Christmas was not celebrated in the Christian tradition, as far as we know, until the 4th Century. The early church fathers argued against celebrating any birthdays, in part because for Jesus and martyrs, their true birthday was the day of their martyrdom. There was no specific liturgy for a Christmas service until the 9th century. While various days were thought to be the day of Christ’s birth, December 25 was picked because it coincided with Roman festivals for Saturnalia and the winter solstice. Placing Christmas on this day was a good way to subsume and overtake a non-Christian holiday. But, of course, many of the characteristics from the earlier celebration remained. In celebrating the beginning of each New Year the Romans honored their god Saturn. Their festival began in mid December and lasted until early January and included decorating with garland and trees with candles on them. Gift giving between friends was also a part of this celebration and visiting each other as well. As it spread through Europe, Christmas incorporated other cultural practices such as holly, the yuletide log, and mistletoe. The nativity and singing of carols were brought in by Christians. Gift giving became part of the tradition in the late 18th century.
But the puritan movement reacted against the celebration, quite strongly. For example, it was outlawed in Calvin’s Geneva and in England in 1647 (though reinstated a few decades later). Luther sought to find its deeper significance and continued to celebrate it. Even the early American Puritans reacted against it and there were laws banning it in several colonies. It was not until the mid 1800s that it was fully celebrated nationally.
Let us examine a few quotations and see if we can see some of the reasons earlier Christians struggled with Christmas as a holiday.
- 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…prayer for the dead; and the 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. (John Knox, First Book of Discipline, 1560).
- Nay, let us utter the truth, December-Christmas is a just imitation of the December-Saturnal of the ethnic 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 actions and benefits, as well as for the resurrection. (David Calderwood, Scottish minister and politician, 1575-1651)
- If Paul condemns the Galatians for observing the feasts which God himself instituted [But were now abrogated], and that for his own honour only, and not for the honour of any creature: the Papists are much more laid open to condemnation, which press observations of feasts of men’s devising…(Thomas Cartwright, English Reformer, 1535 – 1603).
- Christmas is coming! Quite so; but what is ‘Christmas’? Does not the very term itself denote its source – ‘Christ-mas.’ Thus it is of Romish origin, brought over from Paganism. But, says someone, Christmas is the time when we commemorate the Savior’s birth. It is? And who authorized such commemoration? Certainly God did not. The Redeemer bade His disciples ‘remember’ Him in His death, but there is not a word in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, which tells us to celebrate His birth.” (Arthur Pink, early 20th Century Evangelist)
- 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 sung in Latin or in English. Secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its obsevance is a superstitioun, because not of divine authority. ‘Superstition’ has fixed most positively the day of our Savior’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred … It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the Church celebrated the nativity of our Lord; and it was not until very long after the Western Church had set the example, that the Eastern adopted it. (C.H. Spurgeon, 19th Century English Minister).