For Mennonites, Christmas still a matter of simple gifts

Most spurn trees, piles of presents

As a boy growing up in Parkville, Jeremiah Fox saw Dec. 25 the way millions of American children see it.

He loved singing carols, hanging stockings and trimming the tree. He was nuts about setting up electric trains in the living room.

And the "piles upon piles" of presents?

"Oh, I loved Christmas," he says, and laughs. "It was all about getting stuff."

Today he sees the holiday differently.

A year and a half ago, Fox, 60, joined a Mennonite community, committing himself to the ways of a nearly 500-year-old Christian sect that elevates selflessness, simplicity and modesty above the more consumerist values of the surrounding culture.

For Fox and most of America's nearly 400,000 Mennonites, that means the near-unthinkable at Christmas: no tree, few lights or presents, no songs about reindeer or snowmen, and a striking disregard, even among children, for the man in the red suit who circumnavigates the globe in a flying sleigh full of gifts.

Yet at their last Sunday service before the holiday, the members of Hampden Mennonite Church, the small congregation Fox and his wife, Linda, joined in 2013, showed no lack of Yuletide cheer.

"I do think we celebrate [Christmas] differently," says Nathan Zook, pastor of the four-year-old church, one of three Mennonite congregations in Baltimore.

"Some of us do exchange a few simple presents," says Zook, 39. "But rather than focusing on the commercial side of things, we use Christmas as a time to reflect on the deeper meaning of Jesus' life. We try to focus on his birth and arrival and the fact that he became our savior."

At a time when Americans spend more than $600 billion per year on the holidays, according to the National Retailers Association, Zook's flock will spend Friday doing what Mennonites and others have done on Christmas for hundreds of years: sharing meals with loved ones, reading Bible verses aloud and singing Christ-related carols in the denomination's trademark a capella style.

Fox, a nuclear medicine technologist, has fond memories of childhood Christmases and says he passes no judgment on the way others celebrate the day. But now that he's in the Mennonite fold, he has a more abiding sense of the reason for the season.

"In Romans 12:2, Jesus said, 'Do not be conformed to this world,' " he says. "Allow me to paraphrase: 'Don't let the world force you into its mold.' That's an important message, and all the more so this time of year."

Radicals

The world's 1.2 million Mennonites — an Anabaptist group related to but distinct from the perhaps better-known Amish — share a handful of core beliefs, most of them extrapolated from the Bible.

The vast majority venerate Jesus' radical selflessness as related in the Gospels and seek to emulate it. They keep dress and modes of worship simple, and most view all forms of violence as wrong. Mennonites have been at the forefront of pacifism throughout U.S. history.

But it's still hard to define a Mennonite community.

On the traditionalist end, Old Order Mennonites travel in buggies and wear "plain" attire like their Amish brethren. More progressive congregations allow for modern dress and the use of cars.

The Hampden congregation has chosen a middle path, favoring plain clothing — long, usually dark slacks for men and white head coverings for women, in and out of church — but accepting the use of computers, motor vehicles and other technology, at least for godly ends.

"An easier way to define this is as assimilated vs. less assimilated," says Zook, a Harrisburg native and Towson University graduate. "We're on the less assimilated side, which qualifies us as a 'conservative' congregation. But we're pretty much in the middle of the Mennonite spectrum."

Traditionalist or conservative, Mennonites have always embraced the countercultural.

In was in the early 1500s that the reformers known as Anabaptists rattled the church in Europe by defying the tradition of infant baptism. Their view — that believers should be baptized only when they're adults, understand the sacrament and are free to choose — was seen as so blasphemous that Roman Catholics and Protestants alike subjected practitioners to torture and execution.

That didn't deter the Dutch Christian writer Menno Simons, who codified Anabaptist teachings, adding a call for imitating Jesus' radical selflessness. His namesake sect was born in about 1544.

For the next century and more, Mennonites earned their keep by farming unwanted land, only to be chased off time and again.

Some emigrated to America in the early 1680s, settling in Pennsylvania and spreading their message west. In the centuries since, they've established communities in virtually every state.

A few can be found in Maryland, mostly in St. Mary's County or on the Eastern Shore. Zook says more Mennonites have been leaving farm life for urban areas in recent years and forming churches there.

In 2010, Baltimore boasted two: Wilkens Avenue Mennonite Church in Southwest Baltimore and North Baltimore Mennonite Church in Roland Park.

The third came into being the following year. Several Mennonites who lived in Hampden found one another and decided to form a congregation and school.

Hampden Mennonite Church began with 15 members meeting in living rooms. Five years later, 40 regulars from the area gather in the group's newly purchased home, the former Trinity Reformed Church building on West 36th Street. More than 50 students attend Hampden Mennonite School at the same address.

Joy to the world

Mennonites are traditionally more interested in Good Friday and Easter than in Christmas, members say, not because Jesus' birth is unimportant but because his death and resurrection are what create the hope for eternal life.

Besides, the Bible never mentions the date of the nativity — scholars believe early church leaders chose Dec. 25 because it was close to a popular pagan holiday — and Zook says the book of Romans even hints that no one day is more sacred than another.

The pastor, a political science teacher who lives in Washington with his wife, Faith, and five children, holds no service on Christmas or Christmas Eve. But he has started a tradition of leading one in his home the Sunday before.

Five days before the 25th, two small carved nativity scenes and a tiny strand of lights were the only visible hints of the season. Thirty church members streamed in, many bearing plates of food.

Matthias Kauffman, 20, was raised Mennonite on a Pennsylvania farm. He said it felt a little strange to answer questions about Christmas trees, since he'd never had one growing up.

"It's not out of some philosophy, it's just about practice," he said. "I guess I'd have asked a different question: 'Why would you have one of those in your house?' "

He recalled loving Christmas as a time of year when his large extended family came to the house for meals and singing, usually in the four-part a capella harmony style Mennonites have taught their children for generations.

And Kauffman, acting as musical director, led the gathering in full-throated renditions of "Joy to the World" and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," the men handling the lower lines, the women climbing higher.

At one point, the group's ten children sat in the center, singing "Away in a Manger" with the help of harmonizing grownups.

Zook, dressed in traditional black suit with white collar, described Jesus' birth in a sty and the unmarried status of his parents — mind-boggling trappings for the arrival of a savior.

He also redefined the meaning of gift-giving, Zook said, something we'd do well to keep in mind on Christmas.

The pastor reminded the room of the moment in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus told his followers it was fine to give God gifts at the altar, but only after they straighten out all disagreements with friends.

Jesus' real gift, Zook said, was a chance at more sacred relations with our fellow human beings, if we're wise enough to listen.

"The presents can come after that," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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