To speak against Christmas observance is considered by many people to be sacrilegious and others as religious fanaticism. After all, how can anyone legitimately oppose such a hallowed institution?
The purpose of this study is to set forth scriptural reasons for opposing Christmas celebration. A brief historical survey will provide the suitable means for such an examination. Following an initial look at the origins of Christmas, we will note historic opposition to its observance, with special emphasis on Protestant objections to the holiday. We will see that Protestants, and especially Presbyterians, have rejected Christmas celebration, as demonstrated by the following facts: (1.) the scriptural principles of worship upheld by Reformed churches; (2.) the confessional testimony of the churches; (3.) the historic practice of the churches in their most orthodox times.
The Origin and Customs of Christmas
The ignoble nature of the origins and customs of Christmas can be found in many standard reference sources; therefore, we will not dwell on them in great detail. It is appropriate, however, to mention a few highly significant facts pertaining to the origins behind Christmas.
Evidence points to the fourth century as the time when Christmas celebration began. Records covering the first three centuries of New Testament church history mention an increasing significance given to the period from Passover to Pentecost; yet, evidence is lacking to prove any celebration regarding the Savior’s birth. In the middle of the third century, Origin gives a list of fasts and festivals which were observed in his time, and no mention is made of Christmas. The lack of such testimony supports the conclusion that no celebration was then observed.
Although there was no Christmas observance at this time, there were various pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice.
In Scandinavia, the great feast of Yule with all its various ceremonies, had celebrated the birth of the winter sun-god. In the Latin countries there reigned Saturnalia, a cult of the god Saturn. The date December 25, coincided also with the birth of Attis, a Phrygian cult of the sun-god, introduced into Rome under the Empire. The popular feasts attached to the births of other sun-gods such as Mithras, were also invariably celebrated at the time of the winter solstice.
The transition from festivals commemorating the birth of a sun god to a celebration ostensibly for the Son of God occurred sometime in the fourth century. Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.
Many of the customs associated with Christmas also took their origins from the heathen obser vances. The exchanging of gifts, extravagant merriment, and lighting of candles all have previous counterparts in the Roman Saturnalia. The use of trees harkens back to the pagan Scandinavian festival of Yule.
This process of assimilation is characteristic of Roman Catholicism throughout the centuries. Within Roman Catholicism, there is no policy designed to eradicate such heathen practices; rather, the general practice is to foster assimilation by replacing pagan superstitions with similar ecclesiastical institutions. An example of this policy is illustrated by a letter which Pope Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus on how to order things in Britain (A.D. 606):
The temples of the idols among the people should on no account be destroyed. The idols themselves are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there. On such occasion they might well construct shelters of boughs for themselves around the churches that were once temples, and celebrate the solemnity with devout feasting.
This is quite a program! The church is encouraged to give the pagans ecclesiastical relics, rites, ceremonies, and festive celebrations as a substitute for their heathen ones. This policy differs greatly from the conduct of the children of God who cut down sacred groves, destroyed the remnants of idolatry, or burned their heathen books in order to make a clean break with pagan ways (Ex. 34:13; Deut. 12:2-4, 29-32; 2 Kings 18:4; Acts 19:19).
The theory of conquest through assimilation is only too apparent in an examination of Christmas. A casual glance will show how the holiday incorporates heathen observances on a world-wide scale. Each culture seems to have its own local “contribution” to the celebration of Christmas. The serious question for the Christian is this: Are we not commanded, “Learn not the way of the heathen” (Jer. 10:2)?
Along with Rome’s direct infusion of paganism, the papal church has added some novelties of its own. The principal perversion is the celebration of the Mass. Since the middle ages, the concept of transubstantiation has been an integral part of Popish worship. Roman Catholics contend that the communion elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, in order to offer a re -sacrifice of Christ a sacrifice which is said to possess propitiatory merits. The Mass is a blasphemous assault upon the finality and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary (Cf. Heb. 9:12, 24-26; 10:10-14).
The Mass is the preeminent feature of Christmas celebration. “In the Roman Catholic Church three masses are usually said to symbolize the birth of Christ eternally in the bosom of the Father, from the womb of Mary and mystically in the soul of the faithful.” The concept of the Mass is embedded in the English term Christmas, its etymology being traced to the Old English words Christes maesse, meaning “the mass or festival of Christ.”
Because of its pagan and papal associations, Christmas met strong objections during and after the Protestant Reformation. This opposition was especially forceful among Presbyterians.
At times during the sixteenth century, ecclesiastical holidays caused agitation in the city of Geneva. It seems to have been a difficult matter for a resolution, since any official action taken would stir up some element of the population.
The Register of Ministers in Geneva (1546) records a list of “faults which contravene the Reformation.” Among the directives regarding “Superstitions” is the following: “Those who observe Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious. “
On Sunday, 16 November 1550, an edict was issued concerning holidays; it was a decree “respecting the abrogation of all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained. “ This ban on festival days (including Christmas) caused an uproar in certain quarters, and Calvin was reproached as the instigator of the action.
Calvin’s personal writings about holidays, in this instance, are somewhat ambiguous. He says he was not directly involved in the decision. In personal correspondence with John Haller (pastor in Berne), Calvin writes, “Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s day.” He added, “If I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon.”
It seems that Calvin was initially uneasy about the edict to ban the festivals, because he feared that the “sudden change” might provoke tumult which could impede the course of the Reformation. Nevertheless, in the same letter to Haller, Calvin says, “Although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it.”
Although Calvin’s correspondence respecting this edict sounds ambiguous, his general views on worship are clearly stated in many places. In a tract on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin exclaims:
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as frivolous, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” 1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9. Every addition of His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreeskia) is vanity [Col. 2:23]. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.
In speaking of various corruptions of worship, Calvin comments:
I come now to ceremonies, which, while they ought to be grave attestations of divine worship, are rather a mere mockery of God. A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God has distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagancies, collected from different quarters; and with these have been mixed up certain impious rites, partly borrowed from the heathen, and more adapted to some theatrical show than to the dignity of our religion. The first evil here is, that an immense number of ceremonies, which God had by his authority abrogated, once for all, have been again revived. The next evil is, that while ceremonies ought to be living exercises of piety, men are vainly occupied with numbers of them that are both frivolous and useless. But by far the most deadly evil of all is, that after men have thus mocked God with ceremonies of one kind or other, they think they have fulfilled their duty as admirably as if these ceremonies included in the whole essence of piety and divine worship.
And in yet more pointed remarks, Calvin says:
The mockery which worships God with nought but external gestures and absurd human fictions, how could we, without sin, allow to pass unrebuked? We know how much he hates hypocrisy, and yet in that fictitious worship, which was everywhere in use, hypocrisy reigned. We hear how bitter the terms in which the prophets inveigh against all worship fabricated by human rashness. But a good intention, i.e., an insane license of daring whatever man pleased, was deemed the perfection of worship. For it is certain that in the whole body of worship which had been established, there was scarcely a single observance which had an authoritative sanction from the Word of God.
