Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) loved Christmas. Hear the glee from the 21-year-old Spurgeon:
I wish there were ten or a dozen Christmas-days in the year; for there is work enough in the world, and a little more rest would not hurt labouring people. Christmas-day is really a boon to us; particularly as it enables us to assemble round the family hearth and meet our friends once more. Still, although we do not fall exactly in the track of other people, I see no harm in thinking of the incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus.
While he loved Christmas, he also guided his congregation to discern certain aspects of Christmas from the cultural perspective and the biblical perspective. While other valuable articles are certainly found elsewhere on this site, this article focuses on how Spurgeon guided his congregation in celebrating Christmas, rejecting the “superstitions” of the Roman celebrations, embracing much of the customs of the day without forgetting about the Christ-child, the reason for the day.
The Puritans and Christmas
Spurgeon’s childhood influences led him to embrace the Puritans. He valued them so much so that many scholars deem him the last of the Puritans. As a result of this Word-centered influence, Spurgeon struggled with the origin and the day on which we celebrate Christmas.
There is no reason upon earth beyond that of ecclesiastical custom why the 25th of December should be regarded as the birthday of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ any more than any other day from the first of January to the last day of the year; and yet some persons regard Christmas with far deeper reverence than the Lord’s-day.
Spurgeon always struggled with the rites of both the Roman Catholic (which he would often refer to as “popish”) and the Anglican Church and their “superstitious” celebrations of Christmas (i.e., Christ-Mass). In 1871, he went into more depth as to the reasons why he struggled with this season:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly, we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred.
The dismissal of the mass and the lack of Scriptural warrant regarding the day we observe the birth of Christ as well as the celebration itself always gave Spurgeon pause personally and pastorally. He always felt obligated to share with his congregation and any of his readers that the celebration of the day and the origin of the celebrations were not grounded in anything God said in regards to its observance.
However, Spurgeon was aware enough to recognize their error in the Puritans’ observance (or lack thereof) of Christmas as an overreaction to Catholic practices, throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, if you will.
The old Puritans made a parade of work on Christmas-day, just to show that they protested against the observance of it. But we believe they entered that protest so completely, that we are willing, as their descendants, to take the good accidentally conferred by the day, and leave its superstitions to the superstitious.
To use another expression in the vernacular, chew up the meat (the celebration of Christ’s incarnation) and spit out the bones (the superstitions). This recognition allowed Spurgeon to observe Christmas in a broader way that appreciated some positive aspects of the season in the culture that would help us even today.
First, Christmas brings the Incarnation to the church’s attention
In a quote from an 1876 sermon, after Spurgeon acknowledged the problematic origins of Christmas, he conceded this point.
Still, as the thoughts of a great many Christian people will run at this time towards the birth of Christ, and as this cannot be wrong, I judged it meet to avail ourselves of the prevailing current, and float down the stream of thought. Our minds will run that way, because so many around us are following customs suggestive of it, therefore let us get what good we can out of the occasion. There can be no reason why we should not, and it may be helpful that we should, now consider the birth of our Lord Jesus. We will do that voluntarily which we would refuse to do as a matter of obligation: we will do that simply for convenience sake which we should not think of doing because enjoined by authority or demanded by superstition.
Much like today when we hear “Joy to the World” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” as we Christmas shop in Target or Starbucks, we can, like Spurgeon, rejoice that “many Christian people will run at this time towards the birth of Christ.” The season draws the Church toward the incredible doctrine of the Incarnation.
Second, Christmas brings joy to the culture at large
In a later sermon in 1884, Spurgeon also conceded that the culture, unbeknownst to them, celebrate the joy of the season. “Knowing nothing of the spiritual meaning of the mystery, they yet perceive that it means man’s good, and so in their own rough way they respond to it.” Thus, those in the culture hopefully move closer to inquiring, understanding, and trusting in the Christ of the season.
Twenty years prior, Spurgeon went into more detail about how the greeting “Merry Christmas” demonstrates a yuletide joy among everyone:
This is a season when all men expect us to be joyous. We compliment each other with the desire that we may have a “Merry Christmas.” Some Christians who are a little squeamish, do not like the word “merry.” It is a right good old Saxon word, having the joy of childhood and the mirth of manhood in it, it brings before one’s mind the old song of the waits, and the midnight peal of bells, the holly and the blazing log. I love it for its place in that most tender of all parables, where it is written, that, when the long-lost prodigal returned to his father safe and sound, “They began to be merry.” This is the season when we are expected to be happy; and my heart’s desire is, that in the highest and best sense, you who are believers may be “merry.”
