Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Can UU’s Have a Merry Christmas?

Note:  This is another seasonal post back by semi-demand.  It has its fans.  It also brings out doubled down sanctimony from some who could most benefit from its message.  I’ve been told that I “just don’t get it,” that I fail as a UU to cherish this that or the other of the Seven Principles, and that my true commitment to social justice is in question.  Too bad.  They are about to be annoyed and at least marginally outraged again.

Nothing brings out the latent Puritan in some Unitarian Universalists like Christmas.  Some years the tisk-tisking and finger waving seems to start as soon as we put away the sugar skulls from the Day of the Dead service.  And sometimes the harping and scolding never lets up.  Bloggers stew and fret.  The list of reasons to downplay—or boycott—the holiday grow yearly.  Sometimes it seems that the sanctimonious sneer is the order of the day.

In my own congregation, not a year went by in church without our well beloved former minister giving what some congregants called his slash-your-writs sermon sometime during the season.  This is the one where he went on—at great length—about all of the folks who are depressed and lonely over the holidays.  He never said anything that cheered those folks up, but he sure did make everyone else feel guilty if they took a scintilla of pleasure in the season.  One year we had folks from a parade of committees light Chalices all season in competition with each other over how austere we should make our own holidays in order to save the rain forest or save an African AIDS orphan.

Rev. Scrooge prepares his any Christmas scolding.

I should point out that this is not universal.  In fact I think most occupants of UU pews are fine with the holiday and keep it in their own lives and families in their own ways.  Some of the old theological wars between the UU Christians, humanists, and pagans seem to have dissipated of late and there is a greater tendency to respect each other’s traditions while finding common ground in Season of Light.  And a lot of ministers are gifted at creative, inclusive, affirming liturgies.

Again in my own congregation some most spiritual worship experiences come in this season via lively and engaging children’s pageants, great music including unbelievable choir concerts, traditions of sharing and generosity, and the lovely Christmas Eve candle light services that include a reading of the traditional Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and end with singing Silent Night in the darkened sanctuary as we light candles had to hand.

A Christmas Eve Candle Light Service at historic Arlington Street Church in Boston.

The tendency toward Christmas Grinching seems to come from a pious but loud minority including some leading ministers and self-appointed guardians of UU morals, and, unfortunately, folks intently focused on social justice and ecological issues.  It seems to me that both of the later could more effectively find ways to adapt obvious seasonal connections instead of giving in to self-satisfying harrumphing for the sake of being purely countercultural.  Besides, such lofty disdain and pronunciations practically guarantee that their messages will be lost on most folks who in some way still treasure the season.

Look, like I enjoy simplicity in Christmas.  Lord knows the two nickels left in my pocket preclude a consumerist orgy.  But I do love the season.  Stripped of way too many faux Santa Clauses, there is still something warm and even inspiring in the festivals of light, the sense of generosity and community.  I’m already humming carols under my breath and enjoying sparkling lights on Woodstock Square.

Rev. Charles Follen's first Christmas tree in New England blazed against Puritain scorn for the Holiday.

Maybe we should reflect a moment how our Unitarian ancestors rejected Puritan priggishness about Christmas and did a whole lot to make the holiday we celebrate today.  The Rev. Charles Follen introduced the Christmas tree to New England.  The Rev. Edward Hamilton Sears gave us It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.  James Lord Pierpont scribbled Jingle Bells while serving as organist at his brother’s Savannah, Georgia church and he was home sick for New England.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poignant I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after hearing his son was badly wounded in the Civil War. 

From across the puddle Unitarian Charles Dickens wrote the perennial classic A Christmas Carol with no hint or mention of the Christ child.  Louisa May Alcott gave us one of the first detailed descriptions of a family Christmas celebration in New England in Little Women.

More recently the famed choral conductor Robert Shaw, music director at UU congregations in Cincinnati and Atlanta gave us too much glorious Christmas music to count.  Actress Michael Learned was the mother on all of the Walton Christmases.  I’m sure I’ve left someone out.

Anyway, have yourself a merry little Christmas—and a happy Chanukah, joyous Solstice, bask in the glow of all of the Festivals of Light.  I will.


1 comment:

  1. Add the Rev. John Sullivan Dwight's interpretive translation in 1855 of O Holy Night, whose original French lyrics "Minuit, chrétiens" by Placide Cappeau were quite Catholic despite being written on commission by an anti-clerical atheist, unlike Dwight's Unitarian version that is sung by just about everyone singing Christmas hymns in English.