Who Created Christmas?

One answer looks either to fourth-century emperors who devised December 25 to compete with pagan holidays or to popes who established Christmas as a festival for the western church. Another might point toward the tradition of Lessons and Carols which have become a Protestant (Anglican) way to observe the festivities.

But the point of the question is to wonder why people like Barry Manilow, a Jewish-American, feel so comfortable with Christmas that they can’t wait to record another holiday album. After all, many of the Christmas “standards” came from the pens and pianos of Jewish Americans who found the way that Christian Americans carried on during December so inviting that they could compose a song like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”:

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
It’s the hap -happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap – happiest season of all

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s The Most Wonderful Time
It’s The Most Wonderful Time
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

That song, by the way, came from Edward Pola (nee Sidney Edward Pollacsek) and George Wyle (nee Bernard Weissman). Wyle also gave us the theme music for Gilligan’s Island, a tune to which Amazing Grace, I hear, can also be sung. Talk about inter-religious synergy.

This is a wonderful song and captures much of the experience of many North Americans during the last half of December each year which finds citizens of the United States observing Christmas as a national holiday.

But can you imagine, as I attempted last night, non-Muslims writing songs to communicate a sense of Ramadan festivities. We watched two holiday movies to take advantage of the respite from a work schedule. The first was The Bells of St. Mary’s (and boy, Bing Crosby was pretty engaging; Ingrid Bergman was fetching even in a habit), a Christmas movie that was remarkably successful with all Americans at a time (1945) only four years before the most successful anti-Catholic polemic ever written, Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power, a book that was a best seller and offered through the Book of the Month Club. Here was a story of a priest and a nun who disagreed over the running of a parochial school. It was, in some ways, insider Roman Catholic baseball stuff. And yet it is a very charming movie that once again underscores how congenial Christmas can be.

But imagine if the movie makers had created a film about a Muslim school which featured a conflict between a female teacher and an Imam during the observance of Ramadan. How endearing or inviting would that be? If you were part of a Protestant minority living in Quebec City during the 1940s, the parallels between the Roman Catholic observance of Advent and Christmas might be akin to the experiences that Christians (Protestant or Roman Catholic) might have in Baghdad during Ramadan. But again, Christmas invites non-Christians to join the festivities and create holiday expressions that although lacking in explicitly Christian content warm the perhaps sentimental hearts of Christians.

The other holiday movie we watched was Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football, a documentary about Dearborn, Michigan’s high school that is staffed and populated primarily by Muslim (Arab) Americans. The movie follows the coach, players, and family members as they prepare during the fasting and feasting of Ramadan for THE game against Fordson’s arch-rival, Dearborn High. It is the closest I could come to a movie made in the U.S. that featured a holiday foreign to either Christians or Jews. Well worth seeing (and only 55 minutes).

But the aspect of Christmas that most Americans find so inviting has next to nothing to do with the birth of Christ — if it did have much to do with the incarnation, I can’t imagine Barry Manilow lining up to sing those songs. It is a time for families to gather, for cooks to cook and trenchermen to eat, for givers to give and receivers to decide how to negotiate wrapping paper. In other words, it is a time to consume. Even more, it is an important cycle in the business year of many merchants. Lots of religious folk may not care for the commercialization of Christmas but that doesn’t keep the Puritanically minded from spending and eating (no drinking, of course) even if in a less than crass way.

As much as the commercialization of Christmas may seem foreign to Christianity, Protestants should be careful in getting huffy, not in the ways that Rev. Kev. suggests, but for the reason that Presbyterians like John Wanamaker, the owner of one of Philadelphia’s largest department stores, played a huge role in cultivating a holiday atmosphere that appealed to lots of people who didn’t care a wit about the baby Jesus or his reason for taking human form. (The best book on the commercialization of Christian holidays remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites.)

