Religion Today

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Banned Christmas

One Christmas day in America: Crowds of Americans rioting in the streets. Two opposing groups shout loudly, vying to have their messages heard and heeded. The groups meet. Confrontation ensues. Fistfights break out. Church windows are smashed. What are these rioters fighting about? Christmas. One group favors celebrating Christmas, the other opposes all Christmas observances. This isn't an imaginary event, it is history. It happened in Boston on Christmas day in 1706.

In America's increasing love-affair with Christmas (both the Christian and commercial versions), we have forgotten that there was a time when much of European and American Christianity thought that Christmas should not be celebrated. In the riot described previously, the anti-Christmas group consisted largely of Congregationalists (Puritan descendants), Baptists, and Presbyterians, while the pro-Christmas group comprised mostly Anglicans (Episcopalians). 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.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism celebrated the "Christ Mass." It was one of many special masses and feasts of the Catholic Church celebrating key events in Jesus' life or the birthdays of saints. The three main Protestant movements that ultimately came to America had three different reactions to this situation.

First, although the Anglican Church developed a Protestant theology, it kept much of Catholic liturgy, including festivals celebrating aspects of Christ's life and the feast days of many saints. It gave special emphasis to the celebration of Christmas.
Second, after Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, special liturgical observances began to be frowned upon. The Lutherans thought that the celebrations of saints' days were too much and so cancelled them. But they still emphasized observing events in Jesus' life, and so continued with joyous Christmas festivities.

Third, the Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them.

The Calvinist position came to be quite influential in Great Britain, even though it never altered the position of the Anglican Church. John Knox brought Calvinism to Scotland as Presbyterianism where Christmas was banned in 1583, while the Puritans brought Calvinism into England, where it became influential in circles both within and outside of the Anglican Church. During the Civil War in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed Christmas observance. It was brought back in 1660 at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

From England, both sides brought their Christmas beliefs to America. The Puritans (later becoming the Congregationalists) were joined by Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists (despite their founders' pro-Christmas predilections), and Baptists on the anti-Christmas side, while the Anglicans dominated the pro-Christmas side, and were later joined by the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed.

In Boston, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was lifted in 1681 when the British government took control of the colony, an armed guard had to protect the governor on his way to church on Christmas of 1686. When the colony reverted to local control in 1689, Christmas again fell out of favor.

The objection to Christmas by Americans was two-fold. First, for Calvinist theology, it reflected what they saw as the “pagan” character of Catholic worship. Christmas was not a biblical holiday and had not even become a Christian festival before the late 300s; it was a creation of the church, not of Christ. Second, the holiday was accompanied by extensive reveling. Celebrations were not primarily worshipful, but involved feasting, game playing, heavy drinking, shooting, and gambling. For the over-indulgers, it brought out the worst of their excesses. Since the holiday celebrated the Savior's birth, such immoral behavior was seen as sacrilegious.

During the 18th century, Christmas observance began to be more accepted. Church-goers turned their attention to purifying the holiday of its excesses, rather than rejecting it altogether. By the 1750s, even New England hymn books contained Christmas carols. By the early 1800s, Christmas was observed with an emphasis on family and children.

In 1836, Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Other states followed suit; even Massachusetts legalized Christmas in 1856, almost 200 years after its ban. But the last state, Oklahoma, did not join in until 1907. 


  • In our modern world, nothing irritates me more than commercialized traditions. It is almost unbearable for me to endure christmas decorations a day after halloween. I'm not an observer, but, in a world of increasing hostilities and one disaster after another, both natural and man-made, I have come to hope that perhaps a few more weeks, at the end of each year, of brotherhood and family and goodwill toward each other might not be such a bad thing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/11/2010  

  • Custom: Jesus' birth took place on December 25

    It's Roots: from pagan Roman festivals held at the year's end

    Truth: The Bible does not give Jesus' birth date

    Custom: "a 'Star" from the east guided 3 wisemen (magoi) coming to a stop over a stable.

