Sunday, December 16, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish in Portland, Maine
Sunday December 16th, 2007

Early before dawn on the morning of December 26th, 1776, the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington ferried across the partially frozen Delaware river and attacked a garrison of Hessian mercenaries occupying the town of Trenton, New Jersey. Surprise was complete; most of the Germans were still sleeping off the riotous Christmas celebration they had tied on the night before. One American soldier described the battle in his diary this way: "Hessian population of Trenton at eight am: 1,408 men and 39 officers; Hessian population at nine am: zero." Over 900 of the German troops were killed or captured, at the cost of only two American lives. On the body of Colonel Ralls, the German commander, the Americans found a letter from a British loyalist warning of Washington's attack. The letter was unopened. Ralls had been a victim of his own preconceptions: no "Christian" army would launch an attack on Christmas Day!

But these were not Catholics, nor Lutherans, nor even Anglicans that the German mercenaries were up against. They were, for the most part, New England Congregationalists, inheritors of that Puritan legacy in which the celebration of Christmas was seen as a "Popish superstition," a "wanton, Bacchanalian feast," and in some jursidictions here in what was then still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a criminal offense punishable by a fine of five shillings and confinement in the stocks.

These New Englanders had little care for Yule logs and Mistletoe, wassail and Carols and Christmas pudding. Their's was a tradition of "pure" Christianity, stripped of the trappings of Druidic witchcraft and Roman syncretism. When they wanted to feast, they declared a Day of Thanksgiving and ate Turkey and Cranberries. There was plenty of thanks being given on the day the captured Hessian prisoners were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia. The dwindling Patriot army had finally won an important victory, and Congress voted to allow Washington to continue his command.

Although attitudes had moderated somewhat by the time of George Washington, the underlying sentiments of 17th century Puritanism were still quite influential in Revolutionary New England. Puritan religion was based on three simple precepts: a deeply abiding sense of original sin and the total depravity of human kind; a personal awareness of the regenerative power of God's grace through His predestined election of a few unworthy souls for salvation; and a compelling notion of service and religious duty in thanks for God's gift of unconditional election. They saw themselves embarked upon an errand into the wilderness, an errand to create a "City upon a Hill," a beacon to all the world which would shine as an example of the ideal Christian community, ruled and regulated according to God's Holy Ordinances as revealed in Scripture.

They took themselves and their mission seriously, yet they were also fine scholars, who were well aware of the pagan origins of most Christmas traditions, and who believed that God would turn His back upon their community should they stray from their stern covenant into the festive merriment of the Yuletide holiday. The frivolous actions of just a few might easily bring down God's wrath upon the entire colony. Thus the magistrates were empowered to arrest and punish blasphemers, Sabbath breakers, and anyone else whose ideas or actions might endanger the stability of their perfect Christian community, including those who celebrated Christmas, whether by feasting, or abstaining from labor, or in any other way marking the occasion as something special or out of the ordinary. For the Puritans, Christmas was a day like any other day; to observe otherwise was not only to risk the wrath of God, but to place oneself in danger of criminal prosecution as well.

The Puritan attitude towards Christmas may seem a bit extreme to us today. But then, the Puritans never did have much of a reputation as a fun-loving bunch. Nowadays, while we might complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas, or the emotional stress of entertaining our friends and families, few of us give much thought to the essentially pagan origins of the holiday, nor, I suspect, would we be particularly concerned about them if we did. The evolution of an obscure 4th century Turkish Bishop, St. Nicholas, into a rotund, white bearded "jolly old elf," who dresses in red, owns a herd of flying reindeer, and lives at the North Pole raises few eyebrows; nor are we troubled by the amazing coincidence that December 25th also happens to be the birthday of the Greek God Adonis, the Egyptian God Horus, and the Iranian God Mithra, all of whom were well entrenched on the winter solstice long before a virgin gave birth to a savior in Bethlehem, and laid him in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Instead, we trim our trees and adorn our homes with holly and mistletoe much as the Celts did centuries ago; we exchange cards and brightly wrapped gifts; bake pies and cookies and cakes; we sing of miracles, of peace on earth, good will to all; and hang our stockings by the chimney with care. We tell ourselves, with a wink, that "Christmas is for Children," all the time knowing that the best parts of Christmas are really for adults, and are often completely lost upon the avaricious little monsters, who scoff at movies like "It's a Wonderful Life," write letters to "Santa" that require extra postage, ransack our closets behind our backs, and just don't seem to quite understand what the whole thing's really all about. Adults tolerate children at Christmas, I think, because we remember that we were once children ourselves. Indeed, if in any sense "Christmas is for Children," it is for the inner children who live within us still, and are now finally old enough to truly understand the message of peace, hope and innocence embodied in this season.

