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10 reasons Santa is Episcopalian
I’m telling you why
Christmas: A Candid History
By Bruce David Forbes
University of California Press
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What is it about Christmas? There’s nothing else quite like it in American culture. It’s beloved by everyone, grows bigger with every year, and yet can frustrate those who want it to be something more or different than it is.
In his charming book Christmas: A Candid History, Bruce David Forbes describes Christmas as a snowball. Christmas has never been just one thing; it’s a whole accumulation of cultures and symbols and inventions over centuries that no group in society completely owns.
And yet, as I was reading this book, I kept thinking that the Christmas the author was describing reminded me of something—a feeling, a flavor, a style—that I recognized. Until it finally clicked: Christmas is Episcopalian!
Here are my ten reasons why Christmas is the most Episcopal time of year:
1. Christmas is both a civic and religious holiday.
America has no established religion, but for most of its history, the Episcopal Church was the closest thing. The National Cathedral stands as both a religious and a civic space. Eleven presidents have been Episcopalian. Historically, it was the church of the establishment in most cities. If you look at the donor plates on the stained glass in an old Episcopal Church, you’re very likely to find the last names of the local aristocracy of that era. It’s not uncommon to find American flags or American symbols in old Episcopal churches, too.
In the same way, Christmas is both a religious holiday and a civic one. It’s just about impossible to separate them out. As Forbes writes:
Indeed, there are two Christmases: a cultural Christmas, and a religious or Christian Christmas. Some people focus on one, some focus on the other, and many are involved in both. … The vast majority of Christians experience both kinds of Christmas fully intertwined in their lives, seeing it all as one.
2. Historically, other protestant denominations have been anti-Christmas.
There have been attempts to kill Christmas—and it’s Christians who wanted the killing. Reformers wanted to get rid anything that wasn’t in the Bible or part of the early church, and the Christmas holiday was (surprise) not part of either.
Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists have all tried to downplay, avoid, or stop Christmas in the past. Forbes gives no examples of Anglicans or Episcopalians trying to stop Christmas. So if any Christian denomination should own the holiday, it should probably be the one that didn’t try to get rid of it.
3. Christmas is Anglophile.
“Traditional Christmas” as we know it was partially invented by Charles Dickens. Forbes argues that Scrooge was not much of an outlier when it came to typical opinions about Christmas during Dickens’ day. But his fictional conversion to Christmas became the template for what “the spirit of Christmas” ought to be.
In addition, images of Queen Victoria with her family around the Christmas tree spurred the popularization of Christmas trees in America. In the 19th Century, scenes of English Christmas were the ideal that many Americans aspired to.
Similarly, you’re likely to find a fair number of anglophiles in Episcopal Churches. Of course, the denomination itself and its style flow from England—and the words of its prayer book, though modernized and adapted to American culture, still have that country’s echoes in them.
4. Christmas is liturgical.
Christmas is that one time of year when everybody sings old religious songs and likes it. It’s also a holiday that bursts its bounds and fills up a whole season (even if it’s not the original twelve days anymore). And the season has decorations and colors that go up for a while, and then come down when it’s all over. In other words, it’s all that old-fashioned church stuff that many modern Christians have tried to jettison, come roaring back with glee and gusto.
But Christmas also has minor rituals that are very…ritual-ly. Lighting candles. Setting out cookies and milk for Santa. Wrapping a present simply to create the effect of unwrapping a present. These actions seem small, but over years of repetition we are compelled to repeat them again because they feel fitting and appropriate.
5. Saint Nicholas is a bishop and saint who squeezed through the Protestant Reformation.
Saint Nicholas was a bishop—which already gets him most of the way to being Episcopal. For most of his afterlife as a saint, however, according to Forbes telling, he was not associated with Christmas at all, but was generally a good and nice guy. Everybody liked St. Nicholas. He was your “friendly neighborhood” saint that you could call on for help whenever you needed.
Later on, the Reformers came along and wanted to get rid of him. (Um, hate Christmas much?) But the popularity of Saint Nicholas was just too strong. Many saints were lost to Protestantism, but not Saint Nicholas. Similarly, the Anglican tradition is sometimes known as the “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestant with Catholic elements or Catholic with Protestant elements, depending on your view.
6. Then Saint Nicholas became Santa with the help of Clement Clarke Moore who also helped start General Theological Seminary.
