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James Dodson

[from The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, XXIII.2, February 1885, 40-46.]

Luke 2:8-17.


Christmas is Christ-mass. Christ, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, means anointed and is the official title of our Saviour. Mass is the communion service in the Roman Catholic Church. In it is offered up the consecrated wafer, claimed to be the very body of Christ. Christmas then is the mass of Christ, an especial mass celebrated in his honor. The term is applied to both a season and a day. The former begins on the 30th of November and continues until the 6th of January. The latter occurs on the 25th of December, the anniversary of the day on which, according to the general belief, our Saviour was born.

The day is regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as holy and is observed with very imposing services. Masses are performed at midnight,—the hour when, according to tradition, Christ was born—day break and in the morning. By some of the protestant churches it is regarded in the same light, and special services, commemorative of the nativity, are held.

It is not, however, as a holy-day Christmas is best known and most observed. Long ago the complaint was made, and often since has been repeated, that too much attention is paid to “its festive character” and too little to “its more solemn aspects.” In other words the holiday crowds out the holy-day; recreation interferes with worship.

That this is true now no one conversant with the facts will deny. As a holy-day but little attention is paid to Christmas by the community at large. In many churches there is no religious service. Even of those open for worship but few of the members attend. The nativity is not the chief subject of conversation on the street or in our homes. Indeed it is but seldom referred to. In no proper sense can it be said to be the centre around which cluster the memories of the day.

But as a holiday, a day of mirth, of fun, of sport, how well, how universally, it is kept! Business is largely suspended, and old and young, rich and poor, saint and sinner, give themselves up to pleasure. The particular way in which this is sought depends entirely on the tastes and opportunities of each. In olden times there was a great, deal of boisterousness in the merriment. Those were the days when the Abbot of Unreason and the Lord of Misrule reigned. Christmas now is the day of presents, of visiting, of social enjoyments. It is pre-eminently children’s day, the day when “Kris Kringle” with his heavy load brings to the little ones their long and anxiously-looked-for gifts. It is also the day when our streets are most crowded, the places of amusement, the theatres, the drinking saloons, the gambling dens, the vile haunts of sin and vice are best patronized. Indeed it is the day of low amusements and sensual pleasures, the day, alas! of darkness, of sin and crime.

The correctness of the latter part of this statement may perhaps be questioned. As to this, however, any one can easily satisfy himself by a very simple test. Read on next Thursday the amusement columns in the papers. Then take a stroll through the principal streets of these cities. Notice in how few churches there is service and, as the congregations are dismissed, how small has been the attendance! As the day gradually darkens into night, how crowded the streets become! How large is the number of persons, and many of them mere boys, under the influence of intoxicating liquor! How much profanity and vulgar talk one hears! How much disorder and confusion everywhere! Notice, as the places of amusements are dismissed, what great crowds come from them! How many saloons are open and how full all are! How unpleasantly the coarse jest, the boisterous laugh, the loud talk, sure to be heard there on such occasions, grate on the ear as you hurry by! Then read Friday morning’s papers; notice how many accidents, fires, crimes, and murders have occurred, all traceable to the dissipation of the preceding day. As this will be but a fraction of what has taken place in these two cities, how frightful would appear the record were all made public! When we remember that this is the way the day is spent all over Christendom, how black must be the page containing its record in the book God keeps!

It is not likely many would question the propriety of observing, in a proper manner, if certainly known, the anniversary of the day when that event, the most sublime in human history took place, the day when God was born. Nor ought there to be much difference of opinion as to the way such a day should be observed. Like the devout shepherds we should strive to be so completely under the influence of holy desires and feelings that we too would be expectants of some revelation from God, and prepared with gladness to receive whatever would be made. With hearts overflowing with joy and gratitude, we should come into the Saviour’s presence. His wonderful condescension should be our constant meditation and the burden of our conversation. How to render to him thanks should be the anxious inquiry of our minds. To us the day should be a real Sabbath, a day of spiritual enjoyment and delight, a day that would honor Christ on earth and gladden his heart in heaven.

