I love Christmas! Mostly because I am an overgrown child. But judging by the look of this blog, you may have already picked up on that. No matter how old I get, or how much money we throw away, I still look forward to the big day–the hanging lights part, not so much. One thing my wife dislikes is the shortened period of daylight because it’s depressing to drive home from work after sundown. I love the earlier evenings, though, because it means that Christmas is coming!
My enthusiasm for the holiday is in no way deterred by the debate surrounding the origin of the Christmas holiday. Since my days in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement, I have seen some leaders advocate for December 25 as the true date of the birth of Jesus, while most I have seen take no position on the date, but certainly promote the celebration of the “official,” if not actual, anniversary of the incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Being the revivalists that they are, fundamentalists would never discourage church attendance by downplaying Christmas! In fact, part of my personal love for Christmas is probably rooted in the virtual show-and-tell encouraged by my beloved childhood pastor, who had the children bring their favorite Christmas gift to church to show it off and tell us about it.
Since about the year 2000, however, I have embraced Reformed theology, and since 2010, my wife, youngest daughter, and I have worshipped in a congregation of the Orthodox (as in, not liberal!) Presbyterian Church. The attitude and practice of my new denomination and theological tradition regarding Christmas is much more varied. I find a few who reject it entirely, many like myself who love and celebrate it with enthusiasm, and leaders who walk a very diplomatic public line between the varying opinions. The fact is that the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation is the historical source of the rejection of Christmas and Easter, although many sects and factions who reject these holidays often do so for reasons completely foreign to the Protestant Reformation.
So, the question of the true origin of Christmas continues to be an issue of interest for me. In the past I have promoted Touchstone Magazine‘s interesting article,” Calculating Christmas.” This article takes the “Mere Christianity” approach to defending the Christian origin of Christmas against claims of its pagan origin.In other words, it deals primarily with issues agreed on by each major branch of Christendom: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Some details of Touchstone’s case remain a matter of debate; however, their full-throated affirmation of the Christian origin of Christmas appeals to a guy like me. Nevertheless, Touchstone’s ecumenical approach leaves a few issues outstanding as the issue of celebrating Christmas relates to a Reformed believer’s observance of the holiday.
Reformed theology subscribes to Scripture’s authority to regulate the worship of the church–a doctrine we call “the regulative principle of worship” (RPW). Nowadays, Reformed churches differ on how this principle applies to the observance of Christmas. Some, while rejecting the Catholic Church Calendar on the grounds of the RPW, retain the observance of Easter and Christmas. This view seems to predominate today among Reformed churches. Others reject even these two holidays in favor of only observing the Lord’s Day, applying the Old Covenant Sabbath principles to New Covenant worship. They say we celebrate 52 holidays on the Reformed “church calendar.” While the former agree with the latter on the primacy of the Lord’s Day, they do see a place for the commemoration of the anniversary of the incarnation and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ in the life of the church, even on the Lord’s Day. The goal of the Protestant Reformation was to reform the doctrine and practice of the church according to the Scriptures and the customs of the ancient church (Clary, Glen. The Eucharist in the Didache; Abstract, p. v).
This year, I thought to inquire into further reading by a more Reformed source on the subject. Who better to ask than my own presbytery’s scholar on the customs of the ancient church, Dr. Glen Clary, Pastor of Providence OPC in Pflugerville, Texas, and a regular contributor to the Reformed Forum through his Ancient-Reformed Worship blog. Pastor Clary, who studied under the great Hughes Oliphant Old, directed me to his post, “The Origins of the Church Calendar.” This lengthy piece features quotes by many early writers like Chrysostom, Clement and Jerome on the subject of the history of the Church Calendar and the Easter and Christmas traditions. There is much interesting content in this article, to which I would direct your attention. Allow me to whet your appetite for the details by sharing Clary’s nuanced conclusions regarding Christmas, and leave it to you to go back to his article yourself to work through the evidence he presents (emphasis mine):
“Those who argue for the derivation of Christmas from this festival [the Roman festival of the Invincible Sun, dies natalis solis invicti] lay great emphasis on the role of Constantine, who is known to have been a devotee of the Sun prior to his protection of Christianity.
“However, it should be noted that although we find several places in the Church fathers where Christmas is compared and contrasted with Sol Invictus, it does not necessarily follow that Christmas was instituted as its substitute.
“One manifest weakness of this theory is that Constantine did not institute the observance of Christmas on December 25 in Bethlehem after dedicating the Church of the Nativity.
“As we have just seen in Jerome’s sermon, Bethlehem continued to observe January 6 as the Nativity until the end of the fourth century or even the beginning of the fifth.
“Furthermore, Constantine does not institute the observance of Christmas in the new capital of his empire either. Christmas first came to Constantinople in 380 when it was introduced by the newly installed bishop, Gregory of Nazianzus.
“One conclusion that we may draw from this historical data is that the nativity of Christ was not widely observed in the church on December 25 until the late fourth or early fifth century.
“That is not to say that Christians did not celebrate the nativity of Christ before that time. They certainly did! But the point is that December 25 was not regarded as a holy day by most Christians until pretty late in church history.
“The church calendar is something that evolved over a very long period of time. Even after the first two or three ecumenical councils, the church calendar was still in a state of flux.
“As diligent students of the church fathers, the Reformers were well aware of that fact.
“The Reformers knew that there was an unbroken tradition of Lord’s Day worship handed down from the apostolic age. And they were eager to preserve that apostolic practice.
“But many of them had misgivings about the church calendar. One reason for those misgivings was the lack of evidence from the ancient church to substantiate its apostolic origins.“