Southern Baptists have not always embraced Christmas

Written by: Stephen Douglas Wilson

Baptists of the South and the faith community of Southern Baptists after 1845 originally did not attach much significance to Christmas. The holiday is not recognized as a special day of worship in any of the historic Baptist confessions, allusions to it are rare in Baptist history volumes before the 1880s, and the holiday possessed an association with worldliness and even paganism in the minds of many Baptist ministers. Such opinions can still be found among some Baptists today who voice, “The New Testament does not command us to celebrate a festival commemorating the nativity.”

After the Civil War, Southern Baptists began a slow process of incorporating Christmas themes and activities into their church programs and services. Nevertheless, according to Southern Christmas historian Emyl Jenkins, the people of the South had a long tradition of celebrating the holiday as a popular festival to honor the birth of Christ. At a time when Christmas was slow coming to New England (Boston did not celebrate Christmas until 1856), Southerners had made it a legal holiday in most states beginning with Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana in the 1830s. Southern communities and families observed the holiday with great enthusiasm. Included in these celebrations were distinctive regional customs such as the popular consumption of pork (over poultry); the broader use of almost anything green in nature for decorations besides holly, evergreens, and mistletoe; discharges of firearms; fireworks; and bonfires. These celebratory activities took place alongside more thoughtful observances of the Lord’s nativity.

It is probable that while most Baptists in the South before the Civil War largely downplayed the observance of Christmas in their churches, they participated in Christmas activities with their families and in their communities. These Baptists exercised their Christian liberty about special days that Paul cited in Romans 14:5-6 and found festive but temperate activities and customs to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Another reason for the embrace of Christmas in Southern Baptist culture was the influence of missionary Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon. By the late 20th century and early 21st century, the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches had fully incorporated celebrations of the birth of Christ into its culture.

— This article originally appeared at Baptist Press in 2011.