One of the reasons that I enjoy the Christmas season are the many festive activities. It starts with decorating the house, then proceeds to attending festive parties and shows, purchasing presents, and worshiping in our decorated church. I am fortunate to have many happy Christmas memories during my 60+ years.
One of my favorite Christmas remembrances was visiting the European Christmas markets. We lived in Europe and were able to travel during December to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary: Nürnberg, Dresden, Seiffen (Erzgebirge region), Munich, Berchtesgaden, Hamburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, and Budapest. Our house is filled with Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers, smokers, and pyramids. We ate stollen, bratwurst, and lebkuchen while sipping hot glutwein from commemorative cups. Each year, while decorating our house, my thoughts return to where we purchased these items and the joy we experienced.
I decided to research Christmas history this year. Judith Flanders, Victorian historian and author, wrote Christmas: A Biography (Thomas Dunne Books, New York City, NY, 2017). The book focuses primarily on the period after the Protestant Reformation. Christmas was a religious festival but was primarily a time of feasting: “food, family and giving.” (page 19) The feasting proved to be too much for the Puritans and the Calvinists. “In 1638 the General Assembly [Scotland] banned Christmas outright. … In 1643, when the Long Parliament joined forces with the Scottish government, all holiday observances, secular and religious, were forbidden.” The Scottish ban wasn’t lifted until 1958! (pages 44-47) Even with the ban, Christmas parties continued. “In Aberdeen at Christmas 1784, ‘A riotous assemblage … stimulated by drink and madness’ actually attacked a Roman Catholic church.” (page 72) So much for Christian love during the season of peace.
The German Christmas markets began during the Middle Ages. “The first holiday market in Germany had been held in Cölln (now part of Berlin), and from the mid-fifteenth century had sold honey-cakes, while several Swiss towns had a Chlausmarkt around St. Nicholas’s Day. Berlin later had a famous Weihnachtsmarkt between 12 December and the end of the year. By 1796 its 250 booths sold everything from textiles to toys, gold and silver trinkets, wigs, carved wooden objects, clothes and Nascherei, holiday cakes or sweet things more generally; behind these were smaller, humbler stalls offering boots, shoes, baskets, household goods and cheap books.” (page 94) Christmas turned commercial. The religious feast took second place to the growing secular holiday.
As I scan the Christmas decorations in my study, I don’t see any relating to the biblical Christmas story. I have various wooden nutcrackers and smokers with nature or Germanic themes. There are two cloth Santa’s and a wooden snowman smoker. I even have a Martin Luther smoker purchased in Wittenberg where he taught and nailed his 95 theses. All are secular created for the Christmas holidays. For Christians, is this right or wrong?
Judith Flanders offers some insight into my question. The “central core of the holiday” is “not the lives we have, but the lives we would like to have, in a world where family, religion, personal and social relationships are built on firm foundations. … All contributed to a communal desire for the past, for a place and a time that never existed, where we are loved, protected and cherished. The rituals of Christmas allow us to believe, if only for one day a year, that that world exists.” (page 243)
But isn’t this what the Christmas story proclaimed? A baby in a manger would one day preach the kingdom of God – the new creation. Christians light the Advent candles of hope, peace, love, and joy because we yearn for this kingdom preached in the Gospels. Nonbelievers yearn for this same kingdom. The Church is more than our local church. It is our entire community where all can share our collective hopes and dreams for the coming kingdom. I see Christmas as a gift of hope in a divided world. Perhaps we can all agree on a common hope for a better world during the Christmas season.