Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Saviour is honoured, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam? You cannot possibly think so.— Cotton Mather, Grace defended: A censure on the ungodliness, by which the glorious grace of God, is too commonly abused. A sermon preached on the twenty fifth day of December, 1712.
Christmas is a much loved holiday in the United States, celebrated to some extent by Christians and non-Christians alike. But that wasn’t always the case. For a generation during the 17th century, all celebration of Christmas was banned in Massachusetts, as it had been in England after the Puritan victory in the English Civil War. For a century or more after the law banning Christmas celebrations was repealed, Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather continued to preach fiery sermons against such activities. When Christmas finally returned to respectability it was, we are told, largely through the encouragement of Unitarian and Universalist ministers and laypeople.
Welcome before prelude
Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.
Thank you for joining us.
Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.
Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.
Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.
Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.
Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.
Prelude: “The Sound of Silence”, Simon & Garfunkle
Welcome: As We Proclaim Worth — Dan Lambert
You are welcome here no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what your background. You are welcome here to join us as we proclaim worth in our spiritual journeys. You are welcome to join us as we sing songs that uplift our very beings. You are welcome to join us in community as we learn, live, and love together. All are welcome as we worship that which gives us each meaning and value. No matter what you call this building, this hour, or this gathering of people, we worship as one body, illuminated by the light of the chalice.
Opening Song: Sanctuary
Chalice lighting: Chalice Lighting for the Second Sunday in Advent — David Breeden
In this holiday season,
May the darkness of winter
Be dispelled in this festival of lights,
And may the darkness of ignorance
Be dispelled in the strength
Of compassion, reason,
Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Story for All Ages
Origins of Christmas, from the History Channel
Invitation to Offering
Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this electronic space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use out time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.
Épitaphe of Seikilos – Petros Tabouris Ensemble
While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only for a short while,
And Time demands its toll.
For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.
Song: Heyr himna smiður – Árstíðir
Reading: Grace defended: A censure on the ungodliness, by which the glorious grace of God, is too commonly abused. A sermon preached on the twenty fifth day of December, 1712. Containing some seasonable admonitions of piety. And concluded, with a brief dissertation on that case, whether the penitent thief on the cross, be an example of one repenting at the last hour, and on such a repentance received unto mercy? by Cotton Mather
Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Saviour is honoured, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam? You cannot possibly think so
Reading: from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
‘A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!’ cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
‘Bah!’ said Scrooge, ‘Humbug!’
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
‘Christmas a humbug, uncle!’ said Scrooge’s nephew. ‘You don’t mean that, I am sure?’
‘I do,’ said Scrooge. ‘Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.’
‘Come, then,’ returned the nephew gaily. ‘What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.’
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, ‘Bah!’ again; and followed it up with ‘Humbug!’|‘Don’t be cross, uncle.’ said the nephew.
‘What else can I be,’ returned the uncle, ‘when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas. What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly,’every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’
‘Uncle!’ pleaded the nephew.
‘Nephew!’ returned the uncle, sternly, ‘keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.’
‘Keep it!’ repeated Scrooge’s nephew. ‘But you don’t keep it.’
‘Let me leave it alone, then,’ said Scrooge. ‘Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!’
‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Lesson: Creating Christmas
Robert Helfer, Lay Leader
One of my coworkers some years ago was a woman named Edith. Edith was one of those perpetually cheerful, friendly people who are a joy to have around. Edith loved parties. She loved to plan parties. She loved to decorate for parties. She loved to make – and eat – party food. And she loved to be at parties. She just plain loved parties. But when someone tried to recruit her to help plan the office Christmas party, Edith excused herself. She would have nothing to do with Christmas.
Christmas, she said, is a Pagan holiday, just Saturnalia calling itself Christian, and as a believing Christian, a Jehovah’s Witness, she would not participate. I think she would have agreed with Cotton Mather’s sermon, although I don’t recall that she railed against the excesses of holiday revelers.
But, of course, the rest of the office was totally up for the party – mainstream Christians, atheists, agnostics, and Pagans alike. At least one person commented that she liked Christmas especially for its Pagan background.
The birth of Christ
So, why is this important Christian holiday associated with Pagan practices?
Well, first of all, there is no record that early Christians celebrated Christ’s birth at all. The earliest mention of a feast of the Nativity puts it in around 376. If you’re going to celebrate a birth, you need a date for the feast. Unfortunately, if you go back to the Nativity Story in the Bible, you will not find any information about when Jesus was born. Now, you can choose an arbitrary date, or you can try to calculate what it must have been. When some time in the 3rd century some Christians decided that it was December 25, they based this choice on the assumption that conception took place at the Spring equinox, March 25, and just added 9 months.
But there are alternative theories. It has been suggested at least since the 12th century that the date was Pagan from the start. December 25 is the official birth date of Sol Invictus, the official Sun God of the Roman Empire and patron of Roman soldiers, and related to some extent to the Iranian-inspired Mithraic mysteries. It’s also very close to the Winter Solstice, which occurs on December 20, 21, 22, or 23, the period celebrated by the Pagan Germans and Scandinavians as Jul as well as the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Nowadays, we tend to see Saturnalia as a period of debauchery and excess. It featured role reversals – masters served their slaves; gambling was acceptable; and gifts were exchanged. Some Saturnalia customs were carried into Christmas celebrations, as reflected in Mather’s sermon.
