A Puritan Christmas, Anyone?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 11, 2011

Matthew 3:1-12

When I am questioned about my theology, I sometimes label myself as a liberal New England Congregationalist.  Because that is really where I am, in practice and liturgically, at least.  As you may already be aware, New England Congregationalists trace their roots back to the Plymouth Pilgrims, whom we celebrate as giving us the original Thanksgiving holiday.  But New England Congregationalists also trace their roots to the New England Puritans.  With that having been said, I must confess that there are some things about the Puritans that I really don’t like very much.  Including their attitude toward Christmas celebrations.  Because the truth is, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas—at all.  It has been stated that the Puritans didn’t “celebrate” much of anything, but they were particularly firm about not celebrating Christmas.  Many of the Puritans came from England and Scotland.  In Scotland, reformer John Knox put an end to Christmas in 1562.  In England the observance of Christmas was forbidden by an act of Parliament in 1644.  When Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector, Puritans declared Christmas to be “an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.” So the House of Commons sat on Christmas day and sheriffs were sent out to require merchants to open for business.  Pro-and anti-Christmas factions rioted.

The Puritans who came to America by and large brought with them their disdain for Christmas celebrations.  The celebration of Christmas was made a crime in Massachusetts in 1659, and the Massachusetts’s Puritans for a time fined anyone caught observing the holiday. Connecticut also enacted a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas, and even baking a mincemeat pie was forbidden!

But it may be somewhat of a shock to learn that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most Pennsylvanians did not celebrate Christmas either.  Pennsylvania’s Puritans and those with Puritan sympathies—which included the Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, as well as the Mennonites and some other groups who were Puritans in spirit—shared New England’s aversion to paying a special honor to the 25th of December.  As late as 1874, Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most prominent preacher at the time, said, “To me, Christmas is a foreign day.”   Because of the Puritan influence, the festive aspects of Christmas, including the tree, were not accepted in New England until about 1875.

Why were the Puritans so dead set against Christmas celebrations?  Well, there are at least two factors that led to their reasoning.  The first had to do with the low point to which Christmas celebrations had sunk.  In “Merrie England,” from the 11th to the 17th century, Christmas had become increasingly the great festival of the year with observance from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night (January 6). It had become a rollicking good time in which drinking, reveling, and so on prevailed.  So the wild license of these celebrations, with no semblance of the inner vision and true meaning of Christmas, came under the disfavor of the Puritans.

And then another reason the Puritans objected to Christmas celebrations had to do with the origin of the date of Christmas and many of the customs that accompany it.  No one really knows when Jesus was born.  The early Church Fathers established the holiday around a pagan celebration, perhaps for easy remembrance by the poor but also to try to replace the pagan holiday with the Christian one.  Set during the winter solstice when days grow dark early, Christmas coincides with the Roman holiday Saturnalia.  December 25 marks the celebration of the birthday of the Unconquered Sun by the Romans.  And such customs as the Yule log, use of some evergreens, mistletoe, and so forth were adopted from pagan religion.  Puritans believed these customs were inappropriate for the celebration of Christ’s birth.  And so, for these reasons Puritans chose not to celebrate Christmas.  Well, so far there hasn’t been much good news, has there?  But hold that thought; we’ll come back to it.

In turning to today’s gospel reading, I am inclined to believe that John the Baptist might have been right at home with the Puritans.  In fact, we might even say that the Baptist was a forerunner of the Puritans.  For like the Puritans, John had that separatist Puritan spirit.  John separated himself by living and preaching out in the wilderness.  He was unique in his dress and his diet.  Like the Puritans, John lived a simple and austere life.  Like the Puritans, John called for a radical reorientation of life.  John preached that we must get rid of the things in our lives that are not in keeping with the way of God.  Like the Puritan movement, John’s movement was quite significant.  John’s movement continued long after the death of Jesus and well into the early decades of the Christian community.  In fact, at times John’s movement competed with the Jesus movement.  And like the Puritans, I don’t believe John would have gone for excessive feasting and celebration in the name of religion.  Yes, John was a “Puritan” at heart.  And as such, I suspect that had he lived 1600 years later, he would have felt right at home with the Puritans in disdaining many of the customs and celebrations surrounding the birth of Jesus.

It is easy to conjecture what John and the Puritans would have to say about some of the ways that Americans celebrate Christmas today.  They probably would roll over in their graves.  Angry, cursing drivers circling like vultures in shopping mall parking lots in an effort to beat other angry, cursing drivers to the next empty parking spot.  Thoughtless shoppers trampling over other fallen shoppers to get in the door for the early morning Black Friday “door buster specials.”  Putting ourselves in massive credit card debt in order look good in the gifts we give.  Attending Christmas parties where so much drinking takes place that innocent lives are taken by drunken drivers afterwards.   Making gluttons of ourselves around holiday tables so that we have to diet the next 11 months. These are just a few of the common ways that Christmas is sometimes celebrated today.  (I probably have gone from preaching to meddling, right?)  But I am sure that John and the Puritans would have something to say to us about such “Christmas celebrations.”

Well, I don’t think that any of us want to go to the extremes of the Puritans in completely doing away with our Christmas celebrations.  After all, all of us love to eat good Christmas food and receive nice gifts and enjoy beautiful Christmas decorations like we have in our Chapel and you probably have in your home.  But perhaps there are lessons to be learned from John and the Puritans.  And there must be a good middle ground, an acceptable balance when it comes to Christmas celebrations.  Everything in moderation, as they say.

We do well to remember that Christmas is about a reorientation of life, a “life change.”  As Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates John’s message, “What counts is your life.  Is it green and blossoming?” (Mt. 3:10).  Christmas is about living our lives in response to the birth of one called Emmanuel, “God with us.”   Christmas is about sharing love and forgiveness.  It is about giving to the poor and it is about social justice.  It is about kindness and nurturing loving relationships with others.  Christmas is about being peacemakers in the name of the Prince of Peace.  And life in general should be about moderation in all things.  It is good to enjoy good food and drink and to give and receive gifts with our loved ones and to decorate our church and homes.   But we do well to do so in moderation and not go to extremes in eating, drinking, partying, or spending.  And finally, I don’t think it really matters on which day we celebrate the birth of Jesus or what ancient, borrowed customs we use, as long as we celebrate in the proper spirit.  Borrowing customs from other religions has been the way with Judaism and Christianity from the beginning.  That’s okay.  It is important to think about and teach our children why we are celebrating the holiday and the Christian meaning we attach to the symbols we use to do so.

As we think about all these things and how we will celebrate Christmas this year, we can draw some real wisdom from a great philosopher—Charlie Brown.  I think the Puritans would concur.  In the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, right after Linus reads Luke’s Christmas story in the children’s Christmas pageant, he tells Charlie Brown, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  And Charlie Brown says to himself, “Linus is right; I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.”  Christmas is not about commercialism or going to extremes.  It is about something much more, something much deeper. The Puritans may have missed the mark in some ways.  But they had it right in some respects, at least.  Amen. 

Note: Some introductory material about the Puritans was gleaned from various Internet sites.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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