Sunday, December 21, 2014

How the Unitarians and the Universalists Saved Christmas

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 21, 2014
Pacific UU Fellowship

         I hope I don’t sound too snarky, but something happened recently that relates to our topic today and I thought I’d share it.
         Overheard in my dentist’s office a few days ago, while I was waiting for my appointment.  One clerk was speaking to another:
“I just hate this ‘Happy Holidays’ stuff!  It’s Christmas, damn it, and people should be saying ‘Merry Christmas’, not ‘Happy Holidays’.”  And what’s this Xmas stuff, anyhow?  You can’t X Christ out of Christmas!”
         Several thoughts went through my mind, especially after the other clerk agreed and they conversed for a few moments about Jesus being the reason for the season, implying that Christmas was there first and had “first dibs” on the holiday season.
         One thought was that I should go to the reception desk and set them straight or at least warn them that we were listening to them in the waiting room.  My immediate next thought was that I might not be able to counteract so much blatant confusion.  And my next thought was that maybe I’d start looking for another dentist. 
         Except that I really like my dentist, who, I think, may be Jewish and may be unaware that his office staff harbors this opinion.  And, too, (grammar nerd alert, grammar nerd alert!) the use of “damn”, a common word invoking hellfire upon the subject “it”, which in this case would be Christmas itself, making Christmas the logical and grammatical victim of the damning, which I don’t think is what they had in mind.
         This is the time of year when that tired old War on Christmas rhetoric gets dragged out of the tattered decorations box and hung on the tree.
          I don’t listen to Fox cable news, so I rarely hear it first hand and have been spared the need to counteract its ignorance myself, relying on other Facebook friends and the real news videos of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert to do the work for me.  I just repost.  I’m too old to dive into the fray and am content to let younger firebrands do it for me.  Yes, I’m getting old, humor me.
         But the truth is, going back to the title of this sermon, the Unitarians and Universalists really did help to save Christmas.  It wouldn’t be what we have and love today if it hadn’t been for the UUs of the 18th and 19th centuries.  And the Unitarians and Universalists built on the foundation set in place by pagan worshippers over thousands of years of honoring the earth, sun, moon, and stars as divine.
         Today marks the Winter Solstice, a holy day which has been in existence since the earth began orbiting around the sun and has been observed for millennia, ever since the first human realized that after this solar occasion, the disappearing light in the sky began to come back. 
         Many familiar Christmas customs and symbols come straight out of earth-based, pagan rituals and practices.  The winter solstice was a huge occasion for celebration, as early peoples watched the slow return of longer days and shorter nights, even as the cold winter winds and snow made life uncomfortable and risky. 
         To express their jubilation at what they considered the Birthday of the Sun and to push back the dark nights, they lit bonfires and burned torches and lit up the night with feasting and singing and gift-giving, all in joy for the relief they felt because the sun was returning.
         Many of their festive symbols are important to us too---the holly and the ivy---well, maybe not so much the holly and the ivy here in the NW, evergreen branches, yule logs, mistletoe, and the profusion of candlelight everywhere.  The change of seasons meant that the earth would again produce vegetation---food---as the air warmed and the rains came. 
         But change was in the wind, because institutional religion began to take an interest in solstice festivals.
         It was in about the 4th century CE, when church authorities managed to refashion the ancient pagan Winter Solstice revelry into a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.  They had tried to halt these winter festivals because they honored pagan nature gods. 
         But it wasn’t that easy.  Thousands of years of custom do not die easily.  So compromises were made, with nature deities being discreetly transformed into Christian saints and the whole shebang gradually became part of the Christian calendar.
         Since nobody really knew when Jesus was born, the day long associated with the rebirth of the Sun, Dec. 25th, became the date of Jesus’ birthday.
         Christmas became a mélange of world religious practices---with Celtic, Teutonic, Slav and even Asian, Greek and Roman influences.  It has never been a strictly Christian holiday.  So take that, you War on Christmas folks!  We know the real story!  And by the way, the X in Xmas is the Greek letter CHI, which has been used since antiquity to indicate the word Christ.
         Let’s make merry ourselves now with a hymn that celebrates some of what ancient peoples celebrated:  Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, page 235.
         In  Merry Olde England, under Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas.  However,  people rebelled and Christmas went underground with its revelry, which included heavy drinking, sexual misbehavior, and general debauchery.  The outrage at this infringement on popular custom resulted in the ousting of the ruling Puritan party.  So much for legislating godliness, sobriety, and chastity!
         But the Puritans were also settling in the New World and their disapproval of Christmas revelry meant that Christmas was banned for many years in early American communities.
         Christmas in the earliest years of colonial America was forbidden.  The Puritans found it offensive to their pietistic minds.  They had come to the New World with religious freedom on their agenda, but that freedom didn’t include the revelry of drunkenness, lasciviousness, and general chaos that erupted every Christmas season among the so-called “lower classes”.
         There were laws against Christmas celebrations and people could be punished severely for indulging in them.  Talk about a War on Christmas!
