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.
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.”