Father Christmas and Mr. Grinch:

The Reformers and Christmas

The Protestant Reformation was divided over the observance of Christmas. Some Protestants, especially those in the Calvinistic tradition-including Calvin himself, Knox, and many Presbyterians - refused to celebrate Christmas. However, the Lutherans, the continental reformers, and most other Protestants both defended the observance of Christmas and sought to emphasize its deeper truth expressed in the doctrine of the incarnation. The Reformation made its contributions to the holidays. Sorting out their positions, the practices and symbols of that festive season, and deciding how to best honor Christ in its celebration is a challenge.

It could be said that in regard to Christmas:

Martin Luther = Father Christmas. . and . . John Calvin = Mr. Grinch.

Tradition holds that it was Martin Luther who first decorated a Christmas tree for his children, bringing a snowy fir decorated with candles into his home to show his children the beauty of the Christmas sky. Martin encouraged the celebration of the festivals of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Martin preached many Christmas sermons, focusing on Christ and His incarnation and on the faith of those gathered around the manger in Matthew and Luke. Martin brought singing back into congregational life. He wrote numerous Christmas Hymns and invented the form of the Chorale to encourage congregational singing. In the Luther household, there were gifts for the children from St. Nicholas till 1545 when they came from the HolyChild - the Christkindl (Kris Kringle). The 2nd Helvetic Confessions allowed such observance, as did the Synod of Dordt.

Elsewhere in the Reformation there was a concerted effort to get back to the Bible and remove all the feasts and Saints' Days festivals, including St. Nicholas' on December 6th. But though removed from the churches, St. Nicholas in particular persisted in popularity in the streets and homes. From the Continental Reformed, there were contributions - the Dutch Sinterklaus came to America along with the German Lutherans' Advent wreaths and Christmas Trees. Sinterklaus (St. Nicholas - aka Father Christmas, Pere Noel, and Kris Kringle) examines the deeds of mankind, children especially, for good behavior and rewards them with sweets. Ironically, It was an American theological professor who penned "A visit from St. Nicholas" for his children - defining our present Santa Claus with his raindeer. The English brought along the carols [but also the pagan yule log, mistletoe, and Dicken's Mr Scrooge].

Those of the Calvinistic side - Calvin, Bucer, John Knox and the Scots, Puritans and many Presbyterians - looking for a worship restricted to that ordained in the Bible - did not observe special festivals such as Christmas and Easter, though certainly the great redemptive themes of incarnation and passion were preached on God's ordained holy days - Sundays. The Calvinist Reformation involved the removal of many corruptions to biblical worship - priests and vows, sacraments, the mass, vestments, veneration of saints and their feasts and holy days. They object to Christmas observances for three principle reasons: (1) a rejection of asserting ecclesiastical authority in its attempt to establish official feast days, of which Christmas is one; (2) an objection to the drinking, partying, and immorality associated with Christmas festivities; (3) the long-standing and continuing associations of Christmas with pagan religious ideas and practices. Christmas was banned in Puritan England and New England, and our own Westminister standards speak against it indirectly. (WLCate #3, #109; WCF 1:6, 21:1, Cf. Directory for Publick Worship (1645): Appendix: Touching days and Places for Publick Worship)

Among Protestants, there are two positions regarding the regulation of worship:

Between those things specifically commanded and those specifically forbidden is a substantial gray area of practices and customs that continue to divide churches and denominational groups. Rituals and candles, use of drama, robes; psalms vs. hymns vs. choruses, musical accompaniments of various types; frequency of Communion; kneeling or bowing to altars, and even to kinds of prayers - all these are issues of great concern to some groups of believers somewhere. Of equal concern is the issue of Advent or Christmas observances, today.

The "Grinch" objection to Christmas has these arguments:

  1. The Scriptures, both by precept and example, forbid the use of any form of worship that is not ordained by God. Christmas has no Biblical warrant.
  2. Christmas has brought an infusion of paganism into the Church, a mixture prohibited among God's people. Christmas is also a source of great misinformation and distortions of the facts of the incarnation - wise men at the manger, drummer boys, etc.
  3. Christ-mass props up the superstition and corrupt worship of Roman Catholicism, on one hand, and the suggestion that man- or church appointed rituals and observances are acceptable to God.
  4. Christmas observance undermines the sanctity of the Lord's Day - which God instituted as the day of festival and worship.
  5. The abuses of Christmas: crass commercialism in the media, the stimulation of mass covetousness, and the frequent debauchery of many Christmas parties are contrary to God's commandments.
Yet, despite these the celebration of Christmas thrives in Protestant Christianity, though not without many struggles. Many Christians battle to "keep Christ in Christmas", wrestling with the world over symbols both pagan and religious - Santa Claus and his elves, Nativity scenes, Christmas trees and Christmas carols. Churches are decorated with greens and offer special services. Evangelistic and mercy ministries take hold of the celebration as a means to pursue their missions, while the secular world rings in the season at cash registers.