         The Puritans did have a point----Christmas had become a season of lawlessness, in which wild bands of hoodlums in masks, bent on forbidden activity, roamed the streets, and it drove the Puritans crazy.
         Records from 18th century New England indicate a rise in unwed mothers and in babies born in September and October.  Something had to be done.
         So progressive religious leaders in New England decided that, rather than trying to squash Christmas, they should instead tame it.
         Universalist and Unitarian churches began to schedule worship on Christmas Day.  They also urged banks, shops, and schools to close so that family could spend the day together.
         Let’s sing together a carol that might have been appropriate at a Unitarian or Universalist Christmas Day service back in those days.  “ In the bleak midwinter”, #241.
         So what did the U’s and the U’s do to save Christmas?
         Well, in the mid 1800s, the Christmas tree with its lights and festive hangings was introduced by Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister.
         “Jingle Bells” was written by James Pierpont, organist and choir director at the Savannah GA Unitarian church.
         “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by the Rev. Edmund H. Sears, Unitarian minister in Wayland MA. 
         “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War.
         Unitarian artist, Nathaniel Currier, of Currier and Ives fame, painted an array of delicate Christmas scenes which decorate many a holiday card.
         Episcopalian-turned-Unitarian Clement C. Moore penned the beloved story poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” also known as “The Night Before Christmas”, from whence comes our popular portrayal of that jolly old elf Santa Claus.
        But the Unitarian author who brought perhaps one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told was Charles Dickens, who, in his immortal tale “A Christmas Carol” penned a story of compassion, generosity, and transformation as the miserly Scrooge is brought to an awareness of the neediness of the poor and the joy of generosity.
         It’s interesting and ironic that we Unitarian Universalists, heretics to the core in the eyes of the orthodox, have long been champions and even progenitors of Christmas traditions. 
         We may have degenderized the words of traditional carols in our hymnals (which, by the way, made Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor pretty annoyed one year!), but we still often sing the beloved old words, despite the theological disparities we know are there!
         Let’s join now in singing #244, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” in remembrance and celebration of the gifts our spiritual ancestors have given for Christmas.
         Every year, it seems, I have to rethink my relationship with Christmas.  At one time in my life, when I felt lonely and bereft from the losses I had experienced, Christmas was something to be endured until the new year.
         But every year since that symbolic “hitting bottom”, it has gotten better and in my so-called retirement years I have found a great deal of joy in this season. 
         This year it started when I sat down to write out the small checks I send to the many grandnieces and grandnephews in my extended family.  There’s a new baby in the family, born just a month ago, and her parents’ joy, proclaimed daily by ecstatic, weary posts on social media, their joy is infectious.  I can’t help but smile---and also pray for this little family’s happiness.
         Unitarian Religious Educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote, about this season,
For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come
Born of the seed of man and woman
No angels herald their beginnings,
no prophets predict their future courses.
No wisemen see a star to show
where to find the babe
that will 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 sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night-
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping. 
         As I look at the children I know today, the youngsters who come up to hear the story on Sunday mornings, the littlest ones with their mamas and papas chasing after them, the in-between ones looking up to the big kids and watching out for the little ones, the older ones growing taller and maturing into big kids, their active minds, their loving hearts, as I look at them and smile, I feel the holiness of this season, reflected in our children’s eyes.
         Sure, they love the gifts and the goodies and the songs and the stories.  But what I loved most, as a child, and I hope it is part of every child’s Christmas, was the warmth of my family’s love, the tender care that I received and that I learned to give to my own child, to his children, and the love and care that he has learned to give, from me.
         It’s not the gifts we give and receive at this time of year, it’s not the decorations, it’s not the cards and letters or even the music, though these all have their value.  It’s really the miracle of human life, from birth through death and all the stages in between.
         We are so blessed by Life.  Even when it’s at its toughest, even when we are in pain, even when grief overtakes us, we have Life and its spirit gives us hope.
         As we look back over the past year, with its joys and concerns, let us be reminded in this holy season that it is truly the rebirth of the sun and in that rebirth we can find renewal and strength to last us as long as we need. 

         Let us act with that strength to bring joy and peace to one another and to all humankind, starting with our neighbors and reaching out into our communities, giving tender love and care to all we meet.
         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
         Let’s sing, in closing, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hymn to peace, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.”  #240.
         Our worship service is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that the season of Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa is a season of Light.  May we seek to bring the lights of kindness, strength and peace into the lives of all we meet, for in this way we will receive the Light ourselves and will be blessed by it, even as we bless others.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.