Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy Holidays, Bah, Humbug!

During the recent Holiday Season, our brothers and sisters in Christ down the road from the Cathedral at First Baptist in Dallas stirred up some controversy over greetings during Christmas. You may have heard about it. Upset that more and more businesses were using the more politically correct “Happy Holidays” as opposed to the more traditional “Merry Christmas,” the pastor at First Baptist decided to take action. The Church produced on the website a list of the “Bah Humbug Businesses” that used the generic Happy Holiday greeting. They also listed businesses that used the clearer Christian Merry Christmas. They left it up to their members to decide who to patronize, godless materialists, or, well, you get the point.

This action generated the kind of heated discussion that one could predict with all sorts of people chiming in on whether it was appropriate to take such an action. The argument from First Baptist’s perspective seemed to be one of witness, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and of evangelism, there may be some out there who don’t know that Jesus is the reason for the season.
What I found interesting was in a completely different direction.

My grandmother was a Baptist and my earliest exposure to the Christianity was in a Baptist Church thanks to her. Back in those days, as my Grandmother carefully explained to me, Baptists didn’t celebrate December 25th as a special day, neither did they go around bubbling “Merry Christmas.” A little knowledge of History goes a long way in expressing why this was so.

Baptist historically believed, as did most Calvinist, that the tradition of celebrating Christmas on December 25th was a Catholic late innovation that is not justifiable on the basis of Scripture. It should go without saying that nowhere in the Bible is December 25th mentioned as the date of Jesus’ birth. In the reforms generated out of Geneva in the 17th Century, Protestants tried to reform the Church basing all teaching and corporate life “solo scriptura” on the scriptures alone as the authority.

The Calvinist folks in the Church of England were called “Puritans” because they wished to purify the Church from such papal and medieval trappings. Puritans attempted to change the Church from within, but when Anglicans decided to retain certain traditions which seemed godly if not directly provable by scripture, many puritans became disenchanted. In the 1640s, they lead a revolt, indeed a civil war, that led to the execution of the English King. He was replaced by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England. The puritan revolt was also a strongly democratic revolt, but Oliver soon imposed a dictatorial rule over England. It can be argued that England as an Empire with its world dominating navy began under his rule. Under his rule, the Puritan clergy and perspective was given free reign. And one of their first acts was to eliminate and forbid the practice of Christmas. No government officer or official could go around with Merry Christmas on his lips unless he be boiled in his own pudding and have a holly sprig stuck in his heart. Christmas did survive, but mainly among the peasants and poorest of the nation. The civil celebration of Christmas, indeed the very use of the term “Christmas” was eliminated from public life.

They did have a point. The word Christmas, after all, comes from the two words “Christ’s Mass.” Well, with Cromwell’s death, and the brooding negativity and joylessness of Puritans having dominated all life, the English Parliament restored both King and English Church along with all of its elaborate celebrations including Christmas.

Puritans and their descendants including Southern Baptists, however, never relented of their position that Christmas was both papal and even pagan in its origins. Hence, here is the origin of my Grandmother’s position, and the position of most Baptists till about 30 years ago.
Then a historically counter-intuitive thing started to happen. Many younger Baptist clergy noticed that Christmas was still around and, even in its highly commercialized existence, it created an evangelistic opportunity. Consequently, they began holding Christmas Eve services, having living Christmas trees singing carols, and some even instituted pageants retelling the Luke account of the Birth of Jesus, yes with manger, donkeys and all. After all, as the argument went, people might be wrongheaded about Christmas, sentimental to a fault, and Christmas might be commercial to a sinful degree, but people do think about Christmas, celebrate it, so why not squeeze juice out of this lemon and make some evangelistic lemonade? Personally, I think their spiritual mothers and fathers would be stunned by this action which is, after all, a betrayal of all they once fought for. But, hey, I am not a Calvinist and it is not mine to say.

This recent development, however, brings us back to our friends down the street. My question is not whether taking on political correctness was the thing to do. My question is how far they have compromised their own tradition. Now, ironically, First Baptist has become the defenders of saying “Merry Christmas,” by which we commend one another to the celebration of Christ’s Mass on December 25th.

Of course, some of you will want to say that as an Episcopalian I am only mad because Baptists are trying to steal our franchise, and you might be right. However, I still think it worthwhile to point out the ironic contradiction in their actions. There is also something more.

I am happy having folks say Happy Holidays to one another and don’t feel it my duty as a Christian pastor to correct them when they do. There are two reasons for this. First, there are other Holy Days for other religions during this time of year, and I am not comfortable with any group of Christians believing we have the right to force our particular celebration upon non-Christians. Second, there is enough soberness, humbug and mean-spiritedness in our world today. If there is a time of the year when even atheist can join in “Happy Holidays,” and we can join with them in providing toys for needed Children and clothes to keep them warm, then I think the world a bit brighter place for it. After all, isn’t the bottom line of all this that “the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it?” I think this attitude more in the gracious spirit of the person whose birth we Christians remember at this season of the year.

Feliz Navidad,
Dean Kevin