If this be correct, then the manner in which Christmas is observed is most dishonoring to our Saviour. I do not refer to the gross acts of idolatry and daring blasphemy performed in the Roman Catholic Church when mass is celebrated. To intelligent Protestants that is simply monstrous. I refer to the way the day is spent by the great majority of those who claim to observe it as the anniversary of the nativity. Can a day given up almost exclusively to amusement, even though innocent, be properly regarded as a day observed in commemoration of the birth of the Son of God? The question is not, is it right to engage in innocent amusements? Or, is it right to engage in such on days when we have religious service, say, for instance, on Thanksgiving day, &c? No; the question is, should a holy-day be observed in the same way as a holiday? Are visiting, indulging in social pleasures and amusements, the gratifying simply of our natural desires, the proper way to observe the anniversary of the day on which the Son of God came to our world to save us from our sins by suffering even unto death? What connection can there be between such light and transitory enjoyment and an event so sublime and solemn as the nativity? What must be the thoughts of the little ones, as, their minds filled with absurd stories about the winter-God making his annual round, they look forward, oh! so anxiously, to his visit? Are they thus engaged in commemorating the nativity? About whom are they thinking? Christ the Son of God, or “Kris Kringle,” the “little Christ” that comes clown the chimney and fills their stockings? Are not their thoughts wholly taken up with the festivities and pleasures of the season? With them, with all, the absorbing thought is of pleasure. It is on it as “Merry Christmas,” the day of pleasure, innocent though it be, the thoughts of even professors centre, and not on it as the day of the coming of the Son of God Is that to honor Christ? Is it right?

And then when we remember how shamefully this day is prostituted Christmas. to the most unholy purposes by the profligate, what can be said? Surely, if, in heaven, there can be sorrow because of what takes place on earth, Christmas-day must occasion sorrow there. How the compassionate heart of the Saviour must bleed afresh at what he then sees here! How the angel who first announced the nativity, and the angelic choir who chanted on the plains of Bethlehem the song of peace and good will on that morn of joy, must grieve as they witness the scenes of sin and shame committed on this very day observed in commemoration of the sublime event that brought them to our world, and was the burden of their song of praise. As seen from those heights how great the contrast between earth, to which the Son of God came, and heaven, to which the Son of God has gone! He came to earth to make of it a heaven, and it does seem as, though, on this day, observed as the anniversary of that event, man is determined to make of it a hell.

The answer given to this by those who contend for the observance of the day as a holy-day, and yet who admit the shameful prostitution of it to unholy purposes, is this: The day is not justly chargeable, they say, with its perversion. “The many excesses,” remarks Dr. Schaff, “no more forbid right use than the abuse of the Bible, or of any other gift of God.” The best of things may be, and often are, perverted to bad uses. In some countries the Sabbath is but little better than a holiday. Theatres are open, and so are the saloons. Men, not the Sabbath, is to blame. So, they claim, it is with Christmas; man, not the day, is at fault.

It is a question, worthy of careful consideration, whether any one day can be safely observed as a day for doing our own pleasure and also engaging in God’s service. So far as I know all attempts to combine the two have resulted in the day becoming one almost exclusively of pleasure. The last experiment made only tends to confirm the truth of this. Formerly Thanksgiving was largely regarded as a holy day, a day for rendering thanks to God. Then divine service was well attended. That was the chief feature of the day. Latterly a change has taken place in opinion and practice. Thanksgiving is regarded as a day of congratulation and enjoyment as well as of worship. It is a day for family re unions. Around the well-covered table friends meet to render thanks by eating “the fat” and drinking “the sweet” of the land together. The result is just what might be expected. On that day many churches once open for divine service are now closed. Slim audiences attend those that are open. The day is fast becoming to professors, one of recreation, and to others one of dissipation. May not this also be one great reason why the Sabbath, too, is becoming a holiday, a day of pleasure, and losing its distinctive character as a day of worship? To me it does not seem strange that, when those, who pretend to commemorate on Christmas the nativity, spend it in accordance with their own natural inclinations, the godless and profane follow also their natural inclinations in its observance, and make it the day of sin it has become.

