Christmas and culture: Closing churches on Christmas?

Why Christmas matters, even if you’re not Catholic

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Hard as it may be for most Catholics to fathom, not only do some non-Catholic churches not have services on Christmas Day regardless what day of the week it might be, Christmas falling on a Sunday seems to some Christians a reason to cancel normal Sunday services.

Seriously. Here’s a blog post defending the practice. The writer offers three reasons, the last of which is “We want to be as pro family as possible.” Apparently to some folks encouraging families to just stay home on Christmas morning and take their time opening presents and having Christmas dinner seems “pro family.”

Then there are those Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas (and/or Easter) at all. The reasons range from “It’s not in the Bible” and “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25” to “Christmas is a pagan holiday” and “All days are holy to the Lord; we don’t observe special holy days as if we were under the Law of Moses.”

Anti-holiday Christians cite passages like Romans 14:5 (“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind”) and Colossians 2:16 (“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath”)

Now, it’s true that celebrating Christmas and/or Easter is not a matter of satisfying divinely given commandments, like the feasts and holy days of the old covenant. Human beings, not God, instituted the Christmas feast and the Easter celebration.

So why celebrate them? Why does it matter? Christ was born and rose from the dead over 2 millennia ago, and that’s just as true on the first Sunday of Advent as it is the second Sunday of Easter. Why set aside one particular day to make such a fuss about it?

Finally, what about those who belong to churches that do celebrate Christmas and Easter, but just don’t feel like going? On what ecumenical grounds might we argue that these things do matter, even to our non-Catholic brethren who don’t see the point?  

On one level, we can say that celebrating Christmas and Easter is about being heirs to centuries of Christian tradition and practice. It’s about having Christian cultural roots, about satisfying our human impulse — in keeping with the nature with which God created us — to give cultural and ritual shape to what is important in our lives and worldview.

Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter for the same reason that we set aside one day a week to go to church, and for the same reason people celebrate birthdays and anniversaries of all kinds, and for that matter for the same reason that we have ceremonial church weddings and wedding rings and commencement exercises and funerals. We do these things because these rituals and observances help us to apprehend, absorb, or preserve important truths in our imaginations as well as in the theoretical acknowledgement of the intellect.

We do them because we are human beings, not angels or computers. We are not pure intellects or fact-processing machines; we are creatures of habit, imagination, and emotion; we are aesthetic, cultural and ritual. We cannot live purely in our intellects or our spirits. We cannot maintain a lively and meaningful faith that is not given outward shape, and even ritual shape. Even if some individuals could do that, or think they could, we certainly can’t maintain communities on those terms. And we are called to community, which begins with showing up.

Our bodies and our world are penetrated by patterns and rhythms: day and night, morning and evening, waking and sleeping, waxing and waning, solstice and equinox, ebb and flow, hunger and fullness, desire and satiation, rejoicing and mourning, sowing and reaping, fasting and feasting, labor and holiday, birth and youth and adolescence and adulthood and middle age and old age and death.

It is natural for us (which is to say, it accords with the nature God has given us and the circumstances in which he has placed us) to organize our lives as individuals and communities according to these rhythms: to adorn and festoon them with markers, observances, symbols, and rituals.

For example, everything is a gift of God and we should always be grateful — but our daily meals are a particularly good time to pause and remember and acknowledge that ever-present reality with a prayer of gratitude, so that gratitude becomes a habit.

Happy couples always love each other — but moments of parting and reunion (including going to sleep and waking up as well as going to work and coming home) are particularly good moments for that strange ritual of affection that Berkeley Breathed in Bloom County back in the 1980s called “lip mashing.” And so forth.

We cannot always think about everything that is true all the time. We cannot, like angels, attend with ever-burning awareness to all the things we know or should know at all times. We understand little when we are young and nothing when we are asleep; we put other things out of our mind to concentrate on a task or a diversion; we succumb to inattention, boredom and forgetfulness; and even at our most lucid and attentive we can only think of so much at a time.

The greatness and glory of God and the splendor of his creation; the gravity of sin and the wretchedness of our fallen condition; the mysterious workings of grace in our lives and in human history, particularly the panoply of historical events related to God’s plan of salvation (salvation history); the immensity of the Incarnation, of God become man; the dreadful mystery of his passion and crucifixion; the supreme glory of his resurrection and ascension; the mystery of Christ in the Holy Spirit at work in his body, the Church; the privilege of our freedom as children of God and the splendor of the hope to which we have been called; the discouraging reality of sin in our lives and the distance between what we are called to be and what we are: we cannot do justice to all of these at the same time.

The Christmas and Easter seasons (for Christmas and Easter are not simply two days out of the year, but festivals of many days), and for that matter Lent and Advent and Pentecost and so forth, help us to do justice to the immensity of what we say we believe by turning our attention first to one reality and then to another in turn. Other approaches might be possible in theory, but the history of the universe only happens once, and the community founded by Jesus did what it did, and we are heirs to that.

We are all products of the flavor of culture we grew up in, as plants are creatures of their particular soil and fish are creatures of their particular waters. Even if we reject or react against our culture, we remain tied to it. Phillip Pullman, among others, has called himself an “Anglican atheist.” I’ve been a Catholic for more than half my life, but my formative years were spent in Protestant churches, and to that extent I could be called, culturally, a “Protestant Catholic.” For that matter, most American cradle Catholics could be called “Protestant Catholics” insofar as they were raised in a minority Catholic tradition in a culture shaped by a majority Protestant tradition. 

We are all products of our culture — and Christmas in particular is one of the most unavoidable cultural landmarks we have. One of the only cultural landmarks, in fact, since ours is in many ways a postcultural world. Compared to how all humans have lived before quite recent times, we are a culturally impoverished, rootless, deracinated people, deprived of rituals and traditions that tell us as a people who we are.

Christmas is one of the few bastions of culture, and specifically Christian culture, left in our world. It is so huge that even non-Christians celebrate it; even Jews, Muslims, Hindus and members of other religions have unofficial Christmas traditions.

This means that Christians, even non-Catholic Christians cannot be Christmas-neutral, as if Christmas had nothing to do with us. We are either pro-Christmas or anti-Christmas. By now it should be clear why I think being anti-Christmas is an epic mistake.

And if we want to celebrate Christmas in a Christian way rather than a secular way, we should go to church. Christmas is one of the few times that even marginal believers and seekers who wouldn’t usually darken the door of a church consider showing up. We should be there to meet them.

Community gatherings, like culture generally, are in decline. People are starved for community, for a sense of belonging and togetherness. Particularly during “the holidays,” people with nowhere else to go and no one else to see, if they don’t go to the movies or to a bar, may go to church. This is the very last time a church — any church — should ever close its doors.

For those of us with families who feel like we don’t need to be in church to just stay home is an act of cultural homicide and indifference to our brother. As I said above, we are called to community, and that begins with showing up. If we don’t show up on Christmas, when will we?