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Taking the Christmas Out of Christ

Times Staff Writer

It was just a few nights before Christmas as Pastor Santos Carrasco, smiling broadly, sat in his small storefront church in Echo Park strumming his guitar and singing of God’s goodness.

“How good God is. How good he is,” Santos sang out in Spanish. “He forgives my sin. How good he is.”

But whatever else the pastor would sing that night -- or any other time this week including Saturday or Sunday -- it wouldn’t be Christmas carols. Neither Christmas trees nor presents are thought appropriate.

Carrasco and his Christian congregation of 60 mainly Central American immigrants at the Iglesia de Dios La Nueva Jerusalem (Church of God the New Jerusalem) believe in Jesus as Lord. But they don’t keep Christmas.

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“There is nothing biblical” in the yuletide celebrations, said Carrasco, 56. “And we only practice what Jesus orders us to practice.”

What’s worse, he continued, Christmas was ungodly, a time of revelry, including drunkenness and “pleasures of the flesh. They are not celebrating God,” he said.

Carrasco is not alone. A few Christian churches to this day dismiss Christmas with a polite theological humbug, among them a small number of independent Pentacostal churches such as Carrasco’s, and the larger and better known Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others, such as the Church of Christ, Scientist, avoid much of the pageantry and merriment.

They used to have more company. Even some major denominations, including Baptists, which today trumpet the birth of Jesus with carols and yuletide symbols, dismissed Christmas as unimportant, even pagan, until the early 19th century. Another was the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, which until a major theological upheaval in 1995 had forbidden its members to celebrate Christmas. Some members then left the church and affiliated with breakaway churches that continue to hold Christmas at bay.

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There has long been tension over how Christmas should be observed. But the issue has taken on a new urgency this year among Christian conservatives who are pushing for more explicit recognition of the holiday.

Some groups are calling for boycotts of stores which ring in -- and ring up -- the season with “Happy Holidays” greetings and advertising instead of “Merry Christmas.” The Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, is promoting a new book by John Gibson called “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.”

Even President Bush, who has come to represent the face of Christian evangelicalism in the White House, came under fire recently for sending out religiously neutral holiday cards with nary a mention of Christmas.

But for all the pleas to “keep Christ in Christmas,” Christmas has not always been, well, Christian.

The day that Christians today think of Jesus’ birthday was marked in pre-Christian days by midwinter agricultural and solar observances.

Although no one knows when Jesus was born, his birth was celebrated on Dec. 25 in Rome as early as AD 336 as an ascendant Roman Catholic Church preempted the pagan celebrations. Most Eastern Orthodox churches later accepted that date too, although the Armenian church retains Jan. 6.

“It’s the way Europe got Christianized. The pope would write letters to the bishops saying let them keep doing what they are doing as long as they change the name,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Battle for Christmas,” which traces the evolution of the holiday.

Not until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Nissenbaum said, was such accommodation challenged.

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Followers of Reformation leader John Calvin argued that Christmas was unbiblical. Like Pastor Carrasco in Echo Park, they also decried how Christmas was being observed. In 1647, Oliver Cromwell persuaded the British Parliament to make the holiday illegal, terming it both “papist and pagan.” The law didn’t last.

C.H. Spurgeon, a famous Baptist preacher at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, declared in 1871: “We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas.”

It is a refrain still heard today. In a current posting on their website, Jehovah’s Witnesses explain their reasons for not observing Christmas: “Surely God never intended Christ’s birth to eclipse his life as a mature man. Yet, Christmas has succeeded in obscuring the person of Christ in a mire of Nativity legends and folklore.”

While the vast majority of other Christians prepared to celebrate Christmas with concerts and candlelit church services, there was not much evidence of the Christmas season earlier this week at Pastor Carrasco’s church on Glendale Boulevard, next door to a doughnut shop.

Wooden pews filled the small room. The lectern was flanked by a set of drums, a synthesizer and other instruments. A man quietly read his Bible, opened to well-worn pages filled with passages highlighted with a yellow marker pen.

The only hints of Christmas were several pots of poinsettias. Carrasco smiled when asked about them.

The Honduran-born pastor, who founded the church 12 years ago, explained that the plants were donated by someone and that it would have been rude to turn them down.

Sonia Chavez, 36, a mother of three, sat quietly in the back pew. She covered her head with a white lace, as she said the Bible required women to do in church.

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No, she told a guest, she did not celebrate Christmas. “We believe in the birth of Jesus and we believe more in the day that he’s born in our hearts,” she said.

But that, she acknowledged, was not so easy for her youngest child. “The 3-year-old is the one who asks more than any other,” she said, smiling. “He sings the songs of merry Christmas and that he wants Christmas and he wants a tree. We tell him that Christmas is all the time, we celebrate Jesus every day.”

But as a concession to his youth, she said “non-Christian” friends would bring him a gift -- and she would find a little something for him too.

Alex McFarland, director of Youth Apologetics for Focus on the Family, an evangelical broadcast ministry headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., said he is mindful of a Christian’s right to follow his or her faith as they feel guided.

But he said some objections to customs were misplaced. Opposition to Christmas trees, for example, is based on a misreading of the Bible’s book of Jeremiah, 10:2-4, he said. The King James Version reads: “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen.... For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold.... “

“Jeremiah was writing several hundred years before the birth of Christ. It could not have referred to a Christmas tree,” McFarland said.

Nissenbaum of the University of Massachusetts said modern-day religious criticism of Christmas is historically familiar. “Christmas was really a carnival season,” he said. “There’s that warm remnant of the Christmas season as a time of drinking and letting go and just misbehaving. That survived but it has survived only on New Year’s Eve.”

By the early 19th century, Christmas was becoming domesticated and made respectable, he said.

But Nissenbaum is skeptical that churches will ever have the last word on Christmas.

“In every age there have been a significant number of Christians trying to observe the holiday as a pious event, but I don’t think they ever controlled the holiday. Its seasonal aspect is too powerful.”


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