Our story starts off with the English Puritans. Most Americans are familiar with the Puritans because of the famous Thanksgiving story of their coming to the new world on the Mayflower, however most of us are unfamiliar with their presence in England; that history is very ugly. The most extreme of the English Reformers, the Puritans can trace their religious views to John Calvin. They rejected any sort of hierarchy and practiced Sabbatarianism, which devoted all of Sunday to worship, condemning any work or activities. Puritans believed that the Church of England held on to too many Catholic "corruptions" and they desired to purify English Christianity from these "unbiblical" practices. At the close of the English Civil War (1642–46), the king was executed and the Parliamentarians took over, allowing the Puritans to exert their power over the rest of England; in 1647, the Puritan government banned the celebration of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun in England. All shops and markets were told to stay open on December 25 and anyone caught holding or going to a Christmas church service would suffer a severe penalty. In London, things were so strict that soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets and told to seize any food they thought was being prepared for Christmas. All Christmas decorations were banned - like trees, wreaths, holly, and mistletoe - as well as a variety of food typical to the British celebration, such as mince pies and figgy pudding. It's hard to believe, but even ministers would be arrested for trying to preach on Christmas.
The basis for this ban was that the Puritans (and some other Reformers) believed Christmas to be unbiblical and an invention of the Catholic Church; even the name (from the Old English Cristes Maesse - 'the Mass of Christ') was found offensive. Modern-day Calvinist theologian Dr. Scott Johnson said, "Christmas was accurately depicted [by the Puritans] by such names as the Profane Man's Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Papist's Massing Day, Foolstide, the Old Heathen's Feasting Day, the Multitude's Idle Day, and Satan's Working Day," in his book X-Mas: The Biggest Pagan Holiday/Holyday of the Year. Calvinist theologian Brian Schwertley wrote: The reason that Christmas became a church holy day has nothing to do with the Bible. The Bible does not give the date of Christ's birth. Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate Christmas. Christmas (as well as many other pagan practices) was adopted by the Roman church as a missionary strategy. Presbyterian pastor and theologian Greg Price said, "Scripture and history are brought to bear most specifically on the celebration of Christ-mass, demonstrating why it is a sin to celebrate this day," and said that Christmas was part of "paganism and Babylonian Christianity". In Kevin Reed's book Christmas: A Biblical Critique, he said that "to call yourself Reformed while you hold on to this Roman Catholic/Pagan monument of idolatry makes for a serious contradiction in your testimony -- as the best Reformed churches have always disciplined those (in accord with Scriptural teaching) who broke the second and fourth commandments by keeping antichristian festival days like Christ-mass, Easter, etc. These are modern-day Calvinists writing this stuff, so we shouldn't be surprised that their ancestors, the Puritans, felt the same way about Christmas. Let's look at some more of their teachings:
...concerning festival days findeth that in the explication of the first head of the first book of discipline it was thought good that the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, with the feasts of the Apostles, Martyrs, and Virgin Mary be utterly abolished because they are neither commanded nor warranted by Scripture and that such as observe them be punished by Civil Magistrates. Here utter abolition is craved and not reformation of abuses only and that because the observation of such feasts have no warrant from the word of God. (The Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, December 10, Session 17, 1638)
I would to God that every holy day whatsoever besides the Lord's day were abolished...Those holy days have been so tainted with superstitions that I wonder we tremble not at their very names. (Martin Bucer, cited in William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship, 1633)
The word Christ-mass is enough to cause such as are studious of reformation to dislike what shall be known by a name so superstitious. Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? i.e., Christ and Antichrist? (Increase Mather, a man partly responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, in his 'Testimony Against that Prophane and Superstitious Custom of Christ-mass Keeping')
By communicating with idolaters in their rites and ceremonies, we ourselves become guilty of idolatry...Forasmuch, then, as kneeling before the consecrated bread, the sign of the cross, surplice, festival days, bishopping, bowing down to the altar, administration of the sacraments in private places, etc., are the wares of Rome, the baggage of Babylon, the trinkets of the whore, the badges of Popery, the ensigns of Christ's enemies, and the very trophies of antichrist, -- we cannot conform, communicate and symbolise with the idolatrous Papists in the use of the same, without making ourselves idolaters by participation. Shall the chaste spouse of Christ take upon her the ornaments of the whore? Shall the Israel of God symbolise with her who is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt? Shall the Lord's redeemed people wear the ensigns of their captivity? Shall the saints be seen with the mark of the beast? Shall the Christian church be like the antichristian, the holy like the profane, religion like superstition, the temple of God like the synagogue of Satan? (George Gillespie, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, in his 'A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies')
The Puritan reign of terror in England and Ireland ended in 1661 with the restoration of the British monarchy. Needless to say, it was quite uncomfortable for the Puritans to stay in England. All laws restricting the celebration of Christmas were rescinded and the British people happily celebrated the birth of Christ once again. Several additional laws were passed to punish religious minorities (Catholic and Protestant) and due to this hostile environment, the Puritans (and other oppressed people of England) left their homeland for a new life in North America. The anti-Catholic beliefs about Christmas were brought to the new world by the Puritan immigrants at the Plymouth colony. Wanting to create a land where Christianity would be free from Catholic contamination, the Massachusetts Bay colony quickly made sure to ban the celebration of Christmas: ...it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. Christmas was outlawed in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681; this anti-Christmas sentiment could be found in New England as late as almost the twentieth century, forcing children in Boston to attend school on Christmas Day as recently as 1869.
