Adapted from Rev. Tracy Springberry
Once upon a time Unitarians believed the fight for the soul of the American Christmas was a battle worth fighting.
It was Unitarians who wove together Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift giving around the tree, a focus on charity, and peace and goodwill toward all to create the Christmas that the majority of Americans celebrate today. And while the story of the baby Jesus was not left out, what was central to this holiday was not the coming of God in a human form for the atonement of human sins, as it was for conservative Christians, but Unitarian values and theology.
But how did Unitarians take over Christmas? Let me tell you the story.
Long ago, when the Puritans came to this country, they banned Christmas. At that time in England, Christmas was nothing like the Christmas we celebrate today. It was a wild public party, much like Mardi Gras. People drank. They got crazy. They shot off guns and fireworks. They made a nuisance of themselves. This partying way of celebrating had an old, old history. When Roman rulers were trying to convince their people to be Christian and not pagan, they announced Christ’s birthday would be celebrated in December, the time when Romans celebrated Saturn with over a week of wild partying. Later, as Christianity moved north, the celebration of Christ’s birthday got mixed up with other winter celebrations like the Celtic Yule. These holidays also had an emphasis on a party. We still celebrate this Christmas in some ways, and the famous Welsh carol “Deck the Hall,” is an example of the enduring celebration of Yule traditions.
The Puritans understood the pagan roots of Christmas, noted that the Bible never mentioned celebrating Christ’s birthday and insisted that everyone should simply ignore it. In 1621, when some of the colonies’ newer residents tried to take Christmas day off, the governor ordered them back to work. Thirty years later the General Court of Massachusetts declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense. The Puritans did win that Christmas war for a long time. For nearly 150 years, celebrating Christmas was illegal in New England. But by the 1800s, things had changed. In the southern parts of the new United States people had been celebrating Christmas with public partying, and so had the new Irish immigrants who were settling in New England. Christmas was a great day for all the local bars. Additionally, by the early 1800s Puritans no longer had the moral and political authority to hold off Christmas. They were no longer a unified group and had divided into conservative and liberal factions. And the
liberal Puritans, who were on the verge of becoming Unitarians, began to call for the public observance of Christmas.
Conservative and liberal Puritans divided on their beliefs about the nature of people and the nature of conversion. Conservatives believed people were naturally bad, based on the doctrine of original sin, but liberals believed people were naturally good because all people were created by God. Conservatives believed true Christian conversion was an emotional, spirit-filled moment. Liberals believed conversion happened through education and the development of character based on following the teachings of Jesus.
Christmas, the Unitarians believed, could be a holiday to promote their values of generosity and charity and social good, and would be a wonderful way to build these values, particularly in children. Unitarians at that time were obsessed with how to raise generous children with good characters. Tradition said the evil must be beaten from a child, but Unitarians did not believe it. Still, how did you raise a child who was kind, generous, and good? This was brand new ground and Unitarian parents were understandably anxious about it. Celebrating Christmas, many felt, had the potential to help.
Part 2 will be published next week!