Adapted from Rev. Tracy Springberry
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In the 1800s, the Unitarians were trendsetters. They were well-educated, often wealthy, and had access to and control of the media. Unitarian thinkers began to write about Christmas, bringing their values and theology to the forefront of the conversation.
One of the most influential moments in this transformation of Christmas was the publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 by Clement Moore, a Unitarian. Moore invented the Santa Claus we all know and love. Before that there was no unified tradition of a Christmas visitor bringing gifts to all. “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” wrote Moore, “And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself! A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”
Moore transformed St. Nicholas from a Catholic bishop known for acts of charity, to a Unitarian. Moore’s Santa Claus believed in the worth and dignity of every child, and that all deserved some kindness and pleasure. He reminds us of our responsibility to be kind and generous to one another. Later it was another Unitarian, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, who placed Santa on the North Pole as message that he existed for all the children of the world.
The Unitarians also brought us the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree had become a symbol of the holiday in Germany in the 1700s. One Christmas Charles Follen, a German immigrant, a Unitarian and the first German professor at Harvard, invited several colleagues to his home where he had put up a tree lit with candles and covered with ornaments as he remembered from his childhood.
In a short time, middle-class Americans were celebrating Christmas by putting up Christmas trees.
Unitarians also brought us family gift giving, especially the tradition of children giving to parents. Again the tradition came from Germany. Samuel Coleridge, the Unitarian poet famous for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” traveled to Germany one winter, and there he saw a ritual around a fir tree, where not only did the children receive gifts from their parents, but they also gave their parents gifts.
Coleridge loved how this tradition taught children about generosity and unselfishness, and his story about it was published in The Christian Register, the official Unitarian magazine of the time. This was one of the great answers to the Unitarian question—how do we teach generosity? This gift exchange among parents and children became part of the Christmas tradition, not only in Unitarian homes, but also in homes across the country.
Unitarians also brought us Christmas charity. They believed our responsibility as a religious people was to follow the teachings of Christ, and an important part of those teachings was care for the poor. The publication of The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, a British Unitarian, brought charity to the forefront of Christmas. A Christmas Carol is steeped in the Unitarian theology of the spirit of Jesus and that how we treat each other matters deeply.
And we believe it: not just modern-day Unitarian Universalists, but most people who celebrate the season. At Christmas we make sure, like Santa in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” that all children receive gifts, that the food banks are full of food, and that at least for these few weeks people everywhere are cared for.