Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.
The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!
I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff. But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.
“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings: a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.
I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.
And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!