To be fair to the Puritans, they weren't the only ones who found Christmas offensive and, bizarrely enough, 'unchristian':
Christmas. This is the name of the day on which is wont to be celebrated the idolatrous Romish sacrifice of the mass, in honor of the birth of Christ. As nearly as can be now ascertained, the day was first set apart for this purpose by the authority of the bishop at Rome...But as Protestants, we long ago abjured the authority of the Pope of Rome, and we still utterly repudiate his right to legislate for us, either over our consciences or our conduct. (The Reformed Presbyterian magazine, January, 1851)
The Romish Church, in opposition to the word of God, has a great multiplicity of annually returning sacred seasons. The 25th day of December is one of those seasons; at which time, originally, a heathen festival was held. 'This day was next baptized into a Romish mass for the birth of Christ...The absence [in the Bible] both of the date and command, makes it as clear to us as a sunbeam, that the natal day of our Saviour, even were it known, should not be honored by any religious observance whatsoever. (The Associate Presbyterian Magazine, February, 1879)
Observance of Christmas, or the lack thereof, was one way to differentiate among the Christian sects of Colonial and 19th-century America. Anglicans, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans, to name just a few, did; Quakers, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and some Presbyteriansdid not. An 1855 New York Times report on Christmas services in the city noted that Baptist and Methodist churches were closed because they "do not accept the day as a holy one," while Episcopal and Catholic churches were open and "decked with evergreens." New England Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher remembered decorative greenery as an exotic touch that one could see only in Episcopal churches, "a Romish institution kept up by the Romish church." (Slate.com)
Christmas wouldn't become a legal holiday in New England until 1856 and some schools stayed open on Christmas Day until 1870, until at which time it had become a federal holiday. For many non-Catholic Americans, the celebration of Christmas seemed a foreign concept thanks to this heavy influence from the Puritans, Calvinists, and other radical Reformers. As Christmas traditions started to take on more secular tones, more and more non-Catholics started to feel more comfortable celebrating the holiday.
I find it interesting that the world is starting to reestablish this "Christmas isn't special" attitude once again; you see this by how many businesses are open on Christmas and by how many new movies now debut on Christmas Day. It seems as though, in their enthusiasm for purifying Christianity, these Reformers ushered in our current secular society by making all of these holy traditions seem "superstitious". Many modern-day non-Catholics reject the Puritans and radical Calvinists and have embraced the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Grace Communion International, in a long explanation on whether or not celebrating Christmas is a sin, stated, "Christians who keep Christmas are not pagans...They honor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."
However, there is one charge by Calvinists that needs to be addressed, and that will be saved for another posting; it is the claim that Christmas has pagan roots and many of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to pagan origins. I believe that this subject matter deserves its own posting, so that'll wait until next time.
Time and time again, we can attribute many of the problems we have today to our divisions. ...that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:21). May we finally find the humility and beg for the graces needed in order to reject the notion of "the duty of separation" so that, with one united voice, we may bring the Gospel to all the world. Only in a fallen world ruled by Satan would the celebration of the birth of Christ cause so much division, hatred, and bigotry.