So once again, as I enjoy a break from responsibilities and look forward to a festive meal and time with friends, I enter yet another holiday with great ambivalence. With classes behind and grades in, Christmas is indeed one of the most wonderful times of the year. As someone who leans heavily against the liturgical calendar (other than fifty-two holy days a year), I am not all that upset by a secular Christmas. But it does give me pause that the First Advent can be so easily domesticated. It was not so with Herod who tried to snuff out the babe in the manger and all infants doomed to be born near that day. I don’t know exactly how it will happen, but the Second Advent will likely not invite such merriment (at least for those in the First Adam). So I wonder if Christians, if they are going to invest some religious energy in Christmas observance, should spend a little more time considering that the First Advent leads ultimately to That Great Day.

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21 thoughts on “Who Created Christmas?

  1. And people think OldLife is negative.

    Others

    Talk about the repetitious torments of a soul in hell! I mean, Jesus, when it isn’t even Advent yet, not even in the East, where the fasts are longer because the misery isn’t up to your standards, do you know that before anyone even pops a button at the Thanksgiving table the suffering has already kicked into overdrive? How is that in keeping with the spirit of the season and “the true meaning,” etc.? How is that going to make me charitable toward the poor frozen bell-ringers outside the grocery store who remind us one season each year that need has no season?

    I realize that ill-will directed toward one of The Beatles is maybe borderline heretical to some of your followers, but I ask you: is this aforementioned repugnant musical abortion—like the mind-numbing drumming of that retarded little drummer boy—fit to play before a king, Mighty King? I hope you’re not going to tell me that only melodically uninteresting tunes now rate with you and the other persons in that Trinal Unity of yours, because—Great God!—if that’s the case then America’s therapeutic religion has won the day, and I’m seriously going to have to consider becoming a pagan suckled in a creed outworn and hope for glimpses that would make me less forlorn.

    I mean no disrespect to Andy Williams or anything, but it is decidedly not the most wonderful time of the year when Paul McCartney is more ubiquitous than Elvis at an Elvis impersonation convention.

    are too.

    On what basis can you celebrate Christ-mass?

    Where do we find in Scripture that the Church is supposed to create special times and seasons for worship? Where do we find that one day is to be placed above or set aside from another?

    In fact we find explicit evidence to the contrary.

    Where do we find that we invent new ways to honour (approach) God based on the pagan customs of the world, even if those customs are from a different era and don’t ‘mean’ the same things today?

    If you do ‘keep’ Christmas, then do you keep the whole liturgical year? Do you keep Advent, Lent, Epiphany, Ascension, All Saints, etc…?

    If not, why not? On what basis do you accept some days and reject the others?

    Your feelings?

    Scripture? Surely not.

    Your tradition? How do you know your tradition is right when other church traditions say different?

    If tradition is the authority, how do you determine which tradition to follow?

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  2. Speaking of old Bing, IIRC he was a devout RC and was very much against singing Irving Berlin’s (yet another Jewish-American composer) “White Christmas” during the filming of “Holiday Inn” because he considered it to be sacrilegious, since only spoke to the secular things around the time of late December. Berlin insisted that it be sung just as he wrote it, lyrics unmodified and stuck around the movie set until he was satisfied, hearing Bing succumb to the pressure and sing it in full measure.

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  3. Fair points (especially the warnings against huffing). But as an ambivalent keeper of Xmas, I can’t help but wonder if those stronger brethren with their minds made up in such ardent and principled opposition would apply the same criticisms against the Communion Season where instead of a particular day a certain sacrament is drawn out against fifty-two holy days a year. I have heard some say they’d like to experience such a season. Perhaps we all have our soft spots.

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  4. I am going to use my confessional privilege for once, since the white one doesn’t work.
    (If it does, how come the resident marxist keeps showing up to spoil the party?
    FTM how come the patron saint of white guilt is black notwhite? What’s that all about, CD?)

    From the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Publick Worship:

    AN APPENDIX,
    Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship.

    THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the
    Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
    Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God,
    are not to be continued.

