Dec. 2016

“From Humbug to Hallelujah! Christmas at The Brick Church”
By Barbara Meachin

You may have heard Presbyterians referred to as the “frozen chosen.” This is particularly unfair to Brick Church. We attract thousands to our steps to sing and usher in the Christmas season. We shout “Hallelujah” at the top of our collective lungs on Easter. We shut down our block on 92nd Street for hot dogs, banjo music and strawberry shortcake. We are not frozen.

All of this liveliness would be totally foreign to our founding forefathers and mothers. They considered it unseemly for the Church to commemorate special days in the Christian year unless mentioned in the Bible—which is silent on the subject of Dec. 25. This point of view stems from a strict interpretation of Calvinism (not endorsed by Calvin himself), brought by Scots Presbyterians and New England Puritans to New York. Brick Church upheld this tradition.

Our Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends suffered no such prohibition, and celebrated heartily. This could be good news. After all, George Washington won the Battle of Trenton on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776 while Britain’s German mercenaries were recovering from their Christmas festivities.

We don’t know if Brick Church members celebrated Christmas at home. Dr. Rodgers, our first pastor, was a sociable person. “He lives in elegant style and entertains company as genteelly as the first gentlemen of the city,” wrote an acquaintance, and was “on the dinner and supper list of Mrs. John Jay.”

Not all secular social activities were acceptable. Whether to celebrate holidays or to lubricate daily life, intemperance was a problem for Rodgers-era elders and into the Gardiner Spring era. In 1818 the General Assembly recommended in a pastoral letter that “members of our church abstain even from the common use of ardent spirits.” Card-playing, theatre-going, the waltz and Sunday mail delivery did not agree with Presbyterian sensibilities.

As the 19th century progressed, social norms relaxed, Santa Claus arrived and Presbyterians began to thaw. Brick Church responded, though rather slowly. In 1867, a Brick Church mission held a Christmas Festival for more than 1000 people.

Dr. Henry van Dyke changed the old order forever. On Dec. 25, 1888, Brick Church celebrated Christmas Day with a worship service for the first time. In subsequent years, the service often included one of his stories or poems such as Keeping Christmas; which was published in 1905 and is still meaningful today (see next article). You can read The Other Wise Man, perhaps his best-known story, online at

Today, Brick Church’s Christmas celebrations draw hundreds of people from all over the city. The Park Avenue Tree Lighting & Carol Sing, held each December, began in 1946 to honor those who gave their lives in World War II. When the bugler plays Taps and trees light up for miles down Park Avenue, we know that New York’s favorite season has begun. At Brick Church, it is followed by the Candlelight Carol Service, the Children’s Christmas Pageant & Family Service, and Worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What would Brick Church’s founders think of our Christmas traditions now? Some would strongly disapprove. But others might be ready to find joy in their faith, and perhaps slip into a seat late on Christmas Eve and pass a candle to their neighbor.



By Rev. Henry van Dyke, from In The Spirit of Christmas; Published Oct., 1905 by Charles Scribner’s Sons

“He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord.” Romans 6:6

It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.


Are you willing to: 

• Forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you?
• Ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world? 
• Put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground?
• See that your fellow-men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy? 
• Own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life? 

• Close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness— are you willing to do these things even for a day?

Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to: 

• Stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children?

• Remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old?

• Stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough?

• Bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts?

• Try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you?

• Trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you?

• Make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—are you willing to do these things even for a day? 

Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? 

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you keep it for a day, why not always? But you can never keep it alone.