Now that I’m in my 30s, I often reflect on who I’ve become and where my life is going. I’m lucky to be privileged enough to have the time and means to visit this beautiful property a few times a year to clear my head, do some writing and commune with nature.
I wish to show my appreciation for everything I have and all the things I’ve learned so far. But how? And to whom or what do I give thanks?
As I hike across the prairie, away from the stone chapel, I consider the upcoming holiday designated to giving thanks. I think of my family — my brother, our spouses, our children, and my mother — soon to be gathered around a table full of delectable foods.
Our Catholic upbringing ingrained in us since childhood that dinner is off-limits until we hold hands, bow our heads and my mother recites “Bless us, O, Lord, and these, Thy gifts,” or my brother offers a freestyle list of how we have all been blessed by God. I hold their hands, but instead of bowing my head and closing my eyes, I simply wait. I appreciate that they are thankful, and I’m thankful for the same things they are. But sitting at the table, eyes open, mouth closed, I appear ungrateful to them.
And then Christmas arrives soon after. Some people go out of their way to remind us that “Christ is the reason for the season,” and insist the proper way to greet people is with a “Merry Christmas” instead of the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” Their insistence that all gratitude and celebration must be devoted to a Christian God excludes not only people of other faiths, but atheists like me; it inflicts a guilt of sorts on those who just want to enjoy the snow, the trees, the twinkle lights. They dismiss our perspective by telling us it’s not enough to wish each other a happy holiday season ― thanks are always owed to God.
But my experience after leaving Catholicism proves otherwise.
Even when God is gone, gratefulness remains.
The Talmud teaches that Adam created in Late September noticed during the first three months of his life how the days slowly became shorter and shorter – He said: Woe to me, because of my sin the world is getting darker … and will return to a world of darkness and confusion. This must be my death sentence. Instead of accepting this imminent fate, Adam overcame his depression and took upon himself to fast, pray and repent. After eight days, Adam noticed that the days indeed had begun to lengthen. Realizing that this is ‘minhago shel olam’ [the way of the world or nature], he made a celebration for eight days giving thanksgiving to the Almighty. The next year, he made these days holidays.
The Rabbis explain that Adam had good intentions when making these holidays; however his offspring turned them into holidays of … nature worship. The Talmud tells us that this is the origin of Saturna and Kalenda which we explained eventually became Christmas and New Years.
But whether you consider yourself a Christian or not — and UUs vary widely in how we relate to Christianity —it’s also a holiday we can’t ignore. From Thanksgiving on, and perhaps even sooner, we are assaulted by Christmas from all sides: the music, decorations, office parties, Christmas-themed movies and TV specials, expectations about gifts and dinners.
There is no getting away from Christmas. So what can we do with it?
Christians often remind us not to let the holiday drift away from what they see as its original purpose. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” appears on billboards or church signboards or in public service announcements. “Jesus,” we’re told “is the reason for the season.”
That message shows up in popular culture as well. When Charlie Brown, at the depth of his pre-holiday frustration, pleads “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus responds by reciting Luke’s account of angels appearing to shepherds, announcing “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord”. The angels close with “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.”
“That,” Linus concludes, “is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Without the birth of Jesus, the cartoon seems to say, Christmas is basically empty, and can only devolve into some kind of materialistic nightmare: commercial Christmas, with its greed for presents and the constant urging to buy more and more; or high-pressure Christmas, where there are too many things to do, too many people to see, too much food to cook, and the persistent feeling that there is a perfect Christmas, a way things are supposed to be, but that you are just not up to making it happen.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Grinch hates Christmas, and believes he can bring an end to it if he steals all of Whoville’s presents and decorations and preparations for feasting. And though the Grinch is to that point the villain of the story, I wonder how many of the stressed-out parents who watch that cartoon with their children each year secretly feel the same temptation: to take every part and parcel of Christmas up to the top of Mount Crumpit to dump it.
