A boy trudged through the snow one cold evening in Connecticut around 1820. He spied the town’s “”little brown Episcopalian church lit up like a beacon in the early darkness,” says historian Debby Applegate.
The boy was no Episcopalian. He attended the Congregational church led by the renowned preacher, Lyman Beecher, his dad. Applegate says the boy, Henry Ward Beecher, “was irresistibly drawn to the open door of the church, and as he peered in he was shocked to find candles blazing at every window; boughs of spruce, pine, and arborvitae twined around the pews; and a choir singing blissfully about the birth of Christ. He had never seen such a spectacle, certainly not in his father’s austere meetinghouse, and he could not imagine what it meant.”
This peak through the Episcopalian door provided Henry a “dazzling vision” of Christmas. It would be his only experience of Christmas as a child. Christmas “was not known in the house of my father, for he was a Puritan of the Puritans,” Henry said years later. “I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day.”
In a day when some American Christians worry about Christ being taken out of Christmas, it is good to remember that December 25 has not always been a sumptuous day of joy to some Christ followers. As Applegate says in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher:
“When Henry was a boy, his faith in his father was so deeply ingrained that it never occurred to him to ask why they did not celebrate Christmas. If he had, Lyman’s answer would have been unequivocal. As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact, and there was nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that Christ was born on December 25. And even if there were, the day would be an occasion for solemn prayer, not sensual frivolity. Why, the Beechers didn’t even celebrate their own birthdays.”
Be thankful most of us have moved beyond the type of faith lived by the elder Beecher. The birth of Jesus is cause for celebration. Bring out the song and sing like the angels did upon the birth of Christ so many years ago. Decorate your churches, homes, and businesses because we recall on December 25 something wonderful that happened long ago yet is so present with us. Be loud and bright because joy causes exaltations of spirit.
But also make room for the quiet — prayer to the Father of it all, meditation on the magnificence of it all. And, as we pray, we may ask that God will help us to remember that with each day of life we have a chance to allow the beauty and brightness of Jesus to shine through us — that Christmas is one day that should inspire all of our days.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
(Luke 2:13-14, NRSV)
(This story is cited in Betty Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, New York: Doubleday, 2006, pp. 19-20. This originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.)