Did you know Unitarians have had a profound influence on how Americans celebrate Christmas today?
In the 1800s, the Unitarians were trendsetters. They were well educated, often wealthy, and had access to and control of popular publications. Christmas, the Unitarians believed, could be a holiday to promote their values of generosity and charity and social good. The following Unitarians were among those who created modern Christmas traditions, centering on children, gift exchange and charitable giving:
- Clement Clarke Moore, a sometimes Unitarian, published his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823. Prior to Moore’s poem, St. Nick was always portrayed as a medieval bishop known for acts of charity. Moore invented the Santa Claus we all know and love. “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” Moore’s Santa Claus believed in the worth and dignity of every child, and that all deserved some kindness and pleasure. Later it was another Unitarian, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, who placed Santa on the North Pole as a message that he existed for all the children of the world.
- Charles Dickens published, A Christmas Carol, in 1843, capturing many of Dickens’s thoughts about society, human nature, and forgiveness. A Christmas Carol depicts a Christmas that is more than just a holiday. It’s a way of being: for a few days, at least, people treat one another as they were meant to be treated all the time. Good will is offered freely: not just to the people we know, or we think deserve it, but to everyone. “A Christmas Carol” brought charity to the forefront of Christmas. As well as the idea that Christmas was a time to gather family and friends around overflowing dinner tables and Christmas trees filled with lights, decorations, and toys.
- Charles Follen, a German immigrant, a Unitarian and the first German professor at Harvard, brought the Christmas tree to Boston. He invited several friends to his home for a Christmas party where he had put up a tree lit with candles and covered with ornaments as he remembered from his childhood in Germany. Two of his guests (both Unitarian woman) were influential popular magazine writers who gushed about the tree’s loveliness. The tradition of setting up a Christmas tree soon spread to many American homes.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Wrote “Christmas Bells” (a poem later set to music and renamed “I Head the Bells On Christmas Day”) just months before the end of the Civil War. The poem captures the despair felt by the nation after years of war. “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”. Before this time there had been little attempt to align Christmas with a peace theme.
- Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, an avowed pacifist, wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” in 1849 in response to the Mexican American war. In it, he says that the call to peace and goodwill to all is as loud on any other day as it was on that midnight of old, if we would but listen “in solemn stillness.”
- James Pierpont, the homesick son of Unitarian minister, wrote “Jingle Bells” when he was stuck in Savannah, Georgia, during the holiday.
Have a wonderful holiday season!
Robin Pugh, Director of Lifespan Religious Education