Every year at this time, Roman Catholics and liturgical Protestants (especially Episcopalians and Lutherans, but also some Presbyterians, Methodists and others) observe the liturgical season of Advent, as Christians have done since about the 5th century AD. Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), just as Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter). Just as with Lent, Advent is not the time of celebration. And just as with Lent, the observance of Advent gives the holy day for which it prepares its observers the importance it deserves as a major feast day of the Christian year.
Meanwhile, most other Protestants–virtually all Evangelical ones, but more than a few Mainline ones as well–celebrate the secular ” holiday season” or “shopping season” along with the non-religious. These Christians call the season they celebrate the “Christmas season,” but it’s not. Along with those who make no claim to be Christians, this ” holiday season” begins for these Christians the day after Thanksgiving. If their tree is not up before the first day of December, they feel they’re starting too late. The whole month is a flurry of activity: parties, food, and shopping. Lots and lots of shopping. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are “family time.” (“Why on earth would we go to church on Christmas?”) By about 11:00 a.m. on December 25th, it’s all over. The tree comes down that day (or on the 26th), the unwanted gifts go back to the store, and ” normal” life resumes. Meanwhile, their liturgical friends are just beginning to celebrate Christmas and will do so through January 6.
So, what happened? Why the disparity? Why do so many Christians go straight to celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving without a thought to the spiritual preparation time known as Advent? Why do they see Christmas as a one-day, gift-opening blowout rather than a twelve-day Feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God? Why do most Protestants celebrate Christmas in a decidedly non-Christian way, no differently from those who profess no religion whatsoever?
Well, we come by it honestly. Read on:
At the time of the Reformation the Reformers (including Luther, Bucer, and Calvin–YES even Calvin) knew that the rhythm of the “great evangelical feasts” (such as Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) was a heritage of the early church, and they treated it as such (see the Second Helvetic Confession, for example). Unfortunately, many of their followers, especially in later generations, were not the students of history that the Reformers were. Ignorant of this common history of the whole church, many Protestants removed from their churches anything that, to them, smacked of “Romanism,” including the Church Year. Some of the Puritans, in fact, objected even to saying the Lord’s Prayer because the “Papists” said it too.
Most American Evangelicals today trace their lineage to those groups who jettisoned the Church Year back in the 17th Century for being too “Romish.” Christmas, for example, was decidedly just a “Catholic thing” in the early days of the United States. It was not an official holiday in any of the States until Alabama declared it to be so in 1836. Other States gradually followed suit, but it was by no means unanimous. Oklahoma, for example, did not make Christmas an official holiday until 1907. Even after Christmas was a holiday in most of the States, most Protestants didn’t do much with it, still considering it to be a “Catholic thing.” Slowly, they began to celebrate it more, but not because they studied their history and got in touch with their Christian roots. Instead, they began to make more of Christmas as retailers began to make more of Christmas. The growth of Christmas as a holiday among American Protestants (with the exception of the Anglicans and Lutherans) coincided with the growth of the commercialism of Christmas. They celebrated Christmas because it was good for America. After all, being a good American = being a good Christian, right? (This is the same type of thinking that led many churches to abandon the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper during Prohibition, even though the law made an exception for Communion wine. It was more important to many Protestants to be good Americans.)
American Protestants owe far more to Macy’s than to church history when it comes to Christmas. In 1862, Macy’s was the first store to have a Santa Claus for children to visit. In 1870, Macy’s was the first store to stay open until midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1924, Macy’s staged its first-ever Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is actually a Christmas parade. It was this parade that single-handedly introduced the idea that the day after Thanksgiving begins the “Christmas shopping season.” Macy’s, not church history, planted that idea in the heads of American Protestants, and it has taken root in a big way.
After Vatican II (1962-65), many Protestants began to investigate the common history they share with the universal church, and a liturgical renewal movement began in earnest. Among Presbyterians, the first major result of this renewal was The Worshipbook (1970), which helped reintroduce the beauty of the Church Year to many. The Book of Common Worship (1993) is a further development of this movement. Through the liturgical renewal movement, more and more Protestants have discovered how the Christian church has celebrated Christmas and other holy days throughout history, enjoying being a part of a tradition that is much deeper, much broader, and much more meaningful than they ever imagined.
Sadly, many Christians still refuse to accept that they could possibly learn anything from other groups of believers. They act as if their churches sprang from the ground fully-formed and have no spiritual heritage. It’s time to repent of that particular kind of arrogance.