Holidays in the Reformed Tradition

Introduction

Many Christians in Reformed churches today fall into two categories with regards to Christian holidays: staunch rejection of them as not Reformed or uncritical observance of them. In this position paper, my aim is to demonstrate that Christian holidays, specifically what have been called the five evangelical feast days, are both historically Reformed and profitable for the Church today.

 Abolish or Reform?

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the inherited liturgical calendar was bloated. While the catholic Church began to celebrate Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas early on, by the 16th century the Roman calendar was burdened with many obligatory holy days. These included seven feasts for the Virgin Mary, twelve days for each of the apostles, and days for the fourteen auxiliary saints (the ‘Holy Helpers’ one would petition to help you find your lost item or to protect you during travel). Add in various local festivals for minor saints, and the Church had developed forty to sixty days a year to be marked as ‘holy days,’ requiring the ceasing of labor, special Masses, and communal celebrations.[1] And this count does not include the dozens of days dedicated to fasting.

The solution to such a burdensome and idolatrous calendar did vary among the Reformers. When the Gevevan government mandated the observance of the four festivals of Christmas, the Circumcision of Christ, Annunciation, and Ascension, John Calvin and William Farel strongly disapproved, believing that “observing traditional festivals would cause confusion and reinforce long-standing superstition as to the sacred value of certain days and seasons.”[2] This sort of response was developed further downstream in the Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian tradition, where the Lord’s Day was the primary and only feast day to be observed.[3] In this view, all other religious holidays are unbiblical Romish inventions to be discarded by the faithful. It should be noted, however, that Calvin did go along with the instituted calendar, writing, “Since my recall, I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birthday as you are wont to do.”[4] It seems that for Calvin, it would be better to leave all feast days behind, but “because they are things indifferent,” it was not a hill he was willing to die on.[5]

The above understanding of feast days was not the overwhelming view of the Reformed churches. As Hughes Oliphant Old wrote, “in regard to the calendar, the Anglo-Saxon Puritan tradition was definitely different from the Continental Reformed usage.”[6] Instead of doing away with the whole calendar and observance of any religious day outside the Lord’s Day, the mainstream Reformed response was that of stripping away the excess holy days (including the fasting seasons of Advent and Lent) in favor of keeping five main feast days regarding the life of Christ: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Evidence in Hymnals

Let’s consider the practice of two important Reformed churches. The Reformed church in Strasbourg maintained the observance of Easter and Pentecost without much issue, and quickly the “five evangelical feast days” were established as worthy to be observed alongside the weekly Lord’s Day.[7] Originally the reformer of Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, was a strong critic of feast days. But later on in his writings against the Anabaptists he strongly defending them, stating, “In like manner must be observed the other festivals and seasons which have been prescribed, with a view to the increase of godliness by meditating upon the great deeds of the Lord accomplished for our redemption and eternal salvation… Such festivals are those of the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ, of his Ascension, etc.”[8] Evidence for such observance, beyond Bucer’s own opinion, can be found in the 1537 Strasbourg Psalter which contains festal hymns according to the calendar. In addition to all of this, it must also be pointed out that records show a Christmas tree was put on display in the Cathedral of Strasbourg during Bucer’s superintendency.[9]

Likewise, in the Palatinate (the region that produced the Heidelberg Catechism) we find that their Book of Church Order contained specific instructions regarding the observance of “Sundays and holy days,” stating that “Holy days should be kept in the same manner as Sunday.”[10] In the second edition of their songbook, the hymn section was divided into three parts, one of them being hymns for the church calendar from Advent to Pentecost.[11]

Consensus Documents

Having looked at the practices of two Reformed cities, it will now be helpful to consider a couple consensus documents. Written in 1561 by Heinrich Bullinger, the Second Helvetic Confession was considered to be “the most widely received of the sixteenth century Reformed confessions.”[12] Article 24 of the Confession begins with a section titled, ‘Superstition,’ which states that no one day is holier than another. The next section, ‘The Festivals of Christ and the Saints,’ continues stating, “Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly” (emphasis added).[13]

Over fifty years later, the Church Order of Dort formulated by the Synod of Dort strongly approved of the five evangelical feast days. Article 67 of the Church Order states, “the congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following days. Since in most cities and Provinces of the Netherlands, besides these the days of the Circumcision and Ascension of Christ are also observed, all ministers, wherever this is still the custom, shall put forth effort with the authorities that they may conform with the others.”[14] Notice that the basics were Sunday, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Synod then encourages any cities that do not already celebrate the Circumcision and Ascension of Christ to conform with the majority that do.

Therefore, considering all of the above examples – from Strasbourg to the Palatinate to Switzerland and to the Netherlands – we can clearly see that celebration of the five evangelical feast days is not outside the Reformed pale, but rather largely encouraged by our Reformed fathers. Indeed, Old once wrote, “Reformed Protestantism had made a major effort to reestablish the dignity of the Lord’s Day… but there was also a very hearty observance of the five evangelical feast days. On the continent of Europe, at least, that too had become a characteristic of Protestantism.”[15]

Liberty and Edification

But why did many of the Reformers allow and encourage the celebration of these feast days? As good Protestants, tradition alone should not be enough for us, and we should seek to understand the reasoning behind the practice if we are to continue it.

