Is it unpresbyterian to celebrate Christmas?
Is the religious celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 (“Christmas” Day) unpresbyterian?
Historically-speaking, some Bible-believing, confessional Presbyterians have answered “yes!” to this question. These Presbyterians would agree with the position expressed in the anti-Festival Day (and thus anti-Christmas) appendix Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship as found in the Westminster Assembly’s “Directory for the Publick Worship of God”: “There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” (p. 394, Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications))
Other Bible-believing, confessional Presbyterians have answered this question with a resounding “no!”; and their position appears to be the majority position today within conservative and confessional Presbyterian churches, since most of them either celebrate Christmas or at least permit their members to do so.
While the Bible nowhere requires believers to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, and while the religious celebration of Christmas should not be made binding upon the Christian conscience or viewed as a meritorious work which earns God’s favor; at the same time I believe the celebration of Christmas is in no way “unpresbyterian,” so long as it is celebrated freely, as a matter of Christian liberty, and as a voluntary festival day, and not as a “day of holy obligation” (or “holy day”), as in the Popish church. In order to make my case, I will seek to answer a number of objections which are sometimes raised by anti-Christmas Presbyterians against the religious observance of Christmas.
Objection # 1: The celebration of Christmas is unpresbyterian because it is a mere human tradition, and thus it violates the regulative principle of worship as confessed by historic Presbyterianism.
The “regulative principle of worship” is the Bible-based principle of worship held by historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches which states that God may only be worshiped in a manner which He Himself has instituted and prescribed in His Word. God, not man, gets to choose the manner in which He will be worshiped. This worship principle is a logical inference from the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6), which forbids worshiping God by images, and therefore forbids worship practices based on man’s imagination rather than God’s revelation. In other words, everything we do in corporate worship must be based either on a direct or implied command of Scripture or clear scriptural warrant from biblical principles. If it isn’t, then it is “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2), false worship which is displeasing to God. It is argued that since the Bible nowhere commands the religious observance of Christmas, it is therefore forbidden by the regulative principle of worship as confessed by historic Presbyterianism.
The problem with this objection is that it is a mistaken application of the regulative principle of worship. The “regulative principle” applies to elements of worship (for example, worship practices such as the reading and preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, praying, the singing of praise, offerings, vows, etc.). But the issue of religiously celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 does not, of itself, have to do with elements of worship; rather it has to do with the occasion of worship. While the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; see also Revelation 1:10) requires that the church gather for worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection), it does not thereby forbid the church from gathering for worship on other occasions. While the church is obligated to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, it also has liberty to gather for worship on other occasions as it deems edifying, as long as the elements of its worship are in line with the regulative principle. So, unless one can prove from Scripture that it is a sin for Christ’s Church to gather for worship on or around December 25 for the purpose of celebrating the Incarnation and birth of Christ with appropriate Scripture readings, hymns and a Christmas-themed sermon, then the church is certainly at liberty to religiously celebrate Christmas if it chooses to do so.
Objection # 2: Christmas is unpresbyterian because it is based on pagan festivals. It should not be celebrated because it has its roots in pagan traditions.
According to the Presbyterian author Andrew J. Webb, who writes against the celebration of Christmas, “The placement by the church of this event on December 25th had less to do with the date they felt was most likely for the birth of Christ than with the desire to undermine the celebration of the Saturnalia, a pagan festival beginning on the December 17th, with a rival Christian holiday. The choice of December 25th, the winter solstice, was made because the Emperor Aurelian had decreed in 274 A.D. that December 25th was to be kept as a public festival in honor of the Invincible Sun. The choice of the 25th was therefore both an attempt to challenge the pagan feast day and to maximize on the obvious metaphor between the “invincible sun” of Roman paganism and the “Invincible Son” (Jesus Christ) of Christianity.” (p. 127 in The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas by Rev. Brian M. Schwertley (Haslett, MI: Covenanted Reformation Press, copyright 2003)
As another example of the alleged pagan roots of Christmas, some readers may likewise have heard the claim that the practice of having a Christmas tree in the home, decorating it, and placing presents under it, is based upon pagan tree worshiping practices.
In answer to the above, I cannot claim to have done sufficient historical research to know whether or not such statements are historically accurate. However, I would point out that there are scholars who would strongly dispute the claims of those who suggest a causal link between the Christian celebration of Christmas and the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. While the following are confessional Lutheran sites, and thus I cannot endorse everything they promote; nevertheless the interested reader is encouraged to check out the following links:
But even if it can be demonstrated that Christmas was instituted as an alternative to a pagan festival like Saturnalia, so what? As long as Christ’s Incarnation and birth are not celebrated with pagan worship rites, and as long as the regulative principle of worship is observed in such a service, what is wrong with Christians gathering for worship on December 25 to celebrate the birth of their Savior as both a protest against and an alternative to pagan worship? As long as such a celebration is not made binding upon the Christian conscience (i.e., Christians are free either to observe or not observe it without fear of sin against God or discipline by the church), what is wrong with it? There are Presbyterian and Reformed churches today which hold a Reformation Day worship service on October 31, in part as an alternative to the perceived pagan elements of Halloween. If it is wrong to celebrate Christmas because it is allegedly rooted in an attempt to provide an alternative to a pagan festival, then it is likewise wrong to celebrate Reformation Day as an alternative to the pagan practices of Halloween.