We are not in this matter to stand either by our own or by other men’s judgments. We must listen to the voice of God, and hear in what estimation he holds that profanation of worship which is displayed when men, overleaping the boundaries of His Word, run riot in their own inventions. The reasons which he assigns for punishing the Israelites with blindness, after they had lost the pious and holy discipline of the Church, are two, viz., the prevalence of hypocrisy, and will-worship (ejqeloqrhskeiva), meaning thereby a form of worship contrived by man. “Forasmuch,” says he, “as the people draw near me with their mouth, and with the lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men; therefore I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid,” Isa. 29:13-14. When God stirred us up, a similar or worse perversity openly domineered throughout the Church. While God, then, was thundering from heaven, were we to sit quiet?
Thus, Calvin’s writings on worship clearly enunciate the concept which has subsequently been called the regulative principle of worship: all modes of worship must be expressly sanctioned by God’s word, if they are to be considered legitimate. Since Christmas observances, and other ecclesiastical festivals, are not commanded in the scriptures, they fail to meet divine approval, even if there were no additional objections to them.
Further, we should note Calvin’s own pastoral practice as indicative of his convictions. The Reformer preached consecutively through books of the Bible, without regard to the ecclesiastical year. Surely if Calvin had adopted the attitude of modern Christmas-keepers, he would have felt constrained to abandon this systematic instruction of the scriptures, and deliver annual discourses from the birth narratives during the month of December. The fact that he did not comply with contemporary expectations speaks volumes.
John Knox and the Scottish Reformation
From the outset of the Scottish Reformation, the discussion focussed upon the nature of true worship. John Knox repeatedly confronted his papal adversaries by contending that true worship must be instituted by God. True worship is not derived from the innovations of men.
At the heart of Knox’s argument is an appeal to Deuteronomy 4 and 12. These portions of scripture teach that it is unlawful to add to, or subtract from, the worship which God has instituted in his Word. Consequently, all religious ceremonies and institutions must have direct scriptural warrant if they are to be admitted as valid expressions of worship. This statement of the regulative principle of worship was a hallmark of the Scottish reformation.
Knox made his case for the regulative principle at the beginning of his ministry, before he had studied on the Continent. Knox condemned the false worship of Roman Catholicism. In a public debate against the Papists, Knox declared:
That God’s word damns your ceremonies, it is evident; for the plain and straight commandment of God is, “Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes, shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee, that do thou: add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.” Now unless that ye are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies, this his former commandment will damn both you and them.
With this understanding of worship, the Scottish Church cast out a multitude of the monuments of idolatry which were part of papal worship; graven images, the Mass, false sacraments, Romish liturgical ceremonies, and Roman bishops were all removed from the Church. Ecclesiastical holidays were also expelled from the Church of Scotland.
In 1560, Knox and several others drew up the First Book of Discipline. In this book, the First Head of Doctrine begins with a general statement on the nature of the gospel.
After the opening statement, an “explication” is given which asserts the sole authority of scripture as it relates to doctrine and worship. Note the firm condemnation of holidays, as incorporated in this remarkable document:
Lest upon this our generality ungodly men take occasion to cavil, this we add for explication. By preaching of the Evangel, we understand not only the Scriptures of the New Testament, but also of the Old; to wit, the Law, Prophets, and Histories, in which Christ Jesus is no less contained in figure, than we have him now expressed in verity. And, therefore, with the Apostle, we affirm that “all Scripture inspired of God is profitable to instruct, to reprove, and to exhort.” In which Books of Old and New Testaments we affirm that all things necessary for the instruction of the Kirk, and to make the man of God perfect, are contained and sufficiently expressed.
By contrary Doctrine, we understand whatsoever men, by Laws, Councils, or Constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God’s word: such as be vows of chastity, foreswearing of marriage, binding of men and women to several and disguised apparels, to the superstitious observation of fasting days, difference of meat for conscience sake, prayer for the dead; and keeping of holy days of certain Saints commanded by men, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the Feasts (as they term them) of Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our Lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this Realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the Civil Magistrate.
The position of the Scottish Church was reaffirmed in 1566. Theodore Beza wrote to Knox, requesting Scottish approval for the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). The General Assembly in Scotland replied with a letter of general approval. Nevertheless, the Assembly could
scarcely refrain from mentioning, with regard to what is written in the 24th chapter of the aforesaid Confession concerning the “festival of our Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples,” that these festivals at the present time obtain no place among us; for we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast-day than what the divine oracles prescribed.
The King, the Pastor, and the Prelates
When King James took the throne in England, he repudiated Presbyterianism and became an advocate of the Anglican Church government, because it was more compatible with his notions of monarchy. At the Assembly of Perth, in 1617, the king sought to impose various ceremonies designed to enhance the Episcopal cause. The liturgical impositions included receiving communion in a kneeling position, private administration of the sacraments, Episcopal confirmation, and the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Ascension. Scottish ministers resisted this action, with a supplication against all points of the program.
David Calderwood (1575-1651) represents the firm opposition given by faithful Scottish ministers. He issued a pointed critique of the Perth Assembly, published in 1619, in which he attacked these innovations in worship that were imposed upon the Church of Scotland.
In a section on festival days, Calderwood asserts that only God has the prerogative “to appoint a day of rest and to sanctify it to his honor.” Under the law of God, no one presumed to appoint holy days “but God, and that either by Himself, or by some extraordinary direction. “
Moreover, the anniversary days prescribed by God “pertained to the ceremonial law; but so it is that the ceremonial law is abolished. The anniversary days were distinguished from the moral sabbath;” only the ordinary (weekly) sabbath remains. “The moral use of the ordinary sabbath was for the service of God in general both private and public. The mystical use [of the anniversary days] was to be a memorial of things bypast, and a shadow of things to come. The moral use endures, the mystical uses are vanished.” “The Judaical days had once that honor, as to be appointed by God himself; but the anniversary days appointed by men have not the like honor.”
Calderwood continues, “If it had been the will of God that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his nativity, circumcision, presentation in the temple, baptism, transfiguration, and the like.” “This opinion of Christ’s nativity on the 25th day of December was bred at Rome.” He then exposes some of the preposterous Romish claims made for the 25th day of December as the day of Christ’s birth; and he notes inconsistent claims, made in previous centuries, for other dates on the calendar, as the day of the Savior’s nativity. “The diversity of the ancients observing some the 6th day of January, some the 19th day of April, some the 19th of May, some the 25th day of December, argues that the Apostles never ordained it.” “You see then as God hid the body of Moses, so has he hid this day, and other days depending on the calculation of it, wherein he declared his will concerning the other days of his notable acts: to wit, that not Christ’s action, but Christ’s institution makes a day holy.” “Nay, let us utter the truth, December-Christmas is a just imitation of the December-Saturnal of the ethnic [heathen] Romans, and so used as if Bacchus, and not Christ, were the God of Christians.”
“It is commonly objected, that we may as well keep a day for the nativity, as for the resurrection of Christ. We have answered already, that Christ’s day, or the Lord’s Day, is the day appointed for remembrance of his nativity, and all his action and benefits, as well as for the resurrection. “
Further, says Calderwood, even supposing that the keeping of holy days was initially indifferent, the festival days must now be abolished, because “they are abused and polluted with superstition.” Indeed, the brazen serpent was originally constructed by God’s express command; yet it was destroyed when it became a snare to the people of God (2 Kings 18:4). How much more, then, should we discard man-made observances which are additionally contaminated with Romish superstition and idolatry.
