Do Muslims and Jews Have This Problem?

In the mood of the season, I found a Youtu.be video with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Maybe yours doesn’t but my mind boggled (again). Frank Sinatra, the singer alluded to in The Godfather, with real ties to the Rat Pack, and no model of family mores, is singing Charles Wesley (one of the original Methodists’ better verses). Again, the mind boggles.

This is how familiar Christmas is for Americans (and people in the West more generally). Not only did Sinatra sing Wesley. But producers in the recording industry believed that Frank singing a batch of Christmas songs would be a revenue enhancer. And these entertainment geniuses decided not only to include some of the secular and corny songs, like Jingle Bells, but also the sorts of material that Anglican cathedral choirs include in Lessons and Carols services.

Is your mind boggling yet?

Do Muslims have songs to sing about the birth of Muhammad? Do Jews sing about the birth of Abraham? One way to tell is to live in a Muslim or Jewish society during the holy days? How much religious music seeps out into the larger commercial world?

I don’t know (and am willing to learn from readers).

But one of the things that makes Christmas great (in all senses of the word) is that recording celebrities have put out so many albums and cds devoted to the birth of Jesus.

For the New Schoolers out there who like to chalk such cultural expressions up to the church’s (which one?) transformatalistizational powers, the pervasiveness of Christmas cheer is a sign of the longing that many people have the good news that the nativity narratives begin. Yes, we need more Christ and less Frank in Christmas, but for Americans to devote the better part of six weeks every year to the celebration of Christmas is an indication of Christianity’s abiding appeal.

For Old Schoolers, though, the relentless persistence of Christmas in all its schmaltz and devotion is an indication of how little discomfort Christians feel about making their own holiday an affair for Muslims, Jews, and secularists to enjoy or endure. Imagine thinking that Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums would sell in Istanbul.

At the same time, Old Schoolers who know the history of the church calendar should not blame Roman Catholics for the ubiquity of Christmas sales and music. Protestants in the United States did not observe Christmas (minus some Episcopalians and Lutherans) until the late nineteenth century when department store entrepreneurs like New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, connected the dots between God’s gift to man in sending his son, and the gifts that Americans could give to friends and family to participate in that incarnational spirit.

Protestants made the world safe for Frank Sinatra singing Wesley, not the bishops.

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Christmas as Old School Presbyterianism’s Coexist Moment

Mustafa Akyol’s column on Christmas in Turkey revealed that paleo-Calvinists share much in common with conservative Muslims and Jews during the holiday season:

Islamists in Turkey, every year, come out on the streets or in their media with the slogan, “Muslims do not do Christmas.” Of course, they have every right to not to celebrate a religious feast that is not a part of their religion. But they not only refrain from Christmas; they also protest it.

In fact, those Islamists of Turkey, and other likeminded Christmas-despisers, often “do not know what they are doing,” to quote the noble words of the very person whose birthday is at question here. They typically condemn Santa Claus costumes and Christmas trees as signs of “Western cultural imperialism.” But Christianity is not merely Western; it is also African, Asian and, in fact, global.

Hmm. Christmas as a global solvent of local Reformed Protestant teachings and practices. Go figure.

Jews — ya think? — have similar problems with Christmas.

Israel, too, seems to have a similar problem.

I read about this in an Al-Jazeera English story titled, “Israeli rabbis launch war on Christmas tree.” It reported how the Jerusalem rabbinate issued a letter warning hotels in the city that “it is ‘forbidden’ by Jewish religious law to erect a tree or stage New Year’s parties.” In Haifa, a rabbi, Elad Dokow, went even further, called the Christmas tree “idolatry,” and warned that it was a “pagan” symbol that violated the kosher status buildings.

At a time when New Calvinists heighten their sensitivity to Muslims and Jews, when will they show a little concern for Old Calvinists?

Certainly Not Calvinist But Not Even Baptist

How do you explain selectivity (cafeteria Protestantism) about — wait for it — the Ten Commandments? But the Allies have their ways of satisfying itching ears. Here’s the latest — positive thoughts about Nativity Scenes:

I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.

