mary and Joseph; the abused little baby, abandoned
in a garbage compactor in some squalid tenement house, has become the Christ child,
upon which the hopes of the world are seen to rest.
And we too, are drawn
into the drama, becoming agents of God's plan for the reconciliation of the world.
Let this be our common prayer: that the spirit of Christmas more and
more becomes that life giving presence in which we live and move and have our
being. Such that one day, the holiday, with all its excess, shall fade away. Not
because it is forbidden, banned our outlawed, but because it simple truth finds
complete expression in the pattern of our daily life.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.