This weeks article in Australian Presbyterian
It’s the Christmas month. Where is the tinsel? Trees? Light? Endless adverts? For UK exiles Christmas seems different in Australia – Turkey on the beach?!. It appears to this outsider that Christmas is not as big a deal here as in the Northern hemisphere – I guess it doesn’t feel a lot like Christmas.
Whilst in the UK headlines like ‘Boris Bans Christmas’, ‘Nicola Scrooge’ indicate a very different Christmas this year – it looks as though Australia will be largely Covid free and therefore a more ‘normal’ Christians will be enabled. It has even been announced this week that we will be able to visit the most remote city in the world – Perth WA.
But elsewhere politicians are not going to be too popular if they attempt to lockdown Christmas. If a year ago I had suggested to you that this Christmas there was a possibility that the UK government would ban Christmas parties, carol singing, Christmas services and big Turkey dinners, you would have thought I was either stark raving mad or guilty of some good old Puritanical, Cromwellian wishful thinking. After all was it not Cromwell who banned Christmas? Not quite….
On 19 December 1643, the English Parliament passed a law encouraging its citizens to treat the mid-winter period ‘with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. From then until 1660 Christmas was actually illegal in England. In Scotland we banned it from 1640 until 1686. In fact Christmas was not a public holiday in Scotland until 1958 (unlike New Year) – Boxing Day in 1974. We can’t blame Cromwell for that.
I grew up in a community where we worked at Christmas – my dad was a farm labourer. Although we were a Christian household we did not really celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival – we had a tree, presents and of course the big dinner – but I don’t recall ever going to church on Christmas Day. When I became a Christian I think I shared Spurgeon’s view:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.
Charles Spurgeon, Sermon on Dec. 24, 1871
However as the years have gone on I find myself facing two ways! I have grown to love Christmas as a great time to reflect upon the incarnation and to communicate the Gospel. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see – hail the incarnate Deity. Yet I also loathe the commercialism, excess and ‘carnal and sensual delights’. Excessive drunkenness, as well as the declining popularity of the church, meant that the tradition of midnight Christmas carols, was already becoming less. Who knows, but Covid may have killed it off? In St Peter’s in Dundee I introduced a carol service and a Christmas day service – both were great opportunities for outreach and fellowship. I suspect McCheyne would not have approved.
But what about this year? In Sydney we are debating about whether we can go ahead with outdoor carol services and get over the ridiculous ban on singing. In the UK and the US I suspect the Covid hysteria will be ongoing and just when they need some Christmas cheer they will be reduced to what the Scottish Government is calling a ‘digital Christmas’. It won’t be long before the daily message from politicians includes the sickly message that Santa is not banned.
But perhaps we can give a different message? Perhaps churches can ‘reset’ so that we turn Christmas to what it should be – a celebration of the incarnate God. At a time when churches are being urged to be less incarnational we can proclaim the one who did not come ‘digitally’, nor did he die or rise ‘spiritually’. He came in the flesh. Pleased as man with man to dwell. A real baby, with real tears (crying he did make), in a real world where an unknown number of baby boys were killed in an attempt to get him. Real angels…real shepherds….a real star…and real glory. In a world that is governed by misery and fear we can bring ‘good news of great joy for all the people’.
We should be singing like the angels in the public square….we should be proclaiming Christ from the rooftops, in our pulpits and on our digital platforms. We should be looking at creative ways to engage church, children and community with the Gospel. Perhaps some will not be permitted to bring people to church – but is there any reason why we cannot go out – by whatever means possible – and, like the angels, take the good news of ‘glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men on whom his favour rests’? Instead of churches seeing Christmas as an exhausting burden of endless services, perhaps we can find a more sustainable way to use this time to proclaim and glorify Christ. Maybe even Cromwell would approve of that.