Right about now is when I look up from all of my December busy-ness and try to remember just what it’s all about. Rev. Jane Rzepka, the senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, comes to my rescue, with this selection printed in the December issue of Quest.
celebration, History, holidays, hope, Jane Rzepka, love
The Mystery of Christmas Past
by Rev. Jane Rzepka
The middle of December. I know what it’s like. I know what goes on. The time has come. You bundle up, start the car and drive in the drizzle over to The Mall. You can’t find a parking place. Finally you spot somebody—a fellow walking to his car—and slowly, you follow him as he wanders around the parking lot, drifting from aisle to aisle, lane to lane, until he finally finds his car, fumbles with his packages and car keys, gets in, smokes a cigarette, and vacates the parking space. Why are you in single-minded pursuit of this space? You need this parking space because 2000 years ago, a baby was born in a stable.
The store is crowded. It’s 30% off, plus the 10% off coupon you hope you really did put in your pocket on your way out the door. You purchase the percolator for your mother-in-law even though as it turns out, the 30% off does not apply to “small appliances” and the coupon wasn’t in your pocket after all. You harvest a number of Christmas presents, a baby doll — “Baby Wiggles and Giggles” to be precise — an electronic dart board, a large bottle of rum, a gingerbread house with M&Ms on it, a chain saw, an oversized tin can of caramel and cheese flavored popcorn, and some gift bags with illustrations of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on them. Oh. And an inexpensive Grinch wristwatch for yourself, and a red sweater, too, for those parties coming up.
Why are you buying the reindeer bags and the chain saw and the gingerbread house? You spend your money and your time on percolators and popcorn because—well because once upon a time, it is told, a wrinkled little baby was born to a mother named Mary.
Back in the car, you’re off to buy your Christmas tree. The lot is full of trees. Short trees, tall trees, medium trees. For the life of you, suddenly you just can’t picture the height of your own living room ceiling. You take a guess, drag the tree over to the register and pay for it, and only then wonder how in the world you’ll get the darn thing home. Should have thought of that before. So you borrow some twine, drive the tree home on the roof of the car, wrestle it into the stand, untangle all those lights, exclaim at how many are burned out, and begin the desperate annual training maneuvers for your cat and dog, who never remember the Christmas tree rules from year to year.
Why did you bring a full-fledged spruce into your living room and wind a couple of strings of electric light bulbs around it? You put a tree in your house with lights on it because, you see, 2000 years ago, there was this baby born in a desert town far, far away. And you are celebrating.
Whew. You’re tired. But you keep on going. You roll out the dough, nicely chilled by now, and you cut it into cookie shapes. A bell. A camel. A star. A bow. A snowman. A round Santa Claus. Another camel. Another bell. Over and over again until the dough is warm and sticky and small, even what with all that flour.
At last you sit at the kitchen table and have a drink of eggnog. The holiday music is on: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and a snappy little medley that includes something about three ships, holly and ivy, bells that jingle, and bringing a torch. Why are you baking snowman cookies to further tunes of drumming boys and midnights clear? You are singing and baking because along about 2000 years ago, that baby was born as the animals watched, and this is how you recognize that. Not you literally—you yourself may stay away from malls, Rudolph, and cookie dough. You may celebrate different holidays altogether—but plenty of people do celebrate this way in December.
Do you ever wonder what happened to the good old days, when the connection to Jesus at Christmas was strong, where the horse drew the sleigh, and the tree was trimmed with cranberries and popcorn and simple homemade ornaments? Where you gave an orange as a present, or a hair ribbon? Where you sat by the fire surrounded by a large and loving family, ate your Christmas pudding, and sang “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”? Have you ever wanted to replicate the days gone by when the spiritual meaning of Christmas was first and foremost, and economic indicators were completely unheard of?
I hope not, because those days never existed. When we wax nostalgic about the uncomplicated days when the spiritual aspects of Christmas prevailed, those days before Christmas went commercial, those temperate days when Christmas was religious and pure—we are dreaming—making it all up.
Christmas didn’t really get going in the United States until the mid-eighteen hundreds, and at that point Americans created their own holiday. From the beginning, Christmas celebrations were about merriment and presents and food and songs and cards and getting together and making money and buying frivolous decorations. From the very beginning Americans put together whatever they felt like putting together, and we’ve called that hodgepodge “Christmas.”
So what we have is some people making strudel in celebration of Christmas, and some ordering poinsettias, and some creating a nativity scene in the front yard, and others building a doll house for a grandchild. A few folks send a heap of Christmas cards; some drive around and look at lights, others sing Christmas carols up and down the street. Some eat the cookies that the other people bake—somebody’s got to do it—others take children to visit Santa.
It may be just as important to mention that nobody does everything. I am certain that some among us do not shop for or receive presents. Others don’t bother with cards. I know that there are people who have a terrible sinking feeling that they might get roped into going to the Nutcracker again this year, but usually they get out of it. Many have never ever baked a Christmas cookie. Lots don’t socialize with family—maybe with anybody at all. Plenty of people give up on the Christmas tree, and are quite content to take or leave any number of Christmas customs, or, quite frankly, the whole ball of wax. But still, Christmas is out there, there’s no denying that.
I’m pretty sure that ministers are supposed to be able to observe all the Christmas commotion, to look at popular culture in December—the elves and the manger and the figgy pudding—and discern the true meaning of Christmas. It’s probably in my contract. And nobody thinks that ministers should be allowed to proclaim that the true meaning of Christmas has to do with shopping and partying and decorating and eating. But the horrible truth is, historically speaking, I think that might be it. Reveling, not religious piety, may be our heritage.
