This reading is from the book, where I took the name for this sermon, “The Battle for Christmas” by Stephen Nissenbaum. He explains the history of Christmas in the United States – which, during the Puritan years, was forbidden, and in ensuing years became a sort of a Mardi Gras type street festival among those on the fringes of society, with excessive gorging and drinking, bawdy songs and lascivious behavior.
“With the turn of the nineteenth century, the reappropriation of Christmas took on a concerted form – a move to hold church services on December 25. In the forefront of [those leading the movement] were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated Christmas from the earliest stages of their existence in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, even before their congregation was officially organized. The Unitarians were close behind. Compared with Universalists, Unitarians were more genteel, and (for all their theological liberalism) more socially conservative. Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to. And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.” Nissenbaum
The Battle for Christmas
Good morning and welcome to this, the second Sunday of the Advent season as many of us prepare for Christmas.
There is a joke about “Ahh, it is December, the time when all Unitarian Universalists become Christians. It is true that we are usually more open to hearing stories from the Christian scripture during this time. But this openness should not be dismissed as mere sentimentality. Because the truth is, Christmas is OUR holiday. An American Christmas, as we know it today, has been so influenced by Unitarian Universalists that it would be virtually unrecognizable without them.
This is the crazy season of the year, in more ways than one. You may hear those voices who try to claim that this is a exclusive holiday, limited only to those of particular creeds. In point of fact, however, Christmas is a holiday that celebrates our Unitarian Universalist images, our UU theology, and our UU values. Make no mistake. Christmas is our holiday, and we should feel free to revel in it.
Has anyone here gone and gotten their Christmas tree yet? Or Yule tree? Or Hanukkah bush? Well, though the origins of decorating a tree to celebrate the winter solstice go back to pagan times, it was Unitarian and abolitionist Charles Follen who brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to the United States and Unitarian Catherine Maria Sedgewick who wrote about it. Sedgewick wrote a fictional account of the real event she witnessed in Follen’s home, describing a tree with toys and fruits hanging from its branches. Her story was a popular gift book in 1835, and many of her readers repeated the tradition themselves in the following years.
Many of our mental images of Christmas come from music. All the songs we’re singing today – Christmas songs that should at least be faintly familiar to you – were written by Unitarians, or in the case of our last hymn, Unitarian Universalists.
Not only were all three of today’s carols written by UUs, but all three of them were written as a response to the despair they felt about war. All three took that despair and made a choice to embrace hope and joy, in the process helping to craft a vision of the world we want.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written by UU minister Edmund Hamilton Sears, responding to the Mexican-American war. He describes “angels bending near the earth” singing of “peace on earth.” But you can hear his despondency – “We who fight the wars hear not the love song which they bring.” However, he ends by returning to hope and describing an “age of gold … when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling.” Now you should know that when you sing this old hymn, that you are engaging in subversive activity. Many non-UU churches have tried to take this out of their old hymnals, because of what’s NOT in it … no Jesus. The good news the angels bring is that of peace on earth, and goodwill to all.
Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had already lost his wife in a tragic accident when he received news that his son had been critically injured in the Civil War. His anguish, poured into “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is unmistakable, as is his cynicism and disillusionment with the world. “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 to all goodwill.” But just like Sears, he takes that bitterness and makes the choice to set it aside and embrace hope. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”
“Do You Hear What I Hear” was also responding to war. Unitarian Noel Regney and his wife Gloria Shayne Baker were distraught over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Noel was taking a walk when he saw babies being pushed in their strollers. And he and his wife wrote a song of hope and joy, a song with a mighty king who instructs his people, “Pray for peace, people everywhere” and tells them that a child has been born who will bring goodness and light.
Now, I have to tell you that along with these great, meaningful songs, we’ve also had our effect on popular music, namely, Jingle Bells. This song was written by James Lord Pierpont, a Unitarian church music director. The story is that he wrote this for the Sunday school children to sing, although there is some question about that. See, James was known as a bit of a rogue, and if you look closely at the words, that’s reflected there, as in “Now the ground is white, go it while you're young, Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song.”
One of the most dominant images of Christmas is, of course, Santa Claus. I won’t get into his whole history – suffice it to say that apparently he has been at this whole gift-giving gig since pagan times – but the popular vision we hold of his appearance came through drawings made by famous cartoonist Thomas Nast, who illustrated a version of Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas. His drawings reflected a portly gentleman with a snowy beard and a red suit, rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. It is conjectured by some that perhaps he peeked through the banisters one Christmas Eve … but I have no proof of that and will not hold it against him.
Now, along with reflecting UU images of Christmas, Christmas also reflects Unitarian Universalist theology. Even the most ardent Christian will acknowledge, as did the early Unitarians, that Jesus was not born on December 25. Shepherds don’t graze their flocks in the middle of winter. We accept the symbolism of this holiday and find meaning in the myth. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “Myth is what never was, yet always is.” We read the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures and other holy books and do not attempt to find the factual there – it wasn’t supposed to be read like that. It’s not a history, it certainly isn’t a science book. It’s a set of books about finding truths. Not factual, but often truthful.
