2014-01-07

How Unitarians Invented Christmas

Christmas is, after all, you know, our holiday. Unitarians made this season what it is.

Consider: what does Christmas mean? It means, of course, the mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus. But what exactly does that mean? Historians have no idea what time of year Yeshua was actually born. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April at first, and then in June for a while, before settling on a strategy of co-opting yule and solstice. The first December Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 380 CE. Then, for about the next 14 and a half centuries, Christmas was a reverent and austere occasion -- far from the celebratory and commercial bonanza it is today. In the US, prior to 1850, Christmas celebration was "culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry." All that began to change around the middle of the 19th century, when a radical transformation of Christmas began. And Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas now means we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it. It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Charles Follen. Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs. It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the James Pierpont. James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

Christmas means music. Besides Pierpont's "Jingle Bells," there's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," by John Bowring, and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Noel Regney. Longgellow, Bowring, and Regney were all Unitarians. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," is by a Unitarian minister. More about that one later.

Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. A Unitarian named Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, and Christmas has never been the same. In Dickens' tale, Scrooge confronts his past, when as a young man, his need for money, security and status caused him to lose his fiancee. He is shown the present reality of joy in gatherings of families, whether they are poor like Bob Cratchit's or relatively well off like Scrooge's nephew Fred. Then he is brought to an awareness of his own impending death. Scrooge had pushed the fact that life is temporary out of his mind. In pushing away death, he had pushed away life.

Dickens' novella received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and almost as immediately shifted the way that Victorians celebrated Christmas. Over the next years, Dickens received hundreds of letters from complete strangers "writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a little shelf by itself."

A Christmas Carol was regarded as a new gospel. Critics noted that the book was, in their experience, unique in that it actually made readers behave better.

A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud novel in the English-speaking world. It is theatrically performed in hundreds of venues around the country every year. It has been made into numerous movie versions. Other popular Christmas tales such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel.

“According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol." The Christmas gospel of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian.

The Christmas social gospel is also Unitarian. Christmas means the message of Peace on Earth, to all goodwill. In 1849, just six years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill.

The Gospel of Luke tells of angels proclaiming Peace on Earth -- but for most of the history of Christendom, that has been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other. Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, however, called us to task for not heeding the angels’ call to peace.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring,"
Sears decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian.

Yes, it is.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day:
"when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing."
This is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.

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