The first principle is illustrated in the preface to the Second Helvetic Confession’s approval of the feast days: “If in Christian liberty the church religiously celebrate…” Christians are no longer bound to the observance of special days or seasons (Col. 2:16–17, Gal. 4:9–11). So any observance of feast days is out of freedom in Christ, and not obligation. As St Paul wrote in Romans 14:5–6a, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (ESV).

The second principle is the edification of the saints. Looking at Romans 14 again we are told to, “pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (NKJV). By limiting the calendar to five historical feast days all focused on the salvific work of Christ on our behalf, the Reformers promoted that which is good to be meditated upon and celebrated yearly: the glories of our Lord’s incarnation (Christmas), death (Good Friday), resurrection (Easter), ascension into heaven (Ascension), and sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Removed were the many days that were simply unbiblical (veneration of Mary) or those that often promoted superstition and idolatry (feast days for saints). With this principle in mind, Bucer commented in his review of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, “Since therefore we are free from the observation of days and seasons, more festivals ought not to be instituted than we may hope will be truly sanctified to the Lord.”[16]

Here we can give credit to Calvin for the underlining reason for his disagreement, for he was operating with the same end in mind—the good of the Church. As Bucer wrote in his lectures on Ephesians, “Unity is not necessary in anything not set forth in the word, here a degree of liberty obtains. So in the matter of man-made rites, different arrangements can be made in different quarters the better suited to edification.”[17] The ministers and elders in Geneva did acknowledge that other ministers may determine the calendar to be helpful when they stated, “in regard to the observance of the day of Christmas, things that are indifferent should not be formalized, and we do not condemn [other reformed cities] that observe such a day, provided that they do so without superstition.”[18] But they simply felt that for the church in Geneva it was necessary “to remove this festival because it was apparent that the people treated it in a superstitious manner.”[19] Therefore, as we promote the celebration of the five evangelical feast days, we must keep in mind the liberty of other Christians to differ with our practice.

Conclusion: Keeping the Time

By God’s good design, we are time-bound creatures. We see this in our bodies, with the growth, change, and then ultimate decline, that comes with age. We have birth-days by the grace of God, which we celebrate annually, and we all have been appointed a day to die, in which our loved ones will mourn (Heb. 9:27). We also see this passing of time outside ourselves in creation, with the colorful change of seasons. We keep personal calendars, and as a society we maintain a shared civil calendar.

It is therefore fitting and right for the Church to “keep time” according to Christ—the One in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), the One who all things were created through and for (Col. 1:16), and the One who faithfully continues to hold it all together (Col. 1:17). Let us maintain these feast days, following the example of the historic catholic Church, being continually reminded of the salvation secured for us by the incarnate Christ, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of time.


Works Cited

“Church Order of Dort.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/nethord.htm

Daniel Hyde. Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the “Evangelical Feast Days” in the Reformed Tradition, Mid-America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015).

“Church Order of Dort.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/nethord.htm

Frank C. Senn. Introduction to Christian Liturgy, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press).

Hughes Oliphant Old. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church Vol. 4: The Age of the Reformation (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publshing Co.).

Hughes Oliphant Old. Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press).

James T. Dennison, Jr. Reformed Confessions Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books).

John Calvin (ed. Jules Bonnet). Letters of John Calvin Vol. I, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers).

“Second Helvetic Confession.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.html.

Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church 1536–1609 (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Additional Resources

Christ Church and Trinity Reformed Church. Joint Statement on Holy Days. https://dougwils.com/books/holy-days.html.

Douglas Wilson. God Rest Ye Merry (Moscow, ID: Canon Press).

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press).

Jeffrey J. Meyers. The Lord’s Service (Moscow, ID: Canon Press).

Richard Hooker. In Defense of Reformed Catholic Worship: Book IV of Richard Hookers’ Laws (Moscow, ID: Davenant Press).


[1] Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 124.

[2] Ibid. 125.

[3] “The Heidelberg Catechism [uses] the German word feiertag to describe the day of worship. This was the word used for holidays/holy days in medieval German lands.” Daniel Hyde. Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the “Evangelical Feast Days” in the Reformed Tradition, Mid-America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015), 131.

[4] John Calvin (ed. Jules Bonnet). Letters of John Calvin Vol. I, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 288.

[5] Ibid. 162.

[6] Hughes Oliphant Old. Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 29.

[7] Ibid. 28.

[8] Daniel Hyde. Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the “Evangelical Feast Days” in the Reformed Tradition, Mid-America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015), 136.

[9] Frank C. Senn. Introduction to Christian Liturgy, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 118.

[10] Daniel Hyde. Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the “Evangelical Feast Days” in the Reformed Tradition, Mid-America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015), 135.

[11] Ibid. 134.

[12] James T. Dennison, Jr. Reformed Confessions Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books), 809.

[13] “Second Helvetic Confession.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm.

[14] “Church Order of Dort.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/nethord.htm

[15] Hughes Oliphant Old. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church Vol. 4: The Age of the Reformation (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publshing Co.), 426.

[16] Daniel Hyde. Not Holy But Helpful: A Case for the “Evangelical Feast Days” in the Reformed Tradition, Mid-America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015), 139.

[17] Ibid. 137.

[18] Scott M. Manetsch. Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 126.

[19] Ibid. 126.

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