The history surrounding Christmas has been anything but peace on earth and goodwill toward men. While contemporary religious and cultural traditions may evoke a certain nostalgia for its celebration, its history is actually a mess! One big mess — with feverish disagreements, hostility, and even rioting. In Christmas in America, Penne Restad wrote: “Christians [have] wrestled for centuries with questions of if, when, and how to celebrate Jesus’ birth.”
Stop the sleigh! Christians have wrestled with if Christmas should be celebrated? To some that might be a bigger surprise than the presents under the tree. After all, according to Gallup polling, ninety-three percent of people across all demographics celebrate Christmas in the United States, and of those who are fairly religious that number rises to ninety-six percent. In a society that’s deeply divided on any and every issue, Christmas is a near-universal observance. But it wasn’t always so. Paul VM Flesher said: “The notion that Christians of any stripe should not want to celebrate Christmas is so foreign to our present concept of the holiday that we need to review some history to understand it.”
The incarnation — the act of the eternal and only begotten Son becoming man — is foundational to the Christian faith. As John Chyrsostom preached: “Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.” For some, the yearly commemoration of that event is one of the most important days of the year. Yet Jesus never indicated that this redemptive act was to be annually celebrated, and its yearly observance didn’t enter into the way the Apostles ordered the worship and life of the church. Early Christian scholar Origen (d. 253) asserted that celebrating birthdays was foreign to Christianity, saying: “It has not come from the thought of any of the saints; not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth” (Homilies on Leviticus 8).
Gerry Bowler observed in his book Christmas in the Crosshairs, that while the birth of Jesus has always been important to the gospel, the first generations of Christians “lived in profound expectation of [Jesus’] imminent return.” He suggested that, among other things, when those eschatological hopes weren’t immediately fulfilled, the birth of Jesus began to get more attention. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan making Christianity a legal religion, the annual celebration of festivals and holy days soon followed.
Emperor Constantine commissioned that the Church of the Nativity be built in Bethlehem over the cave where it was believed Mary had given birth to Jesus. Historians debate the role of Constantine in the precise development of Christmas, but it has been suggested that he had a personal interest in the festival of the nativity. Nevertheless, it was in the 4th-century when the Roman Church began celebrating December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus. In the spirit of celebration Maximus of Turin (d. 465) said: “Brothers and sisters, our hearts still echo with the joy of the Lord’s birth, and our continuing gladness creates in us a sense of heavenly festivity. For, though the joyous day itself has passed, the sanctification that joy brought is still with us” (Sermo 6).
As that spirit grew around this man-created holy day, so too did traditions, superstitions, and syncretism. Leading to centuries of trouble was the struggle to keep the celebration set apart from worldly activities. For example, warning of the dangers of celebrating the feast in a worldly way, Augustine (d. 430) preached: “For our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became Man for our sake, paid a price for us. He gave Himself as a price and He did so for the purpose, namely, to redeem and separate you from the pagans. But if you wish to intermingle with the pagans, you do not wish to follow Him who redeemed you” (Sermon 198 on New Years Day). He went on to say: “Therefore, in order to follow your Redeemer, who bought you back with His own blood, do not mix with the pagans by aping their customs and deeds.”
Again, Bowler wrote: “Time after time, century after century, clergy would warn against unseemly folk rituals being practiced by Catholic believers; Christmastide was not the only battlefield but was a particularly contested one.” It seems, however, it was a losing battle. At first, Christians and the church adopted rituals they deemed harmless, but soon even practices once condemned (like gift giving and feasting) became high points of celebration. By the sixteenth century Christmas celebration was well established.
Then the Reformation happened. Often, when we think of the Reformation we think of reclaiming the biblical gospel especially as its related to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But the Protestant Reformation was also about worship. In his The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin wrote: “The whole substance of Christianity [is] a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” As Sinclair Ferguson concluded: “[The Reformers] well understood that the rediscovery of the gospel and the reformation of worship were two sides of the same coin.”
Following the Protestant Reformation certain branches within Protestantism retained the celebration of Christmas. For example, the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran churches states: “Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church, as particular holy days, festivals, and the like” (Article 15.1).
Even some of those Protestants who followed a Reformed doctrine of worship gave place to its observance as helpful to piety although not given by God. The Church Order of Dort (1619) prescribed: “The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost” – and they threw in the circumcision of Jesus for good measure (Article 67). Francis Turretin (d. 1687), a Reformed scholastic, said "anniversary days" for the nativity, passion, or ascension should, according to the orthodox, "be left to the liberty of the church." He argued this even while recognizing the festivals "were kept neither from the institution of Christ nor of the apostles."
Dutch theologians from the Nadere Reformatie would express differing opinions. William Teelink (d. 1629) said: “The godly swiftly conclude that Reformed Christians who would gladly abolish or ignore the feast days have the truth on their side” (The Path of True Godliness), and Jacobus Koelman (d. 1695) warned parents of letting their children observe “Santa Claus day” because “unbelief and superstition are being catered to” (The Duties of Parents). Also, Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) in The Christian's Reasonable Service wrote: "There is no basis in the Word, however, upon which the church may legislate the observation of such days for subsequent generations. Such practices should be denounced and the church should not observe them. This is true also for our so-called feast days which ought to be eliminated."