In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.

Actually, it may be that the people who most often miss the message of the nativity scene are Christians. How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience—the music in the mall, the services in your church, the presents in your house—and be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. How easy it is to sing along to “Once in Royal David’s City”—

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.

—and feel neither awe nor offense, but simply nothing much at all.

My point is that it’s not only non-Christians who trivialize Christmas. It’s us. The claims the Bible makes about the first Christmas are either fact or fiction, so they’re either awesome or offensive. They should move us to worship or to resistance. But so often Christians seem to be pursuing a pristine Christmas experience that more reflects the store-bought nativity scene than the costly and messy account of the Bible.

Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas. They avoided also any representation of any member of the Trinity. The same goes for Baptists. Until the twentieth century, non-Episcopalian and non-Lutheran Protestants didn’t do Christmas or display its wares. They only way to get around the second and fourth commandments (for the fourth, one day in seven is holy, not Jesus’ birthday) is if you so elevate feelings or evangelism and argue that rules don’t matter (sometimes). That’s more Whitefield than Edwards. In which case, the Allies can’t even honor properly their “homeboy.”

Just to keep score: justification is supposed to result in sanctification.

Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it: rather, we are to do good to the city, for all the glory and honor of the nations is to be offered up to the living God. Recognizing whose created order this is, and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God. The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation. The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom. It therefore inevitably establishes a new community of human life together under God.

Maybe the Allies problem with the Decalogue is that they think of obedience too much in the context of the city and not being ye separate. Don’t want to take God’s word too far.

How to Redeem Christmas

Let Protestants have it.

Thomas (nee Tommy) Kidd’s review of Christmas in the Crosshairs notices that not until Protestants took up the cause of December 25, the holiday became safe for the women and children.

Before 1800:

In the medieval era, Christmas became a fixture of Catholic festive culture, which sometimes featured drunken celebrations and “social inversions” such as the “Feast of Fools” and “Feast of the Ass” (that is, the donkey that carried Mary). These rites made Christmas a prime target for many Reformers, who viewed them as an unbiblical “popish” riot. In the 1640s, the Puritan-dominated English Parliament banned Christmas and “all other festival days commonly called ‘Holy-days.’ ” A century and a half later, radical French revolutionaries renamed December 25 “dog day,” viewing citizens who stayed home from work as potential enemies of the secular regime.

Then English-speaking novelists saw an opening:

By 1800, Christmas was in bad shape, associated largely with working-class drunkenness and violence. But in the early 19th century, Christmas “revivalists” like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens began recasting it as a generically religious, culturally wholesome, and family-centered holiday. Clement Clarke Moore made perhaps the most significant contribution with his 1822 “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” A friendly Santa Claus supplanted St. Nicholas’s traditional threats of wrath against disobedient children. Other menacing nocturnal visitors who had been fixtures of medieval Christmases, such as central Europe’s “Perchta the Disemboweller,” soon vanished before Santa’s kindly image. The gift-giving Santa also transformed Christmas into the merchants’ holiday par excellence.

As for me and my house, we’ll stick with Thanksgiving as the best holiday. Rule Americania!

The Liturgical Calendar Jesus Founded

Maureen Mullarkey confirms Puritans’ objections (via Rorate Caeli):

It is easy to forget that Christmas as we know it is something of a latecomer. It was not celebrated in the early Church. Christians in the first two or three centuries understood themselves to be an Easter people, persecuted inheritors of the promise of the Resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the heartsblood of the faith. Within a community marked for martyrdom, it was the death date that earned commemoration. Death marked the day of initiation into eternal life, into the stunning mystery of Christ’s victory over death.

Absent the Resurrection, there was no counter to the words of Jeremiah: “Cursed be the day on which I was born.” Origen was emphatic on the matter:

Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday.

Prior to the fourth century, there is scarce, if any, written evidence of an annual celebration of the Nativity on December 25th. Not until the fourth century—as newly unshackled Christianity spread northward from Jerusalem, north Africa, and the Mediterranean, into central and northern Europe—did popular custom ingest facets of those pre-Christian winter festivals that greeted its arrival.