    It's Roots: principally from legend

    Truth: by virtue of their long journey the astrologers did not arrive in time to visit Jesus in the stable..rather the 'star' after months of travel stopped (no ordinary star)and they "went into a house. (Matt 2:1-8,11,16)

    Why would God who had used angels to inform humble shepherds of Jesus birth now employ a star to guide pagan astrologers first to Jesus enemy Herod then to the child himef. A sinister device by Satan who is quite capable!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/19/2010  

  • Thank you for this post. Can you post your sources for this, so that I can find this info for myself?

    By Anonymous Caleb G., at 12/22/2010  

  • I need to post a small correction regarding Luther's posting of the 95 theses, and a supposed ban on the observance of saints in the Lutheran Church.

    In the Augsburg Confession Article XXI: Of the Worship of the Saints:

    "1] Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling...
    2] the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor."

    It isn’t the saints we worship, but we remember their faithfulness, and their example in service to humanity. There was and still remains in the Lutheran Church a calendar of commemoration of saints.

    The influence to move away from upholding the saints probably came from the more radical reformer Ulrich Zwingli who wanted to cut all ties to the past traditions, and begin a new tradition with simpler forms.

    Martin Luther did not intend to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, and held firmly to liturgical traditions that upheld the gospel.

    Sadly, many of the differences between the reformers has been lost, particularly during the settling of the North American colonies. There were few pastors to provide leadership, and many small congregations were held together by lay people, or by ministers of other theological perspectives. Even today there is a view that all protestant churches are alike, and all believe the same doctrine. For clergy, this is a source of great consternation.

    The early settlements in New England, because of Puritan influence, banned celebrations because in medieval Europe they were raucus, and had nothing to do with the gospel. The Puritans, as obvious in their name, wanted to 'purify' the faith. But as to public displays of austentation and uncontrolled behavior? Even today some things don't change.

    It was the German settlers that immigrated to Pennsylvania from the Palatinate that brought with them the icons of Christmas that we hold dear today: Christmas trees, stars, nativity scenes, caroling, Christmas cookies and gifts.

    Luther scholar Roland Bainton writes that the medieval period had many elaborations on scriptural stories, and a flourishing mythology of miracles by the ‘saints’ that fed the ecclesiastical economy. But in no way did Luther, nor the Lutheran Church, ban Christmas celebrations. Luther wrote a lovely Christmas hymn, "From Heaven High" for children to sing as they presented the Nativity story, just as many of our congregations do on Christmas Eve.

    As to 'commercialized' celebrations and traditions? That is simply a result of greediness making its way into the human need to celebrate and honor the Lord. It has grown because of the worship of the marketplace, and the view that material success is a mark of the favor of God.

    By Blogger sage1, at 12/28/2010  

  • A good discussion actually appears at Wikipedia. I drew from some of the published works at the bottom.
    Paul Flesher
    P.S. This is about New England. The same rejection of Christmas happened when the Puritans ruled England itself. Check out the Civil War.

    By Anonymous Paul V.M. Flesher, at 1/04/2011  

  • The founding fathers were smarter than we thought. It almost that they had foreseen the 21st Century. Unfortunately some "pick" their interpretations of the constitution, the Bible and the Quran to suit their purpose. Their purpose is to force their beliefs on others usually with threats and fear.

    By Blogger Pat, at 1/13/2011  

  • You’re close, but incomplete. Some time in the 3rd century te church decided to schedule Christmas during the winter solstice to counteract the Saturnalia, a pagan festival in honor of Saturn and honoring Bacchus, the god of wine and celebrations. This 5 day feast made our Margo Agra’s look very tame. The Lamb Of God was probably born in late March as any good Aries ram would be, or maybe on the equinox to be on the cusp with a Pisces, the fish. Etc, etc, etc.

    By Blogger Miguel Velez, at 1/17/2019  

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