A Tale of Christmas, Kirk, and King

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As is generally known, the Scottish reformers took a dimmer view of Christmas festivities than their continental peers. When Knox and company drafted the (First) Book of Discipline for the newly Reformed Kirk, they identified Christmas -- along with "holy days of certain saints" and "fond feasts of our lady" -- as a "Papist" invention lacking biblical warrant, declared it "abolished from this realm," and affirmed that persons persisting in the celebration of it would be subject to "the punishment of the civil magistrate." (By way of contrast, the Second Helvetic Confession and Canons of Dordt explicitly approved religious celebrations in "memory of the Lord's Nativity.")

Getting rid of Christmas was easier said than done. Kirk session records and repeated legislation by the General Assembly aiming to enforce the abolition of Christmas festivities testify to the common people's reluctance to desist celebrating the birth of their Lord. The 1575 General Assembly implored civil authorities to play their part in reprimanding persons who observed "Yule day" by "banqueting, playing, fasting, and such other vanities." In 1592, the year that Scottish Presbyterianism reached the peak of its influence in the sixteenth century, the Scottish Parliament finally signaled its intention to back the Kirk in suppressing the celebration of Yule. But in a Reformation progress report conducted by General Assembly three years later the Kirk lamented the reality that many superstitious practices persisted among the Scottish people, not least of which was the "singing of carols at Yule." Interestingly, provincial records from these early decades of the Reformed Kirk's existence suggest that ministers were among the most guilty of perpetuating Christmas observance.

Yet, when we look to the seventeenth century, we see some evidence of the Kirk making progress in convincing even lay persons that celebrating Christmas really was naughty. One significant factor working in the Kirk's favor was, somewhat ironically, King James's new-found conviction that Scottish Christians really should celebrate Christmas. James put significant pressure on the General Assembly of the Kirk meeting in Perth in 1618 to adopt, among a variety of liturgical/practical reforms, a religious calendar consisting of at least a handful of religious days, one of which was Christmas. For James, getting the Scots to celebrate Christmas was one small step towards creating uniformity of religious practice in his lands, which as of 1603 had come to include England. In any case, so far as the common people and their proclivity to celebrate Christmas went, it turned out that telling them they must celebrate Christmas was the surest way to keep some of them at least from doing so.

Scottish Christians' increasing enthusiasm for not celebrating Christmas in the face of royal pressure to do so is colorfully illustrated by the case of Edward Cathkin, an Edinburgh bookseller who was hauled into King James's presence in 1619 on charges of harboring in his home the author of a pamphlet criticizing the decisions of the 1618 General Assembly. An account of the conversation between the King and Cathkin suggests that James was well aware of, and unimpressed by, the resistance his imposed "reforms" of worship were meeting north of the border. Here follows extracts from the exchange between James and Cathkin (as discovered in the first volume of the Bannatyne Miscellany [Edinburgh, 1827]):

King: What religion are you of?

Cathkin: Of the religion your Majesty professes.

King: The devil take you away, both soul and body! For you are none of my religion! You are a recusant! You go not to the church!

Cathkin: If it please your Majesty, I go to the church; I think no man will complain of me in that.

King: Was you there on Christmas day?

Cathkin: No.

King: And why were you not there?

Cathkin: Because, Sir, holy days have been cast out of our Kirk, and has ever been preached against since ever I can remember; and we have been taught that it was superstition to keep them.

[...]

King: Are you not a Christian? Should you not keep in memory the birth, and passion, and ascension of Christ?

Cathkin: Every day should be the birth and passion day of Christ.

[...]

King: You are worse than Turks and Jews! [And turning to address the Lords present:] I can never get an order of this people of Edinburgh. [...] The devil rive their souls and bodies all in collops, and cast them in hell!

The dialogue turns eventually to one specific charge against Cathkin; namely, that he called the 1618 General Assembly at Perth an "unlawful assembly."

Cathkin: I spoke not these words.

King: What was it you spake, then?

Cathkin: If it please your Majesty, I said it had been good if our ministers [at Perth] had aquainted the session[s] of the Kirk before they had brought in these novelties upon us.

King: Farts on you and the session of your Kirk both! When I was in Scotland I kept Yule and Pasch in spite of all your hearts.... You are recusants, that will not come to the Kirk on holy days to hear preachings.

There is, I think, much to be learned about human nature from the reality that, to all appearances, Scottish enthusiasm for the rejection of Christmas increased in proportion to royal directives to celebrate the same. The whole exchange between King and Cathkin also imports entirely new meaning to the phrase "King James English."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford FL. He is the editor of Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775 (Bloomsbury, 2015) and the author of a highly disregarded book on covenant theology and original sin in sixteenth-century thought, which book recently won the much un-coveted tenth position on Mark Jones's Top Ten List of Books That Will Never Make a Top Ten List.

Posted December 20, 2014 @ 9:42 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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