Saturday, December 13, 2008

Celebrating Christmas with the Puritans

For some time now I have been an avid reader of Puritan literature. Their reformed understanding of Scripture was deeply held and sincerely lived out for the glory of God. Yet today the Puritans are considered "killjoys" and prudes because of their negative stance towards entertainment.

The issue of Christmas was particularly troublesome for the Puritans. They objected to the holiday for several reasons. First of all, it has no biblical mandate. Firmly adhering to the Regulative Principle in regards to worship, the Puritans recognized this celebration was not ordained by Christ and therefore maintained it should not be part of our Christian worship. Second, Christmas contradicts the historical record as Christ certainly wasn't born on December 25th. Third, the holiday has pagan roots. The Catholic Church had invented Christmas to compete with the ancient Roman festival honoring the bull-god Mithras. Its pagan roots was clearly evident by the fact that most only gave lip-service to Christ and instead used the holiday for self-indulgent revelry. Fourth, it reminded them of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which they were trying to escape. Fifth, the holiday celebration usually included drinking, excessive feasting, and playing games - all things which the Puritans understood as being antithetical to true worship. One such tradition, "wassailing" occasionally turned violent. The custom entailed people of a lower economic class visiting wealthier community members and begging, or demanding, food and drink in return for toasts to their hosts' health. If a host refused, things could occasionally turn violent (and even if it didn't, the custom would most certainly end in drunkenness).

Yet today conservative Christmas are the most vocal advocates of Christmas. We hear repeated refrains to "put Christ back into Christmas". Isn't it odd that faithful Christians of one century would almost universally oppose Christmas while those of another would unanimously promote it? Pity the poor pastor today who would dare to challenge celebrating this merry-making holiday.

Personally, I find the Puritan's arguments convincing. Don't misunderstand--my family still celebrates Christmas. Three days ago we set up the Christmas tree and took our yearly trip to a little outlet store where each of our three children picked out an ornament. We purchase a gift for each of kids and a few more for the entire family. On Christmas day we will gather for a gigantic feast and spend much of the day as a family. I just paid 20 bucks to the local Boy Scouts troup for a wreath to hang on the garage.

Yet, I cannot shake the Puritan viewpoint. It's too logical and too biblical to be simply ignored. The fact is that Christmas was and is a pagan holiday. In my own sketch of church history I cannot find a period in which Christmas was ever truly celebrated (universally) as a day of faithful worship to the King of kings. It was always tainted with self-indulgence and debauchery.

For the past few years we have celebrated Christmas with the Puritans. By that I mean that my wife and I consciously make the effort to mimimalize ourselves and maximize Christ. Each child receives only one present, which we open on Christmas eve (keep in mind that we cannot control the grandparents, so the kids usually receive more). The day of Christmas is reserved soley for Christ. In the morning we assemble at the "family altar" for prayer, worship, bible reading. At the meal we spend most of our conversation talking about Christ. Here we ask the children questions from the catechism and inquire what they have been learning about Jesus from Sunday school. We explore ways to make Christ the center of our lives in a variety of areas. In the evening, we assemble together again for worship and a sermonette that covers the Gospel story (creation-fall-redemption).

To be honest, neither the Puritans nor most contemporary Christians would approve of what we do as a family for Christmas. But the reason for disagreement is very illuminating: many Christians would object that we have taken the fun out of the holiday. The Puritans would object that we risk displacing Christ by having any fun at all.

We have chosen a middle path--but if forced, I would side with the Puritans.

- Josh Gelatt

1 comment:

Nichole Osborn said...

I wish more Christians would be more conservative in celebrating Christmas. We, too, have scaled back our gift purchases and have made the day's events more thoughtful and reflective.