From Figures of Faith: Did Unitarians and Universalists invent Christmas in America?

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — For the “From Figures of Faith” series, St. George News reached out to the Interfaith Council of St. George and asked if they had a message about the holiday season they would like to share with our readers.

The following was submitted by Michael Kruse of the Unitarian Universalist Community.

Before you accuse me of drinking too much eggnog, please hear me out.

For hundreds of years, the Puritans squelched Christmas celebrations due to overeating, drinking and indulging.

Universalists openly celebrated Christmas for years in New England in the 1780s. In the 19th century, they actively pushed for Christmas celebrations as they were well-educated, wealthy trendsetters with access to the media.

Unitarians called for public observance of Christmas around 1800. It was not sanctioned in the Bible, and they wished to celebrate a secular holiday.

In 1823, the Unitarian Clement Moore published “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” With this single poem, Moore transformed St. Nicholas, a charitable Turkish bishop, into the myth of Santa Claus. Later another Unitarian, cartoonist Thomas Nast, placed Santa at the North Pole as a message that he existed for all the world’s children.

In 1832, Charles Follen, a Harvard professor (and later Unitarian minister) invited several colleagues to his home where he decorated an evergreen inside his home with candles and ornaments. One guest wrote, “It really looked beautiful. The room seemed in a blaze” – until one doll’s dress caught fire. Soon many middle class Americans celebrated by putting up indoor Christmas trees.

Also around this time, the Unitarian Samuel Coleridge visited Germany where he saw a ritual around a fir tree where not only did the children get gifts but also gave presents to their parents. He wrote that as eight children gave presents, the mother and even father wept aloud for the joy, tenderness and generosity he witnessed. This may have been a precursor to the gift exchange we celebrate every December.

Charles Dickens said: “For much of my life I was drawn to a Unitarian faith.” Dickens wrote that Christmas is a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time – the only time people open up their hearts freely and think of those less fortunate. UUs have contributed significantly to some of Christmas’s most enduring customs and themes.

In 1881, a UU minister, James Pierpoint wrote “Jingle Bells,” one of the most-sung holiday tunes of all time. The prolific Unitarian poet and author Lidia Maria Child wrote another holiday tune “Over the River and Through the Wood.”

Abolitionist Edmund Sears, a UU Minister wrote: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as a protest, along with Abraham Lincoln, against the Mexican-American War, calling for peace, goodwill and justice.

UU Noel Regney wrote: “Do You Hear What I Hear?” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some sectarians think society is fighting a war on Christmas and feel oppressed, while mirror-image radicals on the opposite side who resent having a dogmatic holiday forced on them.

We can strike a balance.

Howard Thurman wrote that the work of Christmas is to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, rebuild the nations, bring peace among brothers and sisters and make music in the heart.

Many UUs don’t believe in illogical virgin births. But many believe in the miracle of birth and the hope that every child can make a difference. Albert Einstein said, “We can believe nothing is a miracle or everything is.”

UUs practice the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus. We celebrate all world religions, spirituality, humanist teachings, words and deeds of prophetic women and men and the experience of mystery and wonder.

We celebrate Christmas because Jesus was an enlightened person who taught by word and example how to overcome oppression without violence and how to build an inclusive community.

We feel Christmastime is about joy, hope, wonder, love, compassion and peace. Christmas belongs to all who recognize Jesus as an inspiring, significant historical figure. Quoting Luke 2:10: “Glory to God in the highest of heaven and on earth peace to of humanity.”

St. George News will continue to add new messages to the “From Figures of Faith” series over the weekend leading up to Christmas Day. For all faith messages, click here.

Submissions are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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