A Reformation Christmas

There has never been a uniform opinion among Christians on the celebration of Christmas. As the Protestant church begins to emerge out of the Reformation era, there were some who felt a strong inclination to leave Christmas with the Catholics. But while some said “bah-humbug” to the holiday, others were more than happy to celebrate. There are several modern traditions that can be traced back to their origins among the Protestant Reformers.

Christmas Pudding, for example, dates back to the 17th century and has close association with the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The final Sunday before Advent had been called “Stir Up Sunday,” which draws its name from the first words of that Sunday’s prayer:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works…

By at least the 17th Century Christian homes had determined that this Sunday would be a day for the family to gather together and make Christmas pudding, or what would later become known as Figgy Pudding or Plum Pudding (though these names are probably a misnomer). While the Christmas pudding has an ancestry dating all the way back to the 14th century, those “puddings” were traditionally filled with meat and onions and were more savory. The Christmas Pudding as we know it today has its roots more in the tradition of the reformed English church.

In fact, Christmas baking in general, owes much thanks to the Reformers. Traditionally Advent had been a time of fasting. Many Eastern churches still observe this tradition. The Roman Catholic Church, in the 16th century, had issued particular restriction on the use of eggs, milk, and butter during the Advent season. But in Germany butter was a big part of the average person’s diet and those exporting oil to be used in baking were selling it at exorbitant prices. In 1520, in his Letter to the Christian Nobility, Luther Wrote:

In Rome, they make a mockery fasting, while forcing us to eat an oil they themselves would not use to grease their slippers

Needless to say, the “no butter” rule was not appreciated in Germany. The Prince of Saxony, therefore, made an to then Pope Innocent to allow the use of butter in baking. The Pope agreed but only if an indulgence was purchased, which would grant a person the freedom to use butter. This particular abuse of ecclesiastical authority was, for Luther, even more serious than the absurd rule itself. Again Luther wrote:

They sell us the right to eat foods forbidden on fast days… but they have stolen that same liberty from us with their ecclesiastical laws…Eating butter, they say, is a greater sin than to lie, blaspheme, or indulge in impurity.

Luther had no lost love for the Indulgence system and in response to it, and to the fasting in general, Luther and those among his followers began to bake freely during Advent, and with gusto. In many regards Christmas baking was a rebellious act of the Reformation.

Perhaps, the Christmas tree, that most famous of holiday symbols, has its roots going back to the Reformation. There is some debate here, but it has been long argued that Luther was the first to decorate a Christmas tree by placing lighted candles on the Evergreen. While finishing a sermon late one night he looked out his window and was awestruck by the beauty of the twinkling stars shining through the pine tree’s branches. In an effort to recreate the beautiful scene for his family he brought a tree indoors and put the candles on its branches. The traditions spread among Germans in Lutheran territories and eventually beyond.

Luther loved Christmas. He hosted many festivities and special church services. His Reformed counterparts (Calvin, Zwingli, etc.), admittedly, were not as big a fans of the holly jolly holiday. In Puritan New England, the celebration of Christmas would result in a fine! Perhaps speaking of Christmas as a result of the Reformation is too strong, but there are some traditions that have possible roots in the work of German Protestants in particular. While it is still true that not all Christians celebrate Christmas, there seem to be many of us who are more akin to Luther than Calvin on this particular point.

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