Christmas comes but once a year, the saying goes, but for some believers it never comes at all.
Members of at least a half-dozen faith communities that identify as Christian say they revere Jesus Christ, but either avoid marking Dec. 25 at all or greatly scale back their observances. The number of non-observers is perhaps in the millions, and their theology is diverse, ranging from restorationists to anabaptists to some millennialists.
In worship and lore, religious Christmas observance is a treasured part of American culture and faith. A survey released this week by LifeWayReasearch.com says 79 percent of Americans surveyed believe Christmas should be "more about Jesus" while 63 percent said "Christmas activities should include a visit to a church service." Many churches host "Journey to Bethlehem" exhibits, live Nativity displays and Christmas services complete with choirs and inventive retellings of the Christmas story. Indeed, some congregations eye Christmas as a unique time to evangelize on behalf of their faith.
Not every church goes overboard in observing Dec. 25, however, and some skip special events on that day altogether. Reasons range from the belief that "every day is a holy day," as promoted by some Quakers, to a desire to observe those days the Bible emphasizes, such as the Old Testament holy days, while others, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, suggest any birthday, even that of Jesus, shouldn't be celebrated.
Defenders of Christmas say that while observing the holiday isn't a saving ordinance, there's usefulness in remembering Christ's first coming.
"You're celebrating a relationship that exists all year, and what's significant is a reminder of the value of the relationship," said Derek Morris, editor of Ministry Magazine, an international journal for pastors based in Silver Spring, Maryland. "To totally ignore the season sends the message to some people that it doesn't matter to me at all that the incarnation happened or that Christ was born."
Is it biblical?
There's no headquarters for the autonomous Churches of Christ, a restorationist movement with between 2 million and 3 million members worldwide, said Ralph Gilmore, a pastor in the denomination who teaches at Freed-Hardiman University, a church school, in Henderson, Tennessee.
But Gilmore said he is familiar enough with many of the churches to know that the majority of the group's 26,000 congregations do not emphasize Christmas with impressive displays and public events. Many Church of Christ members, he said, also play down the event.
Gilmore cited a lack of biblical support for the movement's reasoning.
"The Bible does not indicate when the birth of Jesus was," he said. "There are a couple of reasons in scripture why we doubt it was Dec. 25. Roman governor Quirinius called for a census. It would be pretty stupid to call for a census on Dec. 25, in the middle of winter," where even Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem could receive a dusting of snow.
Gilmore also said the Bible's description of "shepherds watching their flocks by night" wouldn't fit with colder temperatures. "I'm not saying it couldn't have been unseasonably warm, but the odds are against it," he said.
He asserted the Churches of Christ try to "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent," and thus say little about Dec. 25 being the birthday of Christ. The "first day of the week is very special," Gilmore said, referring to the weekly day of worship. But, he added, "On Dec. 25, the Bible is absolutely silent. There was no celebration in early days (of the church), and no mandate or suggestion to do so."
Individual members "are pretty big about Christmas, but as a matter of private faith. We don't bind it on everybody else," Gilmore said.
At the same time, some Church of Christ congregations will have a tree at the front of the sanctuary, he noted. "So many people are thinking about Jesus this time of year, so it would be a little bit odd we should just ignore so many people," Gilmore said. When he was a church pastor, he said, "I would often talk about the birth of Jesus because people had it on their minds. But most of us would not recognize it as a God-authorized holiday."
Another community where members aren't caught up in the Christmas rush is the Religious Society of Friends, an anabaptist movement more popularly known as the Quakers. Some "conservative Quakers," said Chris Pifer, a spokesman for the Friends General Conference, one of several national Quaker groups, refuse to observe Christmas at all, under the "every day is a holy day" rubric. But not all of the nation's 33,000 Quakers share that stance.
Deb McAlister, a member of a Quaker meeting, or congregation, in the Dallas area, eschews lavish Christmas spending and decorations as a way to "live simply so that others may simply live," using some of the excess funds to support charitable projects in her community and elsewhere. She said she would buy some presents for children and grandchildren, but the high-dollar spending favored by some is foreign to her.
Friends spokesman Pifer said when he was young,his family engaged in a larger Christmas observance, but "over time, as I've gotten older, certainly for my family the materialistic nature of Christmas declined dramatically. The reason we were getting together was for the family."
Pifer said some Quakers are dialing back their Christmases for another spiritual reason. "There's an effort within aspects of Quaker practice to try and explore and find primitive Christianity, the church before it became a political entity," he said. "In very early Christianity, there weren't holidays like Christmas anywhere close to the form it is today."
Knocking on doors
Perhaps the most conspicuous of Christmas-shunners are Jehovah's Witnesses, millennialists whose ranks include 1.9 million members in the United States. Although the group initially observed Dec. 25 as a holiday, church spokesman J.R. Brown said from the church's Brooklyn, New York, headquarters, further study by one official in 1928 led them to drop the observance.
Explaining the realization, a 1993 book, "Jehovah's Witnesses — Proclaimers of God's Kingdom," says the Witnesses' change came slowly. After the group "cast aside religious teachings that had pagan roots, they also quit sharing in many customs that were similarly tainted. But for a time, certain holidays were not given the careful scrutiny that they needed. One of these was Christmas."
Brown said the Witnesses now ask themselves "does this please God, when it is not mentioned in the scriptures?" He said if Christmas observance were important, the Bible would contain instructions on how to honor the day.
But his co-religionists are not killjoys. "If someone is dealing with you and they say, 'Merry Christmas,' we do not go into a sermon about the pagan origins," Brown said. "You don't make an issue of it every time, because we have to face the fact that they mean well when they say 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’ ”
According to Colin Thomas, a 46-year-old Jehovah's Witness in Holladay, Utah, taking a more mellow approach to Christmas discussions helps foster understanding.
"We respect people's right to live as they please," Thomas said. "We don't treat people as though they have some moral deficiency for celebrating Christmas. My experience has been, when explaining to a work colleague about our beliefs, how quickly people will say things like, 'I hate this time of year.’ ”
But, Thomas admits, "being different than the mainstream is a challenge." So instead of Christmas, his family had an annual celebration on Thomas' wedding anniversary. He said his children, now 15 and 18, "looked forward to it and got excited about it. I think it helped the kids to feel like they weren't missing out on those aspects of many holidays."
Many Jehovah's Witnesses use Dec. 25 as a day to go door-to-door sharing their message, spokesman Brown said.
"We will say this is the time of year many people are actually thinking about Jesus Christ. Did you take notice of what he put their emphasis on in his life?" Brown said.
And come this Christmas Day, J.R. Brown will be out canvassing homes, although not too early, to avoid waking people.
"I personally go out," Brown said. "I'm 74, and I've done this since I was 4 years old."
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Mark_Kellner