But at that point in the story something interesting happens, or rather, doesn’t happen: No one mentions Jesus. What turns the Grinch around, what makes his heart grow three sizes — presumably from unusually small to moderately large — is that the Whos down in Whoville, who have no presents, no decorations, and nothing to feast on, still come out of their homes, join hands, and sing.
It’s not the chorus of angels that Linus describes, it’s the voice of the community. Not the promise of peace and good will in Christ’s millennial kingdom, but the offer of human good will, right here, right now. “Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.”
So the Grinch is turned around not just “without packages, boxes, or bags”, but also without Jesus. How could it be so?
The Grinch is far from the only example of a character whose Christmas miracle has little to do with Christianity. An angel appears in the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but not to announce the birth of the Savior, or to assure George Bailey that the sacrifices he has made for others will win him a better life in Heaven. Instead, the angel shows George that his Earthly life has been meaningful in itself. There’s a profound difference between the Bedford Falls George loves and the hellish vision of Pottersville the angel shows him. But the cause of that difference isn’t Jesus, it’s George Bailey.
And of course the patron saint of humanistic Christmas stories is Ebenezer Scrooge, whose tale has been told and retold in hundreds of different ways since Charles Dickens first imagined him in 1843. Again, there is a supernatural element to the story, but not a particularly Christian one. The message the ghosts bring to Scrooge isn’t the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it’s that death is coming one way or another, and that love is the best thing we can do with life while we have it.
These stories are just part of large humanistic Christmas tradition that has built up over the last 200 years or so. Without a lot of fanfare, a meaningful humanistic holiday of Christmas has formed alongside the Christian holiday, to the point that it is now possible — in spite of what Linus says — to have a deep Christmas experience with or without Christianity.
Today I want to talk about how that happened and why it works. And if I dive into this topic in a little more detail than might otherwise be necessary, it’s because I have an ulterior motive: I’m coming back here on Palm Sunday to talk about what UUs can do with Easter.
I find Easter to be a far more difficult holiday than Christmas, largely because the secular culture has yet to humanize Easter the way it has humanized Christmas. There is no Scrooge of Easter, no Grinch, no wonderful life. In 1897, The New York Sun assured eight-year-old Virginia that Santa Claus exists “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist”. But there is no comparable defense of the Easter Bunny, and it’s hard to imagine one.
So while Easter can be a meaningful holiday for Christians and an enjoyable one for children, it’s much harder to say what message it has for the rest of us. How can Easter work with or without Christianity? That’s a hard question, which is why I want to take on the easier one first: How did we come to have the option of a meaningful Humanist Christmas?
I think the example of Humanist Christmas teaches us three basic principles about how you build a new holiday inside an older one: First, the new holiday shouldn’t fight the old holiday head-on. Creating a humanistic version of Christmas didn’t involve building an anti-Christmas that debunks the story of Jesus or inverts the Christian message.
Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”, for example, is quite the opposite of skeptical. I imagine that many Christians of 1843 saw it as an affirmation of their tradition, not the beginning of a rebellion against it. Similarly, Christians can feel their values affirmed, not denied, by the selfless life of George Bailey.
But it would be hard to get away from the Christian nature of Christmas if every tradition for celebrating the holiday were tightly integrated with the Christian mythos and Christian theology. So the second principle of new holidays is to recognize just how few of the old holiday’s traditions have any connection to what the holiday claims to be about. Lacking that connection, those traditions can fit the new holiday just as well as the old one.
For example, the Bethlehem story is fundamentally about a poor nuclear family spending the night in a stable because they are cut off from any friends or relatives who might take them in. And yet somehow the central celebration of Christmas is a great feast shared by the entire extended family. That bountiful Christmas dinner might be the one time all year when you see all the cousins and uncles and grandchildren in the same place.
A gathering like that says more about our culture than it does about Christianity. We have that big family dinner not because Mary and Joseph did, but because that’s how we like to celebrate. Even if you were raised in a devout Christian family, chances are that most of the Christmas traditions you remember fondly — the foods you make, movies you watch, how you open presents, and so on — have very little Christian content.