And, to be sure, the roots of much of our Christmas Celebration can be traced to pagan roots. Roman Catholicism dealt with the pagan festivals and celebrations by replacing them with Christianized versions. And while the Norse Thor and Woden, and the Roman Saturn were no longer worshipped -- but the celebrations continued. Both the Romans and the German tribes decked their house and stables with evergreens, ivy, flowers and fruit. There are roots for the symbols of the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus that go back to pre-Christian times to be sure. Even the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, the time of Winter Solstice came about as well meaning missionaries replaced pagan festivals with a Christian one in 350 B.C. Jesus' birth was probably in the Spring, God's word doesn't say.

There are elements of those Christmas symbols that have a distinctive Christian origin as well. The Paradise Tree of medieval mystery/ morality plays hung with apples, and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. St. Nicholas' feast on December 6th with its gift giving merged into the Christmas holidays. And where would Christmas as we know it be without the Nativity scenes and pageants, the Christmas carols and cantatas and sacred concerts. And other traditions have developed as well - the Christmas Market (Bazaar) in German cities in the 1600's.

There have been contributions to Christmas since Reformation times as well, particularly in song - the Oratorios of Bach (Germany) and Handel (England), Christmas carols - songs of advent joy in the vernacular in England and France, as well as the great hymns of Christmas time. The Protestant Reformation may have thrown down the oainted and carven images from the churches, but it exalted the art-form of praise to God in music! And above all else, Protestantism lifted up the the imagery of the advent and the nativity: of manger, mother and child; angels and shepherds; Bethlehem; the star and the wise men; to point us to God's love for a lost world, sending his incarnate Son for men's salvation.

However, until recent times most Protestants (apart from the Episcopals or Lutherans) did not recognize either Christmas or Easter as "holy" days. It wasn't until the end of the 19th Century when various Christmas customs began appearing in Presbyterian churches. These were introduced mostly as frivolities like St. Nicholas in Sunday School, the use of Christmas trees and other festive elements. Christmas didn't appear in the official calendar of the Southern Presbyterian Church till the 1940's.

But how can we ignore the modern spectacle of Xmas all around us. There is something tempting to a Grinch approach. Most of us wrestle with the holidays. With the secularization and commercialization of a holiday that was originally pagan, then Christianized with added dimensions, then taken back by the world. We enjoy the celebrations - the decorations and gift giving, while yearning to get back to the simple gospel story. Do we try to take it back - dethrone Santa and exalt the Christ child. Or go with the flow sorting through the symbols for those which will point our children to Jesus. Or do we be like Scrooge and the Grinch - pronouncing it all "Bah, humbug!"

Was it simpler in Reformation times? Looking back in this study, I think not! Certainly Martin's heart was with touching his people with Jesus and grace. And the hearts of other reformers were with honoring that same Jesus. In Geneva, when Christmas was banned, it caused uproar. Calvin was blamed though he had no part in that decision. He feared a sudden change might provoke tumult that might impede the Reformation. As the civil leadership in Geneva fluctuated concerning observance of Christmas and Easter, we find Calvin too fluctuated in the themes on which he preached.

At times, I have wished we could celebrate the Nativity as Christians at a different time of the year - like the Greek Orthodox who celebrate it in January. Or celebrate Advent without all the Christmas trees and commercialism. For me, there are several celebrations going on. One in the life of my local church body is one of Advent candles, nativity and music! St. Nicholas (the bishop) visits our Christmas party with tales of real "saints" like Nicholas of Myra, Boniface of Mainz, or Martin of Tours. And there is one at home with my family, Christmas tree and gifts including our own unique traditions - including a wreath with ornaments representing the OT prophecies of the coming Messiah. And finally the one in the marketplace and media - my workplace - is one of a frenzy of commercialized idolatry that I just wish would go away. After all . . . Jesus is the reason for the season.

Some Resources and Links:

  • Martin Luther's Christmas Book by Ronald H. Bainton (Editor), Martin Luther - Thirty Sermons by Martin Luther on Christmas themes.

    Christmas Hymns and Music

    And some "wordy" Grinch Links

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