Calvin, Christmas and Holidays

It’s nearly Christmas. As some of you will know, the reformer John Calvin has gathered a notorious reputation as the one who did abolish the celebration of Christmas in Geneva. And indeed, from the sermons of Calvin that survived, we can gather that he continued his lectio continua of Scripture at the 25th of Decembre. Take for example the year 1559. Calvin preached on weekdays on the book of Genesis. So, that’s what he did on this monday: he preached on Genesis 8:20-22. (You can find the sermon in Supplementa GenevaCalviniana XI/1, p.453-463). That’s the part of the story that is well-known.

But not so very well-known is the fact that Calvin (and his colleagues in Geneva) on the sunday closest to Decembre 25th preached on the gospel of the nativity, be it from the gospel of Luke, Matthew or John. Moreover, at this sunday the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in all the Genevan churches. This was truly a festive sunday, meant as alternative Christmas. So, Calvin didn’t completely abolish the celebration of Christmas. He ‘only’ replaced the celebration from the 25th Decembre to a nearby sunday. But why did he do that?

This move of the reformer was prompted by the disastrous consequences of the late medieval practice of holy days and all sorts of festivals. These were days devoted to all sorts of saints, holy persons, saint patrons of the city, and so forth. At each of these days the inhabitants of a city were expected to go to church, visit the mass, say prayers in a chapel, participate in a procession, and so on. That took half the day, and not infrequently the whole day. Now you understand the meaning of our word ‘holiday‘. A day of leisure… Yes, but also an enormous loss of labour and productivity. It has been calculated that up to 50% of the workdays got lost in this way.

CalvijnCalvin, and the other reformers, abolished nearly all these holy days and holidays. And in case you are inclined to think that this confirms the liaison between calvinism and capitalism (Weber), remember that these were the days that poverty was a real problem. That social problem was, besides the idolatry involved in the veneration of all these saints, Calvin’s chief motivation for doing what he did. Sundays were the days of rest; the other days the days of doing what God calls you to do! But on all these days there were sermons, from Calvin and his colleagues. Because God never rests. He is always at work, for our salvation!