It is the dark time of the year. Each day has grown shorter as we have approached the winter solstice. So often we use light as a positive symbol. Our flaming chalice is only one example. The Hanukah Menorah is another. Don’t let the light go out we sang this morning. Light is a good thing, but we need the dark too. We need the night as a time to rest and to sleep, and we need the winter as a time to rest and recover before we begin yet another year.
Today, tonight really, is the winter solstice. The celebration of the winter solstice is an earth-centered tradition, a very ancient one. Christmas celebrations have always incorporated some of the solstice rituals, of food, of holly, and of fire. We are so connected to this earth. Our planet spins through space and tilts on its axis giving us seasons and changes in light and warmth.
The changing of the seasons can sometimes seem to mirror the changes in our lives. We grow older, we change jobs or we retire, we move up a grade in school, we make new friends. Very little in life stays the same for very long. We are always saying hello to something new, and we are always saying goodbye to things that we thought might be with us always. There is loss in life. There is grief. Loved ones die, we lose touch with good friends, relationships and things break and cannot be repaired.
Life is not all about the future. We carry our past within our hearts and minds. We carry our experiences in our bodies too, in our very bones. We carry them in our scars and in our strengths. Many of the lessons we have learned from living are much too valuable to cast aside. We have to learn to add and subtract before we can learn multiplication and long division, much less calculus.
There are lessons from the earth as well, if we let ourselves feel them. The earth in winter takes in all the brown leaves and the plants that have died in the fall, buries them beneath the snow in some climates, and changes them, making a rich loam from which new life might grow in the springtime.
Sometimes we need to let some of our old leaves fall to the ground so that new ones can be born. Yes, that is a metaphor.
In a few minutes we will do a ritual, common in various forms among those who celebrate the solstice for its darkness as well as for the promise of the coming light.
All of us have things we carry that we have outgrown, that no longer serve us, and that prevent us from moving forward. Sometimes we carry these for years. It can be anything.
The dry brittle twigs of old hurts and resentments can prevent us from reaching out to others in friendship or in love. Old failures can prevent us from trying again.
A bad grade on a science test, a fumbled fly ball, some mistake or disappointment that happened long ago might be keeping us from discovering a new invention or the joy of a game of soccer well played.
I invite you to ponder for a few minutes about what you have been holding within you that no longer serves you well. For the adults and older youth, try to think of things that happened a year or more ago that still plague you, things that you turn over again and again in your mind. Events you relive, perhaps in pain, perhaps in regret, perhaps in anger.
You also might want to consider some of the hopes or desires that you may be still holding on to, even though you know they will never happen, things that might prevent you from appreciating what you have. What old habits need to go?
Don’t worry now, if you can, about the fresher stuff.
Sometimes, most times, we need to process serious events for at least a year, to let them simply swirl within us just as our planet turns and circles all the way around the sun. Some things also can take longer just because they are very hard. Violence and betrayal are two things that can take years to heal, and if you have experienced that, you might not be ready yet to let them go. That is OK. But try now, if you can, to set all of those newer and all those still very difficult things aside for now, just for the rest of the hour.
Focus instead on something older, something you might be ready to put away, to bury in the healing darkness of the winter night.
For our younger people in particular, it might be difficult to think back to something that happened a long time ago. If that is true for you, just think of some feeling, some hurt, some regret, some wish even, that you don’t want to have anymore. Even if it is something that happened yesterday, that is OK.
The children will now begin passing around a basket of pieces of tissue paper and felt tip pens. I’d like each of you to take a piece of that tissue paper. You may have to share the pens.
This ritual is sometimes done with fire, but today we are going to use water. We will have some time for you to settle on one thing that you would like to leave behind you, something that needs to be transformed or simply composted, thrown into the trash.
Holly will be playing her music as we do this. Listen to it for a while, and then when you are ready please come forward and drop your piece of paper into this bowl.
It isn’t necessary, but if you want to whisper a word or two naming what you are leaving behind, either to me or directly into the bowl, that is also fine.
After all who want to have had a chance to add something to the bowl, we will prepare it for composting.
Does everyone have a piece of paper and a pen? Share if you need to.
Now just listen to the music, think quietly, and then write or draw whatever comes to you. Don’t feel rushed. There is plenty of time.
