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Christmas Sourpusses . . . The New England Puritans And The Jesus Seminar

December 19, 2013 Featured Today No Comments


I don’t have a polling service to prove it, but I think it safe to say that liberal Christians dedicated to “demythologizing” the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth — such as those who promote the views of John Dominic Crossan and the “Jesus Seminar” — would fall on the left side of the political spectrum. I’d bet serious money that most favor legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. They would be offended if anyone linked them with the fire-and-brimstone 18th-century New England Puritans who spent their lives pointing fingers at their neighbors who were on their way to Hell. Yet it strikes me that the two groups have much in common when it comes to Christmas.
Check the record: The modern progressives and the Puritans of old are on the same side of the question of how Christians should spend their time on Christmas Day — not too merrily. They agree that there is a need to “update” the thinking of the “common folks” into an understanding of Christmas in line with the “elites” exasperated by the “primitive” and “simple-minded” views of the ordinary Christians of their respective times in history.
There should be no need to summarize in detail the views of the Jesus Seminar. Newsweek devoted a cover story to the group in 1994, and ABC spent two hours in 2000 on a special entitled In Search of Jesus, hosted by Peter Jennings, summarizing their understanding of the “historical” Jesus. Which is that since miracles do not occur, the infancy narratives must be seen as myths conjured up by early Christians to win converts. Hence no Annunciation, no Incarnation, no Virgin Birth, no angels on high, no Magi.
They insist the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s birth were tall tales told by the Gospel writers to make Jesus fit Jewish prophecies about the Messiah. Nothing to get all that joyous about; nothing to celebrate. Better to teach our children to reject the revelry associated with Christmas Day. Better to seek the “true” meaning of Christmas by doing some good deed to make the community a better place to live, perhaps by raising money for the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, and inner-city poverty programs.
And no gift-giving, of course, unless they are authentic handcrafts made by people living in poverty in public-housing projects or cabins in Appalachia — some scarves or wooden tops, perhaps, or carved representations of Jesus and Mary as African villagers, sold to alleviate poverty in the area where they were made. No sumptuous meals with the family, either. Better to spend the day in a soup kitchen serving the community at large. Better to emphasize the “concept of Christmas” as a way to motivate a commitment to the wealth redistribution and social justice programs championed by the Democratic Party.
The Puritans in colonial New England saw things similarly. They were sourpusses, too. They also sought to discourage “boisterous” and “frivolous” Christmas merrymaking by the common folks, prodding them to adopt the more sensible approach to the holiday favored by the village elders, who knew what was best in religious matters.
Jonathan Edwards never read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It was written after his death. But one suspects he would have found Ebenezer Scrooge’s thinking much to his liking. One can picture Edwards growling “Humbug,” if he had been told of how Catholic children in Spanish villages of his era waited in great expectation for the Three Kings to arrive on Epiphany with baskets of gifts for the good children of the neighborhood, accompanied by fireworks and torches on the walls of their cities.
He would be equally offended if told of children in France waiting for their gifts from Papa Noël, or for Sinter Klaus in Holland. What reason was there for all this jubilation? The odds were the little waifs were predestined to Hell. You could tell that was their fate by their low station in life. If they were members of the Calvinist “elect” favored by God, they would be prosperous people fit for the company of the rich merchants of Boston, more worried by the gout than whether they would be favored with bundles of small toys and candies from some lout in a costume.
The New England Puritans were following the lead of their co-religionists in England on the question of Christmas revelry. Under Cromwell, by an Act of Parliament in 1644, the Puritans made Christmas a fast day. Shops were forced to remain open. The American Puritans got the message. Cotton Mather denounced Christmas in his sermons. The General Court of Massachusetts levied a statute, stating “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid . . . shall pay for every offense five shillings to the country.” (See note below.)
This thinking is parallel with that of the Jesus Seminar. There was nothing special to celebrate on Christmas Day for the Puritans, because nothing special happened on the first Christmas. The hymns, the merrymaking, the gift-giving, the feasting were discouraged because those who participate in these things get caught up in illusions about the Incarnation and the Blessed Mother’s role in salvation history as the Mother of God, about a world saved from Satan’s power by a personal Savior who loved us all, not just the most prosperous, about the transformation of all human experience by an actual event that happened in the year that “a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus, enjoining that the whole world should be registered,” an event that occurred when “Joseph, being of David’s clan and family, came up from the town of Nazareth, in Galilee, to David’s city in Judaea, the city called Bethlehem, to give in his name there.
“With him was his espoused wife Mary, who was then in her pregnancy; and it was while they were still there that the time came for her delivery. She brought forth a son . . . whom she wrapped in his swaddling-clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room them in the inn.” Then angels appeared, “a multitude of the heavenly army…giving praise to God, and saying, Glory to God in high Heaven, and peace on earth to men that are God’s friends.”
People who believe such things, who are convinced they have been redeemed by Jesus in the eyes of a loving Father, can be a troublesome bunch for those who think they are mankind’s moral guardians, with a duty to remake society to their liking — whether those self-appointed elites issue their pronouncements from the village councils of Jonathan Edwards’ New England or a modern lecture sponsored by local devotees of the Jesus Seminar.

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(Author’s Note: I relied heavily on the description of laws passed by the New England Puritans on the essay “Christmas in Christendom,” by Frederick Wilhelmsen, found in William F. Buckley’s book Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the 20th Century.)

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