"Moderate course" or populist festivity? Calvin v. Hooker at Christmas

What did Calvin think of Christmas?  Historian Bruce Gordon makes a good case that Calvin himself was no ecclesiastical Grinch, unlike his followers.  He quotes Calvin writing to fellow Reformer Johannes Haller in Bern: " I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day".  Gordon states that this "moderate course" referred to Calvin's belief that the observance of such feast days was a matter of adiaphora.  

So, it is straightforward Calvin - despite the actions of later Calvinists - was no Grinch:

Calvin sought to reclaim Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s Nativity, a defining moment for Christians, without making the festival binding on the faithful. At the same time, his intention was to purge the holiday of the excesses of public exuberance traditionally associated with both the feast

The Book of Common Prayer, then, was merely following Calvin in its retention of Christmas.

Straightforward indeed.  But wrong.

Calvin's observance of Christmas falls considerably short of the liturgical provision in the Book of Common Prayer. What is striking about the various forms of the BCP is the retention of much of the traditional pattern for the celebration of Christmas.  Indeed, the 1552 rubric accompanying the proper preface for Christmas Day restored the pre-Reformation practice of it being used for "seven days after" ("in accordance with the old rubrics" - Procter and Frere).  The traditional saints' days following Christmas Day - St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents - are retained, in stark contrast to the insistence of the Second Helvetic Confession: "we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints".

The feast of the Circumcision of Christ marked the octave day of Christmas, with Cranmer's collect based on a traditional Latin blessing for the octave.  Then there was Epiphany, marking the end of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.  Cranmer's collect for the Nativity - with its strikingly traditional references to "as at this time" and "of a pure Virgin" - was also appointed to prayed until 1st January, another way of marking the octave.

When the BCP 1662 included "A Table of the Vigils, Fasts, and Days of Abstinence, to be Observed in the Year", it carefully omitted any call to fasting or abstinence on the eve of the Circumcision and of the Epiphany, as these fell within the traditional Twelve Days of feasting.  And, of course, care was taken in the list of "Days of Fasting" to state "All Fridays in the Year, except Christmas-day".

This was not Calvin's "moderate course".  It was, rather, the retention of the traditional liturgical observance of Christmas Day and the days following.  This explains the very thing emphasised by Gordon - that the hostility towards Christmas by the Puritans of England and New England contrasts with Calvin's approach.  The Puritans saw, quite correctly, that the Book of Common Prayer embodied not Calvin's "moderate course" but the traditional, pre-Reformation pattern of celebrating the Lord's Nativity.

The traditional liturgical pattern of the BCP also ensured the continuation under the Elizabethan Settlement of a traditional aspect of Christmas to which Calvin was hostile, what Gordon terms "the excesses of public exuberance".  When Gordon quotes Calvin's design for the community's observance of Christmas, we see this hostility towards popular festivity:

The most feasible means that could be devised for that purpose seemed to be to keep the holy day in the morning, and open the shops in the afternoon.

In stark contrast, popular festivity continued to mark the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline celebration of Christmas.   John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London states:

Against the feast of Christmas, every man’s home, as also their parish churches, the conduits and standards [water pipes] in the street, were decked with holm, ivy, bays and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green.

Puritan hostility to traditional popular festivity at Christmas had a particular focus - the humble mince pie.  The first Governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, declared in 1621 - the settlers' second Christmas in New England - that mince pies at Christmas were "idolatrie in a crust".  As Parliament sat in 1656 on the day formerly known as Christmas Day, one Parliamentarian condemned Royalists and Anglicans for being "merry over their Christmas pies". It seems fitting that Puritan hostility towards Christmas should fixate on the physical, emotionally satisfying act of eating.

The point here is the relationship between the BCP's traditional liturgical observance of Christmas and the continuance of traditional popular festivity - the retention of the former secured the latter.  The latter, meanwhile, gave both populist expression to and populist support for the BCP's liturgical provision.  Together they ensured a richer, more populist celebration of Christmas than Calvin's "moderate course".

This is what we see in Hooker's definition of festivity:

The most naturall testimonies of our rejoycinge in God are first his praises sett forth which cheerfefull alacritie of minde, secondlie our comforte and delight expressed by a charitable largenes of somewhat more than common bountie, thirdlie sequestration from ordinarie labors, the toiles and cares whereof are not meete to be companions of such gladnes.  Festivall solemnitite therefore is nothing but the due mixture as it were of these three elementes, praise, and bountie, and rest - Of The Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie V.70.2.

Hooker's account of festivity is - thankfully - far removed from Calvin's "moderate course".  It is a thoroughly traditional, catholic definition of the practices which mark festivals, "praise, and bountie, and rest".

Does any of this have relevance for contemporary Anglicanism?   Perhaps we can see something of the importance of populist observances and practices as means of establishing a cultural context for the practice of the Faith.  It also indicates the need for a holistic, embodied approach to the major festivals of the Faith, rejecting the prevailing notion that Christianity is a privatised matter - restricted to one hour at Midnight Communion or a Carol Service - rather than a festival touching and transforming the season as a foretaste of lives touched and transformed.

Finally, there is joy.  Calvin's Christmas doesn't sound particularly joyful: the morning off for Church, work in the afternoon, no 'worldly' celebrations.  It results in a midwinter's day grown grey from the breath of a pale Puritanism.  There is little sense of Christmas cheer, of food and drink, of kith and kin, of song and rest, being a participation in the fulsome joy of the divine Life, our life (domestic, emotional, social, communal) transfigured by the joy of the Incarnation.

Calvin may not have been the Grinch when it came to Christmas, but he dwelt in the same neighbourhood.  May our Christmas be celebrated in a different neighbourhood, that of the BCP and Hooker, marked by praise, and bounty, and rest.


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