Conservative evangelical Christians have generally been keen advocates of the fashionable marketing campaign to “keep Christ in Christmas” and protect the standard non secular which means of the vacation.
There’s one main downside with this marketing campaign: The unique non secular message behind the American Christmas was not evangelical in any respect.
As an alternative, it was the creation of Unitarians, Episcopalians, and different liberal Protestants who had little curiosity in a number of key tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.
These of us who’re evangelical in our religion can nonetheless have a merry Christmas. But when we wish to accomplish that in a approach that foregrounds the gospel, we might have to find a brand new method to the vacation that does greater than merely protect the outdated.
Right here’s the story.
Among the many Seventeenth- and 18th-century American colonists, the Christians who most carefully resembled fashionable evangelicals uniformly refused to rejoice Christmas. The New England Puritans have been strong opponents of Christmas, not solely due to its connections with Roman Catholicism but in addition as a result of, in Seventeenth-century England, it had change into a day identified extra for extreme consuming and gaming than for any non secular observance.
Even in the beginning of the Nineteenth century, lengthy after the Puritan non secular fervor had largely dissipated in New England, Congregationalists within the area continued the Puritan apply of not observing Christmas of their properties or their church buildings. Massachusetts, which within the Puritan period punished those that dared to rejoice Christmas, did not recognize it as a state vacation till 1855.
Although maybe barely much less hostile to Christmas than the Puritans, the main American evangelical denominations of the late 18th and early Nineteenth century likewise confirmed little interest in the vacation. Baptist, Methodist, and particularly Presbyterian church buildings of the early Nineteenth century shunned the thought of Christmas companies.
It was subsequently left to the Episcopalians to rejoice Christmas—which they proudly did. Within the South, they celebrated the identical approach they did most holidays: by consuming copious quantities of alcohol and taking pictures weapons. And within the Northeast, they did so by going to church.
As Penne Restad describes in Christmas in America: A History, early Nineteenth-century New England Congregationalist youngsters whose mother and father ignored Christmas marveled when the Episcopalians of their cities wrapped their church buildings in garlands of greenery and gathered to sing on Christmas morning. A few of them expressed a eager for slightly of this Christmas cheer. The craving grew to become extra acute when German Lutheran immigrants introduced new Christmas traditions to America—particularly the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
At that second, anti-Calvinists within the Northeast determined the time was proper to convey some Christmas jollity into their communities whereas avoiding the extreme consuming and loud revelry of vacation celebration elsewhere. It was time, in different phrases, to invent a brand new, family-friendly, explicitly non secular custom—however in ways in which Calvinists and different evangelicals wouldn’t have essentially discovered reassuring.
Almost all of the promoters of Christmas within the early Nineteenth century have been Episcopalians or Unitarians who noticed within the vacation an antidote to the allegedly dour Congregationalism they recognized with Puritan Calvinism. The blessings of Christmas, they thought, have to be common, simply as they believed God’s supply of salvation was. And Christmas have to be a time of pleasure, not a second to replicate on the sinful situation of humanity.
Some American promoters of Christmas have been influenced by the favored British writer Charles Dickens, whose story A Christmas Carol portrayed the vacation as a time when the cantankerous, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge found the enjoyment of generosity.
Dickens, who was raised a nominal Anglican however joined a Unitarian chapel as an adult, believed within the humanitarian teachings of Jesus. He used his fiction to advertise the thought of Christmas as a day for all individuals to observe their higher impulses, change into rather less egocentric, and undertake a charitable disposition towards all.
Unitarians, among the most anti-Calvinist of the early Nineteenth-century Protestants, have been optimists about the potential for ethical reform by means of human effort. They envisioned Christmas as a day that may unite Christians throughout the theological spectrum and encourage loving attitudes that may enhance society.
In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge experiences what quantities to a Unitarian Christmas conversion: He turns into a greater man. If Jesus is important for such a conversion, he’s wanted solely as an inspiring ethical instance of human risk, not as an atoning savior.
Unitarians, in spite of everything, didn’t settle for the thought of substitutionary atonement, and so they likewise rejected the thought of Jesus’ divinity and all elements of Trinitarian theology. But many grew to become passionate advocates of Christmas within the mid-Nineteenth century as a result of they noticed within the vacation a narrative of God’s love for the world and the optimistic hope of common human brotherhood.
One of the best-known Nineteenth-century Christmas hymns penned by Unitarians have change into beloved classics as a result of they enchantment to our eager for a world of affection, magnificence, peace, and justice.