    Further in the spirit of Barry Manilow, those who want to return to OT type special days used to be known as judaizers. But everybody knows that the Westminster divines were probably anti-semites, when they weren’t racistssexistbigotedhomophobes, so that settles that and you know who can settle down about old dead white chauvinists. (Fat chance that.)

    But even secular national holidays are one slippery slope to far. Thus reading between the lines of Van Dellen and Monsma’s Commentary on the Church Order. The reformed church instituted worship services because the people had to much free time on their hand on the holidays, tho originally Christmas had been booted from the calendar.

    As far as street cred goes, Der Bingle went to my high school (or vice versa), but he left all the money to Gonzaga University. Back in the day, phone operators used to eavesdrop “monitor” the calls to and from his Hayden Lake place. No bootleg tapes of any impromptu warbling exist though, tmk.

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  5. Zrim, Matt Drudge is the only guy I can compare DG to
    The content here is always outstanding, dug that letter to Lincoln. I’m out.

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  6. AB – having read The Hobbit and TLOR trilogy more decades ago than I care to remember, I’ve always been curious about these new special effect movies that have been made of them recently. If you’ve read the Tolkein books, would you recommend any of these as faithful renderings of the books?

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  7. George, the family went to see the latest movie today. Long on action, short on plot. But if you love the books you should watch the first three that were produced. I think you’ll like them. Peter Jackson was respectful of the books. I can’t say he never deviated from them but he was respectful of Tolkien’s themes. And the special effects were superior to anything found in the Narnia movies.

    They follow the Star Wars pattern: three pretty strong movies followed by a series of weaker ones. But IMO the drop off is not as steep as in the Star Wars movies.

    This has been Muddy at the Movies.

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  8. Of course following a liturgical calendar gives you things like the collect for Christmas Eve…

    O God, You make us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of Your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Grant that as we joyfully receive Him as our Redeemer, we may with sure confidence behold Him when He comes to be our Judge…

    And the assigned reading pick up the theme, which would seem to be exactly what you are seeking at the end with a consideration of the “first advent leading to That Great Day”. The calendar ain’t the gospel, but it sure points in the right direction.

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  9. Get rid of the sacred-secular distinction, and no need to worry about domesticating baby Jesus (thank YOU neo-Calvinism):

    When our kids were born, I continued to divvy up Christmas into my self-created sacred and secular categories. I tried to emphasize the sacred. The stuffed Nativity scene placed in the center of our playroom provided hours of entertainment. I wouldn’t allow the kids to toss the baby, but the sheep and the donkeys were fair game. Someone sent us a sticker Advent series in which we read a portion of the Christmas story each day and placed a corresponding sticker on a scene that culminated, of course, in the babe lying in a manger. We sang “Christmas church songs” before bed, and one afternoon I overheard Penny singing, “God and sinners reconciled!” as we walked to the playground. Christian Christmas was sinking in. . . .

    I think back to the way Jesus’ birth upended traditional assumptions that the spiritual world and the physical world must remain distinct spheres. Jesus’ birth signaled the entrance of God into time and space. And despite Jesus’ condemnation of evil, his life attests to his ongoing affirmation of the goodness of our physical reality. This is the man who changed water into wine so the party could continue. This is the man who commended a woman for pouring expensive perfume on his feet. The man who held the children on his lap rather than keeping them at a distance. The man who healed through touch and not just powerful words.

    Christmas celebrates material reality, through gifts and glitter and extravagance. When we place the Nutcracker characters on the branches of our tree, when we bake molasses spice cookies, when we dress up in fancy clothes, we are acknowledging a spiritual truth made manifest on Christmas morn. We are participating in God’s declaration that this world matters enough to enter into it, to upend the evil within it, to hold tight to the good, forever.

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  10. The “Lessons & Carols” format does not work for me in a Reformed Church at all. If I want that, I’ll worship with the Lutherans (as I do from time to time). If you don’t have a sore butt from sitting through a long sermon you have not attended a proper Reformed worship service.

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