EDITOR NOTE: Due to our church office being closed, this blog was posted late. Sorry for the inconvenience!!!
While watching a recent YouTube clip of The Opera Company Of Philadelphia Chorus and over 650 area choristers all apparently disguised as holiday shoppers, suddenly break out into the Hallelujah Chorus, I was reminded of the history of the location of this particular Random Act Of Culture, and the history of what we are embarking upon as a western church culture.
What is now Macy’s Center City Philadelphia, was once called Wanamaker’s. The story goes like this: It was Christmas Eve, and the first of 14,000 townspeople began streaming through the building’s huge double doors. A beam of light shone down from above, as though from heaven itself, highlighting an elaborate Nativity scene. Marble angels gazed down upon the largest pipe organ in the world. As the last of the throng filed in, the organist struck a chord and led the crowd in singing the first hymn: "O Come, All Ye Faithful."
Does this sound like a Christmas Eve service at a 21st century mega church? If you said "yes," you guessed wrong. This spectacular Christmas celebration took place, not in a sanctuary at all, but in a department store. It was an annual attraction that drew shoppers to the leading Philadelphia department store, Wanamaker’s, from the 1910s to the 1950s. And it illustrates how America’s Christmas consumerism has some of its roots, ironically, in our own Protestant tradition.
As strange as it may seem today, Christmas was not always treated as a holiday in America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, few Americans really celebrated Christmas. Influenced by their Puritan heritage, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists viewed Christmas Day with suspicion, regarding it as a Roman Catholic invention with dubious origins. The emphasis on the Nativity, they believed, grew out of devotion to Mary.
We in the 21st century find it hard to believe, but in 1659 the Massachusetts General Court outlawed the celebration of Christmas. In the 1770s a Presbyterian teacher described Christmas as being "like other days, in every way calm and temperate. People go about their daily business with the same readiness." Even as late as the 1880s Methodists insisted that Christmas was simply a day of family reunions and good works. "We attach no holy significance to the day," a Methodist publication announced.
Protestant reluctance to celebrate Christmas had one major side effect. In his book, Consumer Rites, Princeton professor Leigh Eric Schmidt writes that keeping Christmas off the church calendar helped pave the way for its inclusion in the secular calendar. While church leaders downplayed Christmas, businessmen and department store owners like John Wanamaker stepped in where angels feared to tread, encouraging the celebration of Christmas in the marketplace instead of the church.
Several hundred years later we find ourselves in somewhat of a role reversal. We now decry that Christmas has become too commercialized, while yuletide cantatas, Nativity scenes, drama productions, caroling, and teaching on the incarnation are all a part of that season on the church calendar called Advent.
When I hear stories like this I’m challenged to take a 2nd look at the things I consider sacred and make sure that my walk with Christ is based upon the substance of God’s word, and not upon the shadows of my traditions.