How Unitarians Saved Christmas

Poking a little bit of fun at his own traditions and perhaps a bit also at the ‘war on Christmas’ that is becoming a tradition in our politics, my minister offered this ‘sermonette’ to his congregation last Sunday.  I thought to put it up in a more prose form to remind us also to remember our roots and the founding fathers, invoked so often to lay claim to authority.   (Our church was really popular back then.)   Dan

“How Unitarians Saved Christmas (and why we celebrate the Solstice)” 

by Rev. Nathan Detering

We are going to begin by ask us a few questions. Are we ready? How many of us asked, or heard it asked – Do Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas?  How many of us have been or will be here on Christmas Eve where we tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and the nativity, and there is the pageant and the familiar carols?

And, with those two questions in mind, do we ever wonder what happened to the good old days, when ‘the holidays’ were not a euphemism for Christmas and Hanukkah? When the Christmas tree was trimmed with simple homemade ornaments and we would exchange simple gifts and where there wasn’t all this commercialism and shopping, and the true spiritual meaning of these holidays was first and foremost?

If you wonder any of these things, then we’ve got news! This kind of Christmas – the true Christmas that was only about Jesus or only about spiritual matters – never really existed. I hope this is freeing news for us! You don’t have to feel guilty! Because in fact, Christmas over the centuries has always been a hodge-podge of celebration, merriment, giving presents, getting together with family and friends, buying frivolous decorations (anyone seen the giant inflatable Santa’s?), and religious story. And – this is probably not news – many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate have their origins in the celebrations of the winter solstice.

So, a few facts before we get to our solstice-centered story this morning: Long before lights and cell phones and t.v.’s and illuminated our homes, the darkness and cold and retreating sun made many people depressed and even rather scared. So, when the ancient people started to see the sun return – as it will on Friday, after the shortest day of the year – these people celebrated the event with big dinners and singing and even exchanging gifts (sound familiar?) Some of their symbols of revelry are still with us – holly and ivy and wreaths and decking the halls with greens (as we will in a moment). A tradition they also had is one we’ve maybe heard of: kissing under the mistle-toe.

Another fact: The early Christian church did not celebrate Jesus’ birth at all. In other words, there were no Christmas Eve services and no pageants and no ministers trying to make sense of it all! Only over centuries, and only after these solstice feasts turned really wild and really out of control, did Christians seek to offer an alternative, calling it “Christ’s Mass,” or Christmas.

Another fact: nobody was as hard on Christmas as the Puritans, the folks who built the pews you are sitting in, who thought that Christmas wasn’t biblical and Jesus wouldn’t have approved of any birthday celebrations. They ordered shops to stay open on Christmas, banned holiday cakes and candles, and also managed to have the Massachusetts Congress declare Christmas illegal from 1659-1681. Bah-Hum-Bug!

And last, some final facts to make us Unitarians feel good. Christmas as we know it didn’t really get going until the mid-1800’s, and that was largely because of one story – A Christmas Carol – written by Unitarian Charles Dickens.

Another fact: how many of us have Christmas trees at home? Well, for that you can thank Charles Follen, minister of our Unitarian congregation in Lexington, MA, who introduced the idea of the Christmas Tree to New England, a tradition that has German and pagan roots. And, best of all, Unitarian James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells.’ Did Unitarians save Christmas? I think so!

So why do we do tell the story of Solstice here in our UU church? Because, I think, it honors the traditions of our forbears, it helps us reclaim the past, it teaches us something about why and how we do things at this time of year. And, best of all, it allows to show how far we’ve come since the Puritan days.