Archive for Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some Christians consider Christmas secular holiday

December 15, 2007


— As Christmas draws near, Pastor John Foster won't be decorating a tree, shopping for last-minute gifts or working on a holiday sermon for his flock. After all, it's been 50 years since Christmas was anything more than a day of the week to him.

He's one of very few American Christians who follow what used to be the norm in many Protestant denominations - rejecting the celebration of Christmas on religious grounds.

"People don't think of it this way, but it's really a secular holiday," said Foster, a Princeton-based pastor in the United Church of God. He last celebrated Christmas when he was 8.

His church's objection to Christmas is rare among U.S. Christians. Gallup polls from 1994 to 2005 consistently show that more than 90 percent of adults say they celebrate Christmas, including 84 percent of non-Christians.

That's a huge change from an earlier era, when many Protestants ignored or actively opposed the holiday. But as it gradually became popular as a family celebration, churches followed their members in making peace with Christmas.

Gradual process

The change didn't happen overnight. Through much of the 19th century, schools and businesses remained open, Congress met in session, and some churches closed their doors, lest errant worshippers try to furtively commemorate the day.

"The whole culture didn't stop for Christmas," said Bruce Forbes, a religious studies professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. "Government went on as usual, business went on as usual, school went on as usual."

In researching his book, "Christmas: A Candid History," Forbes discovered that major American denominations - Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists and Congregationalists - either ignored the holiday or actively discouraged it until the late 19th century.

That rejection was rooted in the lack of biblical sanction for Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus' birth, as well as suspicion toward traditions that developed after the earliest days of Christianity. In colonial New England, this disapproval extended to actually making the holiday illegal, with celebration punishable by a fine.

"Some somehow observe the day," wrote Boston Puritan Samuel Sewall on Christmas Day 1685, "but are vexed, I believe, that the body of people profane it, and blessed be God no authority yet compels them to keep it."

Some 322 years later, Sewall might be surprised to see his congregation - today known as Old South Church - proudly displaying a decorated Christmas tree outside the church.

"We think it's cheerful and seasonal," said Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South, one of America's most venerable congregations, counting among its past worshippers not only Sewall but Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams.

Now part of the United Church of Christ, Old South not only has a Christmas tree, but encourages its 650 or so members to exchange Christmas presents - although the focus is on charitable donations and service, rather than shopping.

"We are the descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims, but we have loosened up a lot since then," Taylor said. "We have changed and adapted and I think that's part of why we haven't died out."

Popular sway

Like Sewall's successors, the mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

Christmas benefited from a 19th century "domestication of religion," said University of Texas history professor Penne Restad, in which faith and family were intertwined in a complementary set of values and beliefs.

Christmas became acceptable as a family-centered holiday, Restad said, once it lost its overtly religious significance.

At the same time, aspects of the holiday like decorated trees and gift-giving became status symbols for an aspirant middle class. When Christmas began its march toward dominance among holidays, it was because of a change in the culture, not theology.

"In America, the saying is that the minister follows the people, the people don't follow the minister," Restad said. "This was more of a sociological change than a religious one. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church."

That's partly why Christians like the United Church of God reject the holiday: They say divine instruction, rather than culture and society, should determine whether the holiday is appropriate.

"It's common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible," said Clyde Kilough, president of the United Church of God, which has branches all over the world. "The theological question is quite simple: Is it acceptable to God for humans to choose to worship him by adopting paganism's most popular celebrations and calling them Christian?"


Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 years, 3 months ago

The best thing to me about Christmas is just having the family together. A few years before my mother died, she stated she wasn't coming to our Christmas Eve gathering, because she didn't have enough money to buy anyone a present. I finally convinced her we didn't want her presents, we wanted her presence.

Richard Heckler 10 years, 3 months ago

I'd say most people celebrate extreme consumerism which is a matter we've avoided since we became parents. One christmas we apparently did not succeed. Several years ago when our son was quite young he started crying and was terribly upset that he received more than the two things he requested.

If folks think certain members of the family deserve a gift why wait until Christmas,Mothers Day,Veterans Day,Valentine's day etc etc? Just do it when you feel like it would seem more genuine. Corporate america is making too many decisions for us.

Do I believe our politicans should take a month or more from work with pay to raise special interest money and campaign? Absolutely not!! They already spend way too much time with that nonsense.

Kontum1972 10 years, 3 months ago

Merrill...u hit the nail on the head...i use to work retail many years ago..and it soured me on the whole thing.

My son age a job...and the other night he asked me what i wanted for christmas....he said "now i have money"....and i told him all i want is for him to grow up and be an Honest caring person and respect others and to stay out of trouble..treat others as you would want to be treated...

that is the best gift....make everyday above ground Christmas

denak 10 years, 3 months ago

I would love to take the high moral ground and condemn the rampant consumerism of Christmas....but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Give me my presents! Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme... Gimmee!!!!!!!!!!

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