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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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.