Every few years Christmas is on a Sunday and suddenly believers face a dilemma: Stay home hanging stockings and opening gifts, or upend those cherished domestic traditions and go to Sunday church services. That is, if their church is even open.
Nearly 10% of Protestant churches will be closed on Christmas Sunday this year, according to LifeWay Research, and most pastors who are opening up say they expect far fewer people than on other Sundays. Other reports suggest that churches across the board are scaling down their services in anticipation of fewer worshipers.
“We have to face the reality of families who don’t want to struggle to get kids dressed and come to church,” Brad Jernberg of Dallas’s Cliff Temple Baptist Church told the Associated Baptist Press. Similarly, Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va., is planning a short service featuring bluegrass riffs on Christmas music. “I’ll do a brief sermon, and then we’re going home,” said Pastor Mike Parnell.
Even in denominations organized around the liturgical calendar and sacramental worship, like the Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox churches, kid-friendly Christmas Eve services (actually held in the late afternoon) are proliferating—the “Jingle Bell Mass,” one Catholic priest dubbed them—while “Midnight Mass” is often a term of art, ending rather than starting at the stroke of midnight.
In the centuries after the Reformation, some Protestants, notably the Puritans in England, sought to ban Christmas celebrations as pagan bacchanals, which they often were. In colonial America, Christmas was celebrated more widely but still as a church-based holiday, with more festive celebrations tending to follow after Dec. 25. Gift-giving was a minor part of the traditions.
By the early decades of the 19th century, however, Christmas began to change. A growing middle class reacted against the custom of poor people knocking at their doors requesting Christmas handouts, so they started shopping for special gifts that would be given as treats to children and loved ones. At the same time, popular stories by Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore and Charles Dickens provided ready-made traditions—Santa Claus, stockings, flying reindeer, decorated evergreen trees—that would undergird the notion of Christmas as a holiday focused on home and gift-giving more than church.
Today, polls show Americans are much more inclined to put up a Christmas tree and decorations or go to a party than to attend religious services, even though they tend to see Christmas as a religious holiday.
Perhaps it’s a bit puritanical to insist that believers dump their cherished family traditions to march off to church on Christmas morning. But it’s also self-defeating to complain about keeping Christmas holy when churches close on Dec. 25.
When he preached at Christmas, Saint Augustine acknowledged the associations between the still-dominant pagan rites and Christianity’s Feast of the Nativity. But the bishop of Hippo said that such associations should spur the faithful to deeper observance, not to downplaying the holiday altogether or tailoring it to the prevailing culture: “So, brothers and sisters, let us keep this day as a festival—not, like the unbelievers, because of the sun up there in the sky, but because of the One who made that sun.”
Mr. Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service.