The Surprises of UU History: Christmas Was Outlawed by the Puritans, and Universalists and Unitarians Revived It

By Rev. Julie Stoneberg
Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough
The end of the year has been marked by celebrations from time immemorial. In agrarian cultures, it meant that people could finally relax: crops were harvested, the days short, and food and wine stocked in the cellars.


Celtic peoples commemorated winter solstice with rituals and revelry. Worshipers of Mithras in ancient Rome held a big festival at this time of year to ensure the conquest of winter and darkness. We know that Jesus’ birth began to be celebrated on December 25 in the 4th century, as a Christian counterpart to these pagan festivals.

In his book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that from the beginning, the church had a very tenuous hold on Christmas. Even on this continent, annual celebrations at the end of December were carnivals of partying, drunkenness, and debauchery. The excesses were so disturbing to the Puritans of Massachusetts that they simply outlawed the holiday.

People often wonder, from within and from without, what the Unitarian Universalist connection to Christmas might be. You might be surprised to learn that Universalists and Unitarians have played an important role in the evolution of Christmas traditions in North America.

After the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in the mid 18th century, Christmas was found only on Almanac calendars, and hymnals did not contain Christmas songs. It wasn’t until around 1800 that church services began to be held on December 25th.

The earliest churches to do so were Universalist churches, and the Unitarians were close behind. Nissenbaum states that they did so not because it was biblically sanctioned, but because they themselves wished to! They hoped that their celebrations would help to purge the holiday of its excess and disorder. However, this religious effort failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure.

 It was Santa Claus, not Jesus, who would come to transform Christmas. According to Nissenbaum, it was Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicolas” that succeeded in creating a new kind of Christmas. Published repeatedly and widely in almanacs and gift books, this one poem moved Christmas into the home and out of the streets in a way that religious observances had failed to do. Santa Claus also helped to distance the wealthy and the genteel from the poor and working class. As we know, the Coca-Cola company later co-opted the image of Santa Claus, cementing his image in our imaginations.
A UU Christmas

A UU Christmas. Illustration: Hanje Richards. Available for order at CafePress.

Nissenbaum uses the personal correspondence of a well-read and written family to trace the further evolution of Christmas. The Sedgwicks were a leading family in Massachusetts, a family who had rejected Calvinist orthodoxy and become committed Unitarians. It was Catherine M. Sedgwick who wrote the first fictional account of an American Christmas tree, published in 1835. The tree in Sedgwick’s story was laden with fruit and handmade gifts, for she believed that the true essence of Christmas must be forged outside of the increasingly consumerist culture.

This generation of upper middle class Unitarians used culture rather than politics as an instrument to influence the social order. Sedgwick, along with other Unitarians, saw the introduction of the Christmas tree as a possible antidote to selfishness and greedy consumerism.

And so, like Santa Claus, the Christmas tree was an “invented tradition”. It is useful, writes Nissenbaum, to think of traditions not as static entities but as dynamic forces that are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated; all have at some time been invented to forge meaning or to serve a social/cultural purpose.

And if we long for ways to construct meaning at this time of year, to give form to our values and bring light in dark days, just like Unitarians and Universalists of yesteryear, we are free to create our own traditions. New rituals, and old ones too, can help us to understand our place in the dance of light and dark, to celebrate how our resilient spirits are able to spring forth from depression or drudgery, to recognize that each birth is a holy one and to choose to see the divine spark in each other, and to give out of gratitude for one another and the abundance of life.

We can find meaning in re-crafting rituals that feed our souls and make real connections in this holy interconnected web. We can follow the example set by earlier Universalists and Unitarians who moved to transform systems and cultural practices in order to bring more meaning to their lives.

As a favourite holiday card says, “There is only the meaning we give to our life, and to give as much meaning to one’s life as possible seems right to me.”

Merry Christmas!


A Preview of Streams at the 2018 Annual Conference and Meeting

“As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.” This vision of our national faith community asks us to live this out through actions of love and justice. We are called to work together from a place of love to bring justice to all beings.

The 2018 National Conference Theme is “An Invitation to Love and Justice and while planning is still underway, the Conference Program Planning Committee has chosen the following streams for the Saturday. Details on Sunday workshops will follow.

