This informal service will explore how Unitarians helped create the modern Christmas festivities. We’ll sing Christmas carols new and old. Come and celebrate the season!
Rev. Fiona Heath is our half-time consulting minister.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Story for All Ages
Many people you know have a tree inside their house at Christmas time. We do – do you have a tree yet?
The Christmas tree is a tradition that began a long time ago.
For thousands of years people who live in the north have brought evergreen branches into the house during the darkest times of the year.
In the 1600s in Germany, people decided to bring a small tree into their house, around the start of the New Year.
The little tree would sit in a pot on a table just like this, decorated with ribbons and even little gifts for children.
Then candles began to be added so the tree would blaze with light. Eventually it became a Christmas Eve tradition in most German households.
When Canada was so young it wasn’t even Canada yet, in the 1800s, people came here from lots of different places, like England and France. Some people were from Germany; they were homesick in the winter and wanted to have their familiar tree at Christmas.
The very first known Christmas tree in Canada was in 1781,
when Baron Friederick Riedesel selected a handsome balsam fir from the forests that surrounded his home and decorated it with white candles.
Now that is part of the story of the Christmas tree in Canada,
but there is also a Unitarian connection.
In Boston, Massachusetts, in 1835 – almost 200 years ago-
there lived a professor and Unitarian minister named Charles Follen.
Charles had grown up in Germany, and he decided to have a little Christmas tree for his son Charlie, who was five years old and had never seen one.
They closed the door to their living room, so Charlie didn’t know what was happening – and put up the tree.
It sat on a tabletop, they tied little toys and candies to the branches, and added candles.
His parents lit the candles and then Charlie and his friends were invited in to see it ablaze with light.
They were so surprised and so happy to see this beautiful tree!
Charlie leaped for joy!
Another Unitarian, Harriet Martineau was visiting that night.
She wrote about it in a popular book about her travels.
Charlie’s tree was the first Christmas tree to be written about in the United States. It was a Unitarian tree!
Evergreen trees are a special symbol of this season which is about the birth of Jesus and the joy of being together with loved ones.
Unitarians helped bring the Christmas tree to North America so they are part of our heritage too.
Reflection A Very Unitarian Christmas
"O, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for every body!" said young Ellen Stuart…
"Dear me, it's so tedious! Everybody has got every thing that can be thought of."
"Well," said Eleanor's aunt, who had been sitting quietly …
"[W]hen I was a girl. Presents did not fly about in those days as they do now. I remember, when I was ten years old, my father gave me a most marvellously ugly sugar dog for a Christmas gift,
and I was perfectly delighted with it…”
"Dear aunt, how delighted I should be if I had any such fresh, unsophisticated body to get presents for!
But to get for people that have more than they know what to do with now; to add pictures, books, and gilding when the centre tables are loaded with them now,
and rings and jewels when they are a perfect drug! …
There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of the year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got…”
(from Stowe’s Christmas, or The Good Fairy)
Sound like a familiar refrain? I know I sometimes feel as grumpy as this when I contemplate our list of people to give presents to…
It seems like a holiday tradition to complain about the beauty and meaning of Christmas being lost in the consumer capitalism of our times.
We long for that nostalgic time when Christmas was just happy families, about the getting together, not the stuff.
In the seventies perhaps, or before WW2, when people had less and
I’m afraid we have to go back even farther.
Ellen’s complaint was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850. 1850.
By the middle of the 1800s Christmas had become a domestic family affair based on the exchange of gifts.
It was already a commercial exercise focused on children and stuff.
It was in writer Stowe’s lifetime that Christmas transformed from a child receiving one sugar dog as a gift to everyone giving of gifts to people who already have tables loaded with books.
And I’m afraid Unitarians had a lot to do with it. So much so in the United States, that it could be said the Christmas we celebrate today is a Unitarian Universalist tradition, not a Christian one!
For better or worse, Unitarians can claim to be lead contributors to the evolution of our modern Christmas.
Now the celebration at the darkest time of the year has always been built on layers of previous rituals.
Before the birth of Jesus, the longest night - winter solstice –
was a time of ritual, feasting, visiting and merry making.
Indeed, when the Christian church in the fifth century
decided to formally celebrate the birth of Christ, choosing December 25th , it was a conscious decision to piggyback on the festivities already in place around Winter Solstice and a Roman holiday known as Saturnalia.
In medieval Europe, the twelve days of Christmas were a break at the end of a busy agricultural year - a time of rest and revelry,
Farmers and workers would call upon the local gentry,
who would serve the best food and drink they had,
an offering to those who did the work they depended on.
This was a reversal of the social class system – a yearly safety valve – in which the rich catered to the poor.
A feast before the worst of winter and the frugal use of food was a true pleasure. European Christmas lived in that tension between being a time of partying and a sacred moment.
In the pioneer days of Upper Canada, Christmas was celebrated in the British tradition – evergreen boughs, visiting with neighbours, a festive meal.
There might be small homemade gifts for children, but it was more about gathering together. Christmas activity was confined to 2 or 3 days.
Winter was a time of great socializing.
After the muddy roads of autumn, sleighs dashed quickly over the snow – unlike our cars today!