Here, Spurgeon shows the joy that comes with the day—none, one might note, are mentioned in Scripture as part of this celebration. Yet, he began to appreciate all that came with the Christmas season, even when some in the culture may not directly connect the customs with the coming of the Christ-child.
(As an aside, while many defend the greeting of “Merry Christmas” as a Christian greeting, notice than in Spurgeon’s day, the word “Merry” made some Christians “squeamish.”)
Third, he sometimes preached on a Christmas text on Christmas… and sometimes he didn’t
Echoing a sermon quoted above, even though these sermons are five years apart, Spurgeon had this conviction that he should make use of the season while his people’s hearts leaned toward the birth of Christ.
[T]he current of men’s thoughts is led this way just now, and I see no evil in the current itself, I shall launch the bark of our discourse upon that stream, and make use of the fact, which I shall neither justify nor condemn, by endeavoring to lead your thoughts in the same direction. Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day in the year, it cannot be in the power of other men’s superstitions to render such a meditation improper for to-day. Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give God thanks for the gift of his dear son.
Yet Spurgeon was not beholden to preach on a Christmas text, even on the Sunday adjacent to Christmas. One Christmas sermon was based on Mark 5:19! On December 23, 1860, he preached a sermon called “A Merry Christmas.” The text? From Job 1:4-5. He makes the connection here:
I am quite certain that all the preaching in the world will not put Christmas down. You will meet next Tuesday, and you will feast, and you will rejoice, and each of you, as god has given you substance, will endeavor to make your household glad. Now, instead of the telling you that this is all wrong, I think the merry bell of my text gives you a license so to do. Let us think a minute. Feasting is not a wrong thing, or otherwise Job would have forbidden it to his children, he would have talked to them seriously, and admonished them that this was an ungodly and wicked custom, to meet together in their houses. But, instead of this way, Job only feared least a wrong thing should be made out of a right thing, and offered sacrifices to remove their iniquity; but he did by no means condemn it.
That’s right—Spurgeon used the text from Job to show the biblical warrant of feasting with family at Christmas time when they would “meet next Tuesday”—December 25th. Spurgeon’s creative hermeneutic was at work. While the holiday centered around the incarnation, Spurgeon saw this as an opportunity for reflecting on all of the Christian life, including feasting.
Finally, Spurgeon urged his church to get to work
Tying this article together, Spurgeon urged his church in an 1865 sermon to differentiate themselves from how the world operated during this time of year.
At this season, the world is engaged in congratulating itself and in expressing its complimentary wishes for the good of its citizens; let me suggest extra and more solid work for Christians. As we think to-day of the birth of the Saviour, let us aspire after a fresh birth of the Saviour in our hearts; that as he is already “formed in us the hope of glory,” we may be “renewed in the spirit of our minds;” that we may go again to the Bethlehem of our spiritual nativity and do our first works, enjoy our first loves, and feast with Jesus as we did in the holy, happy, heavenly days of our espousals.
So Spurgeon encouraged his parishioners to enjoy all that the season had to offer and to rejoice in how even in the culture minds and hearts are turned to the Christ-child (even if they do not recognize why), may we as Christians never forget the reason for the season and to “aspire after a fresh birth of the Saviour in our hearts.”
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Matthew Perry (Ph.D., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO) serves as Lead Pastor of Arapahoe Road Baptist Church, Centennial, CO; and runs the blog All-Around Spurgeon at http://www.allaroundspurgeon.com.
“The Incarnation and Birth of Christ,” NPSP 2 (1855)
For instance, see Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Arlington Heights, IL: Christian Liberty Press, 2007).
“The Great Birthday,” MTP 22:1330 (1876).
“Joy Born at Bethlehem,” MTP 17:1026 (1871)
“The Incarnation and Birth of Christ” MTP 2 (1855).
“The Great Birthday,” MTP 22:1330 (1876)
 “The Great Birthday of our Coming Age,” MTP 30:1815 (1884)
”Mary’s Song,” MTP 10:606 (1864).
“Joy Born at Bethlehem,” MTP 17:1026 (1871).
”A Merry Christmas,” MTP 7:352-53 (1860).
”The Holy Work of Christmas,” MTP 11:666 (1865).