In 1628, David Calderwood issued a small work, The Pastor and the Prelate. In a witty and bold manner, this small volume illustrates the contrasting views of the Presbyterians (represented by the Pastor), and the Prelatical party. In the appropriate sections pertaining to worship, Calderwood again touches upon the “holy days.” “Beside the sabbath,” the Pastor “can admit no ordinary holidays appointed by man, whether in respect of any mystery, or of difference of one day from another, as being warranted by mere tradition, against the doctrine of Christ and his apostles….” In contrast, “The Prelate, by his doctrine, practice, example, and neglect of discipline, declares that he has no such reverent estimation of the sabbath. He dotes so upon the observation of Pasche, Yule, and festival days appointed by men, that he prefers them to the sabbath, and has turned to nothing our solemn fasts and blessed humiliations.”
THE PASTOR, comparing the worship of God under the gospel with the worship under the law, finds that the commandment, Deut. 12:32, “Every word that I command you, that ye shall observe to do; thou shalt not add unto it, neither shalt ye diminish from it,” does equally concern both: that the mind of man, if left to itself, would prove as vain and foolish under the gospel as under the law, and that Jesus Christ was faithful as a son in all the house of God, above Moses, who was but a servant; and therefore, albeit the ceremonial observations under the law were many, which was the burden of the kirk under the Old Testament, and ours be few, which is our benefit, yet the determination from God, in all the matters of his worship, he finds to be all particular; the direction of all the parts of our obedience to be as clear to us that now live under the gospel, as it was to them that lived under the law.
THE PRELATE, as if either it were lawful now to add to the word, or man’s mind were in a better frame, or the Son of God not so faithful as Moses the servant, or as if direction in few ceremonies could not be as plain as in many, would bring into the kirk a new ceremonial law, made up of translations of divine worship, of imitations of false worship, and of inventions of will-worship, to succeed to the abolished ceremonies under the law, which he interprets to be the liberty and power of the Christian kirk in matters indifferent, above the kirk of the Old Testament, but is indeed the great door whereby himself and others (strange office-bearers, whereby days, altars, vestures, cross, kneeling, and all that Romish rabble’s shadow) have entered into the kirk of Christ, and which will never be shut again till himself be shut out, who, while he is within, holds it wide open.
THE PASTOR gives no power to the kirk to appoint other things in the worship of God, than are appointed already by Christ, the only lawgiver of his kirk, but to set down canons and constitutions about things before appointed, and to dispose the circumstances of order and decency that are equally necessary in civil and religious actions….
THE PRELATE, as a new lawgiver, will appoint new rites and mystical signs in the kirk, that depend upon mere institution, and are not concluded upon any reason of Christian prudence for such a time and place, but upon grounds unchangeable, and therefore obliging at all times and places, as is evident by the reason that he brings for festival days, kneeling in the sacrament, etc.”
George Gillespie and Opposition to the English-Popish Ceremonies
Over the next several decades, tensions persisted within the Scottish Church because of the Anglican order imposed upon the Scots. The Church of England was never purged of many liturgical superstitions which were carried over from Roman Catholicism. When the Anglican rituals (including holidays) were obtruded on the Scottish Church, militant opposition arose among the Scots.
George Gillespie (1613-49) wrote a definitive response to the advocates of the Anglican order. Gillespie was a premier theologian, and later served as a Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly. In 1637, Gillespie’s book on the liturgical controversy was published: A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland.
Gillespie’s work contains a four-fold assault upon the ceremonies in general. First he argues against their necessity; second, he dispels notions that they are expedient; third, he demonstrates their unlawfulness; and fourth, he shows they are not indifferent. In each section, he draws applications of general principles to specific ceremonies which he finds objectionable. Specifically, he disputes the propriety of kneeling in the act of receiving the Lord’s Supper, the use of the sign of the cross in baptism, confirmation, the surplice, and holidays.
The holidays take a severe beating on a number of counts. Some of his arguments are as follows.
Gillespie cites Knox to demonstrate the regulative principle of worship. Upon this principle, the holidays must be excluded, since they lack any positive warrant in the scriptures.
Gillespie rests his case on the second commandment. “The second commandment is moral and perpetual, and forbids to us as well as to them the additions and inventions of men in the worship of God.” Therefore, “sacred significant ceremonies devised by man are to be reckoned among those images forbidden in the second commandment.”
Based upon Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16, Gillespie notes the passing away of the biblical ceremonial feasts: “those days having had the honor to be once appointed by God himself, were to be honorably buried….” “If Paul condemned the observing of feasts which God himself instituted, then much more does he condemn the observation of feasts of man’s devising.”
Gillespie notes the superstitious and corrupt origins of the ceremonies. He provides numerous scripture references to show the duty of God’s people to remove all remnants of idolatry from among them (Ex. 34:13; Num. 33:52; Deut. 7:5, 25-26; 12:2-3; Isa. 30:22) Gillespie’s opponents claim that it is enough to clear away the “abuses” of the ceremonies, not the rites themselves; but Gillespie answers that, unless these ceremonies can be proven to be of necessary use by God’s appointment, they must be purged completely out of existence.
Further, the ceremonies are not simply the monuments of past idolatry. They continue to be used by the Papists in their present corrupt and idolatrous worship. Thus, these rites are the very badges of present idolatry.
Forasmuch then, as kneeling before the consecrated bread, the sign of the cross, surplice, festival days, bishopping, bowing to the altar, administration of the sacraments in private places, etc. are the wares of Rome, the baggage of Babylon, the trinkets of the whore, the badges of Popery, the ensigns of Christ’s enemies, and the very trophies of Antichrist: we cannot conform, communicate, and symbolize with the idolatrous Papists, in the use of the same, without making ourselves idolaters by participation.
Throughout his discussion, Gillespie touches on a critical implication of the whole discussion: the limits of church power. Speaking of times, places, and things, Gillespie notes, “The Church has no power as by her dedication to make them holy.” The supporters of ecclesiastical holidays frequently assert the right of the Church to institute holy seasons and observances. Such an argument smacks of Popery, because it grants to the Church a legislative power to enact new observances besides those given in scripture.
Further, Gillespie notes another alarming trend. The ecclesiastical ceremonies become like sacraments in their significance and use. The ceremonies are thought to be mystically symbolic, and effectual teachers of spiritual things. The symbolic and didactic features of the holidays makes them man-made (false) sacraments.
Additionally, when people urge these observances for a didactic purpose, they undercut the sufficiency of the scriptures.
If we consider how that the Word of God is given unto us “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works:” it cannot but be evident how superfluously, how superstitiously the office of sacred teaching and mystical signification is given to dumb and lifeless ceremonies, ordained of men, and consequently how justly they are taxed as vain worship.
