December 25, 2011

"Maria would please me muchly by denying herself the Christmas frolic because it’s a fool’s day."

So wrote Jonathan Blanchard, president of Knox College, in 1858, in a letter to his wife Mary, as noted by Paddy O in the comments. Paddy O also says:
Back in the 1800s... very conservative Christians assumed that Christmas was in fact a pagan holiday and would not celebrate it.

The founder and first president of my very Evangelical college, Jonathan Blanchard, did not even want to cancel classes on that day....

Yet, Christian ritual is by its very nature adaptive. Unlike in the Torah, there's no liturgical prescriptions, so Christians are able to adapt within a culture, honoring their savior in culturally imbued ways. For our culture, a day of birth is the day we honor especially those we value. So, to honor the day of Christ's birth is to honor this man, to honor indeed the incarnation itself, making it a theological statement.
Following this analysis, we should approve of the early Christians who fell into the celebration of the Feast of the Sol Invictus. Right?
There's also an issue of theology and culture involved. Do Christians hide from the culture or do they interact with it? How do they interact with it? I very much like the transformative approach, shining light on a culture through culturally understood celebrations. 
I think your answer to my question needs to be yes. It's the old question of whether religions need to be kept pure and, if so, what counts as pure. Paddy goes on to stress "goodness, love, community, giving, peace, joy," so perhaps he would lean toward purity but define what is within that circle of purity to include a set of virtues that are not limited to Christianity or even to religion.
We celebrate that we are to be good, to live at peace, to sing and laugh and hope together. Christmas, much more than Valentine's Day, is really a celebration of the deepest reality of love. We wish each other love on this day, not sentimentality or cheap romance or egotistical lust, but actual deep, fulfilling, holistic love.

May your day be merry and full of life, full of love. On this day may we taste that fullness of love that is at the heart of God's work in this world, sending his son, to us, for us, with us, among us, seeking us out, because God first loved us.


Sorun said...

Islamists in Nigeria are acknowledging the religious significance of this day by bombing Christian churches.

Pete said...

Merry Christmas, Althouse.

Fr Martin Fox said...

The Roman celebration of "Sol Invictus" was a late development, about the time of Julian the Apostate; Christians did not react to it. If anything, Sol Invictus was created to try to draw folks back to the old ways.

Contrary to what many believe, the date of Christmas is not arbitrary. While there is no definitive argument for our Lord being born on December 25, there are many good reasons for that date being celebrated. It was not, as many claim, an attempt to "baptize" a pagan celebration.

That projects our mindset backward; the early Christians were very zealous against syncretism; remember, many in their ranks were Jews, and the phenomenon of the zealous new convert is not a new one.

Felix Dies Nativitates!

Paco Wové said...

"Islamist militant group Boko Haram said it planted bombs that exploded on Christmas Day at churches in Nigeria, one of which killed at least 27 people on the outskirts of the capital."

"Boko Haram, which wants to impose Islamic sharia law across the country split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims, has escalated its tactics this year and increased the sophistication of the explosives it uses."

Wasn't somebody arguing just a few days ago that "there was no such thing as sharia"? Better get on the phone and straighten out Reuters, stat!

madAsHell said...

Merry Christmas!

Gifts for the children. Too much wine, and food. A little guilt for your blessings. Throw in some family dysfunction.

What's not to love??

Bonus! The days start getting longer!

Bender said...

very conservative Christians assumed that Christmas was in fact a pagan holiday

That is, very conservative Christians assumed that Christmas was in fact a Catholic holiday.

It is a case of little more than anti-Catholic bigotry -- the theology of which is, "if the Catholics are for it, then we are against it."

As for Rev. Brian D. Blacker, his reference to "Bishop Liberius of Rome" is a dead giveaway to his own anti-Catholic perspective. In fact, celebrating anniversaries of events, e.g THE CRUCIFIXION and RESURRECTION, as well as the deaths of early martyrs who had been killed for the Faith, was a common, everyday experience.

PatCA said...

Well said Paddy O.

Merry Christmas to all!

DADvocate said...

I'm with PaddyO on the purity. It's the values and ideals that matter most.

When I was an alter boy in the mid 1960s, Mass was said in Latin, of which I had memorized in its entirety for all the various masses with only knowing what a fraction of it meant. Vatican II granted permission to celebrate most of the Mass in vernacular languages. The church adapted, albeit rather slowly.

The Crack Emcee said...

Merry Christmas, Y'all!!!

Bob_R said...

Christmas as celebrated in the US is a great mashup. It would be extremely foolish to spoil any part of it by an excess of purity. The pagan connections are obvious (however much planning and intention went into cultivating them.) The pagan themes of rebirth, light in the darkness, blood on the snow harmonize with the Christian themes. The pagan part of the festival is a very positive low common denominator that can be shared by non Christians and widely divergent Christian churches. I'm actively involved with my church and get plenty of religion there. I have no problem walking out of church into a joyous pagan, commercial party that can be shared with a wider world. Merry Christmas!

gbarto said...

Going by memory, I can recall Jesus prescribing two rituals: The Lord's Prayer and the Communion. And he often warned against letting your celebrations be for the sake of public display, not private spirituality.

