Over the past few years I've enjoyed Christmas in locations as varied as Bethnal Green, Bolton and Blackpool. But while the wonders of east London and the glories of Lancashire are there for all to see, the most special occasion was, unsurprisingly, Christmas 2013, which I spent in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity. Seeing the pomp and ceremony of the celebrations there was a once in a lifetime experience. Witnessing the giant Christmas tree in Manger Square, and the pride that this little town shows in being the birthplace of Jesus was obvious. And Christmas was EVERYWHERE. Lights, wreaths, decorations, nativity scenes and much more besides. But this sense of celebration isn't shared everywhere.
Believe it or not, there are churches in the UK and the US that you could walk into this week and you wouldn't have any idea Christmas was approaching. Neither the decoration, nor the worship would give it away. But it's time those churches, and the rest of us thought about what impact this could have on those we're trying to tell the Good News of Jesus to.
On one level, it seems bizarre for a church not to be going all out for Christmas in December. Christmas carols were banned by the Puritans in the 17th century, but have made such a roaring comeback that you can barely switch on a TV or radio without hearing one. The Christian festival which means the most among our non-believing friends and relatives is Christmas. So surely we should be shouting from the rooftops that church is the place to celebrate?
There are two kinds of churches which aren't marking Christmas (at least not yet). The first is the kind which takes the church calendar very seriously. In these kind of churches, they strictly keep to the idea that Christmas doesn't begin until the day itself – 25 December. In such churches, the liturgical seasons are vital. And you can see the logic – if Advent is a serious thing, a season of anticipating and waiting and longing for the birth of the Messiah in much the same way as the people of Israel did for thousands of years, then waiting until Christmas to mark that coming is sensible.
The Western church calendar then has 12 days of feasting through until Epiphany on 6 January when the decorations come down – but some will even leave the crib up until Candlemas (2 February). In theory, this 12 days and nights of feasting and celebration mean that there's plenty of time to celebrate Christmas and that we should indeed keep Advent as a season of expectation. Some even argue we shouldn't even sing Christmas carols in Advent. One Irish academic recently described singing carols before Christmas itself as "absurd".
However, while keeping Advent free of any Christmas celebration may have worked in centuries gone by, in this day and age a church that refuses to celebrate any of the Christmas story prior to 25 December is in danger of missing its best chance to proclaim the Gospel.
Like it or not, Christmas has come to mean the whole of December (and most of November as well). The Church then has a choice. We can keep Advent pure for those within our walls, or we can bend a little and acknowledge that carol services are often the best chance to welcome non-believers in. We can maintain the special nature of Christmas but still share some of the joy associated with Christmas at carol services, and other Christmas themed events that happen before December 25. In a world where the 12 days of Christmas themselves are taken up with family time, perusing the sales and marking the New Year, we simply don't have the option of saying that those days alone are the ones during which we'll mark the incarnation.
The other kind of church where Christmas won't be in evidence is at the other end of the ecclesiastical scale. If the more traditionalist end of Catholic churches won't mark Christmas because it's actually Advent, then the more austere end of reformed churches have a different approach. For example, some conservative Presbyterians won't mark Christmas at all – because they associate it with Roman Catholicism. Any feast and fast days that aren't The Lord's Day (ie Sunday) are treated with the utmost suspicion in these circles, so even Christmas is something to be avoided. One British denomination describes marking 25 December as Jesus' birth as a lie. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland also suggests, "There is simply no place in the faith and life of a Christian for deliberate falsehood. He is forbidden by the Ten Commandments from lying... He must not pretend that 25th December is Jesus' birthday. He may not sing the carol which says that Christ was born on Christmas Day."
This may seem like an isolated voice (crying in the wilderness...) but actually, it used to be widespread. In fact, as the Scotsman newspaper recounts, "the suppression of Christmas in Scotland effectively lasted for 400 years, with December 25 only becoming a public holiday in 1958. Boxing Day was not recognised as a festive holiday until 1974."
To this day, there are Presbyterians and other reformed believers who think any celebration of Christmas is 'Popish nonsense' as the Puritans had it. Although in the 21st Century, these objections are mostly phrased in a more conciliatory fashion.
Again, there might be good reasons. Wanting to maintain a strong biblical stance is great – and not being seduced by whatever the world is doing is a good thing. But this is far too far, isn't it? When the world is ready to mark Christmas, even in an imperfect way, why would we reject that altogether? Wouldn't the average British or American person who isn't a regular churchgoer expect that a church would be marking Christmas in some way?
This, then, gets to the heart of the issue. How can we be 'seeker sensitive' without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Surely every church is there to point people to Jesus and that has to be our main concern when deciding how to do pretty much anything? Certainly when deciding how to behave around Christmas, we need to consider how we can best present the good news of a God who became human, lived, died and rose again.
We all know this didn't begin on 25 December. But that's not the point. The point is as Christians that we believe it happened. That Jesus was fully God and fully human – the creator of the universe, born in poverty in a backwater of the Roman Empire. An astonishing claim that has changed billions of lives across the world, but there are many, many people who don't know anything about the significance of the story at all.
If we allow our 'way' of doing (or not doing) Christmas to get in the way of spreading that news, I can't help but feel we've missed the point. Traditions are important and humans need them to live a meaningful life. Being concerned with biblical teaching is important and without it, we're lost. But in this season of Advent and Christmas, our main focus shouldn't be on ourselves. First it should be on Jesus and His coming to earth for us, and secondly it should be on those who don't yet know the full implications of this amazing story. Joy to the World indeed!