Many of the traditions now associated with Christmas date back to holidays that preceded Christmas. Ten years ago, the journal History Today published an article with this first paragraph: “It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival.”
The poet Catullus referred to Saturnalia as “optimo dierum”, literally “the best of days”, or, translating more loosely “the most wonderful time of the year”. Similarly, the Yule log and evergreens come from a Teutonic winter holiday. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The Christian mythos extended itself to capture and explain these traditions — we give presents to commemorate the gifts of the Magi, the star of the top of the tree is the star of Bethlehem, and so on — but often the traditions were there before Christianity came along to explain them. So nothing should stop us from re-interpreting these traditions in new ways that harmonize with our beliefs and are meaningful to us.
The third principle of new holidays is that most holidays have their roots in shared human experiences that go back much further than any recorded history. The new holiday can tap into those primordial roots just as authentically as the old holiday does. In the case of Christmas, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lucy, and many other December holidays, it’s clear what that primordial experience was: the Winter Solstice.
Perhaps you were amused by the Talmudic myth in the reading, of Adam experiencing the shortening days of Autumn for the first time, and fearing that the Sun would go away forever. But if you put yourself back into the mindset of hunter-gatherer tribes, that is not such a crazy thought.
We spend so much our lives indoors that it is hard to recapture ancient peoples’ experience of the sky and the Sun. The Sun was not just their source of light and warmth, it was their compass and their timepiece. They would have paid great attention to its path across the sky. In particular, each Fall they would have noticed how that path was sinking.
In mid Summer, when the Sun is strongest, it climbs high into the sky and passes almost directly overhead. But as Fall progresses, the Sun seems to get increasingly feeble. It rises later and sets sooner. Its path across the sky gets closer and closer to the horizon, as if it no longer had the strength to climb all the way up.
At some point, just about every intelligent child must have had the same thought as Adam: Is the Sun’s path going to keep sinking? In another few weeks, will the Sun just vanish over the horizon and be gone forever?And the answer to those questions could not have been very satisfying. Remember, at this point no one knows how the tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the seasons as the planet orbits the Sun. No one communicates with people in the opposite hemisphere, who can verify that the Sun is still quite strong where they are. And to the primitive eye, there is no obvious reason for the Sun to turn around where it does. It’s not like it bounces off some visible barrier.
No, the only answer available at that point in history is that the Sun will start climbing higher in the sky again because it always does. The Winter Solstice has never failed before. We’ve got it timed out; we know when it’s supposed to happen. Wait and see.
But given that the question is whether all of life will end in cold and darkness, an answer like “It’s never done that before” is only reassuring up to a point. There’s a first time for everything, after all.
So I imagine that at this time of year, even the oldest, wisest people in the village, the ones who had seen Winter Solstice arrive on schedule dozens and dozens of times, would study the sky with a certain anxiety. It’s one thing to know that it always happens this way. But to see that it actually is happening yet again — that the Sun has already started to gain strength and move higher in the sky than it did yesterday — that must have been a tremendous relief. Of course you’d have a big celebration.
It’s striking to realize just how many of the themes of Christmas are already baked in to the ancient experience of the Winter Solstice. That the Sun turns for no reason we can see, that it stops moving away from us and starts coming back, can only be described as a miracle. And so the Winter Solstice reaffirms the possibility of miracles. The season of the Solstice becomes a time of magic, a time when anything might happen.
The turning of the Sun easily becomes a symbol of all the other things we wish would turn around. Things that have been getting worse for a very long time may, for no reason that we can see, turn around and start getting better. If the Sun can turn around, who knows what else might turn around? And so the Winter Solstice becomes a season of hope.
And let’s picture that hope in a little more detail. Because while the Solstice may be the darkest time of the year, it usually isn’t the coldest or most dire. January and February will be colder, and very end of Winter, when the harvest surplus is long gone, the slow animals have already been caught, and every bush and tree in the forest has been picked over — that will be the time of greatest peril.
