by Doug Ward

On a December morning, a congregation has gathered to worship, and the pastor steps to the pulpit to deliver a pre-Christmas sermon. Quoting Romans 14, he encourages those in his flock who celebrate Christmas and those who do not to treat each other with brotherly love and mutual respect. He then cautions both factions to avoid the sins and excesses often associated with that season of the year.

This scene sounds very familiar to us in the Worldwide Church of God in 1998. Interestingly, though, it took place in Boston in 1712. The speaker was Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan Congregationalist pastor, and his sermon is described in the first chapter of historian Stephen Nissenbaum's fascinating book, The Battle for Christmas (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Nissenbaum's account of the Christmas controversy in colonial New England provides us with an insightful glimpse at Christian attitudes toward Christmas three hundred years ago, giving some much-needed historical perspective on our current struggle with this holiday.

Who Were the Puritans?

When we hear the Puritans mentioned today, images of witch trials, punishment in the stocks, and scarlet letters probably come to mind. We use the adjective ``puritanical'' to describe a rigid, overly strict attitude. To really understand the New England Christmas controversy, though, we will need to look beyond our modern stereotypes and learn more about the Puritans, their convictions, and the times in which they lived.

The Puritan movement began in sixteenth-century England as an effort to reform the Church of England. Through the courageous efforts of people like William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, the Bible was becoming more widelyavailable in English [1], and greater biblical literacy led many to the conclusion that centuries of Roman Catholic tradition had moved the Church far away from scriptural principles. Taking inspiration from John Calvin's reforms in Geneva, the Puritans hoped to reconstruct the Church, and ultimately all of society, according to a biblical model. The Puritans were never able to fully implement their program, either in England or America, but their movement did lead eventually to the formation of a number of different Christian denominations; in fact, much of American evangelical Protestantism, including the WCG (see the chart at the end of [3]), can trace its lineage to one part or another of the Puritan movement.

The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 saw in their new home a wonderful opportunity to carry out the Puritan program. They viewed themselves as a modern nation of Israel, with a mission to set up a model society in the ``promised land'' of America as an example to the world and a preparation for Christ's return. (In a famous reference to Matthew 5:14, John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, called the colony a ``city upon a hill.'') To accomplish this mission, the church and the civil government would work together to build a Christian society. In particular, they would promote an orderly weekly cycle, with six days of work followed by a Sunday set aside for rest and worship, and they would move to suppress observances that they deemed unbiblical. Accordingly, the Massachusetts General Court outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1659, setting a fine of five shillings for violators of its ruling. Christmas remained illegal in Massachusetts until 1681, when the General Court revoked the law under pressure from English authorities.

Reasons for Opposition to Christmas

Some of the reasons for the Puritan opposition to Christmas are very familiar to us today. First, they knew that there is no biblical or historical evidence connecting the birth of Jesus with late December, when it probably would have been too cold in Bethlehem for shepherds to be ``keeping watch over their flocks by night'' (Luke 2:8). Second, they recognized that Christmas had its roots in pagan winter solstice festivals like the Roman Saturnalia. However, their rejection of Christmas stemmed from a deeper source than a mere academic awareness of its origins. Culturally as well as chronologically, the Puritans were much closer to the origins of Christmas than we are today.

In the agricultural societies of early modern Europe and colonial America, December was a time when there was relatively little work to be done and an abundance of food was available. The harvest was complete, animals had been slaughtered, and the year's supply of beer and wine was ready. This combination of circumstances naturally resulted in the Christmas season being a time of gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity, often expressed in public rituals that, in Nissenbaum's words, ``involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today'' [2, p.5]. In these rituals, social and sexual roles would be reversed. For example, men would dress as women and women as men, and bands of peasants would roam the countryside, forcibly entering the homes of landowners and offering songs and promises of goodwill in exchange for food and drink from the landowners' stores. If the owner of the house refused to accommodate such a roving mob, the revellers would vandalize the house in a kind of adult trick-or-treat.

It is understandable, then, that the Massachusetts Puritans did not take the approach of trying to ``conquer Christmas for Christ. ''After all, Christianity had been unsuccessful in doing so for well over a thousand years. Nissenbaum summarizes the situation this way [2, pp. 7-8]:

``The Puritans knew what subsequent generations would forget; that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price. Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior's birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it always had been. From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize. Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.''

More broadly, the Puritans saw Christmas as a symbol of a whole lifestyle that they viewed as corrupt and hoped to reform. In the agricultural societies of Europe, the year consisted of ``times of intense labor followed by periods of equally intense celebration'' [2, p. 11]. The celebrations included those that are known today as Halloween, Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras, and May Day; occasions that, as Nissenbaum points out, have been ``generally observed with more revelry than piety'' [2, p.11]. The goal of the Massachusetts Puritans was to replace this yearly pattern with a more disciplined structure based on a weekly cycle.

Sermon Notes from 1712

Throughout most of the seventeenth century, the Puritans were successful in suppressing Christmas and these other popular celebrations. Nissenbaum reports that in almanacs of that period, the date of December 25 was listed without comment, ``or it would contain a notice that one of the county courts was due to sit that day-an implicit reminder that in New England, December 25 was just another workday'' [2, p. 14]. Christmas was never entirely rooted out of Massachusetts life, but it was largely pushed to the margins of society.

As the century progressed, however, the situation changed for several reasons. First, the Restoration government in England, which disapproved of Puritan rule in New England, annulled the Massachusetts Bay charter in 1684 and ruled New England directly under the short-lived Dominion of New England from 1687-89. The royal governor was soon overthrown and the Dominion dissolved, but Massachusetts never regained its original charter. As a result, the close alliance between church and state that had governed the colony in its early years no longer prevailed. Second, such an alliance became less and less appropriate as the population of Massachusetts gradually became more diverse. People of many religious views settled there, and they brought with them a variety of attitudes toward Christmas. Third, the zeal of the early Puritans to reform all aspects of culture, including popular celebrations, eventually waned in later generations.