1. “From 110 Good Ideas to Three Action Projects”

Jennifer Kaye, Bill Johnston, and Gail Rappolt, from First Unitarian Church of Hamilton

Like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, the members of the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton have lots of ideas for great social justice projects. Turning ideas into focused action can be more difficult. In this workshop, facilitators from Hamilton will share the method they used to make decisions and give participants tools to develop or strengthen their own social justice work.

2. “1 + 7 = 8: Considering the Proposed 8th Principle in the Canadian Context”

Beverly Horton, First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, and Reverend Julie Stoneberg, Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough

This stream focuses on issues of racial justice by learning about the 8th principle that has been proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US and thinking about how the 8th principle’s call for racial justice translates to the Canadian context. How might the proposed 8th principle help “us” acknowledge and dismantle racism and other oppressions that have marked the historical experience and lived realities of Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour in Canada?

3. “Beyond Welcoming: Including and Valuing Trans and Queer People”

Cole Gately and Monica Bennett, First Unitarian Church of Hamilton, and Autumn Getty, Mennonite, Trans Peer Supporter, Hamilton, ON

This interactive, participatory workshop will provide information and outline of the processes for congregations to re-certify as Welcoming Congregations. It will equip learners with tools and resources to help trans and queer people feel included, valued and welcome in their communities and congregations.

4. “Communities of Belonging and Possibility: Dialogue Methods that Reawaken Congregational Life”

Ben Wolfe, Aukje Byker, and Todd Barr, Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough

This workshop stream aims to transform how congregations and committees gather to discuss and decide what matters, to begin with the premise of love and possibility, and to give everyone in the room a voice, leave meetings more connected, and to widen circles of leadership.

To this end, the facilitators will introduce and model next-generation participatory dialogue practices and principles that could help reinvigorate your congregation, make better use of your meeting time, energize your outreach and social justice efforts, and create an increased culture of collaboration and play.

5. “Love and Justice in Support of Our Mental and Emotional Wellbeing”

Reverend Steven Epperson, Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Reverend Carly Gaylor, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham,
and Laura Delano, Executive Director of the Inner Compass Initiative

An essential part of building love and justice is questioning the narratives which feed injustice. One of those narratives pertains to how we understand and respond to mental health challenges that so many of us experience in our lives and families. The dominant narrative funnels all experiences of persistent mental and emotional distress or unusual and inconvenient behaviour into a disease model. In this stream we’ll explore alternative experiences and narratives of mental health and wellbeing, including sharing personal stories, inviting participants to share their stories, and offering strongly supported, evidence based resources.

6. “’More than a Hymn Sandwich’: Creating Sunday Services Differently”

Reverend Wayne Walder, Susane Maziarz, and Margaret Evans, Neighbourhood UU Church

An interactive workshop on the style and substance of Sunday services. If UU congregations hope to bring a new generation of people to Sunday services and keep those who come, there may be a need to design Sunday services that look and feel different from those in our history. To address this, this stream will create interactive experiences that use music, ritual, interactive conversation and story that will invite people into our buildings, our programs, our inner life, and our social connectedness, thereby increasing our capacity for love and justice.

7. Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation, exact title TBD

THR Task Force
Facilitator tbd

Canadian Unitarians and Universalists are honoured to be walking with all who are on the journey towards truth, justice, healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples. This year’s THR Saturday Stream will offer participants an opportunity to deepen their understanding of Indigenous experiences and engage in a meaningful process that has the potential of transforming relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Questions about the CUC’s National Conference? Email

Statement on National Housing Strategy

 A statement by the CUC National Voice Team on the announcement of a national housing strategy. The CUC National Voice Team consists of the President of the CUC Board, the President of the UU Ministers of Canada, and the CUC Executive Director.

On behalf of the members of the Canadian Unitarian Council and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers of Canada, we welcome the announcement on November 21, 2017, by the Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, of the federal government’s national housing strategy.  Funding dedicated in this national plan to social housing, and to the needs of women, children, the homeless, people in housing need, and those who rent, is especially good news, and we receive it with appreciation and joy.