If Edwards Didn't Do It, Why Would a New Calvinist?

Justin Taylor lists errors to avoid in a Christmas sermon:

Don’t say Jesus died when he was 33 years old.
Don’t explain the apparent absence of a lamb at the Last Supper by only saying Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb.
Don’t say the same crowds worshiped Jesus on Palm Sunday and then cried out for his crucifixion on Good Friday.
Don’t bypass the role of the women as witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
Don’t focus on the suffering of Jesus to the extent that you neglect the glory of the Cross in and through the Resurrection.

Wouldn’t it be better not to preach a Christmas sermon altogether? After all, Edwards didn’t preach Christmas sermons. And I thought he broke the mold.

When the Skinny Lady Sings "Silent Night" You Live In A Christian Nation

Even before I watched Senator Ben Sasse’s video about the murders in San Bernadino, I had a sense that what binds Americans together is not freedom (as Sasse argues) but Christianity. How’s that? Well, take a gander at the Netflix Christmas special and watch Miley Cyrus, with her tatted-up arms and long legs, atop a white piano, sing the worst of Christmas carols — Silent Night (lame lyrics, awful, repetitive and simple melody). When you have Hollywood stars singing and listening to the line, “Christ, the savior is bor-ooorn,” you have to wonder what Muslims see when they look at the United States.

To make the case for Christian America, you don’t need to argue as some do that even secularists adhere to Christian morals:

The other half of the population dismisses conventional expressions of Christianity but actually believes more fervently than any Falwell, albeit in attenuated form. They are Christian radicals that have taken the Christian idea of loving one’s neighbor, stripped it of every attendant belief, and elevated it to an absolute principle. Theirs is a faith of nonjudgmentalism, accepting every refugee, and always blaming oneself whenever one is attacked. Call this outlook “multiculturalism” if you like, but the only culture capable of producing it is a Christian one.

Nor do you have to mock those believers who oppose commercializing Christmas as if the secular observation of a church holiday has no religious significance:

In their militant efforts, evangelicals have not only politicized the debate, but they have appropriated a “tradition” and even a word. To say “Christmas” is to state one’s faith. Now, any use of the phrase, “Happy Holidays,” calls into question the state of one’s soul. I’m reminded of Tracy Fessenden’s work here, as I think what we are seeing is “the ability of a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both the religious and the secular.” What we are seeing is a Protestantized conception of religion to control the meanings of both “Christmas” and “Holiday.”

As if scholars who study the history of religion can’t pay some heed to the millennium old conflict between Islam and the West and not notice that to outsiders the festivities that crowd the December datebook of most Americans might seem like a lot of Christian remembrance of the birth of Christ. When Muslims observe Ramadan, do scholars chalk it up to secular celebrations of a Middle-Eastern holiday? It is hard to imagine cultural Muslims producing the kind of songs that Americans have for Christmas. What might be the Islamic equivalent for Hajj that Sleigh-Ride captures for American Christians as they prepare home decorations and bake cookies?

Just hear those sleigh bells jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Outside the snow is falling
And friends are calling “Yoo Hoo”
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap
let’s go
Let’s look at the snow
We’re riding in a wonderland of snow

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it’s grand
Just holding your hand
We’re gliding along with the song
Of a wintry fairy land

Our cheeks are nice and rosy
And comfy cozy are we
We’re snuggled up together like two
Birds of a feather would be

Let’s take the road before us
And sing a chorus or two
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray
It’ll be the perfect ending of a perfect day
We’ll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop
At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop
Pop! Pop! Pop!

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives

Of course, it doesn’t take an infallible bishop to know that the Christmas holidays in the United States are much less about religious devotion than they are an excuse for mirth, relaxation, and consumption. (And in an all about me moment, I am an enthusiastic supporter of mirth, relaxation, and consumption once final grades are in). But right in the middle of it all are celebrities like Miley Cyrus, or Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley (think all those Christmas albums) whose personal lives are far removed from communicant membership in a Christian communion, singing about the savior who saves the world from sin.

