Thu, Dec 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

They're few, but some do reject Christmas

Most Protestant churches have learned to accomodate Christmas, but the changes have come mostly from the pews rather than the pulpit

By Tom Breen  /  AP.CHARLESTON , WEST VIRGINIA

As Christmas draws near, Pastor John Foster won't be decorating a tree, shopping for last-minute gifts or working on a holiday sermon for his flock. After all, it's been 50 years since Christmas was anything more than a day of the week to him.

He's one of very few US Christians who follow what used to be the norm in many Protestant denominations -- rejecting the celebration of Christmas on religious grounds.

"People don't think of it this way, but it's really a secular holiday," said Foster, pastor to a United Church of God congregation in Princeton, West Virginia. He last celebrated Christmas when he was eight.

His Church's objection to Christmas is rare among US Christians. Gallup polls from 1994 to 2005 consistently show that more than 90 percent of adults say they celebrate Christmas, including 84 percent of non-Christians.

That's a huge change from an earlier era, when many Protestants ignored or actively opposed the holiday. But as it gradually became popular as a family celebration, churches followed their members in making peace with Christmas.

The change did not happen overnight. Through much of the 19th century, schools and businesses remained open, Congress met in session and some churches closed their doors, lest errant worshippers try to furtively commemorate the day.

"The whole culture didn't stop for Christmas," said Bruce Forbes, a religious studies professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. "Government went on as usual, business went on as usual, school went on as usual," he said.

In researching his book Christmas: A Candid History, Forbes discovered that major American denominations -- Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists and Congregationalists -- either ignored the holiday or actively discouraged it until the late 19th century.

That rejection was rooted in the lack of biblical sanction for Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus' birth, as well as suspicion toward traditions that developed after the earliest days of Christianity. In colonial New England, this disapproval extended to actually making the holiday illegal, with celebration punishable by a fine.

"Some somehow observe the day," wrote Boston Puritan Samuel Sewall on Christmas Day 1685, "but are vexed, I believe, that the body of people profane it, and blessed be God no authority yet compels them to keep it."

Some 322 years later, Sewall might be surprised to see his congregation -- today known as Old South Church -- proudly displaying a decorated Christmas tree outside the church.

"We think it's cheerful and seasonal," said Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South, one of the US' most venerable congregations, counting among its past worshippers not only Sewall but Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams, two of the US' founding fathers.

Now part of the United Church of Christ, Old South not only has a Christmas tree, but encourages its 650 or so members to exchange Christmas presents -- although the focus is on charitable donations and service, rather than shopping.

"We are the descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims, but we have loosened up a lot since then," Taylor said. "We have changed and adapted and I think that's part of why we haven't died out."

Like Sewall's successors, the mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

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