Gillespie also observes how ecclesiastical holidays undermine the true distinction of the Lord’s day. “Upon holy days they enjoin a cessation from work, and a dedicating of the day to Divine worship, even as upon the Lord’s day.” In fact, “let it be observed, whether or not they keep the festival days more carefully, and urge the keeping of them more earnestly, than the Lord’s own day.” “…And whereas they can digest the common profanation of the Lord’s day, and not challenge it, they cannot away with the not observing of their festivities.”
As an additional practical criticism, Gillespie gives a special word on the revelry associated with Christmas: “The keeping of some festival days is set up instead of the thankful commemoration of God’s inestimable benefits: howbeit the festivity of Christmas has hitherto served more to Bacchanalian lasciviousness than to the remembrance of the birth of Christ.”
With this cursory survey of Gillespie’s monumental work, the reader is invited to consider the issues raised by Gillespie’s criticisms. The essential issues have changed very little over the past 350 years.
Puritan opposition to Christmas celebration is widely recognized. What is often overlooked is that Puritan opposition was espoused by many persons living in different nations. These men were unified on this point, although they could not agree on other vital points of doctrine, such as church government.
The Puritan argument against Christmas (and other similar institutions) is three-fold: (1.) No time of worship is sanctified, unless God has ordained it; (2.) unscriptural holidays are a threat to the proper observance of the Lord’s day because these holidays tend to eclipse the sanctity which belongs only to the Lord’s day, (3.) the observance of unscriptural holidays tends toward the super stition and innovation in worship which are characteristic of Roman Catholicism.
During the Elizabethan period, Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) was a strong proponent of Presbyterian polity. His platform against Prelacy so rankled Archbishop Whitgift and other authorities, that Cartwright was deprived of his professorship, and forced to depart England and live on the Continent for a time.
In the 1580s, Jesuits in England were circulating numerous religious publications aimed at subverting the Reformation. At Rheims, in 1582, the Papists issued a translation of the New Testament which contained marginal notations full of Popish propaganda.
Upon the request of prominent civil patrons and ministerial colleagues, Cartwright undertook the monumental task of writing a refutation to the Rhemists’ notes on the New Testament. In 1585, Cartwright finished his rough draft, but the publication of the work was suppressed by Archbishop Whitgift. The ecclesiastical authorities feared that Cartwright’s reply to the Romanists “would tell against many of the semi-Roman usages of the Church of England and bolster up the Presbyterian Puritanism.” Perhaps the troubled bishop feared the truth of that maxim, “No ceremony, no bishop.”
Cartwright’s work was eventually published in 1618 at Leyden, under the title of A Confutation of the Rhemists’ Translation, Glosses and Annotations on the New Testament, so far as They Contain Manifest Impieties, Heresies, Idolatries, Superstitions, Profaneness, Treasons, Slanders, Absurdities, Falsehoods and Other Evils.
Throughout the Confutation Cartwright manifests a decided animus against Popish doctrines and usages. He denies the primacy of the Pope and expressly declares him to be Antichrist…. He argues against Purgatory and the immaculate conception of the Virgin, and condemns Mariolatry, the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, pilgrimages, monasticism, celibacy, auricular confession, etc. With regard to the Sacraments two only are recognized, the private administration of them is disal lowed, baptismal regeneration is repudiated, and at considerable length the Roman doctrine of the Mass is refuted. The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith receives full treatment.
Many of Cartwright’s counter-annotations are capable of being construed as criticisms of Anglo -Catholic teaching. He argues against the Lenten fast, the altar, apostolic succession and disapproves of the very name of priest. His philosophy of history is diametrically opposed to that maintained by Anglo -Catholicism inasmuch as he regards the primitive Church as the only pure model and the Roman Church “for the space of 980 years, or thereabout, Anti-Christian.”
Cartwright’s treatment of specific texts provides some important data with reference to festival days. For example, contemporary Christmas-keepers have sometimes cited the tenth chapter of John, claiming that Christ’s presence in Jerusalem, during the time of the feast, indicates a divine approval of ecclesiastically-ordained festivals. Yet, this argument is essentially a Jesuit gloss, formulated to undermine the sufficiency of the scripture as our rule of worship. Indeed, we believe that few Christian readers would ever make a connection between the narrative of John 10 and Christmas, had not this Romish gloss received wide circulation.
Among his remarks on John 10:22, Cartwright answers the Papists:
Now where they would prove the lawfulness of this Feast by our Savior Christ’s presence at it, they may as well prove the lawfulness of the Jew’s Pentecost, and such other Jewish Feasts, because Paul, for further spread of the gospel, was not only present, but labored to be present at that time. The Jesuits therefore are to learn that it is one thing to tolerate and to bear with a custom or determination of the Church and another to approve of it. The trunk therefore of this doctrine being cut down, the boughs and branches that the Jesuits will have grow forth of it, must needs fall to the ground.
On Galatians 4:10, we find the following comments:
If Paul condemns the Galatians for observing the feasts which God himself instituted, and that for his own honor only, and not for the honor of any creature: the Papists are much more laid open to condemnation, which press observations of feasts of men’s devising, and to the honor of men. Neither can it help them that they observe them not as the Jews did unto whom they were shadows of things to come, seeing the Galatians believing that Christ was already come, could not keep them as figures of his coming, but rather as memorials that he was already come….
Against this, it is so far that the religious observation of the Lord’s day makes any thing, that it makes much for it: for that day being no ceremony, and being before there was use of any ceremony of our redemption, remains by commandment of the moral law, commanding a seventh day to be religiously observed. Which seventh day the Apostles having declared to be the Lord’s day, without mention of any more holy days: have thereby defined the ordinary and perpetual time which the fourth commandment requires at our hands. For albeit the Church might upon occasion ordain holy days, yet neither can it make them perpetual laws, nor for the time of their endurance, bind the conscience with so strait a bond of obedience as it is tied to in the observation of the Lord’s day….
And if the Apostles were not fathers of the feasts which are dedicated unto Christ himself, and to his most saving and glorious actions, much less can they be thought to have begotten such base feasts as those are for which the Papists strive. And notwithstanding that the Jesuits allege testimonies for them out of ancient writers, yet neither are they of the eldest work, neither can the age of the feasts help to justify them, when their cradle and first birth is infamous, as it must needs be, whose pedigree cannot be fetched, nor by any sufficient matter of record deduced from the Apostles…. Show us one of your saints’ feasts of that antiquity that the festival solemnization of the 50 days between Easter and Whitsuntide was; which being thrown down from that stately place of festival estimation, notwithstand ing that they were dedicated to the honor of Christ himself: it ought not to be strange if your petty feasts be unfeasted, and your profane holy days of idle vacation, converted into days of profitable and needful labors.
William Ames (1576-1633), the prominent English Puritan who lived on the Continent among the Dutch for many years, sums up several fundamental principles relating to proper worship “No instituted worship is lawful unless God is its author and ordainer. Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32.” “The most solemn time for worship is now the first day of each week, called the Lord’s Day, Rev. 1:10; 1Cor. 16:2.” “Opposed to the ordinance of the Lord’s Day are all feast days ordained by men when they are considered holy days like the Lord’s Day.”
