Let’s NOT ban Christmas! Recovering Puritanism for the 21st Century

ban christmasMy denomination (the United Reformed Church) descends from two traditions (English Independency/Congregationalism and Scottish Presbyterianism – I’m counting the Churches of Christ as an offshoot of the latter) that both banned Christmas in the seventeenth century.

They had a variety of reasons for doing so and at least some of them are pretty compelling, in their own terms. The Christmas celebration has little Biblical warrant (there are birth stories in two of the gospels but no particular injunction to do anything in particular about them). The late medieval prominence of Christmas was strongly associated with aspects of Catholicism, especially the celebration of Jesus’ family, that the Puritans rejected. They felt that it imported a mass of pagan elements that obscured the Gospel.

This was one of the most distinctive elements of Puritan rule, in both England and Scotland, and in England was the cause of significant trouble for Cromwell’s government. The Scots had less difficulty and elements of the suppression of Christmas survived into the late 1950s.

It is, therefore, surprising to me that no trace of this opposition to this festival appears to exist in our denomination today. Anglican Christmas practices like the festival of lessons and carols or the Christingle (which they took from the Moravians and has since spread more widely) have been widely taken up by us, so that the Christmas season in our churches is more or less indistinguishable from theirs,

I wonder whether this is a good thing.

Christmas has, I think, a number of bad effects on Christians:

  • it is one of the things that leads us into forgetting our distinctiveness in respect of the surrounding culture
  • it encourages a sentimentalism that erodes and distorts our message
  • it reinforces a particular historical conjunction of Christianity with an idea of the family which we urgently need to rethink and remodel

Christian distinctiveness – the idea that this is, was, or should be a “Christian country” is one that does more harm than good, in my view (here I’m departing from Puritanism and I don’t really want to ban Christmas). Christianity is a very radical and counter-intuitive teaching. The idea that the civil order could, in short order, be Christianised can lead only to a weakening and distorting of Christianity to make it possible. This is not to say that we should try to propose a more radical re-ordering of society but that we should recover Luther’s acute sense of the distance between a Christian and a civil ethic. Luther’s Two Kingdoms teaching has had a bad press but actually makes space for the full and breathtaking difficulty of being a Christian. An acculturated Christianity like that of the Christmas service dilutes and weakens.

Sentimentalism – one of the problems we face in post-Christendom mission is that people think they know what we are and what we believe and therefore can’t really hear or see us. A big part of that is the “baby Jesus” vision of Christianity as a weak and sentimental plea that everybody be nice. This leads people to think of us as unworldly and unrealistic, as soft-headed and big-hearted fools: nice but dim. They can indulge in but if vicarious niceness at Christmas then return to the real world. This is profoundly unhelpful to us,

Family– the other stereotype of us is the backward looking bigot vainly trying to impose an old-fashioned and regressive moral code centred on family. Again Christmas can help to strengthen this association of Christianity with a regulation of sexual and family life based on an unhistorical and sentimental over-estimation of the permanence and value of a particular set of arrangements. This is a very bad idea since it cuts us off ever further from the reality of people’s lives.

I don’t really want to ban Christmas. Nor do I think that “cultural” and “nominal” Christianity are wholly a bad thing. But I do wonder whether we inheritors of the Puritan tradition might be better to leave all that to the established church. We are so small our contribution to it is negligible anyway. Maybe at Christmas we should concentrate on reminding the Church of its distance from and difficulties with the world as it is as a corrective to what “they” do.

  1. Paul said:

    *Distinctiveness* …yes, well I blame Constantine – completely agree that the idea of being a “Christian country” is unhelpful, mostly from a missiological point of view.

    *Sentimentalism* …well, if it creates opportunities to connect with non Christians (a church full for a carol service including evangelistic sermon, and enjoyable all-age service that leaves people willing to come again), then I’ll stomach the sentimentalism for the sake of the outreach.

    *Family* …trying not to read between your lines, then therefore not clear what you’re getting at.

    • These threads are difficult to disentangle, though, Paul. The Dickensian Christmas idea is deeply unhelpful to us if it encourages people to see the Church as a residue of a lost past, which I think the carol service typically does.

  2. Anne Shearer said:

    You are absolutely right about the problems the traditions have created. I love Christmas and all its trappings, but the reality of Jesus’ birth has far more parallels with the present situation for people in Syria. But the incarnation is the most amazing and significant event ever and does need a special celebration.

    • I love it too! (Although I am struggling with it in my first year as an ordained minister of Word and Sacraments.)

  3. Thanks, Anne, you are of course quite right that we would lose an enormous amount if we didn’t celebrate the extraordinary action of God in the incarnation. I must try to retain that sense of wonder and joy and not get too bogged down in the sheer business and cultural noise of Christmas!

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