Sermon: Forbidden Christmas

24 December 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Forbidden Christmas

Luke 2:1-20

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I love Christmas, don’t you?  I love the smells – pine needles and warm cookies, the crisp air of a clear night full of stars, and tonight, even a full moon!  I love twinkling colored lights, the smiles on children’s faces, the joyful spirit of giving that fills our local charities with so many gifts.  I love getting to meet you visitors who’re here for the first time, and to see you warm yourselves by the light of the Holy Spirit that fills this place – and that Spirit glows especially brightly, I think, on Christmas Eve.  I love getting to see you return visitors, and members I don’t see so often, and to get to meet to you all over again.  God bless you, every one, for coming out tonight to celebrate the birth of Christ!

But did you know that in Pilgrim times, nearly 400 years ago, Christmas was illegal?  It was forbidden.  On their first December 25th in the New World, Plymouth settlers spent the day at hard labor cutting trees and clearing the land, “to avoid any frivolity on the day sometimes called ‘Christmas.’”  They didn’t even want to call the 25th “Christmas”! Of course not all colonists were religious – Governor William Bradford reprimanded some for playing “stoole ball and sports” on Christmas, instead of treating it like any other workday.  In the 1650s, you could be fined a whopping 5 shillings for celebrating Christmas in New England, the price of a fine pair of silk stockings back in London.  In those days, one Judge Samuel Sewall proclaimed that even those who would dare make mincemeat pie or plum pudding would be “cursed by God for all eternity”! 

Now by the time our frontier congregation was founded, a mere 250 years ago, Christmas was tolerated a little.  A few carols had slipped into the hymnal.  Even in the early 1700s, that fiery Boston preacher Cotton Mather called for “mutual respect and brotherly love” between those who celebrated Christmas and those who did not.  The holiday was a controversial political issue.  You see a patriot would refuse to celebrate Christmas, because its customs were so rooted in England and the Anglican Church.  The First United States Congress proudly held session on December 25th, 1789.  In Boston, as late as 1869, the law expelled kids from school for cutting class on Christmas Day. 

So we can see how for those stern, early Congregationalists, it made sense to ban Christmas entirely.  The old English custom of “wassailing,” for instance, would give rough types an excuse to wander door-to-door begging, drinking, and doing vandalism – more like “trick-or-treat” than Christmas caroling.  And “decking the halls” was outlawed too – it was rooted in ancient Celtic paganism.  They didn’t even approve of the color green, because it was associated with the Devil and heathen nature-worship.

OK, so now you know the facts.  Christmas is unpatriotic.  It’s worldly and decadent and rooted in Satanism.  It’s nowhere celebrated in the Bible.  Aren’t you glad you came tonight, so I could ruin Christmas for you?  Scrooge himself would be proud!  There’s only one problem – we are not early Congregationalists.  We are TODAY’S Congregationalists.  We are the United Church of Christ – a denomination that proudly quotes Gracie Allen as its motto, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.  God is still speaking,….”  We are called to be faithful and prophetic disciples in TODAY’S world, not in 18th Century New England.  As our congregation ends our celebration of our 250th year, we are called to re-evaluate the wisdom God spoke to the saints of the past.  The prophetic word they were called to speak to their world may not be the prophetic word WE are called to speak to our world today.

So what is God calling us to do and say today?  Well, that’s a question that can’t be answered in one Christmas Eve meditation.  But I can promise to preach more about our church’s call to prophetic witness in the New Year.  There’s an old saying in preacher circles that goes like this:  Sometimes we are called to comfort the afflicted.  Sometimes we are called to afflict the comfortable.  You need to know that the Pilgrims felt called to afflict the comfortable (even decadent) Christianity of English monarchy with a prophetic voice that challenged rulers to establish a more just and equitable society, in Christ’s name.  That’s how we came to live here, on this continent, in the United States of America.  It’s a proud heritage.  But they set some awfully high standards of Christian behavior as well – and in their idealistic attempt to establish a Godly nation, they lapsed into intolerance and even persecution of those who didn’t agree with them, much as many fundamentalists do today.  In their quest for righteousness, they could forget God’s grace.  And if Christmas is about anything, it’s about God’s amazing grace.

