Presbyterian And Reformed Ambivalence About Christmas

rockefeller-Christmas-treeThe Christmas season is nearing its climax. As the shopping ebbs and the work schedule slows a bit (for some anyway—remember in your prayers your local police and firefighters as this can be a difficult time for them) it gives us opportunity to think a bit about what we are doing and why. Tomorrow evening, on Christmas evening (as observed in the West anyway. Christians in the Eastern traditions keep a different calendar) and on Christmas morning congregations will gather for worship services. Many Christians, especially those with roots in Northern Europe, have Christmas trees in the their homes and sometimes in church buildings. For some it is a joyous time to remember the incarnation and birth of Christ our Lord. For others, however, it is a sad time as the sense of loss and loneliness is especially intense. Of course, we all struggle with the commercialization and sentimentalizing of the holiday.

There are a number of reasons, however, for confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches to be ambivalent about the Christmas holiday. First, there is no evidence that our Lord was born this time of year. The tradition of associating his birth with 25 December dates the 4th century.

The earliest mention of the observance on 25 Dec. is in the Philocalian Calendar, representing Roman practice of the year 336 (25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae). This date was prob. chosen to oppose the feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti by the celebration of the birth of the ‘Sun of Righteousness’.1

That “Sun of Righteousness” was the Roman emperor. There are other traditions but they are less likely. As Allen C. Meyers adds, “In Alexandria and the Eastern churches the event was originally celebrated on January 6 in connection with the Feast of the Epiphany honoring Jesus’ baptism; some branches of the Eastern church still hold to this date.” David Jeffrey notes that in the second-century Irenaeus does not mention any Christian celebration of Christ’s nativity. Tertullian, in the 3rd century, does not mention it either. Chrysostom, in the 4th century, urged observance of Christmas but Jerome opposed it. The observance of Christmas is really a medieval development and, as we know it, it is largely a Victorian creature driven by economics more than theology or history. Businessmen do not call it “Black Friday” without reason. It marks the formal beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

The Reformation reception of Christmas was mixed. The Lutherans embraced it and you will take their Christmas tree when you pry it from their cold, dead fingers. The Anglicans embraced it too. Those of the Reformed tradition, however, who embraced the regulative principle and who largely shed the medieval church calendar, were much less receptive to Christmas. The Dissenting traditions among the English and the Scots, who faced the state-sanctioned imposition of the Book of Common Prayer, with other traditions and practices, on the basis of a principle that most of the Reformed had rejected, reacted strongly against Christmas. The First Book of Discipline (1560) rejected Christmas as superstitious and “invented, and imposed on the consciences of men, by laws, councils, and constitutions, without the express command of God’s word” The Directory of Publick Worship (1644), adopted by the Westminster Assembly even before the confession and catechisms were completed, declared, “Festival days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” Remember, the Assembly was composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, and congregationalists (independents). George Gillespie’s A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies (1637) brilliantly summarized the objections by most of the Reformed against the observance of Christmas. Many today who defend it might be surprised to find that their arguments were characterized by Giliespie as “popish.”

In Geneva, in the 16th century, Calvin observed Christmas reluctantly. He complained in a 1551 sermon, “But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.” Clearly he was submitting to the civil magistrate against his wishes.

In Zürich, the churches embraced the so-called “evangelical feasts” (including Christmas) even as they opposed observing saints’ days in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566).

THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

The picture in Germany and the Netherlands was similar. J. I. Good reports that, in the Palatinate, five “Scriptural festivals” were celebrated: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost.2 Good argued that they were regarded as scriptural because they could be associated with redemptive-historical events in the New Testament. Some have called these the “evangelical feast days.” The Church Order of Dort (1619) ordered:

63. The Lord’s Supper shall be administered once every two months, as much as possible. It is also edifying, wherever the circumstances of the churches allow, that the same be done on Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But in places where as yet there is no organized congregation, elders and deacons shall first be provisionally installed.


