Sacred Times and Seasons (Part I)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.” Exodus 13:14

This year Christmas Day happens to fall on a Sunday. That means that many American Protestants will do something they are not used to doing: they will attend church on Christmas Day.

Do Church and Christmas Day go Together?

When my wife and I first moved to America from England, we found it odd that almost all Protestant churches were shut for Christmas Day, though many Protestant liturgical churches will have Christmas Eve services.

In England, church attendance on Christmas morning is as much a part of the celebrations as stockings, mince pies and carols. In fact, many English men and women who hardly ever set foot inside a church will attend their local Anglican church on Christmas morning. Indeed, walking to the village church on Christmas morning, accompanied by the festive music of the church’s bells, is such an integral part of an English Christmas that when we moved to America my wife and I found it difficult to imagine a Christmas without it.

In America, the tradition of going to church on Christmas morning has been preserved mainly among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, with the exception of a handful of liturgical churches. The reformed Presbyterian church that my family attends reintroduced the practice a few years ago.

From Feast Day to Family Day

In her Time article titled, ‘Going to Church on Christmas: A Vanishing Tradition’ Amy Sullivan remarked about the way family has replaced faith as being the center of an American Christmas:

“While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.”

The problem is not, of course, that Christmas is a family-centered occasion. After all, in the European countries where church attendance is an inseparable part of Christmas piety, the day is also family-oriented, as anyone familiar with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol can attest. But family is not the thing that is first and foremost.

This year when Christmas happens to land on a Sunday, millions of Americans who are regular church-goers will sadly skip church because they simply cannot imagine Christmas morning having anything to do with church attendance. Many will probably justify their absence by saying that they are wishing to preserve the sense of Christmas being a ‘family day.’ But those who do make the effort to attend church this Christmas Day will have a wonderful opportunity to connect with a lost tradition. For some of the younger ones among us, this may be the first time they have ever been able to engage in corporate worship on Christmas Day, an opportunity that won’t repeat itself again until 2016 (unless, of course, their churches decides to bring back the tradition like my church has).

Although American Protestants may think of their church-less Christmases as being normal, it is actually an anomaly within the history of Christianity. Before it was anything else, Christmas was a mass of the church (Christ-mass) and it would only have been pagans who would think to skip out on the occasion. So why did it change within America? Amy Sullivan traces it to developments in the mid 20th century:

“By the middle of the 20th century, Americans had embraced a civil religion that among other things elevated the ideal of family to a sacrosanct level. The Norman Rockwell image of family gathered around the tree became a Christmas icon that rivaled the baby Jesus. And Christmas Eve services — with their pageantry and familiar traditions — became just one part of the celebration, after the family dinner and before the opening of presents.”

I don’t dispute Sullivan’s explanation, but I think we need to go further back to discover why 20th century Americans were so willing to embrace this type of civil religion. In particular, it seems that we need to be attentive to the influence of the Puritans on American culture. Before looking at that, however, I want to briefly outline the theological basis for celebrating feasts like Advent and Christmas.

Celebrating the Church Year in the Spirit of Exodus 13

Throughout the history of Christianity, the liturgical year has been a way that the church has celebrated the redemption story, with each of the cardinal feasts emphasizing a different aspect of the story, even as the three feasts mentioned in Exodus 13:14 and 23:14-19 gave the people of God in the Old Testament a way to remember what the Lord had done for them. Although the feast of Passover expired when Jesus brought Israel’s exile to an end (a fact hinted at in Jeremiah 16:14-15 and 23:7-8 where the Lord declares that events like the Passover and Exodus will no longer be talked about), this does not mean that the people of God are now without any feasts to celebrate. On the contrary, just as our forefathers in the Old Testament had the three cardinal feasts of the law (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), we have the six cardinal feasts of the church. One of these six feasts (Pentecost) was also an Old Testament feast, though it has been transformed by the gospel to take on a fuller meaning. And just as our forefathers had numerous supplementary holy days in the middle like the Day of Atonement, so the church has numerous saints’ days that we can celebrate.

Advent, the season we are celebrating now, reminds us that our forefathers waited in faith for the promised Messiah, even as we are now waiting for Christ’s second coming. Advent culminates in the season of Christmas, which celebrates the incarnation, that great event in which God became man. After Christmas comes the season of Epiphany, which recalls the coming of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. During Lent the church remembers Christ’s sufferings, both in the wilderness and finally on the cross. Lent culminates in Easter when Christ rises from the dead, defeating death once and for all. Finally, Pentecost remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit, recalls the way that the new covenant fulfills the law and, with Epiphany, it celebrates the coming of the Gentiles into covenant relationship with Israel’s God.

These holidays, each of which is rich with Biblical symbolism, remain a tangible way for Christians to live through the story of redemption every year. Sadly, however, the rhythm of the church year is unfamiliar to many American Protestants, who think of Easter as a single day rather than as a season, who assume that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25, who consider Lent to be ‘something that Catholics do’ and may not have even heard of Epiphany. As for Pentecost, the holiday often brings to mind little more than speaking in tongues.

See Also

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

As suggested earlier, the reason for this ignorance is largely the result of America’s strong Puritan heritage, brought to this country by both the Pilgrims Fathers as well as the hundreds of thousands of Scotch-Irish who immigrated here during the 18th century. These Celtic immigrants, mostly from Presbyterian and dissenting backgrounds, were heirs of the type of Puritanism that had little time for rituals, ceremonies or ‘times and seasons’, which they considered to be remnants of ‘popery.’ One way to put it would be to say that the Puritans were guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of bathwater that the Protestant reformers rightly rejected. The amount of obligatory feasts and saints days was becoming cumbersome in late medieval Europe, creating a drain on the finances of the poor. But I would suggest that the Puritans went too far when they dispensed with even the cardinal feasts of the church year like Advent and Christmas.

We get an idea how opposed the Puritans were to these holidays from the fact that when Oliver Cromwell turned England into a Puritan commonwealth he instructed his leaders to make sure that Christmas day was an obligatory work day. Jonathan Gifford writes how “troops roamed the streets looking for signs of inappropriate feasting: mince pies and plum puddings were seized.”

In his book Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, William Dyrness reminds us that even John Calvin proposed to do away with Christmas and all other feasts within Geneva, a point contributing to his expulsion from the city in 1538.

Protestants after Calvin continued to wage anti-Christmas campaigns, and it was actually a German protestant by the name of Paul Ernst Jablonski who invented the myth about the alleged pagan origins of Christmas in an attempt to discredit the holiday. (To learn how this myth is historically false, see David Withun’s article ‘The pagan origins of Christmas?‘ and William J. Tighe’s article ‘Calculating Christmas’)

In the next article we will consider what some of the effects of this Puritan mentality have been on American culture and how the evacuation of sacred content from the calendar has led to new narratives structured around the cult of nationalism.

Personal Challenge: make this year’s Christmas a time to reconnect with the traditions of the historic church. As we prepare for Christmas during this season of Advent, use it as a time to educate yourself on the church year. When you attend church on December 25, remember that before it was anything else, Christmas was a cardinal feast day of the church. Also consider purchasing the Fellowship of Saint James’ Ecumenical Calendar of the Christian Year 2012 which lists all the saints days and feast for 2012.


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