I want to close with a story about grace that one young student of mine shared with her confirmation class.  It seems her grandmother came from an affluent family and had raised her children in a large house full of many inherited antiques.  Those children, now grown, had children of their own – and all of them would reunite at Christmas under Grandmother’s roof.  It was a tradition none of them would ever dream of breaking, even though the trip was often difficult.  There was so much shopping and wrapping to be done for such a large and extended family.  There was often bad weather and awful traffic to contend with on the roads.  And there was the endless struggle, especially when the kids were young, to keep the hordes of grandchildren under control for a formal dinner in the big house full of so many fragile and valuable things.

This girl I knew, I’ll call her Annie, had the dubious honor of being the youngest in her family and also the youngest of all the cousins.  So Christmas for her had always been terribly boring, with no one to play with her age.  Her grandmother was imposing, and always commanding the troops as they readied the feast.  Her older cousins were enlisted into service of one kind or another to get the meal ready.  She always felt in the way and didn’t quite know what to do, so she’d often go off into one of the many rooms to play by herself, even though she was forbidden to touch anything.  One fateful Christmas she was doing just that, playing with some antique glass perfume bottles on the dresser in her grandmother’s bedroom, when she knocked off not just one, but TWO of them – onto the hardwood floor, where they shattered into several pieces.  So she handled it as best she could – she hid the broken bottles under the Persian rug at the foot of the bed, and hid herself deep inside her grandmother’s closet.

It wasn’t long until she heard people calling her for dinner, but she was determined to stay where she was.  Soon she could hear the whole family calling and looking, and if she hadn’t been so scared, she said hide-and-seek might have been fun.  From her perspective, it seemed like the search took forever – but as a teenager she realized it couldn’t have taken very long for her mom to find her, because the lumps of glass were so obvious under the rug outside the closet door.  She heard her mom’s voice call to her:  “Honey, are you in there?”  “It’s OK.  You can come out.”

“No,” she said.  “I’m not here.  Go away.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” her mom said.  “I found what you broke.  I’m sure it was just an accident.  We’ll tell Grandmother, and she’ll help us fix it.”

“No she won’t,” Annie said.  “She’s going to kill me.” 

What followed was a very long silence. But then her mother finally answered, in a tone Annie had never heard her use before.  “No she won’t!” her mother said.  “Your grandmother will NOT do anything to hurt you – I promise.  With God as my witness, she will behave as a Christian should.  She will forgive you and be happy to do so!”

Annie said she heard her mother go away, and downstairs she heard an argument – an unfamiliar sound in a family that had never dared to stand up to its leader.  Finally, Annie heard both her mother and her grandmother sit down on the rug outside her door.

“Honey?” her mother said.  “Your grandmother has something to say to you.”

Her grandmother cleared her throat and began.  “Annie.  Nothing I have in this house is as important to me as you are.  Those are only broken things.  No one was hurt in this … unfortunate accident.  I’m sure you are very sorry.  Now you come down to our table this instant and sit down to Christmas dinner with your family!”

With that Annie heard the sound of her grandmother’s high heels on retreat, and her mother cracked open the door and reached a hand out to her through the darkness.  “Come out now, love.  And give me a hug.”

Annie said that’s when she knew what it meant to be grateful for a Savior who offers GRACE instead of demanding righteousness.  She was filled with gratitude for a Savior who knew what it was to have to grow up as a human child – someone who, like her own mother that day, loved her no matter what and would stand up in her defense. 

Now I’m only a country preacher.  I can’t say whether you’ve grown a little too comfortable – you might have needed a good colonial-style afflicting from this pulpit.  But maybe you are here tonight because you’re already afflicted – maybe you needed some real comfort, and some real joy.   I can’t say for you which face of God you need to see on this night – the stern face of a loving but firm Grandmother, who calls you to obedient attendance at the banquet table of God’s family, or the warm face of Mother, who reaches out a hand to comfort you and draw you close with the gift of pure grace.  But we are blessed to worship in this place one God who comes to us with more than one face, even as a child in a manger, whose Holy Spirit radiates truth and light at Christmas and fills this blessed night.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



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