Portsmouth — He was full of good cheer, but as James Brooks proselytized door to door on Monday morning, the Jehovah’s Witness was sure as can be that Christmas is not a Christian holiday.
"I'm convinced that Jehovah - God - and his son, Jesus, are not pleased with the traditional Christmas celebration," said Brooks, a former Methodist and retired insurance agent. "It's not his date of birth."
But Dec. 25 is a national holiday, which made Christmas morning a rare occasion for Jehovah's Witnesses to evangelize folk who wouldn't be home on an ordinary weekday.
House-to-house evangelizing is a signature practice of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement, which dates to the 1870s. The denomination counts 1 million members nationwide and about 25,000 in Virginia. There are 31 Jehovah's Witnesses congregations in South Hampton Roads.
Brooks, an elder in the Churchland congregation who evangelizes 70 hours a month, said Witnesses do not seek to be Scrooge on Christmas.
"Nobody is happier than we are that Christ was born, born in a manger," Brooks said. "The big deal is not so much that he was born but that he willingly died for all mankind."
Witnesses consider Christmas a pagan-inspired holiday with no basis in Christian Scripture, said J.R. Brown, a spokesman at the denomination's headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brown said the Bible gives neither the date of Jesus' birth nor any command that the event be commemorated.
Witnesses also are aware that Christians began marking Dec. 25 as Christmas only in the fourth century, probably to compete with year-end pagan celebrations in the Roman Empire.
"We try to pattern our worship after first century Christianity when Jesus was on Earth, and he never taught his followers to participate or join in the celebrations," Brown said. "When Jesus was training his disciples, he put more focus on his death rather than his birth."
On Monday morning, about 30 Witnesses in dress clothes mobilized at a Kingdom Hall, or church, on Shoulders Hill Road in Suffolk for a quick spiritual reflection and canvassing assignments.
"We're going to encourage people to think about what the holiday is really about, which is Jesus Christ," said Wilton Evans, an elder. "The reason we are here is our love for God."
He reminded canvassers to roll with the demeanor of those they would meet. "If people want to talk, we'll talk," Evans said. "If not, we want to be very brief and not interrupt any plans they have for this day."
Brooks, 66, and his wife, Judy, were assigned to Armistead Forest, a neighborhood of tall trees and ranch and colonial-style houses in Portsmouth.
"Good morning. We're both Jehovah's Witnesses encouraging people to look in their Bible," Brooks said on their first stop on Two Oaks Road.
Alice Hewitt, the home-owner, listened patiently and assured the evangelists, "I'm active in my church." After chatting a minute or two, the Brooks es thanked her and left.
The Witnesses' Christmas day canvassing was "fine with me," Hewitt said afterward. As for Witnesses' disbelief in celebrating Christmas, she said, "I can't say that I'm familiar with that at all."
Amid a morning drizzle, the Brookses went door to door, immensely polite and offering copies of the Witnesses' magazine, The Watchtower.
"Some people, amazingly, think we don't believe in Jesus; I don't know if you've ever heard that," Brooks said at one home where a resident listened through a storm door. "Of course, we do!"
As a heavier rain put an end to the morning's outreach, Brooks said the evangelizing was less about challenging other people's beliefs than connecting with individuals who already were spiritually curious.
"I'm not out here to solicit a member to swell our rolls," he said. "We're looking for the ones who want to hear our message, not the ones who want to argue."