“O Holy Night,” translated from the French into English by the liberal Massachusetts Unitarian and antislavery advocate John Sullivan Dwight in 1855, honors Jesus as an awesome trainer of social ethics and emancipation—a preferred theme amongst New England abolitionists within the years main as much as the Civil Conflict.
Likewise, one other Nineteenth-century New England Unitarian Christmas hymn, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” expresses optimism within the midst of the Civil Conflict that God’s peace and righteousness will finally prevail.
Christmas hymns penned by Nineteenth-century Episcopalians gave a lot higher recognition to Jesus’ divinity and saving energy than Unitarian carols did. However moderately than spotlight Jesus’s saving work on the cross (as evangelicals needed), they introduced a extra peaceable, quiet picture of the sleeping Jesus who may very well be encountered by means of tranquil contemplation.
This was the message of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written by Boston Episcopal rector Phillips Brooks in 1868, and “Silent Night,” which was translated into English by a New York Episcopal minister in 1859.
In contrast, early Nineteenth-century evangelical Protestant hymnals had targeted much more consideration on the atoning dying of Jesus than on his delivery. And the few hymns that did contact on his delivery—reminiscent of Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—gave in depth remedy to Christ’s saving mission, his kingship, and the “second delivery” that he would convey to humanity.
But within the late Nineteenth century, many evangelicals who had not celebrated Christmas of their church buildings started singing the Episcopal Christmas hymns as eagerly as anybody else. By 1870, when Christmas formally became a federal holiday in america, Protestant church buildings throughout the theological spectrum noticed the day with a minimum of a Christmas sermon—if not a whole Christmas service.
With out realizing it, then, many evangelicals absorbed a lot of the theology of the Nineteenth-century Unitarians and Episcopalians as a result of it pervaded a lot of the conventional hymns and Christmas readings they’d come to adore.
But over the course of the Twentieth century, the “Christmas spirit” grew to become more and more separated from the historic Jesus in American public life.
Within the mid-Nineteenth century, even the Unitarians affirmed the teachings of the historic Jesus and believed they might result in a happier, extra emancipated society. However by the mid-Twentieth century, some public figures who welcomed the possibility to speak concerning the “Christmas spirit” shied away from any particular invocation of Jesus.
In quite a few Christmas messages, for instance, US presidents echoed the phrase “peace on earth and good will to men.” Nevertheless it was usually separated utterly from any point out of Jesus Christ.
In the present day, even the oldest People can’t bear in mind a time when public expressions of “Merry Christmas” have been grounded in something extra substantive than an ahistorical, vaguely Unitarian want for a common “Christmas spirit” of peace and goodwill.
Evangelicals who imagine within the gospel of the Incarnation can’t subsequently discover a lot consolation in public campaigns to exchange “Completely satisfied Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” or arrange creches within the city sq.. What we’d like shouldn’t be a return to the Nineteen Fifties and even the Victorian period however moderately a restoration of surprise on the incarnate God coming to earth within the type of a child so as to save humanity.
For higher or worse, evangelical Christians didn’t play a lot of a job in creating American Christmas, and in consequence, the type of the vacation wasn’t very evangelical. However that’s okay, as a result of it factors to the gospel anyway—not by what it says however by what it’s lacking.
The Nineteenth-century Unitarians who needed Christmas as a result of they longed for higher social relations have been proper to earnestly need this facet of the dominion of God. However as evangelicals know, for this to work, individuals want a Jesus who was simply as divine as he was human, and so they want his atoning dying.
The Victorian Episcopalians who grew to become sentimental of their reflection on the sleeping Christ little one have been proper to bow their knee to the child within the manger. However possibly the night time when he entered a world of ache and sin was lots much less silent than they imagined.
And the Twentieth-century liberal Protestants who tried to enchantment to a common “Christmas spirit” have been proper concerning the invisible energy at work on that day. However possibly it may very well be higher recognized because the Holy Spirit moderately than as some common human beneficence that would save the world aside from Jesus.
This Christmas, believers within the gospel will collect collectively. They’ll marvel on the incarnate Son of God, whose entry into the world made attainable the “Christmas spirit” that quite a few individuals throughout the theological spectrum have longed for.
However Christ’s delivery marks greater than a humanitarian challenge or a sentimental story. It’s concerning the final divine present to a sinful world—a world that within the Nineteenth century, as within the first and the twenty first centuries, comprehended it not.
Daniel Ok. Williams is a professor of historical past on the College of West Georgia and the writer of Defenders of the Unborn: The Professional-Life Motion Earlier than Roe v. Wade.