Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Don't We Go to Church on Christmas Day?

In my experience, I have found it rare that churches hold services on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, yes, but not on December 25.

Why is this? Christmas is arguably the second most important holy day in the church year, behind Easter Sunday. On Christmas Day we mark one of the most remarkable events in human history: God taking on human flesh to inaugurate his promised salvation and new creation. Should this not be an occasion of highest worship?

What do our practices say about our real feelings regarding Christmas? I read one question and answer column where it was asked, "Does your family go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?" A respondent replied, "No, for us Christmas is to be spent with the family, not with the priest." As a pastor, I heard that sentiment many times.

It tells me that our cultural celebration of Christmas owes more to Charles Dickens than to the Biblical text or church tradition. In the early 19th century, the author almost singlehandedly transformed and revitalized the holiday as an occasion for family, feasting, and charity through his story, "A Christmas Carol."

While Dickens saw his work as complementing and applying the message of Christ to confront the sins of his own society, isn't it striking that the church plays no role in his ethic?

Scrooge's transformation of heart leads him to value good things: human kindness, the simple gifts of home and hearth, compassion for the poor and needy, concern for the conditions of workers, and a spirit of joy, optimism and cooperation. These are all aspects of our mission as the church scattered in the world, and we must not neglect them. But is there no place for the church gathered on Christmas Day?

I would love to hear comments on this.


wnpaul said...

Well, I still remember the controversy a couple of years ago when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday and some prominent churches cancelled Sunday services in favor of family Christmas.

But I live in Austria, a country traditionally dominated by Roman Catholicism (but now increasingly secularized). And in reaction to the ritualism and regulations of this dominant tradition Evangelicals here have largely rejected the Church Year and any form of liturgical worship as extra-biblical inventions (or at best, features of Old Testament religion inapropriate to the New Covenant). To the extent that they observe Christmas and Easter it is not because of any spiritual significance this might have but because it offers an evangelistic opportunity to connect with the surrounding culture. As a result, while there are Christmas and Easter services, the preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent are rarely observed.

Also, because the only holy day recognized is Sunday as the Lord's Day, frequently Christmas services take place on the Sunday preceeding Christmas, leaving both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to the family.

Now, an appreciation of some liturgical elements, and of Church Year observances, is slowly growing, but only as optional preferences, picking the raisins out of the cake.

The mainline is no alternative: a Lutheran or Reformed parish that is not way too liberal will share the charcteristics described above - after all, as Protestants their identity is contained in being different from the Catholics.

Michael Mercer said...

Thanks, wnpaul. It is nice to get a perspective from another part of the world. Here in the U.S. many evangelicals have taken to observing parts of the church year, Advent in particular. But that has not translated into celebrating Christmas Day itself.