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128 pages
Dec 2003

Handel's Messiah Family Advent Reader

by Donna W. Payne and Fran Lenzo

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No Christmas Allowed!

“0 thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain: 0 thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid: Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God. Arise, shine, for thy Light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
based on Isaiah 40:9, 60:1
There once was a place where it was against the rules to celebrate Christmas. There was a time when you had to pay a fine if you took a day off from work on December 25. This place that sounds like a country of Scrooges and Grinches was the American colonies during the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans.

The Puritans have gotten a bad reputation in recent years. Most people think of them as a society that dressed in black, lived by strict rules, and never had any fun. And, since the Puritans were the ones who made the anti-Christmas laws, we assume that they must have wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun as well. But things are not always what they seem. In this case, it wasn’t so much the Puritans who were the problem. Christmas was the problem.

The Christmas that the Puritans knew was not at all like the Christmas we celebrate today. Our family-oriented, “presents for the kids” type Christmas is only about 150 years old. It developed with changing times and with the help of people who wanted to get rid of some of the disturbing customs that had been part of Christmas celebrations for centuries.

In his little book, A Testimony Against Several Profane and Superstitious Customs Now Practiced by Some in New England, Increase Mather, a Puritan preacher, discussed the Puritan reasons for not keeping Christmas. He explained that early Christians never celebrated Christmas, that there was no proof that Jesus was born on December 25, and that the date for Christmas Day was chosen to compete with the old pagan Roman celebration of Saturnalia that worshiped false gods. All these things were true, but Increase Mather had a better reason for not celebrating Christmas. As he put it, “The manner of Christmas-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonourable to the Name of Christ.” And the Puritans were right. Christmas was supposed to celebrate and honor the good tidings of Christ’s birth, but for many it became just an excuse to party.

For most of its history Christmas was celebrated like a carnival, with danc-ing, singing, and playacting in the streets. Often the joy of Christ’s birth was lost in the thrill of celebration. Sometimes Christmas was a bit like an out-of-control Halloween. Merrymakers dressed in animal costumes, and men dressed as women. People went house to house singing songs and expecting a tip or refreshments at the houses they visited. Sometimes they made trouble if they didn’t like the handouts they received.

Celebrations lasted throughout the twelve days of Christmas, and it was a time of overeating, drinking, and gambling. After drinking too much wine or with their faces hidden by masks, people acted in ways they would not nor-mally act. Roving bands of young men threatened people with demands for money and drinks. In medieval times, disorderly crowds elected a “Lord of Misrule,” who was a mock king with his court. They ridiculed the authorities and sometimes made fun of the ministers and the customs of the churches.

This was the sort of Christmas that the Pilgrims and Puritans remembered from England. When they came to the New World to set up a Christian cornmunity, they wanted no part of such practices. They had made a promise to each other to be a “City on a Hill.” Just as the lights of a mountaintop city show the way to travelers at night, so the Puritans wanted to be a light to the world, showing God’s love and power to change sinners into children of God. It took strength and courage to cross an ocean and attempt to live out that promise in a strange and dangerous land.

If Increase Mather or others of those colonists were with us today, we might argue with them that they went overboard in outlawing Christmas. We could tell them that Christmas can be kept in a way that honors God. But they might notice that we have added the new customs of overshopping, overworking, and overspending to the older Christmas customs of overeating and overdrinking.

There have always been two ways of keeping Christmas. One is just a cele-bration and nothing more. The other way is the Puritan way — a celebration that honors God. This is the sort of celebration that Isaiah described in today’s reading. “Behold your God!” Pay attention to what He has done for you. Arise and shine like a light on a hill. Tell the good news that a Savior is born.

This entry is accompanied by track 8 on the CD.

Excerpted from:
The Handel's Messiah: Family Advent Reader
By Donna W. Payne & Fran Lenzo
Copyright © 1999
Published by Moody Press
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.