The Unitarian Heritage of Christmas

A Sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
Sunday, December 12, 2021

By now we are well into the annual fiction that is the War on Christmas. Each year a certain variety of political right winger, often self-identified as evangelical protestant Christians, whip up a frenzy among those who listen to them, claiming that the political left in America is trying to violate their religious freedom by using words like Happy Holidays! instead of the Merry Christmas that they want everyone to proclaim. People who think that way believe that not allowing them to impose their beliefs and practices on others is discrimination against them. And, as usual, one of the prime players in stirring up trouble so they can feel discriminated against is Fox News.

These are the same people who will swear on the Bible they may not even read that Jesus and Santa Claus were white… And don’t you forget it. Of course, any historical Jesus was a brown Middle Easterner who after his death took on characteristics the living Jesus never had in life. But in any case, he was not a white European. Same with the historical St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the main prototypes of the mythical figure of Santa Claus, who knows who’s been naughty and nice, who flies through the night sky, and in a single night visits every Christian home with children, bringing them gifts. At least certain brands of Christians. Not all Christians – not even all Christians with Western European heritage – have such a myth or practice, but it is quite widespread. Especially in America. But St. Nicholas was not white but a brown Middle Easterner who bore no resemblance to the myths later attached to him.

Well, this year an arsonist burned Fox News’s fake Christmas tree outside their headquarters in New York City, giving Fox News the faintest wisp of truthiness when they claimed it was burned by someone who hated Christmas.

Of course, if you really want to talk about a war on Christmas, you have to go back to the Puritans, the hard-core Calvinist Christians who fought a bloody Civil War to take power and ruled England in the 1650s and a little on either end of the decade. They were also the people who dominated civic and religious life in New England – especially Massachusetts – for a hundred years from 1629 through 1728. Puritans hated Christmas, and when their power was strong enough, they outlawed its celebration. The customs of Christmas that they were reacting to were not the home celebrations many Americans have grown up with but more lascivious affairs full of, as they saw it, sin. It is true that many of the customs shared more with Pagan cultures than with Christianity. And for many people it was a day of drunken rowdiness. The real war on Christmas was an ultra-conservative Christian thing, not an attempt by liberals to take away the conservatives’ religious holiday.

In the Twentieth Century, there were several occasions when conservatives declared that their way of celebrating Christmas was under attack: Henry Ford took an antisemitic approach, in part responding to the secular Christmas music written mid-century by Jewish composers and songwriters. The John Birch Society blamed the decay of their Christmas on Communists. Anti-immigrant forces blamed immigrants. And then Fox News and the religious right took up the banner of accusing liberals of hating the God and the religion of their self-proclaimed majority, which it already wasn’t, of conservative, white Christians. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found Republicans, Trump supporters and Hispanic Americans said they believe Christmas is under attack. The same poll found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans believe politicians are trying to remove the religious elements of the Christian holiday. And so, as moderate conservative writer Jim Swift wrote, tongue in cheek, “The War on Christmas is the longest-running war in American history. Though a war, technically, needs two sides, and this one is really only being fought by social conservatives searching for an enemy.”

The truth is that, through the Victorian era, religiously liberal Unitarians played a major role in rescuing Christmas from both the Puritan history of being solidly anti-Christmas and from the rowdy and drunken type of Christmas that has returned. The Unitarians bought into the reverence for the calming effect of new and improved family life, including the problematic Cult of Domesticity which looked lovely on the surface or as it appeared in fiction but which also was, from today’s critical vantage point, a classist, sexist, and racist endeavor.

Nevertheless, for good and ill, a lot of what we think of when we think of traditional Christmas in the English-speaking areas of the world today was created by Unitarians in the 1800s.

In 1835, the Christmas tree with its decorations and gifts hanging from its boughs was introduced by immigrant, radical Unitarian minister, and Harvard professor of German, Charles Follen. It had not been a custom among previous communities of German immigrants to America, and quickly spread through Unitarian connections to become a truly American custom.

A Christmas Carol, the novella by English Unitarian Charles Dickens, was first published in London in 1843. It teaches the importance – especially at Christmas – of charity and family.

Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” in 1849.

In 1855, Unitarian minister and music publisher John Sullivan Dwight translated both the lyrics and theology of “Minuit, Chretiens!” from French language and Catholic theology into the American Unitarian carol “O Holy Night,” and it is Dwight’s Unitarian version of the carol that to this day is sung more often than other translations into English.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” by American Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Also during the US Civil War, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, a Unitarian, gave the first fully human-form representation of the gift-bringing Santa Claus, but he started out rather lanky. Within 20 years, though, Nast had created the now iconic image of a girthy, even fat Santa in dressed red and white.

All through the Victorian Era, Unitarians took a still problematic holiday once outlawed by their Puritan ancestors and transformed it into the family holiday that still underlies the holiday for many today – even when the family side of it might feel oppressive.

The Unitarian Christmas-saving fervor lessened after the Victorian era, but it did not end.

In 1950 ee cummings wrote the poem “purer than purest,” which was set to music by Vincent Perischetti in 1956. It is in the Christmas section in our gray hymnal. Both its poetry and its music are too complex to find a place on any chart of top 100 Christmas hits. Nevertheless, it can be used to wonderful effect in solo performance. The second of three verses goes: “Childfully serious flower of holiness a pilgrim from beyond, beyond, beyond, the future, immediate like new, like some newly remembered dream.” It may be stretching it to call ee cummings a Unitarian poet, but he was raised Unitarian, his father was a Unitarian minister, and he was influenced most of his life by the Transcendentalist movement which intersected with Unitarianism, and a large portion of Transcendentalists were Unitarians. So we claim him. Whether he would like it or not.

In 1957, Unitarian Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel published How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which he taught the “true” meaning of Christmas.

From our order of service this morning, “Let Christmas Come” was written in 1984 by Unitarian Universalist minister John Hanly Morgan, and in 1988 the Christmas lullaby “Winter Night” was published by Unitarian Universalist music director Shelley Jackson Denham.

But perhaps for some, the thing that stands out in 20th-century Unitarian Universalist Christmas music is the way we change the words of the old Victorian classics – and some earlier music –to match how we tend to see the world today – or at least did when the hymnal was published in 1993.

This sometimes is a bone of contention between UUs and traditional Christians. It made the national news back in 2009, when Garrison Keillor looked at a copy of our gray hymnal and went ballistic because of the way the words of “Silent Night” were different than the standard traditional words his denomination’s hymnal used. It was quite the kerfuffle, resulting in many UUs who had long been his fans dropping him and everything related to him. And in Unitarian Universalist congregations on Christmas Eve, some use traditional words while others proudly use the more politically correct or more up-to-date version that UUs have championed.

It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I found out Unitarian Universalists even celebrated Christmas. My home congregation closed down for the last two Sundays of the year and reopened for a potluck on New Year’s Day. So I was shocked to learn that Eliot Chapel in St. Louis had three Christmas Eve Services – all of them with every seat full. What was this? I wondered.

Unitarians were key to shaping the family-friendly holiday in America. No matter our individual theologies and atheologies, Christmas is ours if we want it, if it still serves us and adds value. We made it. It’s ours every bit as much as it is Garrison Keillor’s. And we do not begrudge it to him either. It is also ours, though, to work around if it does not serve us individually and together.

Let Christmas Come! Amen and Blessed Be!