Shortly before his death, Ames prepared a massive volume, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633). This book was written as a response to earlier publications by John Morton and John Burgess. Throughout his work, Ames provides a detailed rebuttal of many of the Episcopal arguments related to church polity.
In one place, Ames speaks of the scriptural law of worship. Referring to Lev. 10:1, he states: “The sons of Aaron are there condemned for bringing strange, or ordinary fire to God’s worship; as doing that which God had not commanded, and yet had not otherwise forbidden, than by providing fire proper to his worship, and not appointing any other to be used in the tabernacle. And this is the very plea which we make against ceremonies of human institution, in God’s worship.” Then he notes Jeremiah 7:31, and comments: “Seeing God under this title only condemns that which the Jews did because he had not commanded it [to] them; therefore no other reason need to be sought for the confutation of superstitions, than that they are not by commandment from God.”
In a separate section “Concerning the Lord’s Day, Temples, and Ceremonial Festivals,” Ames states: “Concerning ceremonial festivals, of man’s making, our practice cannot be objected; because we observe none.” In support of his position he cites several prominent Protestant writers, including the remarks of Bucer on Matthew 12: “I would to God that every holy day whatsoever besides the Lord’s day were abolished. That zeal which brought them first in, was without all warrant of the word, and merely followed corrupt reason, forsooth to drive out the holy days of the pagans, as one nail drives out another. Those holy days have been so tainted with superstitions that I wonder we tremble not at their very names.”
Ames handles the objection, raised by the instigation of Papists, that Christ’s presence in Jerusalem during the feast, noted in the tenth chapter of John, supports humanly-instituted ceremonies:
- A Feast of Dedication is brought in as an instance of human ceremony appropriated unto God’s service, out of John 10. Now what Feast of Dedication this was, and whether it were merely of human institution: this has always been, and is still in great question….
- The Replier [John Burgess] first observed, that this example is much alleged by Papists, against Protestants for their ceremonies; and so indeed it has been always, from the time of the Waldenses.
- The Defendant [John Morton] for backing of this instance, added, that our Savior seems to approve that human feast, by his presence, John 10. To which it was replied, that he seems only; because we only read that he walked on Solomon’s Porch, at that feast; which he might do, without observing or approving of it. This is Junius’ answer to Bellarmine, alleging that Christ by his presence honored the feast: Christ did not properly honor the feast, but the congregation of the faithful at the feast. For Christ took all such occasions then, to wit, before those solemnities were abolished, of sowing the seed of his gospel. Nor did Christ aught that we read at those times, but preach in the Temple. And sure I am, that neither walking on the porch, nor declaring that he was that Christ, belongs properly unto the solemnity of that feast. If he had preached of dedications and consecrations, with allowance, that had been something.
Shortly thereafter, Ames points to a fundamental weakness in the arguments of his opponents. The advocates of ceremonies have a bad habit of making allusions to obscure places in scripture, without proving the fitness of these texts, or their correlation, to the subject in question. We have already seen a glaring instance of this tactic in the misuse of John 10. In another example, advocates of the Popish ceremonies have cited the altar of Jordan (Josh. 22) as providing a precedent for humanly-devised memorial ceremonies in the worship of God. This spurious claim has survived among some advocates of Christmas in the twentieth century.
“It is,” says Ames, “their fashion, to produce instances, without proof of their fitness, and so expect from us that they should be disproved…. So it is here, about the altar of Jordan; no demonstration is first made, how it agrees to the purpose; but we are challenged to show how it disagrees.” After uttering this protest, Ames makes several additional comments to demonstrate the unsuitability of this text to support ceremonial additions to the worship of God:
Let any man consider, whether they which ordinarily resorted to the tabernacle, and altar of God, had need of a human altar, far removed from their sight, to put them in mind that the Lord was God? And whether the two tribes and a half, without the consent or knowledge of the chief priests, the chief magistrates, the far greater part of the people, had power to appoint unto all Israel a solemn significant ceremony for their common use?
Ames continues his discussion by showing that the altar of Jordan served largely in a civil capacity “to testify that those tribes beyond Jordan belonged to the same people, and so had a right to the same worship, with those of this side [of] Jordan: which is nothing to a ceremony of stated and immediate use, in the special solemn worship of God.”
Of course, John 10 and Joshua 22 say nothing directly about Christmas. Its advocates must therefore take an intermediate step, and argue that these texts bestow power unto the Church to ordain modes of worship. That is precisely the manner in which these passages are employed by Papal apologists; they claim these texts grant the Church broad discretionary power to institute numerous ecclesiastical observances and ceremonies in worship. Hence, these same passages are adduced by Papal and Anglo-Catholic writers in order to justify numerous religious rites, such as the dedication (or consecration) of sacred buildings, the observance of festival days, the use of crosses, and prayers for the dead.
Obviously, the texts do not support the constructions imposed upon them; for then they would contradict other clear precepts found in scripture, where men are specifically prohibited from supple menting the worship of God by means of human inventions (e.g. Deut 4:2; 12:1-4, 28-32; Lev. 10:1-3). Further, when modern Protestants adopt Jesuit arguments as a pretext for observing Christmas, they are joining with the Papists in asserting a concurrent authority of the Church with the scriptures. Thus the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology is undermined, and Jesuits may smile that their tactics are meeting with some measure of success.
When the Puritans came to power in England, attention was repeatedly given to Christmas. In 1644, December 25 fell upon a day previously scheduled for a monthly fast. The Parliament debated the issue and resolved to observe the day with fasting and prayer, especially due to the present circumstances of the nation.
In June 1647, Parliament passed legislation abolishing Christmas and other holidays:
Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.
The issue surfaced again in Parliament on 25 December 1656, as described in a record of the proceedings of that assembly. One part of the day’s discussions is as follows:
Colonel Mathews. The House is thin; much, I believe, occasioned by observation of this day. I have a short Bill to prevent the superstition for the future. I desire it to be read.
Mr. Robinson. I could get no rest all night for the preparation of this foolish day’s solemnity. This renders us, in the eyes of the people to be profane. We are, I doubt [fear], returning to Popery.
Sir William Strickland. It is a very fit time to offer the Bill, this day, to bear your testimony against it, since the people observe it with more solemnity than they do the Lord’s-day.
Many Americans look with great admiration upon the Puritan settlers of this country. Imaginative souls conjure up images of pious pilgrims gathered around a warm hearth, with chestnuts roasting on an open flame. Many people would be quite surprised to know that December was just another day among the pilgrim settlers who came over on the Mayflower.
In 1621, a mild conflict arose when some newcomers had to be confronted over their use of the day:
On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most part of this new company excused themselves and said that it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, they found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
Confessional Presbyterianism and Christmas
When the Westminster Standards were drawn up in the seventeenth century, the true worship of God took a central position in the doctrines contained therein. True worship is directed to God alone, and only in ways he has prescribed. Matters of worship to be observed the proper means or elements of worship are only those which God has ordained.
Treating the second commandment, the Larger Catechism demonstrates the unlawfulness of adding to the worship of God. The scriptures forbid “any religious worship not instituted by God himself” and “corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever” (Larger Catechism no. 109; cf. Confession, chapter 21).
