Unitarians and Christmas

In many ways, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today. Of course, Christmas is the celebration of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April and then in June. They then co-opted the yule and solstice of the Earth-based religions and the first Christmas celebrated in December was in 380 CE. Since then, Christmas has been transformed – and Unitarians were at the forefront of this transformation.

One transformation was the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Moore. Clement Moore was a Unitarian. And Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, placed Santa on the North Pole for the children of the world. Thomas Nast was a Unitarian.

The practice from Germany of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it was brought to the US in the early 1800s by Charles Follen, a German immigrant and Harvard professor. He invited several colleagues to his home where he had a Christmas tree with candles and ornaments. Two of his colleagues were Unitarian, they wrote about the experience and the tradition spread. Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

Samuel Coleridge, a poet, liked the German tradition of exchanging gifts. He loved how it taught children about generosity and unselfishness. He wrote a story about it in The Christian Register, the official Unitarian magazine of the time. Samuel Coleridge was a Unitarian.

Rev. John Pierpont was an early 19th century minister, abolitionist, transcendentalist, and reformer. His son, Jim, was a “scalawag” who ran away to sea and later to seek gold in the California gold rush. He returned to become the music director at his father’s church. He wanted to write a song that was free of Christian concepts and church; and to experience the transcendence of the season while “Dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh” and wrote Jingle Bells. It was one of the first “secular” songs of the season. It was written by James Pierpont, a Unitarian.

Charles Dickens’ Old Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart softens and gets into the Christmas Spirit. He published A Christmas Carol in 1843. Charles Dickens was a Unitarian.

Just a few years after Dickens wrote that memorable story, Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears tried to redefine the message of angels singing about peace and goodwill to all men on earth. Fresh from the US war in Mexico, he wrote the words to the humanist hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. They said that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect from a Unitarian. Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears was a Unitarian.

Other carols written by Unitarians include: I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Watchman Tell Us of the Night by John Bowring; and Do You Hear What I Hear by Noel Regney.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, Hanukkah, Yuletide, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice…make a joyful noise and enjoy this season of joy!