Monday, December 19, 2022

Church on Christmas?

Like most children of my generation, growing up in the 1950s, I eagerly looked froward to Christmas - everything about Christmas, but especially Christmas morning. That was when ("Santa Claus" having come during the night) we all got up early to run into the living room to see what Santa (and others) had left us under the Tree. It was a wonderful, once-a-year experience, which we looked forward to with anticipation and savored while it lasted. In fact, however, it only lasted an hour or so, because then we kids had to put our gifts down and get dressed and ready for church. In those days, of course, "getting dressed" actually meant something. We boys wore jackets and ties and dress shoes, while the girls wore dresses, and hats, and gloves. All this for the 9:00 a.m. "Children's Mass," that is, the Mass which all 1000+ kinds in the parish school were required to attend on all Sundays and holy days. (Our parents went later, to one of the dozen other Masses celebrated on Christmas Day between 6:00 a.m. and 12:55 p.m.)

Christmas was, of course, as it still is, a "holy day of obligation," when attendance at Mass was mandatory for all active Catholics. And, of course, in those days it would never have occurred to any of us not to go to church on Christmas. If we thought about Protestants at all in those days (which wasn't often), we were probably aware that Episcopalians celebrated Christmas somewhat similarly to the way Catholics did, but that for many Protestants, lacking a liturgical tradition, it was another story.

All of which brings us to Religious Studies Professor Timothy Beal, quoted in yesterday's New York Times as saying that many "think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later." That Times article, "O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on a Sunday," which everyone should read, dealt with the difficulty which Protestant churches without a tradition of Christmas Day worship find themselves in when Christmas conflicts with Sunday, as it does this year. According to the article, only some 84% of Protestant pastors plan to hold services this Sunday, a drop from the 89% who did so in 2016, the last time Christmas came on a Sunday.

For some, this represents a "flexible sprit." Others, however, are more critical. When churches cancel their Sunday services for Christmas, suggests Mathews, NC, Pastor Kevin DeYoung, the message may be, "Hey, it's Christmas, and Jesus may not be the reason for the season."

As a parish priest, I encountered the contemporary Catholic equivalent of this problem in the increasing tendency of some churchgoers to get the religious part of Christmas over with by attending Mass on Christmas Eve  - by which I don't mean "Midnight Mass," which is a whole other tradition with its own value and significance, but in the early evening or even afternoon. Seemingly inadvertently, American Catholics appear in recent decades to have been moving increasingly in the direction pioneered by non-liturgical American Protestants and reinforced by the progressive secularization of our culture, in the process turning Christmas Day into a religion-free family festival for "stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later."

If there really is a "war on Christmas," as some (perhaps politically motivated) Christians claim, then this is it, and American Christians themselves are giving aid and comfort to it by turning Christmas into a religion-free family festival with less and less room on Christmas morning for the supposed "reason for the season."

Photo: Family Christmas, late 1950s.

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