This scriptural teaching is applied in the assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God. A section particularly pertinent to the discussion on Christmas is found in the Appendix, “Touching Days and Places for Public Worship.” It says:
There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.
Founded upon scriptural principles, this position against holidays is the official teaching of the standards. It should be acknowledged by those who adhere to the Westminster formulations as their doctrinal standards, since it is rooted in the Larger Catechism, as well as the Directory for Worship. This position was reflected in the practice of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and America up through the nineteenth century.
The Westminster Standards, including the Directory for Worship, were used in the United States
during the 1700s. The Directory for Worship is commended as “agreeable in substance to the word of God” (Synod of Philadelphia, 1729), and receives approbation as “the general plan of worship and discipline” (Synod of New York, 1745).
After the two synods were reunited in 1758, they expressed their continued adherence to the Westminster formulations:
Both Synods having always approved and received the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as an orthodox and excellent system of doctrine, founded upon the word of God, we do still receive the same confession of our faith, and also adhere to the plan of worship, government, and discipline contained in the Westminster Directory, strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the ministry, that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid all errors contrary thereto.
Later in the eighteenth century, a new directory for worship was drafted, which was approved and adopted in 1788. The new directory contains a chapter on “Fasting, and the Observation of the Days of Thanksgiving.” Fasting and thanksgiving are treated more extensively than in the Appendix of the original Directory for Worship. No mention is specifically made of holy days or feasts; yet the chapter begins by stating, “There is no day under the gospel commanded to be kept holy, except the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.” This statement is almost identical to the one previously cited (from the Appendix of the Directory for Worship), and a natural application of this principle would certainly exclude holidays. That application is precisely the one made by Samuel Miller in his book on Presbyterianism (1835), in which he refers to this section of the (American) Directory for Worship.
Samuel Miller (1769-1850) was Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1806. He was later named Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Seminary. In his book, Miller has a chapter on “The Worship of the Presbyterian Church,” in which he mentions certain distinctives of Presbyterianism that set it apart from other groups within Christendom. Among those distinctives are the rejection of the following: holy-days (holidays), godparents in baptism, confirmation, kneeling to receive the Lord’s Supper, and many other things which are practiced by Anglicans and Papists.
Miller clearly explains why Presbyterians reject the holy-days of Christmas and Easter. Initially, he notes the regulative principle regarding worship: “the Scriptures being the only infallible rule of faith and practice, no rite or ceremony ought to have a place in the public worship of God, which is not warranted in Scripture, either by direct precept or example, or by good and sufficient inference.” Not only does the celebration of non-biblical holidays lack a scriptural foundation, he says, but the scriptures “positively discountenance it” (Col. 2:16; Gal. 4:9-11).
Miller further points to the pagan and Roman Catholic origins of such days as speaking “much against both their obligation, and their edifying character.” He also observes that “the observance of uncommanded holy-days is ever found to interfere with the due sanctification of the Lord’s day. Adding to the appointment of God is superstition. And superstition has ever been found unfriendly to genuine obedience.” In his closing remarks, Miller underscores his point that “the observance of days, not appointed by God, has ever been found to exert an unfriendly influence on the sanctification of that holy-day which God has appointed.”
Samuel Miller is a representative of mainstream American Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century. His discussion is based upon scriptural principles and flows from a natural application of the principles in the Directory for Worship. His book on Presbyterianism was issued under the imprint of the General Assembly’s Board of Publication, and was reprinted numerous times.
A Continuing Witness in Scotland
The position against ecclesiastical holidays continued to be upheld in Scotland in the nineteenth century. Writing in his book, The Church of Christ, James Bannerman treats ecclesiastical holidays. He cites scriptural testimony, and refers to the Appendix of the Directory for Worship. He reveals nothing really startling, but his writing on the subject is forceful:
Though there were no other service rendered on the Sabbath, and though our lips were silent and our tongues expressed no articulate praise, the single act of keeping the first day of the week holy would be an act of religious homage to the authority, and of solemn adoration to the person, of Christ. The observance of that day of rest, as part of the ordinary worship of the Church, is an act of adoration to Christ, as much as a hymn in His praise would be an expression of adoration to Christ. And who does not see, that upon the same principle the observance of holidays appointed by the Church, as ordinary and stated parts of Divine worship, is an expression of religious homage to man, who is the author of the appointment, an unlawful acknowledgment of human or ecclesiastical authority in an act of worship. In keeping, after a religious sort, a day that has no authority but man’s, we are paying homage to that authority; we are bowing down, in the very act of our observance of the day as part of worship, not to Christ, who has not appointed it, but to the Church, which has. We are keeping the season holy, not to God, but to man.
We have seen that Presbyterian opposition to Christmas is consistent, historical, and based upon solid scriptural considerations. Yet, Presbyterians were not the only persons who maintained a strong stand against Christmas and kindred corruptions of worship; there were other Christians who held a similar convictions. For example, the famous Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon opened a sermon on 24 December 1871 with the following words:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.
Continued Resistance and Decline
Opposition to ecclesiastical holidays remained in American Presbyterianism through the latter half of the nineteenth century. Speaking of the South after the Civil War, one historian notes:
There was, however, no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church. “If the exact date were known, or if some day (as December 25) had been agreed upon by common consent in the absence of any certain knowledge, we would still object to the observance of Christmas as a holy day. We object for many reasons, but at present mention only this one that experience has shown that the institution of holy days by human authority, however pure the intention, has invariably led to the disregard of the Holy day the Sabbath instituted by God.” In the following decade [the 1880s] this same journal sorrowed to see “a growing tendency [to introduce church festivals into Protestant denominations], even in our own branch of the church. True, it is by no means general, and has not been carried very far, but it is enough to awaken our concern and to call for that least a word of warning that the observance of Easter and Christmas is increasing amongst us….”
In 1899, the General Assembly of the pcus was overtured to give a “pronounced and explicit deliverance” against the recognition of “Christmas and Easter as religious days.” Even at this late date, the answer came back in a solid manner:
There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holydays, rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
About the turn of the century, however, various Christmas customs began appearing in Presbyterian churches. These came through the introduction of frivolities like St. Nicholas in children’s Sunday school, the use of Christmas trees, and other festive elements. The observance appears to have come from the lower levels of the church that is, from sentiments of people in the congregations and worked its way into sermons and more general acceptance.
This process took time. Morton Smith notes that the appearance of Easter and Christmas into the official calendar of the Southern Presbyterian church did not actually occur until the late 1940s and 1950s. Smith cites the acceptance of the liturgical calendar as a mark of the growing apostasy in the church. The change in attitude came with the growth of theological liberalism. Liberalism undermines the scriptural foundations of worship; and liberals will not feel threatened by holidays, because they have already abandoned the regulative authority of scripture in matters of worship.
It is also easy to see how conservatives have allowed unscriptural religious observances to slip into their practice in an unchallenged manner. When liberalism began to gain strength about the turn of the century, general apologetics took priority over specific expositions on the means of worship. Evangelicals had a tendency to cross denominational barriers in order to fight the common enemy; and this tendency helped to blur important denominational distinctives concerning worship.
