Christmas and the Regulative Principle
What did the reformers think about Christmas?
Decency and Order: Religious Holidays
by Rev. Ronald Cammenga
“The churches shall observe, in addition to the Sunday, also Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day. “Church Order, Article 67.
History of Article 67
The content of Article 67 does not express the early opinion of the Reformers with respect to the observance of the religious holidays. Well known is the opposition of men like Calvin, Farel, Zwingli, and Knox to the celebration of the myriad of festal days counted sacred by Roman Catholicism. They all did what they could to abolish the celebration of the religious holidays.
The sentiment of the Reformers was shared, by and large, by the Dutch Reformed. For this reason the synod of Dordt, 1574, ruled: “As to the church holidays aside from Sunday, it is decided that people shall be content with Sunday only.”
VanDellen and Monsma give three reasons that explain the Reformers’ opposition to the observance of special days.
1. The festival days are not ordained by God, but are of human invention.
2. The observance of the festival days tends to minimize Sunday, the God-ordained weekly day of rest.
3. The observance of the festival days leads to pagan celebration and promotes licentiousness.
Notwithstanding this early opposition, the observance of the religious holidays gradually began to find acceptance among the Reformed in the Netherlands. This was due largely to the fact that these days were set aside as holidays by the state. Rather than to have the people spend the days in idleness or frivolous recreation, it was deemed preferable that the saints gather for worship.
Already the synod of Dordt, 1578, decided:
It would be desirable that freedom to work six days as allowed by God be maintained by the church and only Sunday be kept holy. Nevertheless, since some other festive days are observed by authority of the government, such as Christmas with the day following, the second Easter Day and the second Pentecost Day and in some places New Year’s Day and Ascension Day, the ministers shall show diligence to have sermons in which they shall especially teach the congregation concerning the birth and resurrection of Christ, the sending of the Holy Spirit and other articles of faith and how to change the unprofitable exercise.
Even then, the synod of 1578 added:
Meanwhile all churches shall work to the end that the ordinary use of all holidays except Christmas (since Easter and Pentecost are on Sunday) be abolished as much as possible and as early as possible.
The synod of Middelburg, 1581, added the observance of Ascension Day to Christmas.
The congregations shall continue to work with the authorities so that the holidays, with the exception of Sunday, Christmas and Ascension Day, may be abolished. But in places where more holidays are observed by order of the government, the ministers shall put forth effort to change by preaching the useless and harmful idleness into a sacred and beneficial exercise.
The synod of the Hague, 1586 expanded the observance of the special days.
The congregations shall observe in addition to Sunday two Christmas days, Easter Monday and two Pentecost days, but in places where more holidays are held by order of the government in commemoration of the benefits of Christ (as the circumcision of Christ [New Years’ Day] and Ascension Day) the ministers shall put forth effort to change by preaching the idleness of the people into sacred and beneficial observance.
Our present article is based on the decision of Dordt, 1618-19.
The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following day; and since in most cities and provinces of the Netherlands, besides these there are also observed the day of Circumcision and Ascension of Christ, the ministers everywhere, where this is still not the custom, shall put forth effort with the authorities that they may conform with the others.
The synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, 1905, adopted the following revision of Article 67:
The congregations shall keep, besides Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Ascension Day. The observation of the second festival days is left to the freedom of the churches.
The revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914 added several more religious holidays: Good Friday, the Annual Day of Prayer for Crops (traditionally the second Wednesday of March), the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day. Article 67 in our Protestant Reformed Church Order is essentially a redaction of that of the Christian Reformed Church in 1914.
Regard for the Days
A couple of things ought to be said about the regard that we Reformed Christians have for the special days designated in Article 67.
First, it ought to be plain that the special days are not on a par with the weekly Lord’s Day. The language of Article 67 makes this plain, for these days are to be observed “… in addition to the Sunday.” They are added to Sunday. That implies that Sunday is pre-eminent and that Sunday stands as a day in distinction from the special religious holidays that are added to it. The history, too, of the addition of the religious holidays to Article 67 indicates the priority placed on the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day. Never was the observance of the religious holidays defended on the grounds that they were mandated by Scripture, whereas this was the basis for the weekly observance of Sunday.