67. The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following days. Since in most cities and Provinces of the Netherlands, besides these the days

The context, however, of the church order was a decades long and largely unsuccessful attempt by the ministers to move the laity toward a more thorough Reformation. The minutes of classis and synod meetings leading up to the Great Synod of Dort record a story of repeated conflict between ministers and laity over the implementation of the regulative principle of worship. The people liked the popular festivals and they liked organs in worship. In many places the implementation of the Reformation was hindered by civil magistrates, who rejected the regulative principle in favor of Erasmian religious subjectivism that anticipated Pietism in certain respects.

It does not seem possible to speak unequivocally about “the continental” view of Christmas (and other feast days) since some of the European churches observed them (albeit under duress) and others more willingly and others not at all. It would be incautious to set the British and European Reformed practice flatly against one another. It is not easy to find European Reformed theologians or churches offering a defense of the celebration of Christmas. E.g., One searches Witsius’ or Turretin’s works in vain for references to Christmas or the celebration of Christ’s nativity. An electronic search in English and Latin of a wide range of Reformed writers from the 16th and 17th centuries turns up no obvious defenses.

The Reformed tradition is at least mixed on the observance of Christmas and the other evangelical feasts. It is true that Christmas does provide evangelistic opportunities but we should be careful about seeking to impose Christmas services as a matter of obligation and we all probably need to become a little more self-critical about the arguments we employ to defend a practice that has no biblical warrant, no warrant in early post-canonical practice or theory, and that is, in church-political terms, largely a remnant of the medieval church calendar. We should be aware that a fairly wide swath of the Reformed tradition was highly critical of the observance of Christmas.

Personally, the regulative principle is at war with my Midwestern upbringing (a midst the Germans, Czechs, and later, the Dutch). Christmas time brings opportunity to re-connect with family and to reflect on the wonder of the incarnation but the historical and ethical problems create unavoidable ambiguities.


1. s.v., “Christmas,” in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 338.

2. James I. Good, The Origin of the Reformed Church in Germany (Reading, PA: Daniel Miller, 1887), 449.

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  1. I tend to agree with Cromwell with the whole Christmas thing. I have no zeal for sol invictus.

  2. R. Scott,

    Thank you for this post. It makes me feel like I’m not completely alone on the island.

    I can understand how easy it is to just never question these holy days, but for the life of me I cannot grasp how people are unable to see the issues when they are pointed out.

    I will acknowledge that there is a huge emotional attachment to the celebration of Christmas. I’ve experienced it on a personal level within my family.

    Maybe a starting point is to ask people, when they pronounce the holiday as, “chriss-muss” to honor the word and pronounce it, “Christ Mass”.

    Anyway, thank you for your timely posting on what I consider to be a very important issue.


  3. Cromwell was not a big fan of Christian liberty.

    I guess the question comes down to how much liberty we have to imitate (or not) Christ and/or the puritans.

    Peter OBrien, NIGTC on Philippians, 262—“The Christ-hymn (2:5-11) presents Jesus as the ultimate model for Christian behavior and action, the supreme example of the humble, self-sacrificing, self-giving service that Paul has been urging the Philippians to practice in their relations toward one another.”

  4. If it is acceptable to proclaim the incarnation on any Lord’s Day, then to do so on this Lord’s day cannot be wrong in itself. It is not a command, it is not a duty, but it is permissible In the Free Church of Scotland most congregations use it as an outreach opportunity. We have people in church who often not come at other times. We preach the Gospel – it is supremely an evangelistic opportunity. In this we have moved away from the older Reformed practice in Scotland, but we do so not because of some biblical obligation to keep a fairly arbitrary date but because of this evangelistic opportunity presented by the date in question.

    I love my wife and express that love every day, but I like to focus on what I owe to her when it is our anniversary.It is because of my human frailty that I benefit from a special day of thankfulness for her – I should have that focus every day.