In which case, when Muslims look at the United States, they may see Christianity much more than they see freedom, or godlessness, or secularism. After all, the American soldiers who keep watch in Muslim dominated societies in the Middle East do not attend services that recite the American creed of freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, but the Christian creed of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

None of this amounts to anything like a basis for policy for either domestic security or foreign relations. But it does point to a longer history of which Americans are both ignorant and part. For over a millennium Europeans have been either explicitly fighting Islam or implicitly forcing Muslims to conform to a global order dominated by the West. After World War II, the United States was the last pro-Western nation standing to defend the West’s hegemony in an order that Europeans had been building ever since the Portuguese and Spanish began to chase Muslims in the Mediterranean Sea and on the continent of Africa. If Americans noticed their ties to this larger history, Miley Cyrus might be less comfortable singing “Silent Night” and U.s. legislators might frame the nation’s relationship to Islam and Islamism differently than they do.

Between the Times

Curmudgeon reminds me of a thought I had last night while looking at holiday decorations on homes in the neighborhood. We are in that mysterious and wondrous period when Halloween decorations are still up and Christmas ones have dawned.

Further proof that the U.S. the greatest nation on God’s green (and getting greener thanks to added warmth) earth.

But I do wonder if Thanksgiving functioning as the start of the Christmas shopping season is really the product of Anglicans pushing Advent. Isn’t the Sunday after Thanksgiving always the first Sunday of Advent?

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.

Turns Out this Liturgical Calendar Thingy Is Complicated

First — hello — Advent is not Christmas:

There’s a segment of evangelicalism that’s increasingly drawn to liturgy, especially the Anglican tradition, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. But he thinks that’s a part of the Advent boom. “There’s also undoubtedly a commercial element as well,” he said. “As the popularity of the practice grew among an influential segment of the evangelical community, that popularity was cashed in by the Christian publishing, manufacturing, and retailing industries. The visibility of Advent wreaths, candles, banners, books, tracts, etc., undoubtedly had a major impact on a lot of folks’ awareness, tolerance, and embrace of the practice.”

I see the modern adaptation of Advent as a wonderful entry point to the riches of ancient Christian tradition: the church year, sacraments, and liturgy. Indeed, I’m one of those new Anglicans Eskridge refers to—but I got there via a hip Baptist church that introduced me to the seasons of the church year (and cofounded Advent Conspiracy).

But sometimes I find myself befuddled by a particularity of this movement. As a season of the church year, Advent is intended to prepare us for Christmas—a 12-day celebration, a season in itself. Advent is traditionally the fast before the feast. But I see few recent adopters of Advent keeping the feast. Thirty days of waiting, anticipation, preparation—and then when the person on whom you’ve waited arrives, Alright, we’re done here. Pack up the Christmas tree. What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

Fast between Thanksgiving and Christmas? You have to be kidding.

But if you can mix politics into whether or not to observe the Christ Mass, you might be on to something:

. . . when we look to the seventeenth century, we see some evidence of the Kirk making progress in convincing even lay persons that celebrating Christmas really was naughty. One significant factor working in the Kirk’s favor was, somewhat ironically, King James’s new-found conviction that Scottish Christians really should celebrate Christmas. James put significant pressure on the General Assembly of the Kirk meeting in Perth in 1618 to adopt, among a variety of liturgical/practical reforms, a religious calendar consisting of at least a handful of religious days, one of which was Christmas. For James, getting the Scots to celebrate Christmas was one small step towards creating uniformity of religious practice in his lands, which as of 1603 had come to include England. In any case, so far as the common people and their proclivity to celebrate Christmas went, it turned out that telling them they must celebrate Christmas was the surest way to keep some of them at least from doing so.

But if you are a neo-Calvinist, it’s easy peasy:

But let’s think about this for a second. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” That includes Christmas. It is, and always will be, his. It is as possible to remove Jesus from Christmas as it is to remove him from the church.