Getting from Saturnalia to Christmas
So, Christmas celebrations in much of Europe, including England, tended to the bawdy and sacrilegious, much like Mardi Gras, and such behavior traveled to the New World along with the colonists. And among the Puritans it was banned. What I’ve read so far seems to apply to New England only. How Christmas was celebrated, or not celebrated, in other colonies I don’t know.
Toward the end of the 18th century some Christians began a movement to reclaim Christmas as a religious holiday. Among the leaders in this movement, we understand, were liberals, many of whom were Universalists or Unitarians. The history of UU involvement in advancing Christmas has been told in a number of sermons and stories over recent years. What follows I have distilled mainly from an assortment of these texts.
We are told that in 1789 Universalists were the first in New England to hold church services specifically observing Christmas Day. And by 1800 Unitarians had also begun calling for Christmas celebrations. The modern celebration of Christmastide (I don’t think you can remove the specific day from its season, the mass of religious and semi-religious Christian holidays and traditions that have accumulated around the holiday) grew during the 19th and 20th centuries into what we see today.
Lynne Quinto, in a brief 2017 article, listed what are perhaps the most important points along the way, from the UU point of view.
On December 23, 1823 a poem appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel, with the title “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. No author was noted, but it was soon attributed to Clement Moore, In the poem, St. Nicholas visits on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. For Protestants, Christmas Day was stigmatized as “Catholic ignorance and deception”, but Christmas Eve was not. Quinto refers to Moore as a “sometimes Unitarian”, but he was an established Episcopalian, a Professor at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Moore was religiously liberal, and perhaps allied to some extent with the growing Unitarian movement. In any case, the poem was hugely popular and created most of what we now see as the character of “Santa Claus”.
Santa Claus’s image was also boosted by Thomas Nast’s illustrations in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, but especially by his 1881 illustrations for an edition of Moore’s poem. Nast was a German-born political cartoonist, famous for his depictions of the American political parties (Republicans as the elephant, Democrats as the donkey) and Uncle Sam, among many others. Quinto refers to Nast as “another Unitarian”, but I haven’t found any evidence that he ever was associated with that church, although one article notes that his son, Thomas Nast, Jr., was a member of a Unitarian congregation.
In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol became a major force in refurbishing Christmas. The story emphasizes charity and joy, contrasting the grim businessman Scrooge’s bleak and austere life and attitude to an ideal world of joy and love. Scrooge’s memories of his enjoyment of Christmases past plays as large a part in his reformation as his realization of Tiny Tim’s frailty and imminent death. Dickens sometimes attended a Unitarian church, but also never left the Anglican Church.
The Christmas Tree was introduced into the United States by German immigrants, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was probably no more than a local custom among that population. That changed in 1832 when a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister, and German immigrant, named Charles Follen invited a number of people to his home for Christmas celebrations. Among the guests were journalists, who promptly wrote about the celebration and the tree his family had decorated, and thus spread the German custom more widely in this country.
But wait! There’s more. A number of popular Christmas songs were added to the holiday mix over the rest of the 19th century. In 1849, for example, a Unitarian minister named Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”; and in 1857 a Unitarian layman, son of a Unitarian minister, named James Lord Pierpont contributed “Jingle Bells”.
This is just a brief review, and I’m not sure how much it really shows us about Unitarian and Universalist involvement in the popularization of Christmas in the United States. Some of the links to our church ancestry are a bit tenuous; some of the claimed Unitarians seem not to have a clear connection to any Unitarian body. But I think that a general relationship with “liberal religion”, of which both Unitarianism and Universalism are parts, can be seen.
We need to remember that New England wasn’t the whole world. Despite the Puritans, most of our Christmas tradition and customs have existed throughout centuries in other Christian lands, where the excesses and sacrilege the Puritans railed against were not as clearly perceived.
But more importantly, I think, we can see a change in understanding of Christmas and what it means to people beyond any religious significance. As Lynne Quinto summarized it while introducing a list of Unitarian contributors to the modern Christmas:
Christmas, the Unitarians believed, could be a holiday to promote their values of generosity and charity and social good. The following Unitarians were among those who created modern Christmas traditions, centering on children, gift exchange and charitable giving.
May we keep ourselves centered on generosity, charity, and social good, especially in this season, whether we believe anything about a child in a manger or an unusual star in the eastern sky.
Music: God Is a River, Peter Mayer
Joys and Sorrows
If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation
Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go
Closing: “Be True, Be Well, Be Loving — Cynthia Landrum
We leave this gathered community,
But we don’t leave our connection,
Our concerns, our care for each other.
Our service to each other, to the world, and to our faith continues.
Until we are together again, friends,
Be strong, be well, be true, be loving.
The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.
Go now in peace.
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