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

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 12-18-05
Jeff Gill

Making the List

If you were to try to follow him around that night, you could identify your quarry by the junk mail envelope that never left his right hand.
Even pushing doors open, the white rectangle stayed between thumb and fist, corners rounding as the paper rubbed walls and shelves and windows.
In a coat not too stylish, but not warm enough either, he traipsed up and down the sidewalks of downtown, ducking in and out of shops of all sorts. He’d done the mall thing already, and didn’t find anything that seemed right, but since the whole shopping thing wasn’t his favorite activity anyhow, he may have been a bit distracted.
What he wanted was a gift for his wife that wasn’t clothing (which he wasn’t going to try and buy for her under any circumstances) or jewelry (since she said she had enough, which probably meant his previous attempts at purchasing were no better than his taste in clothes).
He’d asked her to make a list for him of things she’d like for Christmas, but that was a little slower in coming than the kids. Once he got the list, on the back of yet another credit card application (contents in the shredder bin, white envelope too wide and crisp to waste), and an evening came open, it was time to go on the hunt.
Most of the items on the list were decorative housewares or pieces of furniture. There was a particular wish she had for a light-colored wood pie safe, and a spot where she’d put it, but that hadn’t been an easy find. Plenty of dark-wood pie safes, and a number of blond breakfronts or cupboards, but not what was on the list.
So he had come downtown to the eclectic array of shops, some well-run and well-lit and others less so, but all guaranteed to have older or less mass-taste items than in the strip malls. There was some stuff that looked like it had been through a fire, and other furniture items that may have been made by a remedial shop class, but then in one place tucked around a corner was a tall piece of furniture that may or may not be what she wanted.
So driving home he thought, and thought again, and then made up his mind. Walking in the house, he asked "Are the kids all busy at the moment?"
"They have a practice at the church, and I just came home to run some laundry through, why? I didn’t expect you home yet," she answered.
"Do we all have underwear if I kidnap you until we need to pick up the gang?"
"Sure, it isn’t a critical load," was her answer, and they jumped in his car and they drove back down to where he thought he’d parked before.
"I get turned around, so I’m not sure where we’re going, but . . . well, I found something from your list, sort of, but it wasn’t quite right, and rather than buying the wrong two-ton thing, I thought . . . I hope this isn’t messing up a surprise."
"No, no," she said quickly, "presents are great but a big, ugly surprise is no good deal."
They parked and started around the block. "I thought it was right next to this place with the neon sign," he said while looking around at the upper storefronts along the block.
"Maybe there was another sign that looked similar on the next street," she offered.
They strolled along, ending up hand-in-hand while waiting for a light to change as the wind blew stronger and colder. Two more corners turned behind them as they kept looking, and then down a broad stretch of sidewalk with their eyes watering in the chill.
"I can’t believe I didn’t write the name of the place down on the list," he muttered.
"What about down there," she said while pointing with her free hand across him to a wide doorway. Without hesitation, they both turned and stepped through and out of the wind.
"I didn’t even know there was anything like this down here," she gasped, stopping a few steps inside. They looked down a long hallway apparently through the middle of the block, with airy cast iron beams lifting glass panels, ice-frosted, in angles above the arcade of dangling banners and irregular doorways.
They walked along, soaking up more atmosphere than window shopping, since most of the businesses were closed, but a few were open and active. They came out into the air again on the next street, glancing into a last place which seemed likely.
"We’re not going to find it again," he said glumly.
"It’s OK, we need to pick up the kids anyhow," she said with much more cheer. "But you know what?"
"This time together is better gift to me than another chunk of wood. Can we do this again in a few days?"
"Sure, I don’t even have to wrap that."
"And who knows, we might even find that pie safe the third or fourth try."

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher round central Ohio; contact him at