Christmas marked the beginning of the social season,
but as a religious occasion it was less acknowledged.
Many churches did not bother to hold services unless Christmas fell on a Sunday.
Catherine Parr Trail, who wrote extensively about her life as a pioneer near Peterborough in the 1830s, barely mentions Christmas,
only once noting that she visited a neighbour that day.
In the United States, the legacy of the Puritans meant that the celebration of Christmas, which had actually been banned for a few years, was not seen as a public holiday. It was largely just another day,
with shops and businesses open.
But by the early nineteenth century, things began to change.
The United States became more prosperous, with a growing middle class.
In the cities, the very social nature of Christmas revelry was,
in the minds of some, starting to threaten public safety.
Gangs of men and kids would be out partying in the streets and families would stay indoors.
Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by the early 1800s.
They wished to celebrate Christmas in a way that might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.
As we shall see, they succeeded in some ways…
By bringing Christmas into the family sphere,
Unitarians helped to move it from a street festival to a domestic ritual.
The old tradition of gifts of food and drink given by the rich to the poor and working class evolved into the exchange of gifts by family members.
But as families already shared food and drink daily,
gifts became instead commercial purchases –
the now familiar Christmas presents of toys, books, games, and more.
For Unitarians, this Christmas exchange was seen as a way to instill a sense of generousity and service in children.
Prior to the 1800s, children might receive little gifts at Christmas,
but they didn’t give them.
The family exchange meant that children were taught to save their pennies, practice crafts, and give to others.
The evergreen tree, as introduced by Charles Follen,
became the focal point of this ritual of generousity.
New England Unitarian writers published articles in Unitarian magazines,
wrote popular books, and contributed to a literary depiction of this
family Christmas with Christmas trees and presents,
influencing social attitudes and expectations.
Christmas became a pleasant gift exchange.
I’m not sure whether to applaud them or condemn them!
Merchants quickly took to this concept of Christmas
– it got the rowdy people off the street who might damage their storefronts and it brought a new business opportunity.
By the 1820s Christmas advertising was commonplace.
And as we heard in the story by Beecher Stowe,
by 1850 people were complaining about buying too many things for people who already had too much stuff.
Christmas as we know it had arrived!
But Unitarianism offered a greater vision of Christmas as well.
The family ritual was intended to develop a sense of generousity, an awareness of the needs of others, and a desire to help those in need.
Christmas was seen as a time to raise awareness of poverty,
and take action.
Children were encouraged to give to other children less fortunate.
Unitarians hoped that their children would be instilled with a sense that they had the power to change lives for the better.
Two of the Christmas carols we sang today point to the hopes of this season of light – the desire for peace, for goodwill to all people,
to hopes of a new day of equality and love.
It is this contemporary sense of Christmas – as a time of loving good cheer - which Unitarianism also helped to form.
This can be seen most clearly in A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens.
Dickens was already a popular author wrote he wrote this little book about Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation on a single night,
through the visits of three spirits of Christmas,
from a bitter miser to a happy generous man.
After a visit to New England in 1842, in which Dickens was very impressed by prominent Unitarian thinkers, he spent several years as part of a London Unitarian congregation.
A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 and can be claimed as an expression of the Unitarian values of generousity and service.
Like our Unitarian carols, the festive season is depicted as being about far more than the birth of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is barely mentioned in this tale of charity and connection.
For Dickens, Christmas is about generousity of spirit, kindness, caring for others. Christmas is a time to be a beacon of hope.
As we heard in the passage read earlier,
Dickens maintained the kinship with the traditional British feasts of plenty, encouraging Scrooge to break free of his misery and miserliness.
The pleasures of food, drink and merriment are paths to a generous heart.
At the same time, through Bob Cratchit and his family,
Dickens celebrates the beauty of the family together,
caring for one another.
Scrooge is taught that time with loved ones is just as precious as the feast.
A Christmas Carol also demonstrates the Unitarian faith in humanity
– that we are transformed when we help each other.
The tale challenges the notion common at that time that poverty was a divine punishment or a set social class you were simply born into.
Instead, the ignorance and want of poverty is caused by a failure of society, specifically the failure of people to care,
but can be ended by social reforms enacted by caring people.
Dickens was helping to create Christmas traditions of charity, compassion, and care.
Although we see these Unitarian carols and Dickens’ story as traditional takes on Christmas, they were radical in the day.
They moved beyond Jesus as the “reason for the season” to an expansive idea of Christmas as a moment for peace and pleasure.
They expanded a cultural understanding of Christmas into a season of light, not just spreading good cheer,
but acknowledging social disparity,
and recognizing that loneliness can prevail unless people care.
This Unitarian vision of Christmas asks us to hold that tension between feasting and merriment and the troubles in the world.
It holds up the family as a haven of protection.
It holds up a vision of a better world,
suggesting that Christmas is the time to once again commit to creating that better world.
We can lay claim to contemporary Christmas,
from Scrooge to Christmas trees.
So let us keep Christmas, and keep it well.
Make of it a season that brings joy into your heart,
and more peace into this world.
May it be so.
The Battle for Christmas Stephen Nissenbaum, 1996
“How the Unitarians Created Christmas” Rev. Shawn Newton, 2010 sermon First Toronto
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