Let’s go way back. In the 4th Century, the Roman Church had a problem. Officially, the Church wanted to say that Jesus was God. But a sizable minority, our own direct theological ancestors, the ancient Arians, believed that Jesus was entirely human. The Church was beginning to promote the idea of the Trinity, and we did not go along with it.
The Arians—we—did eventually lose that battle, but along the way we were enough of a threat that the official church felt it politic to throw us a bone, and that bone was to admit that Jesus had at least been born just as a human being is born.
So Jesus got to have a birthday. The actual date, of course, slipped all over the calendar for awhile, until another bone needed to be thrown—this time to the pagans. The pagan celebrations had persisted in spite of the best efforts of the Church, so the Church decided to set the date of Jesus’ birthday celebration during Saturnalia and the winter solstice, when Romans were feasting and reveling anyway. Right at that point, in the early 300s, is when the sacred first tried to interject itself into the annual celebration. But mostly, it didn’t work out. The people wanted to party.
We can follow the Christmas festivities over the centuries up into Scandinavia by the 6th Century, where they fused with the pagan Norse feast season known as Yule; by the 11th Century the celebrating had traveled into England. By the 17th Century, the English were dancing, sporting, card playing, gambling, and feasting on Christmas, and they provided one another with elaborate pageants for further entertainment. To be sure, the Church continued its fervent hope that Christian piety would overtake the profane customs of Christmas. Nonetheless, the true meaning of Christmas persisted, and that true meaning can be summed up in the phrase: “eat, drink, and be merry.”
Now. Enter the Puritan reformers in England, who condemned the Christmas revelers as “hel hounds” in a “Deville’s daunce” of merriment. One Puritan writer asks, “Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety…have we not now degenerated!” He believed that Christmas ought to be “rather a day of mourning than rejoicing,” not a time spent in “amorous mixt, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not pagan, dancing, to God’s, to Christ’s dishonour, religion’s scandal, chastities’ shipwracke and sinne’s advantage.”
Before we know it, the Puritans crossed the ocean and ruled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and sure enough, in 1659, Christmas was outlawed. Cotton Mather said, “Can you in your consciences think that our holy saviour is honored by mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude revelling …? Shall it be said that at the birth of our Saviour…we take the time to please the hellish legions and to do actions that have much more of hell than of heaven in them?” In the U.S., the Christmas celebrations got off to a slow start.
Time goes by. People from all over Europe show up in America with their Christmas customs. The picture isn’t pretty, though, the way it plays out. On Christmas, young rowdies took to the streets and went “wassailing,” that is to say they laid siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food in a menacing game of trick or treat. In Boston, first the Universalists, then the Unitarians, opened their church doors on Christmas in the hope of calming things down, but that experiment failed.
In the mid-eighteen hundreds, American culture changed. We had roads and railroads, a national mail system, magazines, and city life. People longed for the simple life, they were impatient with the street reveling on Christmas, so they inadvertently invented a new kind of Christmas: “innovative nostalgia,” one scholar calls it. Christmas trees—not that you cut down in the woods, but that you bought in town. Christmas dinner. Stores opened ‘til midnight for shopping. Store-bought Christmas cards with the message printed right on them. Carols, hot off the press, that sounded traditional. Store-bought Christmas tree ornaments. Santa Claus gets invented. Magazines publish articles on how to prepare a so-called “traditional Christmas.” Churches begin to want a piece of the action—even they begin to decorate for Christmas.
Unitarians got into the act: Charles Dickens, a Unitarian in England, wrote A Christmas Carol. Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” the first carol with a social-ethical message, unheard of at the time. “Peace on earth and good will,” people said, “just the sort of thing you would expect from a Unitarian.”
The list of Unitarian contributions goes on and on: John Bowring wrote “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Charles Follen, the minister in East Lexington, Massachusetts, introduced the Christmas tree to New England, and James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells.”
The point is, all along, people have invented their Christmas. We have established what we need to establish to get through the winter. There’s no way for any of us to do Christmas “right.” We don’t have to do all of Christmas. We don’t have to worry that by enjoying our friends and families, or by decorating and buying and baking, we’re missing out on the true meaning of Christmas. We don’t have to worry that somehow we’ve lost the spiritual essence of Christmas, because Christmas never had a pre-packaged spiritual essence in the first place—we develop that ourselves.
For each one of us, the Christmas we have is the Christmas we choose: the quiet holiday alone with the candle and the passage from Luke, the crazy bustle where you travel a lot of miles and enter the chaos of feasting with family or friends, the Christmas volunteering at a shelter, the Christmas with little children, the Christmas ignored—or so decked out that even the dog wears a big red bow. We keep the customs; we
create the heritage.
Why do we buy the gigantic can of caramel popcorn and the percolator and “Baby Wiggles and Giggles”? Because coffee and popcorn and baby dolls could make a loved one happy. And love can be a part of Christmas.
Why do we install a Christmas tree in an apartment that’s already too small, decorated with this and that and lights all around? Because it’s pretty and fun and the tree lights the darkness. And lighting the darkness can be a part of Christmas.
Why do we knock ourselves out baking cookies in the shapes of stars and singing carols that highlight new baby life and peace and joy? Because we love to hope, and hope can be a part of Christmas.
Love, light, and hope. A fine Christmas indeed.