In the second place, it was largely for practical reasons that the fathers supported the observance of the religious holidays. Most of these days were, and still are, set aside by the authority of the state as national holidays. Fearing the temptation to turn the days into reckless celebration or wicked idleness, it was thought far preferable to call the members of the church together for prayer and worship. Knowing the tendency of human nature and fearing the impact of the worldly celebration of the days, our fathers took preventive steps. Their concern was not to curry the favor of the government, but to promote the edification of the churches.
In the third place, regard for the religious holidays rests in the liberty that is ours in Christ. For this reason, observance of the days has never been equated with the New Testament Sabbath. For this reason the days that do not happen to fall on a Sunday are not observed, and are not required to be observed, as if they were Sabbath Days. Our men, for example, are permitted to work on Old and New Year’s Day without any fear of being charged with desecration of the day. For this reason, also, we take no issue with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters who prefer not to observe the days. Well and good; we do not bind their consciences by Article 67 of our Church Order.
It having been said that our observance of the days belongs to our liberty in Christ, we must add that this liberty is circumscribed by the decision of the majority and the lawful rule of the church. Decency and good order in the church demand this. Because the mind of the majority is that the edification of the churches is best served by gathering for worship on the special days, the members of the church, even those members who might not agree entirely, acquiesce.
The Days Designated in Article 67
All of the days designated in Article 67 are not alike. The days are basically of two kinds.
First, there are those days which mark significant events connected to the wonder of salvation, days celebrating the work of our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Among these days, too, there is distinction. Easter and Pentecost always fall on a Sunday; Christmas only rarely; Good Friday and Ascension Day never.
The other days mentioned in Article 67 are purely artificial: The Annual Day of Prayer for Crops, the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day. They have no value whatsoever as days, nor is the time of their celebration of any significance. As days they are no different from any other days. Nevertheless, the occasion of the observance of the days provides the church with a fitting opportunity for celebration before God and instruction from the Word of God.
At the service on the Annual Day of Prayer for Crops the blessing of God is besought at the beginning of another growing season. The saints are reminded that not only our soul’s salvation but also our daily bread comes from the hand of our heavenly Father. Thanksgiving Day provides the opportunity for the congregation to come together in order corporately to give thanks to God for His provision and care. The Old Year’s evening service ought to be used to remind the saints of the end of all things, that time marches on towards the God-ordained purpose of the coming of Christ and the final judgment. The New Year’s morning service ought to be a call to the saints to live uprightly in the year that is to come, committing all their way to the Lord who promises to care for us.
Observance of the Days of Article 67
Article 67 calls the churches to “observe” the religious holidays. By observing the days the article means that the churches shall gather for public worship. In harmony with Article 67, the consistory shall summon the congregation to worship. Notice of this summons is ordinarily placed in the church bulletin the Sunday preceding the special day. All of the elements of public worship ought to be a part of the observance. The minister ought to preach from an appropriate text of Scripture so that the special significance of the day is not lost on the congregation.
Although the religious holidays are not on a par with the weekly Sabbath, the members of the church ought to take seriously the provision of Article 67 that calls for their observance. It is to be feared that there is a certain laxity in regard to the observance of the special days. This is especially the case with the days that are observed by mid-week services. These services can, at times, be rather sparsely attended. God’s people ought to be of the mind that since our Church Order calls for the observance of these days, and since the consistory summons us for worship on these days, we ought to attend these special services faithfully.
We ought to gather joyfully! Ah, we have the opportunity to hear the gospel set forth! We have the opportunity to sing the praises of our God! We have the opportunity to call upon God’s name in prayer! We have the opportunity to fellowship with beloved brothers and sisters in Christ!
Given the opportunity, where would the child of God rather be? What would he rather be doing?
1. VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), p. 273.
2. The reference to the “second” Christmas, the “second” Easter, etc. relates to the custom of the Dutch to celebrate as holidays the special day itself as well as the day following.
Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.