The Reformed Approach to Holidays

As my family experiences its first Easter together as regular attenders of a Reformed church, we are experiencing a distinct difference from the approach our former non-Reformed fundamentalist and evangelical churches have approached it. Following is a couple of paragraphs from an entry on Calvinism from the Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, by the Gale Group, Inc. This should help us (and you) put the Reformed approach to holidays in general into historical context.

This morning our family is celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. May this Easter Sunday find you worshiping the risen Lord in your house of worship.

Another distinctive feature of Reformed Protestantism was its remarkably small number of official holidays. Calvin himself saw no need and no scriptural basis for any holiday other than Sunday, and Reformed Protestants usually celebrated extremely few of them. Their most austere churches,GenevaandScotland(or seventeenth-centuryNew England), observed none at all—not untilGeneva’s magistrates overruled their pastors and finally declared Christmas an official holiday in 1694. Such situations were, however, exceptional. The mainstream of established Calvinism, the Reformed churches ofZurich,Bern,France, theNetherlands, and thePalatinate, celebrated four holidays besides Sundays: Christmas, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost; the Dutch and thePalatinatealso added New Year’s Day. Keeping only a handful of holy days marked an enormous departure from Catholic practices, which in most places celebrated anywhere from forty to sixty holidays each year. Other mainstream Protestants were far less radical than Calvinists: Lutherans kept a large number of holy days, while the Church of England became a target for Puritan scorn by observing a total of twenty-seven holidays. Early Massachusetts went further and took the most extreme Calvinist position about the Christian calendar: not only did the colony ban all holidays, but its General Court briefly reformed the “pagan” names of the months as well, dating by “first month,” “second month,” and so forth.

Many Calvinists compensated for this paucity or absence of other holidays with a strict observance of Sunday, almost in an exact correlation.ScotlandbecameEurope’s most notorious example in 1579, when serious punishments were first threatened for Sabbath-breakers; by 1649, they had forbidden such practices as fishing on Sunday.Scotland’s extremely rigid taboos about Sabbath observance lasted far into modern times; it has been suggested that “Thou Shalt Not” made the best title for a history ofScotland, with its longest chapter called “Never on Sunday.” Another specifically Calvinist ritual was the special day of community fasting, proposed by pastors and decreed by secular authorities, usually intended to divert God’s wrath at times of extraordinary danger. We find fast days observed as early as the 1560s by the beleaguered churches of theLow CountriesorFrance, and later in seventeenth-centuryNew England; they remained a feature of Genevan life until the nineteenth century.


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7 responses

  1. Interested Reader | Reply

    What have you done that is different from previous years?

    1. For instance, today we still sang songs featuring the resurrection and the sermon culminated in proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, but there is little in the way of, for want of a better way of putting it, making a big deal out of the fact that today is Easter in such a way that it actually affects the order of worship. This is given the fact that the Reformed are very scrupulous to do only that which the Bible commands to be done in corporate worship. Sometimes, in non-Reformed churches, things are added to the service that are not commanded in Scripture to be done in worship. By comparison, those things are conspicuous by their absence.

  2. There is a wide array of views in the Reformed World! Some observe the Calendar. Some view days like “good friday” and “easter” as silly and unholy. Some view those days as under the “yoke” of the Roman Pope! Some view those days as adiophorus. So it’s a big huge tent with tons of views when you say “Reformed” view. Must distinguish between as well between the continental and english influence in the argument.

    1. You are definitely right. But you would agree, wouldn’t you, that the paragraphs above describe some of the major emphases by different segments of the Reformed tradition? At the very least, considering a secular encyclopedia presented the history in this way, this is at least what it looks like to the watching world what is going on in the Reformed tradition.

  3. Yea…I would almost agree, it was a little lopsided against the Scotts. I mean there were Monsters before the Scotts existed you know.

    1. Yeah, they’re nice once you get to know them ;-)

  4. Great, John. I didn’t miss any of the bells and whistles this Lord’s Day, either.

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