How the Unitarians Saved Christmas

Video of this sermon is posted (here)

The religious right has been going on for years about how there is a war against Christmas.  If you make the mistake of saying “Happy Holidays” to one of them, you might get blasted.  Heaven forbid you say something like Happy Hanukkah, Merry Solstice, or good Kwanza. It is rather bizarre really; because it is in fact corporations that are waging the real war against Christmas.  They urge you to spend way more than you can afford and to get in fistfights over parking spots at the mall.

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to believe that all religious traditions contain some truth, and that we can learn from them.  We think it is a rather good thing to recognize and try to appreciate the various holidays of this season. So yeah, I say happy holidays quite a bit.

And I love Christmas, the real Christmas, and the one that came after the first war against Christmas.  That first war was also about social justice, something that is also dear to my heart.

This mornings reading from Dicken’s Christmas Carol raised some social justice issues, didn’t it?  The two children were called “Ignorance” and “Want.”  Doom was written on the boy’s forehead, for ignorance was even more frightening than want, than poverty.  The ghost mocked Scrooge with his own words – “Are there no jails, are there no workhouses?”

It reminds me of the modern day war against the poor.  Except for the pope, few of the leaders of conservative religions are saying much about predatory capitalism.  That was the complaint Dickens had about his society.

Did I mention that Dicken’s was a Unitarian?  At the end of the story, Scrooge is saved from himself, by his change of heart and by his actions of generosity.  The story ends as follows:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. ….and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Dicken’s Christmas Carol is a classic.  I have always loved it, and I am sure many of you do as well.  It really is pure Unitarian Universalist propaganda.  God Bless us every One, indeed. The story teaches generosity, kindness, repentance and forgiveness. Scrooge is also saved in this world, not the hereafter.

In a very real way, the Christmas celebrations we know today in the United States would not be happening quite the way they are without the efforts of Unitarians and Universalists. We saved Christmas, yes we did!  It is very fitting for a faith that maintains that all are saved.  Can I hear a hallelujah?

Now some of you may not know that Christmas ever needed saving.  Our pilgrim fathers (along with the Native Americans who fed the starving strangers) may have been responsible for promoting the Thanksgiving holiday, but they were not fond of Christmas.  They even went so far as to try and outlaw it. In 1659, a law was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone found to be celebrating Christmas. They were opposed to Christmas for several reasons.  It isn’t biblical of course.  No one knows when Jesus was born and the puritans knew that.  A Puritan minister at the time wrote:

It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25. Had it been the will of Christ that the Anniversary of his Nativity should have been celebrated; he would at least have let us known the day.

The second reason is that they were well – Puritans – and they didn’t like the wild Christmas celebrations that were common in Europe, which included lots of drinking and well – rather shall we say rowdy behavior that was a very far cry from “puritanical.”   They also rejected Christmas as a pagan celebration, which of course it was.

They were actually pretty successful for a time in outlawing it.  Most people today don’t realize that Christmas Day did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

Unitarian Universalists were largely responsible for that act of Congress.  I am indebted to the Reverend Richard Nugent, a Unitarian Universalist minister who a few years ago pulled together much of the history that I will share with you this morning.  Some of this may sound familiar to some of you.  I gave a version of this here back in 2007.

The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, much to the chagrin of the surrounding clergy.  The Unitarians began promoting Christmas in the early 1800’s.  They didn’t believe that Christmas was the actual birthday of Jesus either, but they liked the idea of a family centered holiday and thought a special season with a tradition of helping the poor and less fortunate was a pretty fine idea.

The celebration of Christmas was the most controversial subject, second only to slavery, within churches at that time.  Liberal clergy like the Unitarians and Universalists denounced slavery and promoted Christmas while their conservative colleagues did the exact opposite.

The issue with Christmas tied into both theology and politics.  The conservative religion of the time believed in original sin, believed that only some were saved, and even worse, believed that the state of your soul was directly related to your material wealth.  No need for charity.  The poor were damned by their own sin anyway.  Dickens Christmas Carol with his bald statement that ignorance and want were the real evils was in direct contrast to the theology and social policies of his day.  The solution to poverty was to punish those who were poor, to put them in workhouses or debtors prisons.

