MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) — Baptists of the South and the faith community of Southern Baptists after 1845 originally did not attach much significance to Christmas. The holiday is not recognized as a special day of worship in any of the historic Baptist confessions, allusions to it are rare in Baptist history volumes before the 1880s, and the holiday possessed an association with worldliness and even paganism in the minds of many Baptist ministers. Such opinions can still be found among some Baptists today who voice, “The New Testament does not command us to celebrate a festival commemorating the nativity.”
[QUOTE@left@180= After the Civil War, Southern Baptists began a slow process of incorporating Christmas themes and activities into their church programs and services.]Nevertheless, according to Southern Christmas historian Emyl Jenkins, the people of the South had a long tradition of celebrating the holiday as a popular festival to honor the birth of Christ. At a time when Christmas was slow coming to New England (Boston did not celebrate Christmas until 1856), Southerners had made it a legal holiday in most states beginning with Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana in the 1830s. Southern communities and families observed the holiday with great enthusiasm. Included in these celebrations were distinctive regional customs such as the popular consumption of pork (over poultry); the broader use of almost anything green in nature for decorations besides holly, evergreens, and mistletoe; discharges of firearms; fireworks; and bonfires. These celebratory activities took place alongside more thoughtful observances of the Lord’s nativity.
It is probable that while most Baptists in the South before the Civil War largely downplayed the observance of Christmas in their churches, they participated in Christmas activities with their families and in their communities. These Baptists exercised their Christian liberty about special days that Paul cited in Romans 14:5-6 and found festive but temperate activities and customs to celebrate the birth of Christ.
After the Civil War, Southern Baptists began a slow process of incorporating Christmas themes and activities into their church programs and services. One reason for this was the growing popularity of Christmas during the Victorian Era. Churches sang carols, implemented Christmas-themed nativity plays and holiday events staged for and by children, and created a series of sermons based on the Matthew and Luke accounts of the birth and early childhood of Jesus as valid means for proclaiming the Gospel and teaching the doctrine of the incarnation to all ages of Believers. For instance, in 1867 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Basil Manly Jr. wrote a letter to his children relating how his church’s Sunday School program celebrated the holiday with a decorated tree and the exchange of inexpensive gifts. Manly specifically stated that this custom had only taken place in his church after the Civil War, and the letter itself bore evidence of the growing tolerance for Christmas activities in church programs.
A second reason for the embrace of Christmas in Southern Baptist culture was the influence of missionary Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon. In 1887 she wrote a letter to the Foreign Mission Journal suggesting that Southern Baptist women set aside a season of prayer and giving to international missions. She pleaded that the “week before Christmas” be chosen. “Is not the festive season when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of the Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of human race, the most appropriate time to consecrate a portion from abounding riches … to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?”
In Moon’s famous letter she noted in passing that Christmas celebrations in Baptist life still largely unfolded among “families and friends,” but that would soon change. In 1888 the newly founded Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) took up the challenge and began collecting a Christmastide offering through women in Southern Baptist churches. By 1889 the Annual Report of the convention reported that “Christmas envelopes” were distributed in the churches. The Foreign Mission Board in the Annual Report of 1890 acknowledged that it had published “Christmas literature.” In 1897 the convention thanked the WMU “for the sum of all these Christmas offerings.” Over time the Southern Baptist embrace of a Christmastide offering to support missions made it respectable to incorporate additional Christmas themes in Southern Baptist churches.
After Lottie Moon’s death, the WMU Christmas offering was renamed the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the early 20th century Southern Baptist observance of Christmas in the churches included the promotion and support of foreign missions alongside overt and public activities that celebrated the birth of Christ. As the 20th century lengthened, Baptist churches joined other Christian faith groups in America that celebrated Christmas in the church services with special music, holiday events, Christmas-themed sermons that began after Thanksgiving, and the giving of gifts and candy to children in the Sunday School programs. Nevertheless, the centerpiece of Southern Baptist holiday activities remained the promotion of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for the support of foreign missions.
By the late 20th century and early 21st century the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches had fully incorporated celebrations of the birth of Christ into its culture. Large suburban churches produced elaborate Christmas programs to honor the nativity and also proclaim the Gospel. In addition, many of these same large churches also began incorporating Advent season activities into church worship with the inclusion of Advent wreaths and candles, sermons preparing the local churches for the upcoming Christmas holiday, and events on Advent like “the hanging of the greens” in the church sanctuary.
In 2008 the annual Convention passed its first Christmas-themed resolution when Southern Baptists resolved to “affirm the use of the term Christmas” instead of referring to more generic terms for the season like “holiday” or “winter solstice” in public life. The opening line of the resolution that proclaimed that “Christmas celebrates one of the most holy events in Christian history” would have shocked Baptists in an earlier era who saw a disconnect between the Lord’s nativity and the popular Christmas holiday. Baptists had experienced a gradual embrace of Christmas that first tolerated and later advocated many aspects of the holiday.
In 2011 one aspect of the Southern Baptist observance of Christmas has remained constant since the late 1880s — the Christmas offering advanced by Lottie Moon for the proclamation of the Good News to the world at large. Support of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is one of the best ways that Southern Baptist Christians can support the nativity angels’ vision for “peace on earth and good will toward men.”
Stephen Wilson is the vice president for academic affairs at Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.