[Editorial from the January 1947 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine, more than seventy years ago. How much more applicable these comments are now!]
Year after year Presbyterian Scotland is gradually but surely adopting the customs and the religious festival days of her more powerful neighbour in the South. Some of these customs may be innocent enough, but it is quite different with others, such as a loose view of the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. Alongside this there is an extraordinary readiness on the part of Presbyterians to adopt such festival days as Christmas and Easter. These have a place in the Church calendar, and are more or less devoutly observed by many, but by the great bulk these days are set aside for pleasure and amusement. Presbyterian Scotland at the First and Second Reformations set its face sternly against the observance of these so-called “holy” days.
In the First Book of Discipline, the Scottish Reformers, under the first head of Doctrine, say:
“Seeing that Jesus Christ is He whom the Father has commanded only to be heard, and followed of His sheep, we urge it necessary that the Evangel be truly and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly of this Realm; and all doctrine repugnant to the same be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation.”
They then state what they meant by preaching this Evangel and what they understand by the contrary doctrine, viz.:
“Whatsoever men, by laws, counsels, or constitutions, have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God’s Word; such as the vows of chastity . . . keeping of holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the Feasts (as they term them) of Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of Our Lady” (Knox’s Works, vol 2, pp 185-6).
At their 17th session the famous Glasgow Assembly (1638) confirmed this view, and decreed that these Feasts “be utterly abolished, because they are neither commanded nor warranted by Scripture.” In their Act reference is made to Assembly decisions on these Festivals (Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, p 19).
In 1566 (25th December) the General Assembly, while giving its approval to the Second Helvetic Confession, disapproved of “days dedicated to Christ.” In the letter sent to Beza, it is not only said that such festivals as Christmas, Circumcision, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, that they “at the present time obtain no place among us,” but that they “dare not religiously celebrate any other feast day than what the divine oracles have prescribed.”
In the Directory for Public Worship, in the Appendix touching Days and Places for Public Worship, it is laid down as a rule:
“There is no day commanded in Scripture to be kept holy under the Gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.”
The General Assembly in 1645 passed a stringent “Act for censuring the observers of Yule-day and other superstitious days, especially if they be scholars,” giving as their reason “the manifold abuses, profanity and superstitions,” committed on these days.
So great was the opposition to the observance of Christmas in Scotland in the eighteenth century, that when a law was passed in Queen Anne’s time repealing a law which forbade the Court of Session a “Yule vacance,” it raised quite a storm of indignation.
We believe our forefathers acted rightly in this matter. And those who are again introducing the observance of Christmas into Scotland have neither Scripture nor history on their side. One will search the New Testament in vain for a command to keep the birthday of the Lord Jesus Christ sacred. It was certainly a momentous day for the world, but His advent, wonderful though it was, would not have saved sinners. It is His death and resurrection that brought everlasting hope to sinners, and the Church of God has her holy day in the Christian Sabbath as commemorative of His resurrection from the dead.
If God asked men to observe Christmas and Easter they would flout His command just as they are doing the Sabbath, but because He has not asked them to do so they become a law unto themselves. The manner in which Christmas is observed in England, with its religious services, followed too often by revelry and the observance of customs handed down from pagan times, ought to make serious-minded Scottish Presbyterians ponder as to whether such a way of observing this Church festival commends itself to them, as in accordance with the fitness of things.
Dr. Maclean, Bishop of Caithness and Moray (now Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church), an authority on the early Church festivals, says that Christmas was probably unknown until A.D. 300. That admission by a Scottish Episcopalian prelate is of great significance. This opinion is confirmed by Professor Kirsopp Lake in his article in Hasting’s Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (III., 601).
As to the two dates, 25th December and 6th January, on which Christmas was observed, Duchesne suggests that the former date was observed by the Western or Latin Church, while the latter was observed by the Eastern or Greek Church. Why was the 25th December chosen as the date for this festival? Sir William Ramsay has shown that the birth of the Redeemer could scarcely be on the 25th December, as it was not a time suitable for the shepherds to be out with their flocks in the fields. Apart from this, the Gospels throw no light on the day or month of the Redeemer’s birth.
Why, then, was the 25th December fixed on? Professor Kirsopp Lake quite candidly admits that it was owing to the Church wishing to distract the attention of Christians from the old heathen festivals that December 25th, the dies natalis solis invicti (birthday of the unconquerable sun) was fixed on. Our author, while making this admission, maintains that the commonly accepted view that Christmas was intended to replace the Roman “Saturnalia” is not tenable. This feast was celebrated on 17th-24th December. Some of the customs are thus described: “Gambling with dice, at other times illegal, was now permitted and practised. All classes exchanged gifts, the commonest being wax tapers and clay dolls. These dolls were especially given to children.” It must, therefore, be conceded that if the “Saturnalia” were not replaced by Christmas, that it certainly took over with its observance a great deal of the pagan tomfoolery that characterised the “Saturnalia.” This accounts for many of the customs observed at Christmas. Many of the other customs observed in England and now followed in Scotland are traceable to distinctly pagan Norse influences.
The observance of Christmas as a religious festival, then, has:
(1) no warrant from Scripture.
(2) There is no warrant for the 25th December being the birthday of the Redeemer.
(3) Its observance was not known until the fourth century.
(4) It replaced a heathen festival and retains in many of its customs its connection with the day following the Roman “Saturnalia.”
Why Presbyterians should be so keen to observe such a day, therefore, can only be accounted for on the ground that men are always determined to add something in religious observances that God never asked for nor commanded.