Since the break with liberalism, most conservative Presbyterians have given scant attention to a fruitful discussion of worship. It is no wonder there is confusion. The observance of Christmas is only part of a much larger problem.
Even with the avalanche of liberalism and evangelical ecumenicity, Christmas has not gone unchallenged in twentieth century Presbyterianism. In 1962, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland issued a “Statement of Differences Between the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Other Presbyterian Churches.” One point of difference concerns the observance of holidays, which are tolerated in the theologically liberal Church of Scotland.
The Free Presbyterian Church rejects the modern custom becoming so prevalent in the Church of Scotland, of observing Christmas and Easter. It regards the observance of these days as symptomatic of the trend in the Church of Scotland towards closer relations with Episcopacy. At the time of the Reformation in Scotland all these festivals were cast out of the Church as things that were not only unnecessary but unscriptural.
Based upon the foregoing presentation, several conclusions may be drawn. These conclusions uniformly support a complete repudiation of Christmas by those who wish to uphold a biblical view of worship.
The scriptures, both by precept and example, forbid the use of any form of worship which is not ordained by God. Since Christmas has no biblical warrant, it should be rejected, even if there were no other reason to question it. The reader who doubts this conclusion, should take a thoughtful look at scriptural passages which demonstrate the unlawfulness of adding to the worship of God through the innovations of man. (See Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam. 13:9-13; Col. 2:16.)
Christmas has brought an infusion of paganism into the Church. This kind of admixture was prohibited among God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. The people of God must purge such corruptions from their midst. “What agreement hath the temple of God with idols?… Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2Cor. 6:16-17).
Christmas remains a monument of the superstition of the Church of Rome. If anyone doubts this proposition, he may turn on a television and watch the Papal Mass on Christmas Eve; the Pope struts around the altar, chants the prescribed words, and holds up the elements so they may be adored by a fawning multitude. This is not a light matter. It is aggravated by a modern softness toward Popery. Instead of looking for an Antichrist of the dispensational model, Protestants had better reawaken to the dangers of the Pope, who is “that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God. “ All remnants of Papal superstition must be eradicated from the Church, including favorable references to the word Christmas. The term Christmas itself lends credibility to Popery (via the Popish Mass), and God demands that his people purge even their language from the terminology of corrupt worship (see Deut. 12:3; Ex. 23:13).
Christmas observance undermines the sanctity of the Lord’s day. The yearning for festivals and celebrations among God’s people is understandable. Indeed, God instituted the Lord’s day (and the Lord’s Supper) to fulfill a need which men have in this vital area. One reason why people are so enamored with the festivity of holidays is that the Lord’s day is often perceived only in terms of what activities are prohibited on that day. If the Lord’s day is celebrated properly, with great joy, much of the desire for these other days will dissipate. We should be overjoyed with the grand truths of redemption on the day of Christ’s resurrection: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). It is no mere accident of history that holidays and the Lord’s day are so often linked together in discussions of this sort. Where one is prominent, the other fades in significance. May the Lord’s day be restored to its rightful place in worship.
The institution of Christmas assumes an erroneous view of Church power. God has set apart the Lord’s day as the time for regular worship and corporate remembrance of him. Men do not have the right (or authority) to sanctify other days for stated religious observances. Christmas-keepers are thereby granting to the Church a co-equal authority with the scriptures, since they acknowledge an ecclesiastical power to institute new ordinances of worship.
Further, Christmas constitutes a false sacrament. The Old Testament ceremonies and festivals were designed to typify Christ; they were visible representations to foreshadow the Messiah who was to come, and to confirm the promises of God. Now that Christ has come, the old festivities are not to be observed. Instead, Christ has given to the Church the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments serve as a visible word to confirm the spiritual realities of our redemption. To celebrate Christmas in a similar manner as a visible reminder and seal of the Incarnation is to allow the holiday to usurp a role which rightly belongs to the sacraments.
Christmas is a source of great misinformation and accessory abuses. The present study has left this realm largely unexplored. Yet, it needs to be mentioned. Every year, Christmas is the occasion of serious distortions of the facts of the Incarnation. Popular presentations frequently twist the historical facts, as demonstrated by numerous portrayals of the wise men in the manger. By riding roughshod over the historical details of Christ’s birth, these popular presentations impugn the accuracy of the scriptural record.
Moreover, during the Christmas season numerous manger scenes and religious images are erected in public places, church buildings and homes. This multiplication of graven images is a blatant violation of the second commandment, which explicitly forbids making or using any pictorial representations of God. The second commandment prohibits the making of any images of God, including “pictures of Christ” in the manger.
The accessory abuses of Christmas are so commonly known, they need only be mentioned. The season is characterized by crass commercialism in the media; the stimulation of mass covetousness, especially among children; and general debauchery, as exhibited in many annual Christmas parties.
Closing Remarks to Protestants
A few final words remain for those who claim to be Protestants, and especially Presbyterians. The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.
A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.” The issue is not a matter of indifference. Since Christmas was not instituted by God, it should not be approved or tolerated in the official practices of the Church. Ministers and church officers are not being true to their ordination vows, if they encourage or tolerate Christmas observance in their congregations.
Moreover, the obligation to protect our families from corrupt worship resides with all heads of households. We must strive to follow the example of Abraham, who received a commendation from the Lord: “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19).
At the outset of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox issued the following charge to the heads of households:
You are ordained of God to rule your own houses in his true fear, and according to his Word. Within your own houses, I say, in some cases, you are bishops and kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge; of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently you have always instructed them in God’s true knowledge, how that you have studied in them to plant virtue and repress vice.
Of course, there are always those who agree “in principle,” but offer lame excuses for their reticence to apply their beliefs to their actions. To such men, the words of Gillespie stand as an appropriate exhortation:
Do not reckon it enough to bear within the enclosure of your secret thoughts a certain dislike of the ceremonies and other abuses now set afoot, except both by profession and action you evidence the same, and show your faith by your fact. We are constrained to say to some among you, with Elijah, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” and call unto you with Moses, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who?” “Be not deceived: God is not mocked.” And, “No man can serve two masters. “
To all readers, this study is presented with the hope that it will foster a desire to maintain the purity of scriptural worship, in service to the living God. May the Church be liberated from the corrupting influences which destroy the spiritual vitality of her worship; and may a zealous concern for our worship flow from a desire to glorify the triune God.
- Disputes over the celebration of Passover (known as the Quartodeciman controversy) are recorded in the early church histories of Eusebius, Socrates, and Sozeman. The Council of Nicea (325 a.d.) dealt with this controversy; additionally, Canon xx of the council’s decisions refers to the posture for prayer in relation to the days of Pentecost.
- Samuel Miller, Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1835), p. 76.
- Ethel L. Urlin, Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints’ Days (London, 1915; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1979), p. 232.
- James Taylor, “Christmas,” in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (J. D. Douglas, ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), p. 223.
- See Urlin, pp. 232-48; Taylor, p. 223; Miller, pp. 76-77.
- Bede, A History of the English Church and People (Leo Sherley-Price and R. E. Latham, trans.; Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955, 1968), pp. 86-87.
