What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.
This month, we’re looking at item number 3. EVERYONE knows about item number 3—and during a certain time of year, you simply can’t avoid it. It’s in our music, on the streets, in the stores, in the schools, in our homes, in our hearts. Item number 3 is: Christmas!
Now, Christmas might not be the first (or the tenth!) thing that comes to mind when you think about Unitarian Universalism, but fact is, Unitarians and Universalists have played an extraordinary role in shaping the holiday. What I cover here is only a small part of the larger story, told in the book The Battle For Christmas by historian Stephen Nissenbaum. Highly recommended.
Start with the Christmas tree. Back in the 19th century, many people believed that children were born perverse, and that the main goal of child-rearing was breaking the will. But Unitarians and Universalists believed that children should be trained rather than broken. Children were not perfect, but they were not fundamentally corrupt either, and so the emphasis was on positive training and education.
This is where the Christmas tree comes in. The ritual of the Christmas tree in America was about emphasizing small, handmade gifts to go on the tree, especially gifts from children to their parents. The Christmas tree thus served as a way for parents to train their children to detach from the rampant commercialization surrounding them, as well as to develop their sense of gratitude through the habit of giving.
It was Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister, who had one of the first Christmas trees in America, in 1835; and even more important than this was how two Unitarian best-selling authors popularized the Christmas tree ritual, as they experienced it at the home of Charles Follen. Through the writings of these two women, Harriet Martineau and Catharine Marie Sedgewick, the Christmas tree ritual spread across America—as well as the Unitarian and Universalist faith in human nature. Louisa May Alcott is another name that is relevant here. She is another American Unitarian author of that era, who wrote an extensive Christmas scene into her most famous novel, Little Women. In that scene, the four girls voluntarily give their Christmas presents to a poor neighboring family. The message, again, is that children can be trained to be generous and giving—that Christmas need not spoil anyone.
Other aspects of Christmas which Unitarians and Universalists shaped include Santa Claus and the essential focus of the holiday.
What Santa Claus looks like, and where he lives, came from political cartoonist Thomas Nast, a Unitarian, whose 24 years of Christmas drawings gave us the image of Santa Claus as we know him today. This includes introducing the idea that Santa’s home was in the North Pole, which has tremendous symbolic power. It means that no one people or country owns Santa. Santa belongs to the world.
As for the essential focus of Christmas on giving and goodness: This comes in large part from the English Unitarian, Charles Dickens, and his classic work, A Christmas Carol. In this story, Dickens focuses more on the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus. The difference here amounts to emphasizing a life in keeping with the Christmas spirit, rather than on venerating images of Christ. “I have always thought of Christmas time,” he says, “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” A Christmas Carol reminds us that what’s central and bottom-line to Christmas is not so much theological belief as it is love and service.
This month is the season of Easter, which many of us love. But Christmas is special to us as Unitarian Universalists. We helped make the holiday what it is today. Through Christmas, our religion has changed countless lives. Charles Dickens has Ebenezer Scrooge say, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” and let us do the same.
That’s number 3 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!
Rev. Anthony David