In my household when my kids were young, we had a tradition of only celebrating Christmas every other year. This unorthodox practice dates back to my former wife’s first divorce, and an agreement she had with her ex-husband that the kids would spend every other Christmas with him. This worked out pretty well for Margie, because she had never really been that big a “Christmas person;” she associates this time of year with a couple of very unpleasant memories: the untimely death of her mother, when Margie, was only 21, and also the death of her own second-born child from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a few years later. So she always kind of appreciated having a built-in excuse to take it kind of easy this time of year.

But after Margie, and I were married, I think the kids both assumed that, because I was a minister, I HAD to celebrate Christmas every year. So when I announced that we would continue the tradition, at first they didn't take me seriously. But after a couple of weeks, when there wasn't any tree, and there weren't any lights, and there weren't any mysterious packages from the Mall hidden in any of our closets, they began to get a little worried. I think they'd both sorta been looking forward to really cleaning up that year, on having two Christmases, with twice the usual amount of candy, and twice the usual number of presents: a real orgy of "ripping," as they so delicately described it, with all the attendant excitement and attention. And I can understand that wish, I guess; in many ways, it's every kid's dream: a Christmas that never ends.

I don't know how many of you have ever faced this situation of sharing children with a former spouse over the holidays, but it's a fairly common thing these days, and it can be kind of tricky, both logistically and emotionally. There's a real temptation to over-react, to set yourself up in competition with the other person to see who can provide the "better" Christmas, which all too often boils down to who has the deepest pockets.

Kids know this, of course, and they play it up for all its worth: not maliciously, I think, but rather because they're not really old enough to know any better. Children have very tangible minds: they like things that they can see and touch. Money is no object with children, because they don't really understand it, although this has its advantages too; the most popular Christmas gift I ever purchased for my children was a 99 cent Nerf football, which I bought one Christmas Eve as an afterthought while browsing through the local drug store on another last-minute errand.

Yet it is this very quality we find so endearing in children which convinces me that Christmas is wasted upon them. Until one develops the capacity to appreciate the intangibles of Christmas, the holiday remains merely a celebration of consumption: shallow, superficial, and ultimately disappointing. We might as well imitate the Puritans and eliminate it all together, for it adds nothing to the quality of our lives, it simply distracts us from the things that are ultimately important.

The delighted squeal of children on Christmas morning is a transitory thing; it passes away and is soon forgotten: the adults tend to remember it far longer than the kids do. The cries of hungry children who do not have enough to eat are far more persistent, yet even when we pause long enough to hear them cry, it often seems as though there is realistically very little any one of us can hope to do in order to meet that urgent need. Perhaps, if we are conscientious, we try to do our share, and hope that with the help of others, it will be enough. But it never really is enough.

Yet it is between these two contrasting extremes that the real meaning of Christmas, the real Spirit of Christmas, can be found. It is found the story of a baby born in a stable because there was no room at the inn, born far from home, on the longest night of the year, to bring a light into the world; incarnating, if you will, the very real possibility that both greed and poverty can be transcended through the simple expedient of profound human relationship, to one another and to the divine, uniting kings and shepherds, animals and angels, in common service to a sovereign mystery, to the appearance of a new star in the sky. And perhaps it never really happened; perhaps it is nothing but a myth. But the possibility still exists, in the power of the story to help us see beyond the tangible, to reach out to the things we can not touch, and hold them firmly in our hearts all the same.