That Church Calendar Christmas Crunch

In the beginning, there were humble Nativity pageants for the kids and Christmas choir extravaganzas for the grown-ups.

As the decades passed, some big Protestant churches began hiring orchestras and buying advertisements, creating a music-ministries arms race that pitted the Baptists against the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians against the Methodists. Some prosperous churches even began moving these performances on stage or outdoors, adding elaborate sets, costumes and lights.

But the leaders of these churches agreed on one thing -- big Christmas events were supposed to be held on the Sunday before Christmas. Most of the faithful stayed home to fill their roles in the big shows in their churches and then hit the road.

"Going to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was something the Catholics did and all the people in those other churches that followed the church calendar," said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College.

"For most Protestants, Christmas was about being with your family. Churches weren't open on Christmas, but nobody thought much about it -- unless Christmas fell on a Sunday. Then things could get complicated."

This is precisely what happened this year, of course, when some of America's largest evangelical churches made headlines by canceling their Sunday services on Christmas Day, urging the faithful to stay home with their families. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many other news organizations said this was an ironic decision in a year when conservatives were attacking any merchants and government leaders who refused to "put Christ back in Christmas."

It seemed, said Witvliet, that "part of the problem was that headline that everyone was using -- 'Churches Close On Christmas.' That just seemed so counter-intuitive to people who have never really given much thought to the problems that churches have year after year trying to negotiate their Christmas schedules so that things work out for their families. ...

"But this is old news. This problem has been getting worse for decades."

Like it or not, the old Christmas traditions built on extended families and small, neighborhood churches have been shredded by decades of interstate highways, divorces, Thanksgiving shopping blitzes, mass media, secular parties and cheap airplane tickets.

Modern clergy find it hard to get the numbers to add up.

How is a church music minister going to handle a difficult Christmas cantata when only one or two tenors or sopranos remain in town? What are elementary-grade Sunday school leaders supposed to do when most of their Nativity pageant angels, shepherds and wise men have been air-lifted to distant zip codes to visit various grandparents or ski resorts?

Drastic times produce pragmatic pastors and priests. Thus, it has been a decade or two since most churches -- Protestant and Catholic churches alike -- began moving many of their Christmas festivities into mid-December and even earlier in an attempt to find gaps in the log-jammed calendars of their wandering members.

Those Christmas concerts that used to be scheduled for Sundays around Dec. 22 or 23 began drifting earlier and earlier in the month. At many churches, organizations and, especially, Christian schools the Christmas season is all but over by Dec. 15 or 16 or earlier. All that's left is frantic shopping and the rites of travel, food, family, fellowship and television.

"At some point, the whole month of December turns into Christmas and people just do what they have to do to jam everything in there," said Witvliet.

The only surprising part of this year's megachurch Christmas controversy, he added, was that some influential Protestant churches decided to close their doors on a Sunday. After all, it is perfectly normal for Protestant churches not to gather for worship on the Feast of the Nativity, even though it is one of the most important holy days in Christian tradition.

And what about observing the traditional Christmas season itself, which begins on Dec. 25th and continues through Epiphany on Jan. 6th?

"Even talking about the traditional 12 days is like asking people to run uphill against everything that's going on around them," said Witvliet. "Most of what happens in the church today is, sadly, being driven by the calendar of the shopping mall. That's how people order their lives."