- Taylor, p. 223.
- Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), Vol. 1, p. 408.
- Philip E. Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors in the Time of Calvin(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 56.
- Hughes, p. 130.
- Letters of John Calvin (Jules Bonnet, ed.; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 288-89.
- Calvin, Letters, Vol. ii, p. 289; cf. George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded upon the Church of Scotland (Geneva, 1637), Part 1, p. 34.
- Calvin, Tracts (1844; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), Vol. 1, pp. 128-29.
- Tracts, Vol. 1, pp. 131-32.
- Tracts, Vol. 1, pp. 189-90.
- For Calvin’s views on worship, be certain to consult the following: The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts , Vol. 1, pp. 123-234; The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church, in Tracts, Vol. 3, pp. 240-358; On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion, in Tracts, Vol. 3, pp. 359-411. Other significant comments may be found in some of Calvin’s letters: to Somerset, Lord Protector of England (22 October 1548; Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 182-198, especially pp. 192-96); to King Edward VI (January 1551; Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 299-304).
- John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland (Ed. by William Croft Dickinson; New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), Vol. 1, p. 91.
- The opening statement of the First Head of Doctrine reads: “Seeing that Christ Jesus is He whom God the Father has commanded only to be heard, and followed of his sheep, we urge it necessary that his Evangel be truly and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly of this Realm; and that all doctrine repugning to the same be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.” Knox’s History, Vol. 2, p. 281.
- Knox’s History, Vol. 2, p. 281. Cf. John Knox, Works (David Laing, ed.; Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895), Vol. ii, p. 190.
- In Knox, Works, Vol. vi, pp. 547-48. The same position is expressed in the Second Scotch Confession (1580), which rejects the “dedicating of kirks, altars, days.”
- Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (London, 1837; rpt. Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1979), Vol. 1, pp. 399-401, 449, 469-70.
- Perth Assembly, pp. 66, 69.
- Perth Assembly, pp. 71-74.
- Perth Assembly, pp. 79-81.
- Perth Assembly, p. 82.
- Perth Assembly, pp. 83-84.
- The Pastor and the Prelate (First American Edition; Philadelphia: Samuel Agnew, 1844), p. 7.
- The Pastor and the Prelate, pp. 59-61.
- Gillespie, Part 2, pp. 87, 118.
- Gillespie, Part 2, pp. 118, 84; cf. 86.
- Gillespie, Part 1, p. 26.
- Gillespie, Part 3, pp. 17-22.
- Gillespie, Part 3, p. 35.
- Gillespie, Part 3, p. 8; cf. 84, 112 ff.
- Gillespie, Part 3, p. 87.
- Gillespie, Part 3, pp. 10, 13.
- Gillespie, Part 3, p. 159.
- Neal, Vol. 2, p. 285.
- A.F. Scott Pearson, Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism. (Cambridge, 1925), p. 202.
- Calderwood, The Pastor and the Prelate, p. 90.
- A. F. Scott Pearson, p. 207.
- The Confutation of the Rhemists’ Translation, Glosses and Annotations (1618), by Thomas Cartwright has been reprinted recently in a facsimile edition by Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam, 1971). All citations in this study may be easily located, since Cartwright’s comments are arranged according to the books of the New Testament.
- William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (John D. Eusden, ed. and trans.; Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), pp. 279, 287, 300. ‘That is a most empty distinction which some people make to excuse their additions to worship: “Only corrupting and not conserving additions are forbidden.” For every addition as well as every subtraction is a departure from the observance and keeping of the commandments of God, and a corruption of them, Deut. 12:32.’
‘Of the same nature is the evasion which is made when it is said that only the addition of essentials is forbidden, not accidentals. Although there are some “accidents” or adjuncts in worship, there is no worship which may be called accidental, because all worship has in it its own essence. Furthermore, as the least commandments of God even to the jots and tittles are to be observed religiously, Matt. 5:18,19, so additions that seem very small are for the same reason rejected. Last, Moses seals even those laws of place and manner of divine worship, of abstinence from blood, and the like (which are certainly accidental to worship), with the caution not to add to or take away from them, Deut. 12:32.’ (Ames, Marrow, p. 280.)
- A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633; rpt. Gregg International Publishers, Ltd., 1971), Second Part, pp. 24-25.
- Ames, Fresh Suit, pp. 359-60.
- Ames, Fresh Suit, p. 320.
- Ames, Fresh Suit, p. 322.
- Ames, Fresh Suit, p. 325.
- Ames, Fresh Suit, p. 326.
- Neal, Vol. 2, p. 284.
- Neal, Vol. 2, p. 458.
- John Towill Rutt, ed., Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq.: Member in the Parliament of Oilver and Richard Cromwell, from 1656 to 1659 (rpt. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1964), Vol. 1, p. 229.
- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Samuel Eliot Morison, ed.; New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979), p. 97.
- The Appendix goes on to acknowledge the lawfulness of special days for fasting and thanksgiving, according to God’s providence a teaching which certainly has scriptural sanction.
- Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of Amercia: Embracing the Minutes of the General Presbytery and General Synod 1706-1788 (Philadelphia, 1904; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 95, 233, 286.
- Records, p. 547.
- Miller, pp. 65, 74.
- Miller, pp. 74, 77, 78.
- Miller’s book on Presbyterianism was reprinted in 1837, 1840, 1842, 1847, and 1848; it was translated into Latin in 1855. Judging from the publication data, the book appears to have been reissued more than any other work by this eminent Presbyterian.
- James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (1869; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), Vol. 1, p. 416.
- C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (1871; rpt. Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications), p. 697.
- Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1973), Vol. 2, p. 434. Thompson does not mention the Methodists, although they may be classified with their Anglican roots. Thompson’s citations are from the Southern Presbyterian (December 22, 1870; January 3, 1884).
- Cited in Morton H. Smith, How is the Gold Become Dim (Jackson, Mississippi: Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church, etc., 1973), p. 98.
- Thompson, pp. 434-35.
- Smith, pp. 97-105.
- History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1893-1970) (Compiled by a Committee Appointed by the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church; Inverness: Publications Committee, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, n.d.), p. 383.
- Original wording of the Westminster Confession, 25:6.
- For a good discussion of this point, consult Michael Schneider, Is Christmas Christian? (above).
- Note Luke 2:11. By the time the wise men arrived, Jesus and his family were residing in a house.
- On the issue of “pictures of Jesus,” and other graven images, the reader may consult the following: the Westminster Larger Catechism, no. 109; Heidelberg Catechism, questions 96-98; Peter Barnes, Seeing Jesus: The Case Against Pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990); John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. by Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), pp. 99-116; William Cunningham, Historical Theology (1862; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), Vol. 1, pp. 359-89; R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (1878; rpt. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 361-64.
- Answer 96 of the Heidelberg includes a similar prohibition, when it notes that the second commandment forbids us to worship God “in any other way than he has commanded in his word.”
- John Knox, Works, Vol. 4, p. 137.
- 1 Kings 18:21; Exodus 32:26; Gal. 6:7; Matt. 6:24; from section 11 of the opening “Epistle,” in Gillespie’s Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies.