What did the Puritans think about Christmas?
If you are like me, you enjoy Christmas and you enjoy the Puritans – among other things. But if you know much about the Puritans, you might be asking if this is a contradiction in terms. ‘Were not the Puritans opposed to Christmas?’ Well, yes and no is the answer, so let me explore this a bit further.
Of interest, one of my books on the Puritans that I just pulled off the shelves (Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken) has a penultimate chapter on ‘Some Puritan Faults’. Yes, they were not perfect, and they had issues: for example, they could be too wordy; they could be too legalistic at times; and so on. And while the entire book is full of praise for the Puritans as he seeks to set the record straight about them, in this chapter Ryken raises first the example of Christmas.
He points out that a “genuinely religious Christmas was obviously not objectionable” but some of the ways people had been used to celebrating it were. Thus Governor William Bradford “did not allow New Englanders to celebrate Christmas as they had been accustomed to (simply as a holiday), but he was not opposed to Christmas in principle.”
Reverend Increase Mather had said this in 1687: “The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth.”
Yes, there was a ban on Christmas in Massachusetts, but that law existed for only 22 years (1659-1687). There were various reasons why such concern existed. One obvious problem was the drunkenness and carnality that often attended Christmas celebrations.
Another was the idea that this was a part of the old Anglicanism in England that the Puritans were trying to get away from. But Christmas celebrations nonetheless continued in various forms, and it became a national holiday in the US in 1870 (along with Independence Day on July 4).
There are other issues of course that can be mentioned, including things like nativity scenes and the like. These issues fall under the broader concerns about religious art, idols and icons, and idolatry. That is a much bigger discussion which I have dealt with elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/28/on-iconoclasm-part-one/
That debate in turn centres on things like how we are to understand the Second Commandment (see Exodus 20:4-6). And that too is a big discussion. One key proponent and populariser of the Puritans, J. I. Packer in his 1973 classic, Knowing God, devotes an entire chapter to this matter.
He says several times there that it is primarily the use of images “as an aid to worshipping” God that is the real issue here. Indeed, “Historically, Christians have differed as to whether the second commandment forbids the use of pictures for purposes of teaching and instruction (in Sunday-school classes for instance).”
But he goes on to make this important point: “Just as it forbids us to manufacture molten images of God, so it forbids us to dream up mental images of Him. Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining Him by the work of our hands.”
Or as he put it in his book on the Ten Commandments: “This forbids, not worshipping many gods (the first commandment covered that), but imagining the true God as like yourself or something lower. God’s real attack is on mental images, of which metal images are more truly the consequence than the cause.”
But getting back to Christmas itself, it of course must be pointed out that what transpired in New England followed on from and was proceeded by what took place in Britain. That discussion could be the stuff of another whole article, but one quote looking at this will suffice here:
The ban on the performance of plays, which was imposed in 1642, inhibited the keeping of Christmas, particularly in London: Christmas had been the peak of the theatrical season. In 1643, to the dismay of some of the Scots, the Assembly of Divines decided to adjourn over Christmas Day, the majority resolving (said the Scottish Presbyterian, Robert Baillie) that they would preach “that day, till Parliament should reform it in an orderly way,” but none the less the minority had the satisfaction of being able to persuade both Houses of Parliament to sit.
It was not, however, until 1644 that Parliament took any positive action against the general observance of Christmas. Its hands were forced by an accident of the calendar and pressure from the Scots. In Scotland the Presbyterians had secured a ban on Christmas celebrations as long ago as 1583, though they had not found it easy to put down snowballing, football, guising, carol-singing and other profane pastimes. In 1618 they had been compelled to accept an order of the King that Christmas and certain other festivals should be kept, but the General Assembly had set this aside in 1638. They came to England with rigid views which in the circumstances of 1644 they were in a position to press.
For some time the Parliamentary leaders were able to resist demands that Christmas should be abolished in England, but it happened that in 1644 Christmas Day fell upon a Wednesday, and the last Wednesday in each month was by law to be kept as a day of solemn fast and penance. The question was whether December 25th should be an exception to the general rule. In deference to the Scots, Parliament decided with evident unwillingness that it should not. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/christmas-under-puritans
At this point let me mention that some believers today are still unhappy with Christmas, and believe that all Christians should have nothing to do with it, because ‘it is just some pagan celebration’ and so on. I have already discussed that view here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/12/christmas-of-pagan-origins/
But let me draw upon one other writer in closing. Ralph Orr has looked at this matter and said this in part:
The New England culture was permeated with Puritan values. As late as 1847, no college in New England had a Christmas holiday. The fact that anti-Christmas sentiment exists among some groups originating in New England should not be surprising. However, there are today no churches that call themselves Puritans. Yet their theological descendants – Presbyterians, Congregationalists and many Baptists – remain. Gone, except among their most conservative offspring, is any concern about Christmas.
The central issue regarding Christmas observance is this: How much freedom do Christians have in the new covenant, either individually or as a church, to express their faith, worship and thanks toward Christ in forms not found in the Bible? Are Christians ever free to innovate in worship? May church leaders establish special days to celebrate the great acts of salvation?
Devout Christians sometimes confuse ancient forms with modern substance. “Once pagan, always pagan” is the way some people reason. They may admit the transforming power of Christ for people, but deny it for customs and traditions. Yet many of the practices God approved for ancient Israel had previously existed in paganism. Temples, priests, harvest festivals, music in worship, circumcision and tithing all had ancient pagan counterparts. God transformed these customs into a form of worship devoted to him. Even the sun, universally worshipped as a god by pagan cultures, God used to symbolize an aspect of the Christ (Malachi 4:2). https://archive.gci.org/articles/is-christmas-a-sin/
There is a lot we can learn from the Puritans. In general they have so much of importance that they offer us. Sometimes they got things wrong, perhaps mainly by taking important truths and pushing them to some extremes – sometimes to unbiblical extremes.
As I have said before, those who still hate on Christmas today are quite welcome to not celebrate it. But those of us who do celebrate the birth of the Messiah should be extended the same right to do so. As Paul said in Romans 14:5: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Or as he put it in Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”