And as for the Sabbath, I have but this to say: Whenever its sacred character is so entirely lost sight of, when the time comes, if ever, that on it many of our churches are closed and those that are open for divine worship are but slimly attended, so soon as it happens that on the first day of the week all over Christendom, theatres and places of amusement are best patronized, drinking saloons and places of vice are most thronged, and the day, commemorative of the resurrection of the Son of God, becomes the day of pleasure, excess, crime and sin of all kinds, then the time has come, in my opinion, when all legal distinction between the Sabbath and other days should be obliterated. Better it be known as a day of toil, than that it be kept as a day ostensibly for God’s honor, but in reality to his great dishonor and to man’s irretrievable ruin. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

What has thus far been said is based on the supposition that the 25th of December is the date of the nativity. But is that correct? Let us for a little consider this question.

Nowhere in the Bible, neither in prophecy nor history, in gospel, nor epistle, are the day and month of Christ’s birth stated. The passage read from my text contains the nearest reference to the time. The presumption from it is against the date generally accepted. December is the rainy season in Judea. It is not likely shepherds would then be watching their flocks on the plains. Not only is Scripture silent, but there is no well-authenticated tradition respecting it. The fathers were as ignorant of, and as much divided in opinion in regard to the day, as are scholars and biographers of Christ in more modern times. According to the Edinburgh Review, “by the fifth century,” “the 25th of December had been agreed upon.” “It was not,”' says Abbott “until the sixth century that anything like unanimity prevailed as to the day to be observed.” Dr. Schaff gives the following brief summary of views:

“In the Primitive church there was no agreement as to the time of Christ’s birth. In the east the 6th of January was observed as the day of his baptism and birth. In the third century, as Clement of Alexandria relates, some regarded the 20th of May, others the 20th of April as the birthday of our Saviour, Among modern chronologists and biographers of Jesus, there is still greater difference of opinion, and every month, even June and July (when the fields are .parched from want of rain,) have been named as the time when the great event took place. Lightfoot assigns the nativity to September, Lardner and Newcome to October, Wieseler to February, Paulus to March, Greswell and Alford to the 5th of April, just after the spring rains when there is an abundance of pasture; Lichtenstein places it in July or December, Strong in August, Robinson in autumn, Clinton in spring, Andrews between the middle of December, 749, U.C. to the middle of January, 750, U.C. On the other hand Roman Catholic historians and biographers of Jesus, as Sepp, Friedlieb, Bucher, Patritius, also some Protestant writers, defend the popular tradition, or the 25th of December. Wordsworth gives up the problem and thinks that the Holy Spirit has concealed the year and day of Christ’s birth and the duration of his ministry from the wise and prudent to keep them humble.”

It is not necessary to make additional quotations. The evidence fully justifies Dr. Schaff’s assertion, “The day and month cannot be certainly determined.” It justifies also the assertion, that the evidence is against the 25th of December. For regarding that as the anniversary of Christ’s birth, “there is no authority whatever, except the church.” That date was selected not on historic grounds, not “instinctively because of its poetic and symbolic fitness,” but, as we shall see in a little, for reasons of a very different kind.

Surely in view of these facts we are safe in affirming that God intentionally concealed from us the date of the nativity, seeing it better for us not now to know it. The abuses accompanying the observance of the day, kept as the anniversary of that event, signally vindicate the wisdom of God in so doing and also afford one more illustration of man’s folly in trying to be wise above what is written.

But why, it may be asked, if there is no way by which the date of the nativity can be ascertained and the presumptive evidence is against the month of December, why was the 25th of that month selected? The answer is easily given. It affords another illustration of Rome’s cunning. That date was selected exclusively from motives of policy. The manner in. which the day has been long observed and is now observed, had originally not the most remote reference to the birth of our Lord.

“The manner,” remarks Abbott, “in which this Christmas festival came to be observed in the Romish church and through it in the other churches is as follows: Precisely in this season of the year a series of heathen festivals occurred, the celebration of which was in many ways closely interwoven with the whole civil and social life of the Romans. Hence the Christians were often exposed to be led astray into many of the customs and solemnities peculiar to these festivals. . . To this series of pagan festivals belonging to this season was to be opposed that Christian festival which could be so easily connected with the feelings and sentiments that lay at their foundation. Hence the celebration of the nativity of Christ was transferred to the 25th of December tor the purpose of drawing away the Christian people from all participation in the heathen festivals, and of gradually drawing the pagans themselves from their heathen customs to the Christian celebration.”