Please come forward when you are ready. (Holly plays again)
We bless this bowl containing so many troubles, so many heartaches, so many hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Feeling them, living through them, has made us who we are and we are grateful.
They have served their purpose, however, and it is time to let them go. In this dark time of the winter solstice, when the sun seems to stand still in the sky, we give them back to the water and to the earth. (Pour water)
I also add some of the water gathered by this community each fall, symbol of the healing power of love, of friendship, and of faith. (pour water)
There is beauty in this bowl. There is beauty in all of us. We now add some pine needles, putting whatever pain and fear contained here safely to rest. This water will drain these things of their power to harm us in the coming days and years.
Spirits of the darkness, the air, the fire, the water, and the earth, we thank you for being with us and we bid you farewell.
We now turn toward the sun, a little lighter, ready for a new day, new life, and the New Year. Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again. Blessed Be.
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. The song we sang with the children last week has the line, “What we know about God is a piece of the truth.” We don’t feel we have a lock on the truth, or on wisdom or on goodness. Because of this 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 morning’s 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? Hallelujah is similar to rock on. Say that if it is more comfortable for you.
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.
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 some of the elaborate displays we now see. 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 as #240 which we sang earlier. It was written about the civil war.
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. Hate is still strong today, isn’t it? It is why young men of color are being killed and why people have needed to be in the streets proclaiming that black lives matter.
The Christmas spirit as described by these good Unitarians of our past, is something that can help 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 Happy Holidays and God bless us all.
Happy holidays, but what if the holidays aren’t happy?
My heart has been heavy what with the news from Ferguson and New York City. Too many people of color are being killed being by the police, both for minor crimes and for doing nothing at all but trying to live their lives.
They go into a stairwell with their girlfriend and they are killed. They are 12 years old and playing in a playground with a toy gun and they are killed. They are walking down the street or standing on a corner, driving a car, or simply at home with their families. No one is really being held accountable for these deaths.
We are all, in fact, accountable. It has been going on a long time, this violence. It isn’t about individual prejudices, this oppression. It isn’t about a few racist individuals, although they do play their parts. It is about systemic and structural racism. It will take all of us working together to change the system.
My heart is heavy, but I am also encouraged that the pain and outrage that people of color have lived with so long is being voiced in the streets of every major city. Change does not come easy.
One news clip I saw this week keeps running through my head. Eric Garner’s widow cried out the words, “Who is going to play Santa Claus for our grandkids. Who, indeed, will do that? Who will play Santa Claus or maybe even the savior, for this hurting broken world of ours? If ever we needed a Prince of Peace, we need one now.
No, this holiday season is not a happy one in too many ways. But I do hope that we can still enjoy them. I hope we can slow down enough to look at the lights, to rest a bit, like that turkey described in our reading.
The holidays are always complicated.
This season is an emotionally loaded one. There are so many expectations! It is hard to resist the intense advertising, the message that if you don’t go into debt, you are not in the Christmas spirit. There is also, and this is the most damaging I think, the intense social and psychological pressure to be happy, no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how you are actually feeling.
So let me say, right now, and if you remember nothing else from this service, your feelings are OK, whatever they are. Your feelings are OK. If you aren’t happy, let your tears flow. If you are down and a bit grumpy, give yourself a break. If you are outraged over injustice, go ahead and rant about it. You don’t have to be jolly old St Nick for the entire month or the tranquil Mother Mary either. Trust me, I may share a name with Mother Theresa, but I rarely live up to it. I suspect that sainted lady had her off moments as well.
Even if most of the year we can manage to be content to be merely human, Christmas really puts the pressure on. Parents can work very hard trying to create magical moments for their children, and then be really disappointed when a young child collapses in tears from simple exhaustion. Disappointments large and small abound. The present that isn’t quite right, the sweater that doesn’t fit. The words that should be spoken and aren’t. The ones said out loud that shouldn’t have been. Christmas happens in the real world, not in the magical kingdom, not in fantasyland. Sometimes the whipping cream has gone rancid. We need to rein in our expectations a bit. Ice cream works just fine on pie, and if it has gone a little icy in the freezer, just scrape it off a little and dig down to the good stuff.
While Christmas lights and carols can cheer you up, they can also bring you down, especially if you are down already. Christmas is the stuff of memories, if it is a holiday we have celebrated. We remember a lot more about the December 25th’s that we have lived through than we do most other dates in the year. Our memories of those other Christmases are very close at hand in this season. Maybe they are of happier times; times spent with loved ones who have since died.
