At times during the sixteenth century, ecclesiastical holidays caused agitation in the city of Geneva. It seems to have been a difficult matter for a resolution, since any official action taken would stir up some element of the population.
The Register of Ministers in Geneva (1546) records a list of “faults which contravene the Reformation.” Among the directives regarding “Superstitions” is the following: “Those who observe Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious. “
On Sunday, 16 November 1550, an edict was issued concerning holidays; it was a decree “respecting the abrogation of all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained. “ This ban on festival days (including Christmas) caused an uproar in certain quarters, and Calvin was reproached as the instigator of the action.
Calvin’s personal writings about holidays, in this instance, are somewhat ambiguous. He says he was not directly involved in the decision. In personal correspondence with John Haller (pastor in Berne), Calvin writes, “Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s day.” He added, “If I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon.”
It seems that Calvin was initially uneasy about the edict to ban the festivals, because he feared that the “sudden change” might provoke tumult which could impede the course of the Reformation. Nevertheless, in the same letter to Haller, Calvin says, “Although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it.” …
Thus, Calvin’s writings on worship clearly enunciate the concept which has subsequently been called the regulative principle of worship: all modes of worship must be expressly sanctioned by God’s word, if they are to be considered legitimate. Since Christmas observances, and other ecclesiastical festivals, are not commanded in the scriptures, they fail to meet divine approval, even if there were no additional objections to them.
Further, we should note Calvin’s own pastoral practice as indicative of his convictions. The Reformer preached consecutively through books of the Bible, without regard to the ecclesiastical year. Surely if Calvin had adopted the attitude of modern Christmas-keepers, he would have felt constrained to abandon this systematic instruction of the scriptures, and deliver annual discourses from the birth narratives during the month of December. The fact that he did not comply with contemporary expectations speaks volumes.
You can read Kevin Reed’s full article here