This Sunday, December 11, the doors of both Center Church’s meeting house on the New Haven Green and its historic parish house down the street will be open to all for a traditional “lessons and carols” service, followed by the traditional Silver Tea in the missionary and parlor rooms of the former Ezekiel Hayes Trowbridge House at 311 Temple Street.
In lieu of the usual worship program with sermon, the 10am church service will be an alternation of familiar Adventide biblical readings and hymns. The Silver Tea afterwards, hosted by the Ladies Home Missionary Society (a quaint name for a formidable, female-led service and philanthropic organization dating back to the 19th century), is an always fun, unstuffy opportunity to enjoy homemade Christmas cookies and tiny exquisite sandwiches with the crusts cut off (plated on the aforementioned silver), washed down with punch served from a 100+ year old ceramic wonder of a bowl and coffee or tea dispensed from silver samovars, all while perched on Victorian era furniture — in great company — under oil paintings of some of the more memorable Puritan and Congregationalist ministers of Connecticut.
“Traditional” is, at best, a dynamic, living concept, and at worst, a weasel word. There is no oil painting of the Reverend John Davenport–founder of the church and the New Haven Colony both–hanging in our parlor room (his priceless, 17th century portrait is on display at the Yale University Art Gallery). What we do have at the meeting house is the Davenport Window, which is the closest thing you’ll ever see to iconography in a Congregationalist heritage church. Davenport held such passionate opinions concerning the observation of the birth of Christ as a holiday — both on the church calendar and in the secular sphere — that he wrote an entire essay on this practice.
It’s entitled, “The Sinful Keeping of Christmas.”
Davenport’s views were party-line Puritan and echoed infamous treatises on the subject by more famous European and early American clergy, including Massachusetts Bay minister Increase Mather (Davenport himself wrote this treatise during his final years spent in Boston, after leaving behind his failed theocratic experiment in New Haven in 1668). The argument basically went like this: Christmas wasn’t a proper “holy day” per Puritan beliefs; it had devolved into a “time abused by all profane and loose-spirited persons unto gluttony, drunkenness and misspending of precious time in gaming at cards and dice, and other wickednesses!”; and December 25 is not the proper date of Christ’s birth. Davenport preaches (in an exhortation that will not be read out loud by a Center lay-leader this Sunday as part of our “lessons”):
Lay down therefore all former vain pretences, and yield to this Truth: That the keeping of “Christmas” in this season, is unseasonable, and in the manner as it is usually done, is unscriptural, irrational, and unlawful.