I think the big thing, though, is that a very large portion of what we have from Jesus as recorded in the Gospels in his telling of parables. Some of those parables even took Jewish law and recast it in a new, more metaphorical way. So it would seem to me that a big characteristic of Christianity is taking the world you see and finding meaning where you can so that we may remember to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. An awful lot of what we see this time of year fits that bill. Merry Christmas everybody.

edutcher said...

Not doing Christmas was a Puritan thing.

In the 1840s, we started making it fun, using a lot of English and German customs.

Must have been all those Catholics illegally entering the country.

Skipweasel said...

"Yet, Christian ritual is by its very nature adaptive. Unlike in the Torah, there's no liturgical prescriptions, so Christians are able to adapt within a culture, honoring their savior in culturally imbued ways."
So, he's saying that they're free to make it up as they go along? Where do you draw the line between making up how you celebrate something and making up the rest of the whole tottering edifice? As an atheist (of the sort who doesn't usually enter into debates of this sort) I can't help thinking of the story about building your house on rock and not sand. From where unbelievers stand, outside the house as it were, the whole thing appears to be built on the shakiest of foundations: the basic tenet of faith without proof. That one brick holds everything else up - without it, everything falls.
If you start making up bits (more bits, it seems to athiests), how do you know when to stop?

Anonymous said...

American Puritans didn't celebrate Christmas because it was associated with drunkenness, general revelry and pranks by the lower orders in England.

"the holiday was more of a raucous festival and included demands for tribute from the wealthy by roaming bands of lower-class extortionists."

Levi Starks said...

Try the "we don't celebrate Christmas because it's passed on pagan celebrations" argument with elementary school aged kids and see how far it gets you.

Kelly said...

Conservative is the wrong adjective here. What you mean to say is Protestant-from-the-Puritan-heritage Christians didn't celebrate Christmas. The Carholic, Orthodox and Lurterans have never had a problem with it and once America had a large influx of German Lutherans and Catholic Irish and they saw how much fun they were having then they decided celebrating Christmas would be a great way to distract themselves from the recent Civil War and move on into a great commercial future.

The Crack Emcee said...

I ain't denying shit:

Jesus Would Approve (It's A Birthday PARTY! Right?)

gail said...

Fr Martin Fox said @9:46am:

"Contrary to what many believe, the date of Christmas is not arbitrary. While there is no definitive argument for our Lord being born on December 25, there are many good reasons for that date being celebrated."
Not arbitrary, but no definitive argument for the 25th, but good reasons.

Could you please explain some of those reasons? I'm not Catholic, but I've heard for a long time the 25th was chosen as an alternative to whatever pagan celebration.


Steven said...

Following up on Fr. Martin Fox's comments, the selection of the date of Christmas is a topic covered in the book "Behold your Mother" by Mark Shea. Shea argues that there was a widespread Jewish belief that the Israelite prophets died on the same day of the month as they were born. Early Christians argued over the date of the crucifixion, either March 25 or April 6. Depending on which date you picked for Easter thus determined which day you celebrated the birth.

The month of the birth was selected by a complicated calculation about the temple service of the father of John the Baptist and the overlapping pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary. That calculation results in the selection of the December/January timeframe for the birth. So either December 25 or January 6. (Note that these correspond to the current dates for celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, and account for the 12 days of Christmas.)

My short summary of this argument does not do justice to Mark Shea. You can read his own summary from his book at his blog here:

gail said...

Thanks Steven for responding. I had a hard time finding the article you referrenced, but when I did I ended up searching "integral age", and found this article.

And in case I haven't figured out how to link:

Somewhat detailed article, but it looks at the differences between the Eastern and Western churches too.

Unknown said...

What an odd quote to come across on Christmas. Jonathan Blanchard was my maternal grandfather's maternal grandfather, a firebrand abolitionist who had bricks thrown at him when he went down South to preach against the sin of slavery. He didn't like booze either, or secret societies... A highly principled man by all accounts and probably not a lot of fun to be around, I've always thought.

I actually own some of his stuff, including a gold-topped walking stick and a wallet that belonged to his wife. It contains--heartbreakingly I find, every time I see it--a folded piece of coated paper containing a lock of fine blond hair and inscribed "Dear Williston's hair, died Galesburg aged 7 years & 9 months."

Steven said...

Part of the link I tried to post got cut off. I will try again to link to the article by Mark Shea on how the date for Christmas was selected:

Steven said...

For some reason the comment feature keeps cutting off the last part of the link. After the last slash it should read 14618.html

Here is the whole one again:

I don't know why it cuts off the web address.

Steven said...

OK. Perhaps the link is too long. I will try posting it without the http://

Paddy O said...

"So, he's saying that they're free to make it up as they go along?"

No. Well, in a way. There are emphases Scripture does mention, as well as rites. But even early documents like the Didache show flexibility about even the most important. Days to celebrate, feasts to honor, fasts to observe, were pretty flexible as well, hardening only later, but changing in different cultures.

So there are guidelines and theological priorities (love God, love neighbor), but flexible for what it means in practices.

And what a lovely surprise to see my comment featured. Means a lot to me. Thanks and Merry Christmas!

Perezoso said...
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