But through those trying times, the Sun will give people hope. Because however difficult the rest of Winter might be, the days will slowly but steadily get longer. The Sun is gaining strength, and that’s how you know that the hard times will not last forever. Eventually the Sun will win, and there will be Spring and Summer and the harvest.
What is celebrated on the Solstice then, is not that we are saved from Winter immediately, but that the process of our salvation has begun. So if your religion includes a myth of the Divine Child, the one who cannot save us yet, but who will save us when he is grown, there is a natural time for that child to be born. To the Romans, December 25 was the feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible Sun. Mithras, the Persian savior/god who became the central figure of a mystery cult popular among the Roman legions, was born on December 25. The Bible does not say when Jesus was born. But when the early Christians decided to celebrate a birthday, it was clear what day that had to be.
Those three principles put us in a position to list the content of a humanist Christmas, and to see how it comes to have that content authentically — not stealing it from Christianity, but harvesting it from the same sources.
Humanist Christmas is a time of celebration. It is a time for gathering together family and friends, for feasting and decorating and exchanging gifts. It is a time of generosity, both materially and spiritually. It is also a time of hope, and a time to make one more try at something, not because you’re sure it will work, but because you never know. Sometimes things turn around for no reason that you can see, so it’s worth creating the opportunity.
In particular, it’s worth sending out one more invitation and making one more phone call, even if you think the answer will be no. It’s worth trying to heal divisions, because the people who seem lost to you, the ones who have been estranged from you or the family or the community for a very long time, might, this time, turn around and start coming back. No one expected the Grinch to carve the roast beast. Scrooge’s nephew Fred never stopped inviting the old man for Christmas, and then one year he came, and kept coming every year after. Dickens doesn’t tell us whether Fred ever understood why.
Or perhaps you are the one who has been estranged for too long. Perhaps it is you who needs to turn around, and, this year, come home for the holidays.
And finally, Humanist Christmas is also a time to think big, to reach beyond what you know is possible and to dream of things that may or may not be possible. Saving the world. Peace on Earth. If the Sun can turn around, then maybe the human race can turn around too.
I claim that is a complete holiday. Nothing is missing. There is no Jesus-shaped hole in it, unless you bring an expectation of Jesus with you.
But if you do, that brings me around to my final point. The title of talk promised not a Humanist Christmas, but a UU Christmas, which is a bit different. Because one of the essential features of Unitarian Universalism is that you get to be exactly as Christian as you need to be. No more and no less.
Our closing hymn, which we’ll sing in a few minutes, provides a good example of a 19th-century Unitarian being exactly as Christian as he needed to be, and using a traditional Christmas motif to say something that he believed the people of his day needed to hear.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” has become a Christmas standard. And if you only sing the first verse, you might think it’s yet another song about angels appearing to shepherds. But the music belies that interpretation, because it’s not celebratory, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or triumphant like “Joy to the World”. Although the melody is lovely, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a tinge of sadness that you won’t find in other Christmas carols.
There’s a reason for that. The year was 1849, and the United States had just fought a war for territory, the Mexican War. To many, that war was a disappointing sign that America had lost its idealism and was on its way to becoming a war-fighting empire like all the other empires.
And so, when the Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears sat down to write his carol, what he has in mind wasn’t to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was to lament all the wisdom and all the chances for peace that humanity has squandered over the centuries. In short, Sears didn’t just rehash a Christmas tradition for its own sake, he made it work for him.
That’s what we should do too. If it works for you to make Jesus the reason for the season, you absolutely should. If it honestly fills you with joy to sing that the Lord has come, then sing away. If your Christmas wouldn’t be complete without angels, and wise men and shepherds, by all means have angels and wise men and shepherds. If God feels closer to you at Christmas than at any other time of the year, then you would be foolish to ignore that feeling.
But if, the other hand, you find the Christian aspects of Christmas to be meaningless, or even off-putting, then you can let them go without guilt or regret. Because there is plenty of holiday still to celebrate.
A Unitarian Universalist Christmas means being exactly as Christian as you need to be, to have the fullest, deepest, most meaningful Christmas you can.