If you are ill, maybe you remember the Christmases when you were healthy, maybe you remember when you were young, when your children were young. Happier times, much happier times, they might seem to you now. Try and remember, though, that even those golden glowing memories were probably not picture perfect when they were happening. Enjoy them in memory, but try not to let them turn the present totally to gray.
Some of you may also be planning on going somewhere this Christmas that you wish you didn’t have to go. Maybe your extended family does more than simply irritate you; perhaps they are truly toxic to your soul, to your sense of self worth and dignity. Maybe your parents – or your children – just seem to love to criticize and nag you. Maybe they go out of the way to antagonize your partner, to question your life choices, your politics, and your religion. Maybe they just are a pain to be around. Try and remember that family is just that, family.
They aren’t your friends necessarily although they can be, and the biological accident of blood relationship doesn’t have to define your self worth. If it is really bad, it is very OK to decide to spend your holidays with friends or even alone.
Or maybe in your heart of hearts your wish for Christmas is to be with that crazy family of yours and have it be a simple nice time for once. A bit of laughter together shared that could heal so many of the wounds. Wishing won’t make it so, but having that dream, and making the attempt year after year is also OK.
Are you getting my message, yet? Your feelings are OK. And for those of you who don’t face any such challenges with your family members – I know there are at least a couple of you out there – Hey, your feelings are OK too. Count your blessings as you are very lucky.
When you are grieving, in the midst of a divorce, or out of work, the holiday cheer around you can become depressing. “Happy Holidays” is a wish; it isn’t an order, a command, a requirement. If you don’t have a lot to be happy about, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. You are just having a hard time, and we all have hard times, especially it seems around holidays.
It is really OK to cry around the Christmas tree or when you light the menorah. Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up about not “really being in the Holiday Spirit.”
We all have many memories of different holiday times, some are good and some are not. If you have ever lived with domestic violence or substance abuse, you know that holidays can be truly horrible when those things are involved. Those unpleasant memories can resurface even in happier times. Shed a tear for them, and if they are in the past, be grateful that the present is better.
It helps, I think, to follow some of the advice of our earlier reading. Enjoy the lights. Enjoy looking at them and enjoy thinking about them and about what they mean.
Light a candle, light a chalice, and make some promises to yourself to keep the flame of hope burning. Like the light in our chalice, the world needs symbols of hope.
Take time to rest, to just relax. It really isn’t necessary to spend every spare moment shopping and stressing out.
Many of us have more things than we need anyway. Spend what money you have in true acts of generosity. Just remember to save that half hour for yourself each and every day.
The last piece of advice from the reading was to make a list of “Things you want for Christmas that aren’t things.” What might be on that list for you?
What do you hope for what do you wish for in the deepest part of your soul?
It could be a wish you have for yourself. Maybe you want work that means something to you, that makes a difference. Maybe you just want a job that pays enough to live on. Maybe there is a relationship that needs healing, someone you used to love that seems like a stranger now. Perhaps you are yearning for a lover, or even for a friend.
Maybe you want to just have a pleasant gathering of family and friends.
It could be a wish for someone else and it could be a wish for the world.
Don’t we all want love and don’t we all want health and happiness? Don’t we all want to be valued for who we are? Can we give those gifts to ourselves, and can we give them to each other?
What about wanting world peace, about wanting justice for all? Wishes don’t always come true, even Christmas wishes, but spending some time with even the seemingly impossible ones can help us to remember what is truly important, and that is very much in keeping with this season.
And then. And then. Slowly try to take a deep breath and just look around you. Find something that warms your spirit. There are miracles in nature, the way the winter light shines after a cleansing rain. Feel the warmth of a fire or the heater coming on. There are small miracles all around you, if you look, no matter what else is going on. Cool water. Warm tea. The way a hot bath can be so relaxing. Notice how the colored lights shine.
Listen to the music. Listen to the children when they laugh. Know that you are not alone, even if you are feeling lonely at the moment. There are people just waiting to exchange a smile with you or to hold you when you cry, to share a clasp of hands, perhaps a meal. There are communities of love not fear.
Look around at each other. This world, this reality, is all we truly need.
Happy Holidays and Blessed Be.