Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
The English word “Christmas” — “Christ’s mass” — reveals the holiday’s Catholic origin. With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, though, many Catholic practices and traditions were rejected or at least abandoned.
How did Christmas survive the Protestant purge? In some places, it nearly didn’t.
At first, it faced relatively few challenges in England. When the Anglican Church split with Rome over Henry VIII’s marital issues (see "The Anglican Church, England’s unique Reformation" published Oct. 27 on deseretnews.com), it remained relatively Catholic — retaining not only priests, bishops, archbishops and cathedrals but choral music and feast days. Consequently, many of our Christmas traditions and much of our Christmas music today is English.
On the European continent, though, the survival of Christmas was more precarious.
In John Calvin’s Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, only Sundays were observed as days of worship; the other feast days and saints’ days ordained by Rome were abolished. And Calvin’s disciple John Knox, who founded the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, followed the same path (see "John Knox and the Scottish Reformation" published June 25, 2016, on deseretnews.com).
When he launched his series of scripture-centered sermons in Zurich’s Grossmunster church in 1519, Zwingli — arguably the most radical of the three great Reformers — simply began with Matthew and preached through the whole book, ignoring the Catholic liturgical calendar and its festivals and holidays (see "The third man of the Reformation," published Oct. 13, deseretnews.com).
Calvin’s approach was slightly more moderate (see "The Protestant Reformation's other great writer" published Sept. 15, 2017, on deseretnews.com). In a sermon delivered on Christmas Day 1551, Calvin noticed more people than usual in his congregation, so he warned them that, by elevating Christmas above other days for worship, they risked turning it into an idol. Still, he himself may have observed Christmas privately, at home.
In 1647, the English Parliament, dominated by Puritans, went beyond Calvin and altogether banned the festival. William Prynne (d. 1669), for example, taught that “all pious Christians” should “eternally abominate” observance of the holiday. According to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”
Similar issues played out in America. While, for example, Christmas was celebrated in colonies where Anglicanism was the established church, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony banned any outdoor celebration of Christmas in early 1620s Massachusetts. Violators — in some cases, even those caught observing the holiday in secret — could be heavily fined.
While the Swiss Reformers Zwingli and Calvin insisted that Christians should worship God only in ways mentioned in the Bible — which says nothing of Christmas — Martin Luther held to the more expansive view that Christians are permitted to worship God in any way that the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid.
And Luther loved Christmas, advocating feasts, gift-giving and special church services. He wrote Christmas carols and delivered dozens of Christmas-related sermons. It may be significant that, while Luther’s Protestant Germany and the largely Catholic Bavaria and Austria have greatly enriched our Christmas musical tradition, few if any famous Christmas carols come from Switzerland, which is directly adjacent to them. In fact, “Messiah,” written in just 24 days by the devoutly Lutheran 18th-century German composer George Frederick Handel, can be viewed as an expression of Luther’s musical legacy.
A former Catholic monk, Luther married the former nun Katharina von Bora in June 1525 and, with “Katie,” established a happy marriage that became a model for subsequent Protestant homes and families. Effectively, together, they “invented” the Protestant parsonage.
Sixteenth-century German Protestants seem to have begun the tradition of erecting decorated “Christmas trees” in their homes, and some claim that Luther himself originated the idea of placing lights — candles, in his day — on the tree. (Queen Victoria’s German-born consort, Prince Albert, helped to make Christmas trees popular in England when he put one up in Windsor Castle.)
One- or two-day winter markets, where farmers sold their produce, had long been traditional in Germanic Europe. After the Reformation, however, the “Christkindlmarkt” (“Little Christ Child Market”) became a holiday bazaar lasting throughout Advent. Perhaps originating in Bavaria, these German Christmas markets featured choirs, food, toys, carvings and other gifts for the birth of the Christ Child.
For many today, Christmas has become a largely secular holiday, with little or no connection to Jesus. In part, ironically, this may derive from the objections of some very devout Christians, whose compromise solution to the problem of Christmas allowed them to celebrate it while downplaying its religious significance.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.