But Saint Nick as we know him today didn’t get absorbed into the Christmas snowball until the early 19th Century, when civic leaders of the New York Historical Society invented a history of Christmas for New York City specifically, including Santa Claus, reindeer, etc., as part of New York boosterism.
As mentioned above, historically, the Episcopal Church was associated with the political and business establishment in America. And one of the best examples of this is Clement Clarke Moore, a real estate developer who provided the land for General Theological Seminary, now the oldest Episcopal seminary in the country. (He later became a professor there.) But Moore is best known today as the author of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
As I said, Santa is literally Episcopalian.
7. Santa technically has a list of who’s naughty—but everybody gets treated like they are nice nowadays.
When Santa was Saint Nicholas, he would visit to see if children were good or bad. He left good things for good children, and bad things for bad children.
Today, though we still talk about the naughty list and the nice list, nobody gets coal in their stockings. Everybody is on the nice list. And being non-judgmental is just about the most Episcopal thing about Santa. As the friendly sign outside the building says: The Episcopal Church Welcomes YOU!
Along the same lines, the classic carols that people love to sing at Christmas are about good will toward all humankind, divine compassion, and universal brotherhood—without condition or qualification. Good news. Full stop.
8. Christmas gains power from tradition.
Christmas is a nostalgia trip. It’s very hard not to get sucked in by the cultural compound interest that Christmas has accrued over centuries.
In the churches where I grew up, everything was new. New buildings, new music, new Bible translations, new technology. Pastors were always starting new programs, trying out new things. The point was to stay relevant, and the worst thing that could happen would be for church to get old.
When I attended my first Episcopal church in college, the oldness was a big part of the attraction for me. Like Christmas, it felt like coming home to something I had never had before. There were, of course, reasons for this; often old things can feel so familiar because they were the original source or influence for everything that came after.
9. But Christmas is also what you want to make of it.
You can have cowboy Christmas. You can have Victorian Christmas. You can have Silent Night Christmas. You can Santa Baby Christmas. The true meaning of Christmas and the true spirit of Christmas are up to you.
The Anglican tradition developed in a unique kind of way, centered around the Book of Common Prayer. Basically, the English government didn’t want to get involved in sorting out what was going on in people’s heads theologically. If you agree to follow the prayer book, you’re good. Beyond that is personal freedom and private conscience. So it’s traditional, historic, and orthodox, while also allowing a wide range of views and perspectives. You find your own way into it, just like Christmas.
10. The appeal of Christmas is the magic of blessing.
The Christmas season is one of the few times a year when a secular age dabbles in the idea of magic. The spirit of Christmas—like a ghost—moves through us in ways that we sometimes resist, sometimes give into. But if I had to describe it, I would call it a spirit of “unfettered, unqualified blessing.” This, too, is Episcopal to me.
One of my favorite lines in the Book of Common Prayer goes:
Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing; you created them to rejoice in the splendor of your radiance.
In my own experience, there’s something whimsical(?) about Episcopal priests. For one, they really like blessing things… bikes, backpacks, dogs, cats, houses. They are always up for a good benediction, with palms out and a smile on their face. What’s going on with all this blessing? How does it work? What does it mean? I don’t know. But it feels good. It feels right. It feels like Christmas, every time.
Comfort ye my people
After writing this post, I realize that it might sound like I’m mocking, insofar as some people associate Santa with things that aren’t real or Christmas with sentimentality. I guess I see it this way:
Everybody, religious or non-religious alike, deep down knows what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to comfort people. And when religion is comforting people, everybody gets it. Everybody understands it. Even people that don’t believe in it are like, “That’s good. They should keep that up.”
Even when you look at Old Testament prophets, what really upset them (what God was upset about) was religious people not doing that, the comforting part. And it’s the most obvious reason for Jesus’ appeal. And, like the prophets, he got judgmental at the religious people who weren’t do the comforting part.
Here’s my controversial take: Christmas is basically proper functioning religion. That’s why people are like, “Why can’t we do this all year round? Shouldn’t every day be like Christmas? Isn’t this the most wonderful time of the year?” Christmas is a time of generously blessing each other—with candles and decorations and music and rituals to make the magic work. Nobody can enforce it. Nobody can control it. Nobody’s obligated. Nobody’s checking anybody’s head for “correct” Christmas thoughts. But everybody’s welcome, and it simply makes sense to people, in ways that are hard to even articulate.
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