Regarding the Christmas tree allegedly being based on pagan tree worship: Even if this is so in terms of the historical origin of the practice, the real question for those who put up a Christmas tree in their home is, “Why do you put up a Christmas tree in your home?” If you put up a tree in your home as an “Asherah pole” or an object of pagan worship; and if you decorate it to honor the gods or spirits that are believed to live in the tree; or if you put gifts under the tree because you believe the spirit of the tree or the god it represents provides you with the gifts; then we have a problem! Under such circumstances a Christmas tree would obviously be not only an unpresbyterian practice; it would be an idolatrous, anti-Christian practice! But who today (besides, perhaps, some obscure Druid or pagan cults) worships their Christmas tree or views their tree as having pagan religious significance!?
What if I put up a Christmas tree in my home, decorate it, and put presents under it, simply because it is a festive thing to do? What if I have no idolatrous thoughts or intentions in my heart whatsoever when I put up my tree? If I have no idolatrous intentions and simply want to do it because it is a fun and festive cultural custom, then do I not have the Christian liberty to put up a Christmas tree if I choose to do so? Should I feel guilty for wanting to join in on such festivities simply because they allegedly have some long-forgotten pagan roots? (By the way, the matter of cultural customs such as putting up Christmas trees and the giving and receiving of gifts should be viewed as being distinct from the question of corporate religious worship services on or around Christmas Day. The former is a matter of individual choice and family custom, and thus the Christian and his family have great liberty in such practices; whereas the latter has to do with the public worship of the church, and therefore the elements of such worship need to be governed by the regulative principle of worship.)
Objection # 3: Under the new covenant the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is the only “holy day.” Only God, not the church, has the right to institute holy days of obligation. Therefore, the church has no right to observe Christmas.
I largely agree with the premises of this objection, but not the conclusion. It is true that the only “holy day of obligation” under the new covenant instituted by Christ is “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10), Sunday, which is the day when our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. The Lord’s Day is indeed a “holy day of obligation” (meaning that believers are obligated to gather for public worship on this day). Only God has the right to designate a day as a “holy day,” and thus to bind the conscience of God’s people to the observance of such a day. I agree with my anti-Christmas brethren that Christmas is not a “holy day” (at least not in the technical, biblical sense that the Lord’s Day is). Because Christmas is not a “holy day,” it is therefore not a sin for Christians to skip worship on Christmas Day (unless, of course, Christmas happens to coincide with the Lord’s Day). At the same time, neither is it a sin for Christians to voluntarily choose to meet for religious worship on December 25 for the purpose of celebrating the birth of Jesus. From a Presbyterian perspective, Christmas is not a “holy day of obligation” somehow binding upon the conscience; rather, it is a voluntary festival day which may be celebrated in Christian liberty by those who choose to use the day for such purposes.
While Christ has not given His church the authority or right to institute “holy days” in addition to the Lord’s Day, certainly the church has God-given liberty to meet for worship on other occasions in addition to the Lord’s Day. The simplified church calendar of the Reformed churches sets aside such voluntary festival days as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Ascension Day as edifying occasions for God’s people to come together and be reminded of Christ and His redeeming work. While some Presbyterians have objected to this practice of the continental Reformed churches, I and many other Bible-believing Presbyterians agree with these churches that Christians are free to observe or not to observe such celebrations according to their own consciences.
I’m sure there are many other objections that could be addressed, but these are three major objections to the Presbyterian observance of Christmas which I have encountered during my journey in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Our Orthodox Presbyterian Church Standards neither endorse nor forbid the religious observance of Christmas or any similar festival day. Instead, our Standards highlight the importance and obligation of gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), and leave the matter of other occasions of worship to the discretion of local sessions. The OPC’s Directory for Worship, chapter 1, section 4.a. states: “Although it is fitting and proper that the members of Christ’s church assemble for worship on other occasions also, which are left to the discretion of particular sessions, the Lord calls the whole congregation of each local church to the sacred duty and high privilege of assembling for public worship each Lord’s Day.” (p. 124, 2011 Edition of The Book of Church Order of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church; emphasis added) From this statement it can be seen that, from the perspective of the OPC, the religious celebration of Christmas is not a presbyterian thing per se; but neither is it unpresbyterian.
If you, dear reader, celebrated Christmas this year, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and may you have a blessed and Happy New Year! (And even if you did not celebrate Christmas this year, I still hope that you and yours have a truly blessed 2015!)