In May 2010, delegates to the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the federal government, in consultation with residents across the country, to create a national affordable housing strategy that would begin to meaningfully address our nation’s full-spectrum housing crisis.  Along with other religious bodies and civil society organizations, members of our congregations subsequently wrote and petitioned the federal government, as well as their Members of Parliament, to enact a national affordable housing strategy.

We are pleased with Minister Duclos’s statement that “the federal government is back in housing in a big way.”  It is a crucial commitment, and long overdue.

Years ago, speaking of our dire housing needs, Roy Romanow said that Canada was a “nation half-built.”  We encourage our federal government to follow through on funding and implementation of the housing strategy, and that it will continue to work with all levels of government and civil society, to build that neglected half of the house of our nation yet to be achieved.

We wish the Ministry, and all levels of government success in guaranteeing and realizing this fundamental right to safe, adequate and affordable housing for all our nation’s peoples.

Although the announcement about the National Housing Strategy has been made, we encourage you to continue writing to your Member of Parliament and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development to ensure the strategy is implemented. Find your MP here

What Does the December Season Evoke for You?

For many of us, the holidays are a time to connect with family and friends, to catch up on stories and journeys over food and drink, and to spend time with loved ones. Some of us revel in the excitement of getting that must-have LeapPad for the precious 4 year old in our lives, the wrapping, decorating, baking, cooking, welcoming, visiting, eating. Others of us sigh, take a deep breath and trudge on through it. There are those of us who would prefer to avoid the holiday season altogether, when all the bustle brings out the snark and growl in us. For some of us, the holiday season accentuates pain and loss, tragedy and grief. Others of us find quiet moments of meaning and joy to keep us sane and help us celebrate. Many of us give of our time and resources. Some of us work during this season – writing and delivering sermons, ministering, coordinating, conducting, singing, and maybe collapsing at the end of December.

Continue reading

The Principles of Partnership at USC Canada

Martin Settle and Jane Rabinowicz, Co Executive Directors, USC Canada

We often use the word “partnership” around the USC Canada offices. It informs all our programming, and also my day-to-day working life. My fellow Executive Director, Jane Rabinowicz, and I recently celebrated our first year sharing in the leadership of USC Canada. This unique partnership was a natural evolution after years of experience working together within USC Canada’s Senior Management Team. It feels like a good fit for an organization that believes we are stronger when we work together.

This vision of partnership has been with us for over seven decades. Our founder, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, understood that after the deep divisions of World War II, people needed to create a better world together. At home, Lotta mobilized thousands of volunteers across Canada to send supplies overseas. Abroad, she made sure USC Canada’s work was locally led. This approach made us unique, and our commitment to true partnership has only deepened over time. USC Canada’s policy, since 2007, has been to work exclusively through partnership.

Today, when we talk about partner organizations in five Canadian regions and 11 other countries, we understand it as a meeting of equals. Parties may bring different things to the table, but we are equal in investment, voice, and value. We have shared values, and are prepared to work through differences and across borders to make it happen.

Grounded in shared values and goals, partnership is a conscious and intentional collaboration between two (or more) independent agencies. A partnership approach recognizes that the value in the other is measured not only by their financial and material resources, but also by their knowledge, insight, and expertise. Partnership begins with a spirit of equality, recognizing that our liberation is bound together.

No single party holds all the answers or the tools to succeed, but together we might. We commit to each other beyond the lifespans of projects and budgets, because our contexts are ever-shifting. We commit to transparent dialogue about mission and practice, and open ourselves to a transformative relationship.

Partnership is about mutuality — working towards common goals, knowing that in doing so, we change each other. We invest because we want to help improve the lives of others, but also because we benefit as well. We gain lessons we can apply to our work with other overseas partners and with Canadian farmers.

Today, there is partnership in every aspect of our work. We partner with other organizations to advocate for farmers within the United Nations food agencies. We partner within the food and sustainable agriculture movement to help shape a more resilient food system here at home. We partner with other development organizations to ensure our work is sustainable and meaningful. We partner with the government to express the global vision of all Canadians.

Our partnership extends to our loyal supporters. Unitarians have always been dedicated to creating a more equitable and better-fed world, and we are delighted to work with you in making this happen. We want to learn from you. We love to receive your suggestions and advice. Please feel free to reach out to me personally at We can’t change the world alone. Together, our impact is stronger, the changes more lasting, and the work, in fact, lighter.