The reformer and Christmas: another side of Luther
by Marion Van Driel
Contemplating the Protestant Reformation finds us wondering at Luther’s courage as he dared challenge the political and religious leaders of his day to change their ways.
It’s easy to imagine Martin Luther in his solitary cell, furrowed brow, Bible open, working out his doctrinal positions, ink and quill scratching rough parchment. But there was more to Luther than theological study and hypotheses. It may surprise us to discover that Luther strongly influenced what is today the most celebrated feast of the Christian faith, introducing new traditions to honour the birth of Christ. Although Luther was troubled on many sides and struggled with depression, Advent observance and Christmas celebrations brought him great joy.
Singing at work
Luther’s passion was to bring biblical text and song to the people in their own vernacular. Not only did Luther translate scripture, preach in the German language, and write prolifically, he penned hymns for the people, gifting them scriptural truths in plain language to be sung as they worked in the fields and at their trades. He wanted the gospel to become ingrained in their ordinary lives. The well-known Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” is still sung today, although it’s safe to assume that not all 15 verses are usually sung in one go!
Christmas Eve gifts
Young children (and older ones) look forward to unwrapping packages on Christmas morning. European tradition in Luther’s day was to give gifts on St. Nicholas Day – December 6. Since veneration of saints – even Saint Nicholas – was a thorn in Luther’s side, he felt the giving of gifts ought to be connected to the celebration of Christ’s birth. He also thought it a good opportunity to educate children about the greatest gift ever given. Following Luther’s lead, European Protestants began changing their tradition of gift giving to Christmas Eve. Gifts were small items of food – snacks such as apples or nuts. Luther’s intent in this was to focus attention on the incarnation of Christ, not to overshadow or replace it.
Who can imagine Christmas without a tree gracing the living room? There is speculation that our tradition of decorating a Christmas tree can be attributed to Luther. The story goes that the theologian was out walking on a starlit snowy evening, marveling at the beauty of the forest when he decided to cut down a tree, bring it home and decorate it with candles for Christmas. In any event, green boughs were certainly brought inside as decoration.
It is well documented that Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora (a former nun) regularly invited various students and guests to join their family meals, holding lively discussions over hearty food and home brewed beer. Their home, a former cloister, was remodeled into a guesthouse and gifted to the couple as a wedding present. The Luthers had six biological children and fostered another four. With Luther’s affinity for people and for drawing attention to the incarnation, we can imagine how joyful and celebratory the Luther manse was at Christmas time.
Today, visitors can tour LutherCountry in Germany (visit-luther.com), where the month of December is especially lively with festivities. From Wartburg Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage site) where Luther translated the Bible, to Christmas markets with unique handmade crafts, live music and traditional foods and the Luther Nativity Play, there’s something for everyone. The world’s largest Advent calendar in Quedlinburg comprises 24 decorated houses, one opening its door each day to reveal the surprise.
Bev Bandstra, who recently enjoyed this area with her husband John, admits, “No one does Christmas like the Germans!” Being raised in the Lutheran faith community, Bandstra was eager to learn more about Luther’s life. She recalls the traditions of her childhood. “We really observed Advent as a time of preparation in our church services, and we had an Advent wreath with the four candles and the centre candle for Christmas at home, with family devotions… I’d say the thing I remember most was the importance of Advent – and also thinking about the second coming and preparing to make room in our hearts for the Lord Jesus.” She explains that some churches use the first Sunday in Advent as a service of lament, confession and repentance, recognizing that our fallen state necessitated Christ’s coming and eventual death. “To think of this – that this sacrifice had to be made for us, because of our sin…[Advent] is a very reflective time that culminates in this Christmas morning joy.” Bandstra has fond memories of beautiful music sung by the choir on Christmas morning.
Bandstra’s inspiring visit to LutherCountry convinced her that Luther was one to celebrate. “He found great joy in the surety of his salvation,” she says. She also notes the dichotomy of Luther’s life – a tapestry of great sorrow in the loss of two children, persecution for his beliefs, and deep despair for how the world was, woven through with foundational joy and celebration. And so it is with followers of Christ.
Small wonder that we celebrate Christmas with glorious music, colorful lights and delectable cuisine.