This Would be Transformationalist(izational)

Imagine if Christmas songs started this way in the eighteenth century:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Man it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’
And I brought me some corn for poppin’
The lights are turned way down low
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

And the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, and snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you’d really grab me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

Oh the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Then, two hundred years later, most English-speakers were singing (or hearing in the convenience story, for example) this:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

That would be something on the order of taking a song with reference only to the affects of a holiday and giving them serious Christian significance.

Why, though, does transformationalism so invariably go the other way? Leigh Schmidt had a theory. It was commerce and no one did it better than (sort of) New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, founder and owner of Philadelphia’s great department store, Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s):

The store’s holiday slogan in the 1950s was “Christmas Isn’t Christmas without a Day at Wanamaker’s,” and the slogan contained a grain of ethnographic description along with its advertising hype. A Catholic nun and schoolteacher, for example, wrote warmly to the store in 1950: “I made a special trip, as many of us do, just to ‘see Wanamaker’s.'” These excursions to behold the Grand Court each year at the holidays had become, she said, part of her “Christmas ritual.” (167)

Schmidt added:

For more than a century, the American marketplace has displayed a striking capacity for consecration at Christmas. Christian symbols have been repeatedly brought into the public square and made a matter of public recognition through commercial institutions. . . . At no other time in the year have the tensions over religious pluralism been more evident: Christmas has been set up as an all-embracing cultural celebration often with only passing sensitivity to those whom the holiday marginalizes. (169)

That was 1996.

Catechetical Preaching Solves the Church Calendar Problem

I continue to scratch my head that low-church Protestants are as attached as they are to the calendar of the Roman Catholic church. They don’t think of Christmas or Easter as part of Roman Catholic liturgical practices. But assigning Christ’s birth to December 25th and Christ’s resurrection to the fortunes of the lunar calender and the ides of March is not a project that leaps immediately from the pages of the New Testament as a must. That is why Christmas and Easter greatly expanded their appeal when businessmen like the Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, recognized the big holiday’s of Christ’s life as good for big business. Wanamaker’s department store in center city Philadelphia featured a main hall complete with a grand pipe organ and various forms of musical and holiday festivities (the store’s current owner, Macy’s, continues some of the rituals holiday commerce). The best book on the commercialization of Christian holidays and the high-churchification of low-church Protestants (implicitly) is Leigh Schmidt’s, Consumer Rights: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.

Some Reformed Protestants will be quick to point out that various churches, such as the Netherlands State Church, included in their church order instructions to observe five days from the Roman calendar – Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Reformed church historians will shoot back that the Dutch authorities were not the most reliable magistrates ever to oversee a Reformed church – they let Descartes live among the Dutch observers of Christmas and Epiphany, after all. These historians will also argue that the retention of these five holy days was a concession to keep the former Roman Catholic – now Protestant – population happy.

Historical and commercial reflections aside, the one argument for retaining Christmas and Easter that makes the most sense is the difficulty in answering simply the question, “what’s wrong with once a year calling attention to the birth and resurrection of Christ?” That question invites other questions: what’s wrong with observing once a year the announcement to the virgin Mary of her conception? And by what criteria do we decide which once-a-year observances are wrong?

To these questions the good Heidelberg Catechism has the answer. Divided into 52 Lord’s Days, most print versions break down the 129 questions and answers into units that Reformed pastors were expected to preach in the second Sunday service. Those were the same expectations that brought Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost into the Reformed church. For a second service with a catechetical sermon every Sunday in every Reformed church that observed Christmas and Easter, I might be prepared to swallow the Roman Catholic origins of the Christian “holidays.”

But I’m still holding out hope that catechetical preaching will make Christmas and Easter unnecessary. The reason is that every fourteenth Lord’s Day of the year the Heidelberg Catechism explains the significance of Christ’s birth. And every seventeenth Lord’s Day Heidelberg teaches the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. That means that Christians would have the opportunity to see that nothing is wrong with reflecting once a year on Christ’s birth and resurrection.

The question for those who want to retain the annual festivities is whether they would be comfortable celebrating Christ’s birth in mid-April (14th Sunday), and Christ’s resurrection in early May (17th). (They don’t seem to realize that they already celebrate Christ’s resurrection fifty-two days a year.) That would make for a rushed holiday season among low-church Protestants. But if Jews can squeeze Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into two weeks of Indian Summer, surely Reformed Protestants can gear up for three weeks of celebrations. And just imagine how merchants will benefit from a Spring-time boost in sales.