All across the world, Southern Baptists are preparing for Christmas Eve services with their local congregation. But there was as time in American when most Protestants, including many Southern Baptists, did not consider Christmas to be a holiday worth celebrating.
A holiday rejected
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many Protestants found no biblical justification for Christmas and associated it with Roman Catholicism. For instance, in his book on “profane and superstitious customs,” the influential preacher Increase Mather included an entire chapter titled, “Against Profane Christ-mass Keeping.” Among his reasons were that the very name of Christmas (“Christ mass”) “savours of superstition,” that there’s no evidence Jesus was born on Dec. 25, and that the celebration was “in compliance with the Pagan Saturnalia that Christ-mass Holy-days were first invented.” (Modern scholars would later debunk the narrative that Christmas had a pagan origin.)
They were also scandalized by the drunkenness and revelry that was similar to activities we would now associate with Halloween. As J.A.R. Pimlott points out, celebrations included trick-or-treating, cross-dressing, and going door-to-door demanding food or money in return for carols or Christmas wishes. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer, “than in all the 12 months besides.”
In 1647, the Puritan government in Boston even canceled Christmas for a few years. They ordered shops to stay open, churches to stay closed, and ministers to be arrested for preaching on Christmas Day. Protestants in the Southern states, though, were more tolerant of the festivities, at least as a civic function. In the 1830s Christmas became a legal holiday in Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Still, it was mostly a civic holiday rather than a religious one.
The celebration of Christmas during the Victorian Era in England — when Christmas carols first became popular and Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol — eventually trickled over into the United States. After the Civil War, the celebration of Christmas became more common in Southern Baptist life, though it was still mostly associated with friends and families than with activities of the local church.
A change in the celebration of Christmas
That began to change, though, due to the influence of Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon, the SBC’s most famous missionary. In 1873, the SBC’s Foreign Missions Board (now the IMB) appointed Moon to go to China. Moon became the first American woman to attempt to live exactly as the Chinese did, adopting their dress and language and showing a greater appreciation for their culture. The effort helped to connect with Chinese neighbors. As Moon told the FMB, “I am more and more impressed by the belief that to win these people to God, we must first win them to ourselves.”
In 1887 Moon wrote a letter to the Foreign Mission Journal suggesting that Southern Baptist women set aside the “week before Christmas” as a time of prayer and giving to international missions. “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,” she wrote, “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 1888, a handful of women dedicated to the cause of missions founded the Woman’s Missionary Union. That initial Christmas offering collected $3,315 (roughly $97,000 in 2021 dollars). 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,” and in 1897 the convention thanked the WMU “for the sum of all these Christmas offerings.” As Stephen Douglas Wilson observed, “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.”
In 1918, after Moon’s death, the WMU Christmas offering was renamed the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Since its inception, several billion dollars has been collected for the fund, including $159.5 million in 2019–20. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions funds more than 50% of IMB work.
One of the best ways Southern Baptists can continue to promote the true reason for Christmas — Immanuel, God with us — is by giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. You can help send even more Southern Baptists to the ends of the earth in order to proclaim Jesus by making a year-end donation to the International Mission Board.