In England things were much more heated. The liturgical calendar was a big point of contention between the Anglicans and the Puritans. The Puritans, on the whole, rejected the celebration of Christmas as a man-made invention. In Against the Observation of a Day in Memory of Christ’s Birth (1659), an unnamed reverend asked: “How came it to be Christ’s day? Tell us the original hereof that we may know whether it be of God or man? Is it like to be of God and no footstep at all left thereof in his word! Neither precept nor example looking their way? Hence we may safely conclude that it was set up by man; and what man setteth up, man may pluck down.”
Within Puritanism Christmas was also condemned because of its association with the Roman Catholic Church. After all, the word “Christmas” originated in 1038 from the phrase Cristes Maesse, or the Mass of Christ. The Puritan theology set forth by the Westminster Assembly confessed that the mass was “abominably injurious” to Christ (see Westminster Confession of Faith 29.2). In his pamphlet Christ’s Birth Miss-Timed (1649), Robert Skinner concluded: “All error cometh from Rome, that bitter star, Wormwood, cast into the fountains of the Scriptures and Universities, to corrupt and bitter them, not to better them.”
Additionally, there were concerns of immorality. Again, Restad observed: “Celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures that were discouraged during the remainder of the year.” In The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum noted: “The holiday [the Puritans] suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of a traditional Christmas […] It involved behavior most of us would find offensive and even shocking today — rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and the invasion of wealthy homes.” Phillip Stubbes in The Anatomie of Abuses (1558) complained about these very things: “More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”
Unlike some of the Continental Reformed, Presbyterians also opposed Christmas. In 1636 Samuel Rutherford in a discussion on ceremonies in worship asserted that festival days "were Judaism and we might have an new temple, an new ark, new sacrifices and shedding of blood, after Christ by his death hath removed all bloody sacrifices. If this be added, they are indifferent and not necessary." In his A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637), George Gillespie brilliantly presented objections to holy days and, among other arguments, said: "That which has been said against all the controverted ceremonies in general, I will now instance of festival days in particular and prove, both out of the law and gospel, that they take away our liberty which God has given us, and which no human power can take from us." The Westminster Directory for Publick Worship (1644) stated: "Festival days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued."
Following the Parliamentarian victory during the English Civil War, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament passed an ordinance in June 1647 banning Christmas festivities, services, and celebrations even in the home. This did not prove popular. Pro-Christmas riots broke out in different areas and the city of Canterbury was controlled by rioters for a number of weeks, together with holding secret carol-sings.
Pamphlets were written to bemoan the ban and defend the celebration. Thomas Wamstry wrote in A Vindication of Christmas (1652): “We have heard of the persecution and imprisonment of ministers for attempting to preach the Word of God upon the festival of Christ’s Nativity, and of the strict and forcible prohibition thereof.” John Taylor wrote in Christmas In & Out (1652): “My Master gave power to his Church to celebrate and to ordain and command the annual celebration of his blessed Nativity.” In England the ban on Christmas ended with the restoration of King Charles II who after 1660 allowed people to celebrate again.
The Christmas spirit, however, did not completely catch on in the new world. Those who came brought the mess of Christmas to the colonies. Again, Nissenbaum said: “In New England, for the first two centuries of white settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas.” In Plymouth Colony some citizens sought to be excused from work on December 25, 1621. Until they were “better informed,” William Bradford granted it until he saw them openly playing in the streets. He reprimanded them and wrote in his journal: “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 the streets.”
From 1659 until 1681 the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed Christmas. The ordinance read: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” the offender would have to pay a hefty fine of five shillings. In his Testimony Against Profane and Superstitious Customs (1687), Increase Mather summarized: “In Apostolic times the feast of the nativity was not observed. The very name Christmass savors of superstition [and] the manner of Christmass keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonorable to the Name of Christ.”
In 1706 things came to a head in Boston when pro- and anti-Christmas groups began rioting in the streets, fighting, and smashing church windows. Something similar occurred a century later in New York City when a gang of fifty went to St. Peter’s to cause trouble with worshipers leaving midnight mass. Public schools in Boston punished students who stayed home on Christmas until it was included on a list of federal holidays in 1870. In 1789, Congress actually held its first session on Christmas Day. The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836, and the last state to do so was Oklahoma in 1907.
It really wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas was widespread in the United States. As Restad concluded: “In the end, whether slowly in New England or more rapidly in the middle colonies and the South, the forces of pluralism and the need for social harmony shaped and encouraged Christmas celebration.” On a popular level Washington Irving (d. 1859) deserves some credit for shaping the American Christmas. In his biography The Original Knickerbocker, Andrew Burstein wrote: "America had no recognized Christmas holiday. Irving expressed only the germ of it. And although no one person 'invented' Christmas, we can say that Irving dressed up an idea that had been floating around."
Nevertheless, the historic struggle continues to be the present struggle. When the annual celebration of the nativity was invented and introduced to the church, centuries of trouble followed in trying to figure out how it should be observed. Still today, sincere and devoted people are eager to put Christ into Christmas. One has to wonder, however, if what we've done is create of a mess that Christians have spent a millennia and half trying to put Christ into: a Christmess. Maybe Stephen Nissenbaum was onto something when he wrote: “From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous […] It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize. Little wonder that [some] were willing to save themselves the trouble.”