Monday, December 12, 2005

Faith Works 12-17-05
Jeff Gill

Christmas Eve is Optional, Right?

For the many Christian traditions we call denominations or communions, there was once an extreme difference in how Christmas was celebrated.
Look at the name, to start with: Christ-mass, shortened (like Christ-kindle to Kris Kringle, or All Hallow’s Eve to . . . y’know) to Christmas. The Mass commemorating the birth of Jesus was a largely a Catholic tradition, and in early America it was groups like German Catholics or French Canadians who had a full and robust tradition around Dec. 25. The Hessians on the other side of the Delaware River from George Washington on a Christmas in 1776 could be counted on to revel and impair themselves, unlike the austere and sober Puritans and Presbyterians of the Continental Army.
I was thinking about this as Granville wrapped up a festive bicentennial year honoring the first settlers in 1805, their Welsh Baptist predecessors, and the Congregational traditions of the founding generation. How did they celebrate Christmas in 1805? They likely didn’t, at all. They had one month or two to build shelters and cabins, and they were the descendants of the Puritan New Englanders who, like Oliver Cromwell in England, hd banned Christmas observances outright.
A generation later, around the date when Dickens set his "A Christmas Carol," how did they celebrate Christmas in 1835? In Merrie Ol’ England, note that the question of whether or not Bob Cratchit got the day o’ Christmas off was not a given. Scrooge was not a nice man, let alone employer, but don’t forget that Christmas Day off work with pay was a gift of particularly nice bosses. In early Ohio, it ‘tweren’t much different. If you weren’t part of the early St. Francis de Sales parish in Newark, or a very "high church" Episcopalian at Trinity, the idea of a worship service on a weekday, Dec. 25 or otherwise, was quite literally alien.
So our situation today is interesting. Christmas Day falls on Sunday, something it doesn’t often do (ranging from 5 to 11 years’ interval, it’s been since 1994 most recently). But Protestant churches of all sorts have gotten used to Christmas Eve services as standard fare. Never mind that most such traditions didn’t "do" Christmas until after the great cultural mixmaster of the Civil War, and Christmas Eve became an expectation largely out of the experiences of World War II soldiers returning from Europe.
Apparently, Christmas Eve worship, derived from the "vigil mass" of more liturgical traditions, is now so much the norm for Protestant groups that a number of them across the Midwest have decided to cancel Sunday worship, given that they gave their utmost for the night before, admittedly for three and more services in some so-called mega-churches.
In Licking County there are a number of faith communities where Christmas Day, Sunday or any day, offers worship each year. Catholic parishes, most Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, and a few others (usually the more liturgical) know that few may choose to attend – this is America, after all – but the congregation will worship in some way.
Wouldn’t Christmas coming on a Sunday mean everyone with Christian somewhere in their job description offer a worship service? From the mega-folk, it would appear not. This is, to many of us, puzzling. What, exactly, does Christmas Eve mean to them? Is it just the cultural ceremony of carols and creches and celebration, or . . .
What is clear is that candlelight commemorations are expected, but worship to mark the day itself (never a Biblical thing, to be fair, but a baptism of Mithras’ birth with the winter solstice starting the march back to longer daylight) has become optional. So optional, that even when it falls on Sunday you can skip it – but you can’t skip Christmas Eve.
Am I the only one who’s a little confused here? If Protestant tradition means anything, it should at least include regular gathering of the community to "every Lord's day
gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions." (The Didache, 2nd century)
I’m glad to say that most Licking County Christian churches, while possibly reducing multiple services to a single gathering, are still coming together on December 25. Because it is Sunday, no matter what else you might make of the day.
But I’ll still join my family at a candlelight service (or two) on Christmas Eve. Not because it’s necessary, but because it does throw a useful light on what we’re anticipating before the presents are unwrapped.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; contact him through

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