So by 1712, when Cotton Mather strode to his Boston pulpit, he faced a congregation divided in its attitudes toward Christmas. In his sermon, he did not concentrate on condemning Christmas itself, although he seems to have personally disapproved of it. ``I do not now dispute whether People do well to Observe such an Uninstituted Festival at all, or no, ''he said. He went on to encourage a ``Romans 14'' attitude: ``Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it....'' [2, p. 26].

Mather was more concerned about the immorality that typically accompanied the celebration of Christmas. Referring to Jude 4, he condemned those who would ``turn the grace of God into wantonness.'' Nissenbaum, by the way, confirms that Mather's concerns were well-founded. Social historians have discovered, for example, that there was a great increase in premarital pregnancies in early eighteenth-century New England, with the largest number of those pregnancies occurring during the Christmas season [2, p. 22].

Ecumenical Yearnings

Later in the eighteenth century, Congregationalist pastors began to express a desire to celebrate the nativity in December with other Christians, while continuing to lament the origins and the excesses of the Christmas season. Nissenbaum presents examples of such sentiments from several diaries. For instance, Ezra Stiles, who would later become president of Yale University, showed his mixed feelings in a diary entry from December 25, 1776:

``This day the nativity of our blessed Savior is celebrated through three quarters of Christendom. . .; but the true date is unknown. On any day I can readily join with my fellow Christians in giving thanks to God for his unspeakable gift, and rejoice with them in the birth of a Savior. Tho' [i.e., if] it had been the will of Christ that the anniversary of his birth should have been celebrated, he would at least let us have known the day. . . .''

In an entry from 1778, Stiles added, ``Without superstition for the day I desire to unite with all Christians in celebrating the incarnation of the divine Emmanuel.'' Another Puritan Congregationalist minister, Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough, Massachusetts, expressed in his diary in 1755 the ``desire to be one with all of them that are one with Christ, and who avoid the Superstitions and Excesses of this Day, and Serve the Lord in sincerity.'' Many in the WCG today can understand both the desire for unity with other Christians and the misgivings about the origins and customs of Christmas expressed by these ministers.

The descendants of the New England Puritans have continued to have mixed feelings about Christmas. According to Nissenbaum, ``To this day New England's Unitarian, Baptist, and Methodist churches are ordinarily closed on Christmas Day, along with its Congregational and Presbyterian ones'' [2, p. 48].

Conclusion: Lessons for Today

The Puritan struggle with Christmas is just one skirmish in an ongoing ``battle for Christmas'' that has lasted for sixteen centuries. Against the immorality, materialism, and greed that have long characterized this season in the northern hemisphere, a minority has always spoken out for righteousness and moderation. In the remainder of his book, Nissenbaum chronicles this battle through the last 200 years of American history. Along the way, he traces the origins of the modern Santa Claus and describes the transition of Christmas from a public holiday to a private, family-centered celebration. The Battle for Christmas is an engrossing account of the history of American approaches and attitudes toward Christmas, one that I highly recommend for those who seek some historical perspective on our current Christmas controversy.

What can we learn from the experience of the New England Puritans? I would like to highlight two main lessons:

We are not alone. Today's problems are not new. The excesses of the Christmas season are not simply caused by modern business and advertising. Their roots lie much deeper, and Christians have always been troubled by them.

We are all in this together. There is more than one legitimate Christian response to Christmas. There have always been some, like the Puritans and the WCG in past years, who have preferred to completely abstain from the observance of Christmas. As we have seen, they are not without historical justification in believing Christmas to be beyond redemption. On the other hand, many others choose to replace the celebration of the solstice with the worship of the Son of God. These two groups have some important things in common. Both stand up for the worship of the true God and oppose the sinfulness that has long been part of the Christmas season. Both have their roles to play in advancing the Kingdom of God.

My own attitudes toward Christmas have evolved over the years. The customs of Christmas will probably always be rather strange and foreign to me, and I largely tend to ignore them. For me, there is greater meaning in the symbolism of the Incarnation that is present in the fall festival season (see the preceding article). When the Christian Church largely abandoned the Hebraic festivals in favor of celebrations like Christmas, it was motivated partly by antisemitism, and I find this implicit antisemitism more troubling than the pagan origins of Christmas. On the other hand, I no longer view December celebrations of the Incarnation as wrong, and I will gladly raise my voice in praises to God with fellow Christians at any time of the year.

All of our readers will be able to make their own personal Christmas statements, some much different from mine. In the final analysis, we must all follow our consciences and accord each other the respect urged by Cotton Mather back in 1712.


  1. F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, Third Edition. Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.
  2. Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
  3. Joseph Tkach, Jr., Transformed by Truth. Multnomah Books, Sisters, Oregon, 1997.

To quote a famous 1960’s tune, “The times, they are a changin”. After September 11, 2001 we have all become aware of the fact that the world has become a more dangerous place to live in, even within the borders of the United States. September 11th should be a wake-up call for all Christians and those who think they are Christians. If you were to die today-tonight-would you be assured of your place in God’s heavenly kingdom, a recipient of eternal life? The words of the apostle Paul ring out across the centuries asking this age-old question “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates.” Dr. Charles F. Stanley poses this same eternal question in his sermon “What Does It Mean To Believe In Jesus”. And he gives three essential criteria that will help you answer that question in your own personal life. The assurance of your eternity is worth confirming. to find out if “Jesus Christ is in you.”