And in the story of Jesus’ birth, we – even we heretical, heathen UUs – can find truth. It is the story of a child being born, a child with ultimate promise, the divine in human form. To me, this is interconnected with the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” “The divine within me honors the divine within you.” When we put literalism aside, this is a rich story to us, a child where the divine spirit was acknowledged and celebrated. And the whole myth around it is just fabulous. Those boring genealogies at the beginning of Matthew and Luke are describing a child whose ancestors were murderers, adulterers, prostitutes. He was born in a barn. You know how your mama would say, “Don’t leave that door open, were you born in a barn?” He was! And put into an animal’s feeding trough. What’s the symbolism here? This was a common child but with divinity in him. Inherent worth and dignity.
Now as I previously mentioned, we know this didn’t happen December 25. And that points to one of the most important reasons why I say that Christmas is a Unitarian Universalist holiday and we should celebrate it as such. See, what we do in our religion is bring diverse people together around shared Universal values. Let me repeat that and give credit to UUs Peter Bowden and his wife Rev. Amy Freedman who coined the phrase recently as a simple way to explain Unitarian Universalism: We bring diverse people together around shared Universal values.
And that’s so much of Christmas. We have here a merging of traditions. As UU Scott McIsaac recently wrote: “In the Christian liturgical year, Advent is the season of deepest darkness in which the fallen world waits for God to renew the earth with the arrival of his presence, glory and redemption. It is a season of reflection, waiting and hope. Historically, of course, the actual date of Jesus' birth was not known, so the early Church fathers chose to celebrate it at the time of the winter solstice, when other religions celebrated a similar theme of new light emerging from darkness. In that perspective, I see the Advent tradition for UUs not as the idiosyncratic and historically inaccurate superstitious remnant of a repudiated religion, but rather, the specific cultural idiom by which one culture, our culture, expresses a universal human hope for the breaking forth of more light upon the whole earth -- literally, spiritually, and figuratively.”
Symbolism … the divine spirit within each of us … and a melding of religious traditions around shared universal values. Christmas reflects our theology.
And, it reflects our shared UU values.
When people really talk about the meaning of Christmas – not the stories, not the creeds, but the meaning of Christmas, it comes down to love. And for us, that love is seen in our attitudes about the importance of family, charity, and hope. Unitarians and Universalists framed these values and made them a part of Christmas.
When Thomas Nast drew those pictures of Santa, it brought Christmas off the streets and put it in the center of the home. Because it wasn’t just about Santa. It was about children, and families and being together with those you love. Our Unitarian ancestors were passionate about real family values, and that was rooted in their religious beliefs. Remember, Unitarianism in this country came out of Puritanism. And this was another area in which there was a dramatic ideological difference. Whereas the Puritans and most evangelical Protestants believed in original sin, and that one must break a child’s will, so they could receive grace, the Unitarians believed the opposite. In order to become a good person, a child must cultivate and learn to control a strong will. Christmas was, effectively, the lab, where children could be encouraged in their generosity and taught how to resist greed. This was a phenomenal idea and we see it still today in our stories and movies, as children make sacrifices for another.
We see this reflected in the book that perhaps shaped Christmas and reflected our Unitarian values, more than any other. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, himself a Unitarian. We meet the Cratchit family who, though poor, “are cheerful because they cannot help it, and because they all love one another.”
And along with drawing a picture of family values, Dickens delved into another of our UU values, that of charity to others. Scrooge learns about compassion in human relations, the goal of world community, the interdependent web of existence. “Mankind was my business,” cries Marley. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business.”
This has become part of our culture. It frames political debates, such as the ongoing one on healthcare. We even see it in our commercials at this time of the year, such as the one where a Christmas tree merchant gives away his last tree for free, to turn and find that the recipient has left him a cup of coffee and a Whataburger. Our UU values have been woven into the very fiber of Christmas. Family. Charity.
And hope. I spoke earlier about our songs and how their writers made a choice to embrace hope. We do it every day, every time we stand across from a high school with a Standing on the Side of Love banner or swing a hammer on a project, or bring something to donate to another family. We have hope that we can make things better, that in some small way, we may save humankind. And we believe each and every child born can do the same.
Christmas is what it is … because of Unitarian Universalist images, theology, and values. War on Christmas? Pah. It was fought centuries ago. p.s. We won. Let’s celebrate!
Please stand now, either in body or in spirit, and sing “Do You Hear What I Hear,” words in your order of service.
Sophia Lyon Fahs, who revolutionized Unitarian religious education wrote this:
And so the children come…
No angels herald their beginnings,
No prophets predict their future courses,
No wise men see a star to point their way
To find a babe that may save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and Mothers --
Sitting beside their children's cribs --
Feel glory in the wond'rous sight of life beginning.
They ask: "When or how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night.