This is the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which started when Martin Luther allegedly nailed those 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And I don’t want to bore you with church history right now, but I want to point out one thing: without Martin Luther, we most likely wouldn’t have Christmas as we know it today.
Yes, Christmas was a feast day on the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox church calendar, but it was observed with relatively little fanfare. There were masses offered – that’s where the word ‘Christmas’ comes from, ‘Christ-Mass’ – but there were no Christmas trees, no Christmas carols that would be sung by regular people, no presents. There may have been good food, though, but that’s what people always did on feast days – they feasted (if they could afford it).
In many regions, presents were given on December 6th, the feast day of St. Nicholas, patron saint of all children. And in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, presents wouldn’t arrive until the feast day of Epiphany, the day the coming of the wise men is remembered (and this is still the case today).
All in all, Christmas was one of many special days on the church calendar. Martin Luther of course brought about some radical changes in the church. He did away with all the special saints, saying that everyone is a saint in their own right, justified and made saintly by the grace of God. Consequently many feast days of the saints were eliminated, and much fewer holy days remained. But these holy days focused on God, and especially on Jesus Christ. And these fewer holy days became a much bigger deal – and among them was Christmas.
Just as a footnote, Luther tried to eliminate the tradition of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to the children. He said that the true gift to all humanity is Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, the Christchild – and that’s why we should exchange gifts on Christmas. Luther only partly succeeded: yes, we now exchange gifts on Christmas, and the ‘Christkind’, the ‘Christchild’, is understood as the bringer of these gifts in some regions – but the tradition of St. Nicholas was too beloved and, of course, since has evolved and grown into the legend of Santa Claus (which is a derivation of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, ‘Sinter Klaas’), the jolly old elf.
Martin Luther loved Christmas. For him, the birth of Christ and the coming of God into this imperfect world was a story that brought him hope and joy. Luther suffered from depressions and could be quite a belligerent man, but, as one of his students wrote, whenever Christmas rolled around, Luther was a different man: giddy like a child, full of joyful anticipation, infecting everyone around him with the Christmas spirit.
Luther brought Christmas into the home – it is a legend that Luther invented the Christmas tree, but he instructed his children about the Christmas story and wrote several Christmas carols with easy tunes that the family could sing around the fire. In fact, the most famous of these carols, ‘From Heaven Above’, Luther wrote in response to his children asking him to come up with something that they could sing while performing their very own pageant in their home; ‘From Heaven Above’ tells the entire Christmas story in a whopping 15 verses.
But Luther also admonished his contemporaries to see Christ’s humanity in all brothers and sisters. In his Christmas sermons, he repeatedly emphasized the care for the poor and vulnerable, and that Christians have a responsibility to give alms. We give because Christ has been given to us.
I think we see many traces of Luther’s Christmas revolution still today. And though this holy day has been hijacked by commercialism and sentimentality, may we share in the hope and joy Luther felt about the birth of Christ, the coming of God into our less than perfect world, and pass on the manifold gifts we have been given – first and foremost the love and grace of God.