    If I lived in Greece I would happily celebrate the incarnation on Jan 7th 2016, as they do. The date is a mere convenience.

    Thanks for all your insightful, challenging and informative articles.

    Wishing you a a Blithe Yule and a Guid New Year

    Robert M Walker

  5. I was under the impression that Bullinger and the Second Helvetic allowed the “Evangelical festivals” and not saints’ days, as long as the “Evangelical festivals” were celebrated according to Christian liberty. Also, in his sermon on the Sabbath in the Decades he says, “[I]t would be against all godliness and christian charity, if we should deny to sanctify the Sunday: especially, since the outward worship of God cannot consist without an appointed time and space of holy rest. I suppose also, that we ought to think the same of those few feasts and holy days, which we keep holy to Christ our Lord, in memory of his nativity or incarnation, of his circumcision, of his passion, of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord into heaven, and of his sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples. For christian liberty is not a licentious power and dissolving of godly ecclesiastical ordinances, which advance and set forward the glory of God and love of our neighbour.” And it appears that after that he goes on to argue against the observation of saints’ days. (Second Decade, Sermon IV; Vol.1, p. 260 in the Parker Society Edition.)

    Have I misread Bullinger on this point?

    • No, that’s a fair point. I should have checked the Decades. I should also have read the Second Helvetic more carefully. I’ve revised the post accordingly.

      Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this post. I am firmly entrenched in the ambiguity! I remember Dr. Martyn Loyd-Jones saying that since the whole world is focused on Christmas at this time of year, why not take advantage of that and preach on the incarnation and emphasize evangelism?

  7. So I was listening to Michael Medved’s yearly history program on Christmas in the US, and I noticed he said the Dutch brought its celebration to a certain part of the country (I think he said New York).

    Isn’t a possible explanation for the lack of a defense for Christmas is that no one was mounting significant opposition to it? Sure, someone may have brought it up, but not with the same vehemence and influence as you would find in England or Scotland. Related to this, I read about a year ago how strongly Scottish Presbyterians became of Christmas ONCE THEY WERE TOLD THEY HAD TO CELEBRATE IT from an ENGLISH KING. This doesn’t seem like something out of great conviction, at least initially.

    As one who grew up going to churches that did not observe any holy days aside from Sunday, Christmas did seem odd to me. The unbiblical emphasis on Jesus as an infant is what struck me; back then it did not seem like a Christian thing to observe, but it definitely seemed like a Roman Catholic thing. My mother recounted to me how my youngest brother asked her while praying if they could pray to the baby Jesus (she assumes he had heard something at school); she quickly killed the idea by telling him that Jesus is longer a baby and so forth. He was visibly upset by my mother’s rejection of the idea. It does seem very odd (and disrespectful) to me how many speak of baby Jesus at times.

    Personally, I don’t find anything wrong with observing Christmas in a secular way and not tying special religious observances to it.

    • Alberto,

      Yes, the Dutch Reformed Church (the RCA) began to be organized in American c. 1700. There were settlements in New York (hence the Dutch place names that still mark areas of NYC).

      Yes, the Scots reacted to the imposition of Christmas, in part, because the English crown sought to impose it upon them but also as part of a broader rejection of an alien principle of worship (normative vs regulative).

      Take a look at Gillespie. It’s quite illuminating as to the sorts of arguments used to defend Christmas and the other feast days and ceremonies, which the Anglicans sought to impose.

      As I say, I have a lot of good memories and I don’t want to be a Grinch and I wish everyone a merry Christmas but I also want confessional Reformed folk to be aware of the ambiguities surround its celebration. Well, I suppose I’m a semi-Grinch.

  8. Here in Georgia, a local radio personality and political blogger, Erick Erickson, who is a PCAer and student at RTS Atlanta, says he researched the date and found it to be based on the rabbinic tradition that a prophet always dies on the day of his conception; so if Jesus died on March 25, that would put his birth on December 25. Right or wrong it at least counters the sol invictus connection.

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