Did the Catholics Ruin Christmas?

It’s official. The Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California, home of “The Glory of Christmas,”  has been sold to the Catholic Archdiocese of Orange County, after several years of drama involving an aging founder and pastor, church and family infighting, and financial insolvency.

According to the Crystal Cathedral’s website, http://www.crystalcathedral.org, the Rev. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvulla began the church in 1955 at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, where he would preach from atop the snack bar, and she would play electric organ. This was the beginning of their vision, their dream. The church’s catchphrase was, “Come As You Are in the Family Car.” The first permanent home for the church, built in 1968, was a building that you could walk into, but which also had a wall that could roll up to reveal the parking lot, where, yes, you could still “come as you are, etc.”

By 1970, Schuller was a TV preacher, on Hour of Power, and by the mid-seventies, work began on what is now known as the Crystal Cathedral. The word from the church website is that Schuller missed the open sky of his drive-in movie theater church, and so he told the architect to “…make it all glass.” The Hour of Power broadcasts continued, and for many years, the Crystal Cathedral produced a lavish Christmas pageant entitled “The Glory of Christmas,” which included actors (angels) on wires flying high above the congregation, and live camels, cattle, and other manger-ish animals. This pageant was heavily advertised on local TV, and ran for almost thirty years. I believe its last performance was in 2009.

2005 photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have never set foot in the Chrystal Cathedral, I am not in sympathy with it as a religion, and have distaste for its social positions, but its passing as an institution moves me nonetheless. It was so SoCal, what with the drive-in origins, the feel good positivity, the never-ending happy ending shared from its pulpit, and its utterly corny excess. For all its trappings, I sensed sincerity. What is it with places like this, and why do so many people care? Why am I interested? What would Jesus think?

Travel with me now back to 1997. I was on vacation in England. One Friday night, I found myself in a pub in Brighton, in a gathering of editors and writers from the science fiction magazine Interzone. I spent time talking with editorial staff member Paul Brazier, who told me he was going to guest-edit the upcoming Christmas issue. He suffered, I think, a mini-moment of social awkwardness for not having invited me to submit (the deadline at that point was only about a week away), but I said, oh don’t worry, because “… I don’t do holiday stories.”

The moment I say I don’t do something, I start thinking of ways I might actually do it. It just happens. That’s why I don’t make claims of not doing stuff very often. It’s a reckless thing to do.

On the way back to my hotel that night, I ignored my chatty-cathy taxi driver and wondered what my story of Christmas would be, were I the sort of person who did that sort of thing. It occurred to me that Jesus, if He were to return to our time, would have more than a few problems with how modern-day humans celebrate His birth. So there was a title: “When Jesus Ruined Christmas.”

But how would He ruin it? What actions would He take? I took Him on a mental tour of shopping malls and dysfunctional family gatherings, but nothing seemed to click. Then, just at the end of my taxi ride in Brighton, my mental tour took Him to the Crystal Cathedral, and to a performance of “The Glory of Christmas.

I named my fictional house of worship the Emerald Cathedral, in part as a Wizard of Oz reference, but also because the all-glass architecture gives the interior the look of a greenhouse in photos and on television. I named my pastor Rev. Howard Givens. As for Jesus, He did not appear as he does on Sunday school illustrations, but was bodily reincarnated in the body of an unemployed alcoholic man by the name of Jesus Olivo.

Jesus/Jesus goes to the Emerald Cathedral, applies to work on their Christmas pageant, and is cast in the role of Joseph. From that vantage point, He wreaks havoc on the grandiosity of the church, and of the pageant, fulfilling a mission He  is committed to, but does not understand. Some of the time, He seems to think what happens is merely a personal test of faith for Reverend Givens, and the rest of the time, He thinks maybe God is just messing with His head, making Him do all this weird stuff.

In the case of the Crystal Cathedral, no supernatural act of God brought it down, only the very normal and mundane acts of human beings. The size of the organization. The advancing age and deteriorating health of Schuller. The mismanagement of money; perhaps, the greed for money and power as well. Being unable to pay debts. The camels can’t keep coming unless the camel-wrangler has been paid for the previous year.

Nonetheless, the fate of the Crystal Cathedral and the fate of my fictional Emerald Cathedral are similar. I am not happy about that; in fact, a small part of me wishes those corny Christmas shows were still going on, even if I’m not interested in going myself. I’m left with a mix of feelings, touched by events that have nothing to do with me.

The mere thought of attending a mega-church makes my blood curdle. I do not care at all for the social conservatism large churches in our area tend to preach. There is a certain smugness about these institutions, a smugness purchased with donations of the faithful. It is simply not necessary to have an all-glass church, flying angels, and real camels to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday. It is perhaps not even desirable. On the other hand, I have affection for anyone with a dream who makes that dream real, and Rev. Schuller did that, with a vision of a church that everyone could come to, that they didn’t even have to get dressed up for. I never sensed smugness in him.

“When Jesus Ruined Christmas” was eventually published in the August 1999 issue of Tales of the Unanticipated, (issue #20), which can still be found at http://www.totu-ink.com. This is a very fine semiprozine, one that’s been around since the mid-eighties. If you want to compare the fate of the Crystal Cathedral with that of the Emerald Cathedral, check it out.

The Catholics did not ruin Christmas by purchasing the Crystal Cathedral. In fact, they kind of started Christmas by superimposing it upon pagan solstice celebrations. Jesus did not ruin Christmas; it happened after He’d left the scene. “The Glory of Christmas” didn’t ruin Christmas; it scarcely made it gaudier. Christmas, in the end, is whatever you care to make of it; nothing more, nothing less.

On Christmas Eve, I plan to do as I usually do–spend half an hour or so watching the delayed broadcast of services at the Vatican. (Talk about your gaudy pageants.) Then I’ll go to sleep, and wait for Santa to arrive.


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