Christmas was the only time of the year when the poor could expect, even demand, some charity from the wealthy.  The carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” references those times with the figgy pudding verse Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer: We won’t go until we get some; We won’t go until we get some.”  The wealthy did not like this tradition of the unwashed masses gathering at their doors demanding both food and drink.

Unitarians were also responsible for creating or at least spreading several of our most popular Christmas traditions. Dutch and German immigrants first brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States, but in 1832 Rev. Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister and a professor at Harvard College, put up a tree in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and decorated it.  Follen remembered the German Christmases of his youth, and wanted to recreate that magic for his son.  He cut a small tree and decorated it with candles, eggshells, and other ornaments.  Two women visited his house that year, both authors and Unitarians.  One was Harriet Martineau who was visiting from England and she wrote of the tree and of the gifts given to the Follen children.  The other woman was Catherine Sedgwick.  She wrote a short story about a Christmas tree that was published in 1836.  Their writings helped spread the tradition of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it.

Another Unitarian minister, Alfred Shurtleff, is supposed to have been the first to put lights in his windows at Christmas.  I wonder what he would say about the elaborate displays we now see – not only windows, but also every tree and shrub in the yard seems to have lights.  Even if it is only an historical rumor, I love the idea of a Unitarian starting the whole Christmas light thing.  As the religion of love instead of fear, it seems very appropriate to have offered the joy of multicolored lights to this season.  It even speaks to the beauty of diversity, doesn’t it?  How dull it would be if all the Christmas lights were of one color only, and how sad if none of them twinkled off and on in the night.

Edward Sears, a Unitarian minister, wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” We will sing it at the end of the service.  Please pay particular attention to the third verse.  Sears lived through the civil war.   His phrase “beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,” is a clear call for peace and justice in this life, in this world.

In case anyone is starting to wonder, no, the 12 days of Christmas was NOT written by a UU – at least as far as I know.

But back to the antiwar message,

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a contemporary of Edward Sears and also, yes, a Unitarian, wrote the poem about Christmas Bells, which is in our hymnal #240 and which the choir just sang.  It was written about the civil war.

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Peace on earth, good will to men.  The Christmas spirit in the words of these men, good Unitarians that they were, is something that should lead us to change our lives, to change the world for the better. And in keeping with our long standing Unitarian Universalist tradition of changing with the times, and with new understandings, the hymnal words read ‘to all good will” rather than good will to men. Yes, being willing to change CAN be traditional!

Christmas really didn’t become popular, however, until one really important thing happened.  Historian Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book, The Battle for Christmas, says that a new faith (began) to sweep over American society.

It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but a newer and more worldly deity- Santa Claus.”

Santa Claus.  A favorite character of adults and children was really created when a famous poem was written and published. You know the poem, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.  It was read to me as a child.  I have read it to my own children.   I am sure most of you have read it many times.

Originally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, it may have instead been the work of Henry Livingston.  The poem with its Jolly Old Elf, the sleigh with 8 tiny reindeer, all of it contains the defining cultural creation of Santa Claus.

Now, Moore and Livingston were not Unitarians, BUT the book was illustrated by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was.  Nast created the pictures that are how we see Santa Claus today. His engravings, 76 in all, were published in Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1862.  He used many images from the poem, but also added his own ideas – he was responsible for placing Santa’s home at the North Pole, for instance.  A nice idea that was, as takes Santa beyond the boundaries of any one country.  He also created Santa’s elf helpers, and he introduced the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe to the United States.

Christmas imagery was furthered enhanced when another Unitarian, Nathaniel Currier, and his partner, Jims Ives, began making their famous Christmas lithographs

And last but not least in this litany of Unitarians and Christmas cheer, James Pierpont, son of a Unitarian minister and a church musician wrote the popular “Jingle Bells”.

So Unitarians had a really big role in creating Christmas, as we know it.  But did they really save it?  Can a holiday be saved?

Let’s listen to Dicken’s Scrooge again,

“Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?

If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’

His nephew replied, ‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’

Christmas is a time to think of other people, regardless of their station in life, as fellow passengers in life. I think that is salvation.  We may have to save the holiday again because many seem to have forgotten that it is not about greed, about plenty for some, salvation for some, about over-spending, or about arguing about whose holiday it is.  It belongs to all of us.   And even though, as Unitarians and Universalists, we helped create this holiday, we are with full hearts more than willing to share it with everyone, in the spirit of the season.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

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