By AT News Team, Dec. 24, 2014: Despite a traditional reluctance to make much of Christmas (explained in the current issue of a secular news magazine, The Week), more and more local congregations and institutions affiliated with the Adventist denomination are celebrating the Christian festival. Concerts, tree lightings, efforts to aid the poor and live nativity scenes are all among the many seasonal expressions of faith from local Adventist groups.
“The festival was banned in the nation’s earliest days,” the issue of The Week dated December 26, 2014, explains the history of an idea that turns out to be more American than Adventist. “New England’s Puritan leaders considered it a pagan or papist abomination, and citizens found celebrating around Dec. 25 would be sternly reprimanded.” It “became legal in the 1680s.”
Journey to Bethlehem is a re-enactment of the New Testament narrative leading up to the birth of Jesus along the lines of and sometimes including a live nativity scene. Hundreds of Adventist local churches and schools across the United States are implementing these projects. This is the 18th year the Kelso-Longview Adventist Church in Washington state has done so, reports The Daily News, with “a cast of several hundred” outdoors on the church campus.
Another church in the same state, the Wenatchee Adventist Church is in its fifth annual presentation with 250 volunteers, reports The Wenatchee World. But this is by no means strictly a regional phenomena in the northwest U.S. Oakwood University has live nativity scene in Huntsville, Alabama. Journey to Bethlehem was also presented in a small Midwestern town according to the La Porte, Indiana, Herald Argus. A group of 200 volunteers “assembled the sets, designed the costumes and prepared the music for each station [with] several hundred people attending.”
The Mason City, Iowa, Adventist church turned on the lights for the Advent Tree on Sunday night, December 7, according to the local newspaper. “The evergreen is believed to be one of the taller living Christmas trees in the U.S.” at 61 feet. “Prior to the tree lighting, an interfaith worship program was held in the church featuring readings and homilies by Pastor Sean McRoberts and Pastor Matthew Lucio as well as music by North Iowa Choral Society and Una Vocis.”
Glendale Adventist Hospital in southern California launched a Christmas tree lighting tradition this year, reported the Glendale News Press. “The evening saw a solemn moment as more than 100 people lit candles to remember those they’ve lost in the past year. The 20-foot-tall tree in the hospital’s West Tower lobby was decorated with memorial ornaments dedicated to lost loved ones.”
Christmas concerts have been announced in many places, including “a full brass band, string quartet, a 32-voice acapella choir,” at the Claremore, Oklahoma, Adventist Church, “as well as a performance by the Claremore High School jazz choir.” The Claremore Progress reported that this year’s guest conductor is Mark Elyfree, former conductor for the Province of Quebec in Canada.
On the campus of Southern Adventist University alone, three major concerts are scheduled, according to The Chattanoogan. December 2 following the annual Christmas Tree Lighting, a short program including performances by Deep 6, Southern Ringtones, Expressions of Praise, Collegedale Academy Band and the Southern Strings and Jazz Ensembles; December 6 the Christmas Pops Concert including the Wind Symphony, the Jazz Ensemble, the Percussion Ensemble, and the Southern Ringtones; and December 13 the School of Music Christmas Concert featuring the Choral Ensembles and the Symphony Orchestra performing Handel’s Messiah.
In many places the Christmas activities by Adventist groups involve serving the needs of the homeless and the poor. In Bermuda, Christmas dinner is served for anyone who has no place to go and share the meal with family or friends at the Hamilton Adventist Church. It is cosponsored by the cable television system for the island nation. Bermuda CableVision provides the food and the television employees and church volunteers work together in serving the meal.
As part of the Christmas festivities organized by the Dorchester Center for the Arts in Cambridge, Maryland, donations of grocery items, coats and other clothing, school supplies and baby products will be collected at nine stores of various kinds for “the annual Cambridge Adventist Church Food and Clothing Drive,” reported MyEasternShore.com.
At Sligo Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, the congregation operates a homeless shelter for women and children during the winter months in collaboration with a local nonprofit organization. This is the second winter it has been open and the Montgomery County Gazette recounted the story last week of a typical client.
“Sameirow Carter was at her wits’ end last winter. The 34-year-old mother of four had no place to stay. … A teacher at her child’s school referred her to Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church. … Carter said her experience at the church’s shelter … was exceptional. The volunteers were friendly, and she was provided food and guidance about making a transition into other housing options. She stayed at the shelter for a month.”
Sligo is one of the largest local churches in the denomination with about 3,000 members. It is located on a campus shared by Washington Adventist University and Washington Adventist Hospitals, the two major Adventist institutions in this national capital that date from the early years of the 20th century. The General Conference offices are nearby.
Another creative Christmas outreach was a float which the Porterville (California) Adventist Church placed in the annual Porterville Children’s Christmas Parade. Described as “spiritual and a little traditional” by the Porterville Recorder local newspaper, it featured 20 children dressed as Joseph and Mary, angels and wise men, sheep and donkeys.
The celebration of Christmas by Adventists is becoming more international. The Borneo Post reported that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was one of the Association of Churches in Sarawak, Indonesia, who organized a joint Christmas worship service hosted by the Anglican Church and attended by more than 1,000 Christians.
The historical report in The Week stated without reservation or defensiveness that the major winter Christian festival is rooted in the pre-Christian Saturnalia. “The Bible doesn’t explicitly state the date on which Jesus was born, and many theologians place his birth in the spring.” It was in “the 4th century … church leaders pushed the date back a few months to Dec. 25 and borrowed some Saturnalia rituals for their own festival to keep the public happy. ‘If Christianity moves Christmas into December, you can then fade out these other festivals,’ said archaeologist Sam Moorhead. ‘You can attempt to move on as if nothing has happened.’ The festival quickly spread across the Christian world, but some pious believers refused to join in the holiday cheer.”