by George Clifford
During the winter of 1926, Chicagoan Thelma Goldstein treated herself to her first real vacation, taking a trip to Florida. Being unfamiliar with south Florida, she wandered into a restricted hotel in North Miami.
“Excuse me,” she said to the manager. “My name is Mrs. Goldstein, and I’d like a small room for two weeks.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” he replied, “but all of our rooms are occupied.” Just as he said that, a man came down and checked out.
“What luck,” said Mrs. Goldstein. “Now there’s a room.”
“Not so fast, Madam. I’m sorry, but this hotel is restricted. No Jews allowed.”
“Jewish? Who’s Jewish? I happen to be Catholic.”
“I find that hard to believe. Let me ask you, who was the Son of God?”
“Jesus, Son of Mary.”
“Where was he born?”
“In a stable.”
“And why was he born in a stable?”
“Because a schmuck like you wouldn’t let a Jew rent a room in his hotel!”
Seventeenth century Puritans emigrated from England to Massachusetts so that they could worship according to their beliefs. Among other issues, the Puritans objected to Christmas. They pointed to the Bible’s silence about the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Celebrating his birth on December 25 began in the 4th century; Clement of Alexandria, whose second century writings include the first mention of a specific date for Jesus’ birth, lists five different dates on which Christians then commemorated Jesus’ birth. Obviously, nobody knew the actual date.
The Puritans also objected to the Church celebrating Jesus’ birth on a pagan feast linked to the winter solstice. They denounced the bacchanalian festivities then associated with Christmas, including drunken carolers carousing through communities and demanding gifts from the wealthy, as thinly veiled paganism.
Even the very word Christmas offended Puritans because it literally denotes Christ’s mass. The Puritans rejected the mass as a Roman perversion of the Lord’s Supper. So they outlawed Christmas.
Thank God, Episcopalians are Anglicans and not Puritans! Unlike the Puritans, we’re confident that God wants us to joyfully celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth.
Celebrations require a date. Not only does no one know the day of Jesus’ birth, scholars even debate the year of his birth, proposing dates between 7 BC and 4 AD. But Jesus was born. Celebrating his birth on December 25 is a convenient tradition. The mystery surrounding the actual date helpfully reminds us of God’s holiness, i.e., the mysterious, life-giving Creator who transcends the finite, created world we inhabit. In the words of 19th century poet Christina Rosetti,
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Casual observers might conclude that many Americans regard Christmas as an excuse for consumer excesses in Santa’s name – modern paganism – rather than as a religious observance of Jesus’ birth. A Turkish bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra, was the original Santa. After several European refractions, the poetry of Clement Clarke Moore crystallized the popular image of Santa. The son of New York’s second Episcopal bishop, Moore donated the land for the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and taught Biblical literature there. In 1822, Moore wrote “T’was the Night before Christmas.” His poem memorably depicted a sled with eight reindeer driven by a plump, jolly, old man who entered by a chimney and carried a bag of toys.
Meanwhile, in Spain’s northeastern corner, Catalonians follow a set of Christmas traditions that exclude Santa Claus. Instead, a royal mail carrier appears in December to learn what gifts children want. Then, on January 6, Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas, a sailing ship arrives bearing three kings with gifts.
Adopting Christianized pagan customs offers reassurance that God really can transform a broken, hurting, sinful, dying person into a whole, healed, forgiven, abundantly alive child of God. Trees, wreaths, Santas, Nativity sets, cards, greetings, and even people – God can transform them all. Furthermore, God has chosen diversity over homogenization. There’s room at the manger for young and old, male and female, straight and gay, every race, every nationality, and even the schmuck who told Mary and Joseph there was no room in the inn.
Sadly, like Mary – heavily pregnant, weary, and far from home – many people find Christmas emotionally difficult. Suicides, however, actually peak post-Christmas. People, inundated with an unrelenting and persuasive torrent of advertising, expect great things from Christmas: an easing of their depression, restoration of shattered relationships, and solutions to lots of other problems. When Christmas fails to satisfy those high expectations, people lose hope and sink further into caves that have no light and no hope.
Some years ago, a friend’s mother died unexpectedly; her funeral was scheduled for Christmas Eve in Jacksonville, Florida. My friend lived in the mid-West. He managed to book a flight from Chicago to Jacksonville on the evening of the 23rd. The day had been dark and dreary, matching his mood. A departure delay depressed him even further. Finally airborne, the plane broke through the clouds shortly after taking off from O’Hare. He could plainly see the moon, new fallen snow, and Christmas lights. The moment was transformative; he remembered the babe born in Bethlehem and God’s love, lit the darkest corners of his life.
The Christian Church celebrates Christmas near the winter solstice, not only Christianizing a pagan feast, but also providentially because of the profoundly Christian message that the timing and customs symbolize. Light begins to overtake darkness as the days slowly lengthen. Light, even from a single candle, banishes fear and darkness, bringing life and hope. Evergreens emphasize God renewing life. Gifts remind us, in Archbishop Rowan Williams striking phrase, that God in a “small bundle of shivering flesh,” revealed a love so profound and complete that we, two thousand years later, still discern God’s continuing activity in the world. This is our thanksgiving and why we joyfully celebrate Christmas, the mass of Christ, our holy feast, the Eucharist.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.