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    Once Upon a Christmas Roundup

    December 21, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Alright, so I wasn’t planning to post two link collections in one week, but as I was collecting, I noticed a theme: Christmas. And then I thought perhaps it would be better to share them before the big day, rather than after.

    So here they are…all of them good reading if you have time.

    • First up, an astronomy piece. Have you ever wondered about the famed Star of Bethlehem? Read Memoria Press’ article on the issue surrounding the star and the Magi.

      To understand this story, we must view it in the context of its time. Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? Magi is the plural of Magus, the root of our word magic, and “court astrologers” is probably the best translation, although “wise men” is also a good term, descriptive of the esteem in which they were widely held. The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.

    • Has anyone ever tried to tell you that Christmas is some sort of pagan holiday? I actually have two articles on this subject. First, Is Christmas Pagan? from Classical Astronomy. I especially appreciated that the author quoted the passage which I think must be considered when navigating the alleged “Christmas wars” between neo-Puritans and their brothers and sisters in Christ:

      One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. —Romans 14:5-9

      Second, I bring you Christmas, Saturnalia, and other Nonsense by historian Dr. Glenn Sunshine {an acquaintance of my husband’s}.

      Correlation does not mean causation: just because Jesus’ birth was celebrated at the same date as pagan festivals does not mean that there is a connection between the two, especially since there is no evidence of such a connection in the sources. The Jewish background to Christianity and the connection with the Crucifixion is a much better explanation for both of the dates when Christmas was celebrated than any supposed connection to paganism.

    • Is your church holding services on Christmas Day? I haven’t heard as much debate over this as I remember there being last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. Robin Phillips from The Alfred the Great Society has written extensively on the issue of whether Christmas is church holiday or a “family” holiday, how our answer as Americans is likely due to the influence of the Puritans, and so on. His two posts, Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 1) and Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2) are extensive and thoughtful and thorough and though I do not agree 100% with every single point he makes, I thought he gave a lot to think about and chew on. Well worth the read if you have time! Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:

      By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans and their descendants left a vacuum that would ultimately has been filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering has helped to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately from spiritual categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell the story of redemption, the Puritans and their descendants inadvertently underscored the sense of religion being disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in North American culture that emerged under the Puritan’s canopy, including a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Moreover, the vacuum created by the evacuation of the church year would eventually be filled with the type of civil religion described by Amy Sullivan. This can be felt strongest in those American holidays that celebrate civic regeneration, integrating Americans around the liturgies of their common political life.

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  • Reply Books For Breakfast December 30, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve always strove for a balance between the sacred and the secular during the Christmas season, but to just not observe the day at all would feel very wrong to me. Even though there is quite a bit of the secular in our celebration (tree, Santa, presents, etc.)there is so much wonder each time I fathom the Incarnation. And this Christmas, after having read the OT, then reading the opening chapter of John just weeks before Christmas day . . . I have no words to describe how intense was my ardor when I joined with fellow Christians on Christmas Eve and sang, as if for the first time, “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel.”

  • Reply Kelly December 23, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I don’t mean to take over your comments, but I just realized last night that your question was more about Sunday than about Christmas. I happened to read another blog where it was a big controversy…

    In our church (as with Catholic and maybe Orthodox) a Saturday night service counts as a Sunday service, because the Church day begins at sunset, like the days in the Jewish calendar. (Although by canon law “sunset” is at 6pm, year round, which simplifies real life, but complicates explanations of our tradition. :-p )

    This shouldn’t be looked at as a way of getting out of a Sunday morning service on account of Christmas, though — there are one or two other times during the year when we have a Saturday evening service for our main Sunday serivce, plus a service at the chapel next morning, for anyone who can make it. Hope that makes sense.

  • Reply Sharlene December 22, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Our church is having a Sunday morning service on Christmas day. Our daughter’s church is having an evening service, so we will watch it via the Internet. We are thousands of miles away. So one way or another we will be in church for two services.

  • Reply Kelly December 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Anglicans have Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning services no matter what day of the week they fall on, so yes.

    But having said that, our church’s practice needs a little explanation. We don’t own our own building — we rent from the Methodists. But there’s a little chapel on the farm where our priest lives and we sometimes hold “extra” services there — the ones that are on the Church calendar but aren’t on a Sunday, like Ash Wednesday, for example. It’s too small for the whole congregation (and we’re a very small congregation!), and it’s another fifteen minutes away from the church, and most of our people already drive half an hour or more, so most of the services held there aren’t well attended.

    For reasons unknown to me, our main Christmas service has always been Christmas Eve, so that’s the one we hold at the Methodist church. The Morning service is at the chapel, and it’s usually too early in the morning for us to make it (I don’t know why but it’s usually two hours earlier than our normal morning service). The exception to this is when the Methodist church is hosting the Christmas Eve service (the three local ones take turns). Then our main service is on Christmas morning, at the Methodist church at the usual time, which last happened in 2009.

    So, I said all that to say this — we are having a Christmas morning service, but it’s going to be at the chapel, and I’ll be surprised if anyone but the priest and his wife are there. Usually we go to the local Episcopal Church on Christmas morning, because it’s only a few mintues away and we have friends there, and we do LOVE going to church on Christmas Day in the morning.

    (Have I mentioned that this is a spread-out, rurual community? It takes us half an hour to get to church, when we don’t accidentally get behind a tractor or some other lollygagger.)

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts December 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    I would note that the author of that quote belongs to a Reformed Presbyterian church, so it is possible to hold that position and be neither Catholic nor Orthodox. I find the idea of a church calendar–of keeping “Church time”–very appealing, but to say that not keeping it causes a vacuum seems to conflict with what Paul wrote. But then again there is a difference between not keeping it to the glory of God and not keeping it…because the Puritans made it illegal to do so. 🙂 My thought is that some of us need some external (I would include myself in this)–that it is hard for some of us to keep every day the same to the glory of God.

  • Reply Daisy December 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Wow, where has that last quote been all my life. I have frequent conversations with my Protestant-turned-Catholic friend over this very issue. They would site the above quote as the very reason why they joined the Catholic church. I’m seeing this more and more often and almost always they state that they love the liturgical calendar.

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