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From Humbug to Hallelujah! Christmas at The Brick Church

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 here.

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.

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