Presbyterians have not always
Separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church practices, Protestant Reformation leaders were generally critical of the existing “feast and saint days” of the Catholic Church.
The celebration of Christmas became a point of contention among many Protestants. Reformation leader Martin Luther permitted the celebration of certain feast days, including Christmas. Other reformers, including John Calvin and John Knox, preferred to worship only where specifically commanded in the Bible.
Geneva, as one of the leading Protestant cities in the mid-1500s, had abolished all feast and saints’ days prior to Calvin’s arrival there. When Calvin was expelled temporarily from the city, the city council authorized some celebrations, while the Geneva Protestant ministers continued to oppose such festivals. After Calvin’s recall to the city, he wrote to Pastor John Halle in Berne on January 2, 1551, that he “pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ's birth-day as you are wont to do.”
With the Scottish Reformation, a clear stand against the observance of Christmas was taken by the Kirk (church) in 1560 and again in 1566.
The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 recognized the celebration of Christmas by the church. Most continental Reformed churches approved that confession and its specific approval of Christmas observance. The Scottish Kirk did not, arguing that there was no scriptural basis for December 25 as Christ’s birth date.
The debate over religious observance of Christmas was continued in the American colonies by both Puritans and Presbyterians. Where the Anglican Church was the official church of a colony — especially in the South — Christmas was celebrated. But Christmas was not
celebrated in New England by the Puritans. Presbyterians did not recognize Christmas wherever they lived.
On Dec. 25, 1749, Finnish-Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm was in Philadelphia. He made the following observation in his diary: “Christmas Day.... The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open, and anyone might sell or purchase what he wanted.... There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!”
Kalm went on to note that: “One did not seem to know what it meant to wish anyone a merry Christmas.... first the Presbyterians did not care much for celebrating Christmas, but when they saw most of their members going to the English (Anglican) church on that day, they also started to have services.”
In the rural areas of the country, Christmas went unnoticed among the Presbyterian settlers. Presbyterian Missionary Philip Fithian served as a missionary among the Scots and Scot-Irish Presbyterians in the western counties of Virginia. On Dec. 25, 1775, his diary read: “Christmas Morning - Not A Gun is heard - Not a Shout - No company or Cabal assembled - To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate - People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.”
During the 19th century, Presbyterians continued to reject the observance of Christmas although some changes were occurring. As Katherine Lambert Lewis wrote: “The drift of the Presbyterian attitude toward Christmas is further described in the letters of James W. Alexander (right), son of a Presbyterian minister and himself, teacher at Princeton Seminary, pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and prolific writer for the American Sunday-school Union.
“On December 25, 1838, Dr. Alexander ventured to wish his correspondent a Merry Christmas; on Christmas Day of 1843, he made one of a family reunion at his father's house in Princeton. In 1845 he speaks of Christmas meetings as common in New York City on Christmas. In 1851 Christmas saw Dr. Alexander in nine churches — five Roman Catholic, one Unitarian, and three Episcopal.... Another three years and ‘three hundred and fifty urchins and urchinesses’ assembled on Christmas Day for a cake and candy fête in the Mission Chapel of the Fifth Avenue Church.”
At right is the 1891 Christmas doll distribution at a mission of Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City (click picture for larger image).
“Christmas, as a holiday, seemed to hold fewer dangers than Christmas as a religious festival,” Lewis concluded. “It enabled Presbyterians to join in the pleasures of the season without a complete rejection of the historical attitude of the denomination on the matter....”
Change was coming
In the last half of the 1800s, some influential Presbyterian leaders and seminary professors wrote a number of books on worship and liturgical issues. These volumes suggested a broader form of liturgical worship might be appropriate and orthodox during the church year for Presbyterians.
The debate over Presbyterians and Christmas continued into the 20th Century. During the first half of the 1900s, the General Assemblies of various Presbyterian denominations caught up with the actual practices of many of their congregations. These assemblies finally voted to allow services for Christmas observances, such as Christmas Eve.
For example, in 1906, an edition of the Book of Common Worship put forth by the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (then recently reunited with two-thirds of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) was authorized by the General Assembly. Although the Church stressed that the use of this book was strictly voluntary and not officially recommended, it had far reaching effects. As an official publication of the denomination, it contained prayers for Good Friday, Easter, Advent and Christmas.
The Southern Presbyterian church (Presbyterian Church in the United States) adopted the Book of Common Worship in 1932 with that edition’s prayers, church year and implicit recognition of Christmas.
The debate over Christmas has never really gone away. To this day a few churches may not recognize the day in their worship services.
But for most Presbyterians, Christmas is here to stay as a part of the Presbyterian Church liturgical year.