“Most heathen nations,” says Johnston, “regarded the winter solstice as the beginning of the renewed life and activity of the powers of nature. The Romans, Celts, and Germans from the oldest times, celebrated the season with great feasts. . . Some of their usages passed over from heathenism, to Christianity, and have partly survived to the present day. But the church sought to banish the deep rooted heathen element by introducing its grand liturgy, besides dramatic representations of the birth of Christ and the first events of his life.”

Dr. Schaff confirms the above statement as follows;

“The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children. This circumstance accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to the children and the poor, the lighting of wax tapers, likewise also the erection of Christmas trees, and gives them a Christian import. . . . It also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges at this season.”

It would be both interesting and instructive were there time to show how largely we imitate to-day the ancient pagans in our observance of this season in both its religious and social aspects.

This, then, is the history of Christmas day. It is utterly impossible to conceal its pagan origin and its pagan character. The words of a recent traveller with respect to something that came under his observation, are exceedingly applicable to the result of this attempt on the part of Rome, winked at by Protestants, to give a heathen holiday a Christian origin and make out of it a Christian holy-day. “It re minds me,” is his remark, “of a tombstone which is shown the traveller in the Catacombs at Rome, with an inscription on both sides of it. The one side sets forth the virtues of a pagan Roman long before the Christian era; the other side celebrates the virtues of the Christian who stole, or, at least, appropriated this tombstone from the pagan.”

How full of significance to us, in the light of these facts, is Paul’s expression of surprise in his Epistle to the Galatians, that they should “turn back again to the weak and beggarly elements,” and “observe days and months and times and years!” How surpassing strange is it that the Protestant world should so soon close its eyes to the plain truth and encourage Rome in her superstitions and deceptions and the dissolute in their sin, by recognizing Christmas! It was to what at one time had been of great advantage, the Galatians turned back. It is to what had always been idolatrous and licentious, professors of Christianity have turned back. If the former were thought deserving of reproof, what, think ye, should be done with the latter? Whether or not we approve of their course, we can easily understand, in the light of these facts, why the Puritans and the Presbyterians in Scotland, took such decided action in regard to Christmas, rejecting it entirely and forbidding, at one time, its celebration.

As it may be interesting to you to know exactly what was the action taken by our ancestors on this subject, I make one extract, reminding you that when it was taken the Second Reformation in Scotland was at its zenith. That was the day of the church’s purity and power.

By the Act of Assembly, 13th February, 1645, it is unanimously ordained that the observer of Yule [1] day, or other superstitious days, shall be proceeded against by kirk censures, and shall make their public repentance therefor in the face of the offended congregation. And if masters of schools or colleges grant vacancy on that day, they are to be cited to answer to the next Assembly by the ministers of the place, and no vacancy is to be granted at that or any time thereafter in compensation thereof. And scholars guilty herein are to be corrected by their masters; but if they should refuse to subject themselves to correction, or be fugitives from discipline, they are not to be received into any other school or college within the kingdom.

There is no need for us to consider further this subject. Enough has been said. To try to convince those who, while admitting in general the correctness of what has been presented, (and there are such), still defend the observance of the 25th of December on the ground that the actual and precise date of the event is a matter of small moment in comparison with the keeping of some day in commemoration of the nativity, on the ground that the heathen festival is a prophecy of the Christian, and should be so regarded, or for other reasons of a like nature, would be a useless task. The statement of their position is its best refutation. Our duty is plain. When we remember that God has purposely concealed from us the date of Christ’s birth, that the day selected as the anniversary of that event was selected exclusively from worldly considerations, that the “festival of Christmas”' is the Christian transformation of “the heathen festivals,” held at the same period of the year, that the religious aspect of the day is almost entirely lost sight of, that it is now throughout the civilized world spent almost exclusively in pleasure and dissipation, and is made an occasion for the commission of more sin than is committed on any other in the year, this the day observed as the anniversary of the nativity, surely our duty, the duty of all who are sincerely desirous of the honor of Christ, is to refuse to recognize or countenance it in any way as a holy day.

We can learn from this subject these among other lessons: the great danger of taking from or adding to any of the regulations and ordinances God has appointed; the natural tendency of the human heart to imitate the example of those around us in conforming to the ways of the world and to make plausible pretexts for so doing; and the necessity for spending wholly in God’s worship time devoted to his service.


[1] From a Saxon word meaning feast, in olden times given to Christmas.