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They Tried To Outlaw Christmas
(The Contemporary Meaning of Christmas)

Not 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. 

There has 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.

But what 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.

According to 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.

In 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.

Not a 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 than evil."

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.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.