Who Stole Christmas? T’was the Unitarians

By Julie Brock, Ministerial Intern

Before Christmas became about peace, love and department stores it was at the crux of a culture war. The Unitarians were able to put a stop to the debate by taking Christmas into their own hands in the 1800s.

Christmas, before its 19th century Unitarian makeover, was very bacchanalian. Christmas became a thing in the 4th century when the church wanted to attribute Pagan winter festivals to something Christian.

During the winter months agrarian cultures with bountiful food and little work to do… liked to party. They would have huge festivals, drink heavily, and commit lascivious acts. It was so pervasive in the culture, that the church at the time felt it had to have a stake in the celebration game. They named December 25 Jesus’ birthday and declared that all winter celebrations were in his name.

The party followed Christendom throughout its European expansion and over to Puritan New England, where folks were not at all keen on acts of gluttony and lust being committed in Jesus’ name. In 1659 Massachusetts declared it illegal to celebrate Christmas, and a culture war ensued. Preachers would urge congregants against the evils of Christmas, while bawdy tunes were sung outside the church doors.

It was clear by the mid-1800s that the 200 year-long war against Christmas was being lost. Many who were not Puritan at all had moved into New England and they quite enjoyed the celebrations. A new religious ruling elite, the Unitarians, had taken the place of the Puritans as the arbiters of what was good culture, naming many great authors, poets, politicians, and speakers among their ranks.

The Unitarians had few objections to Christmas on terms of it being historically inaccurate, or too much of a good time. They did, as members of the wealthy elite, have some problem with the looting of the rich, and destruction of property that had become common to the holiday.

The Unitarians decided that they would use their power of cultural persuasion to make Christmas about peace, goodwill and quiet. Suddenly, Christmas songs were all about silent nights and angels sleeping. “Peace on the earth and good will toward men… the world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing,” wrote Edmund Sears, Massachusetts Unitarian turned carol writer.

“T’was the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” wrote Clement Moore, another Unitarian Minister. In this poem you have your first description of St. Nicolas, as what we know now as Santa Claus. St. Nick was a Turkish clergyman who, wearing his cardinal red robes, had given all of his wealth to the needy during the cold winter months in Turkey. Moore turned him into a jolly toymaker.

A page from Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas".

A page from Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”.

The Unitarian’s strategy didn’t stop there. Knowing that children were the key to keeping families indoors, the Unitarian-led culture began to focus on goodness and giving as a key element to the season. Charles Dickens, another Unitarian, wrote what might be considered the new Christmas gospel when he composed “A Christmas Carol,” denouncing Scrooges everywhere. Children were encouraged to be “nice” in exchange for presents. Families who couldn’t afford lush presents were made gifts by wealthy, often Unitarian families, and the children were told simply that Santa brought them.

An engraving featuring a family gathered around a Christmas Tree.

The “Christmas Tree” from Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1860.

The crowning cultural achievement was when Charles Follen, another Unitarian Minister, unlocked the secret to keeping the children indoors. In the tradition of his Germanic heritage, Follen was accustomed to keeping evergreen things inside and adorned with candles. In 1832, he brought an entire tree indoors and decorated it. Seeing a tree indoors and all lit up fascinated the children. Follen’s sister wrote for a popular magazine at the time, the Godey’s Lady’s Book, in which she instructed women on how to get their children to behave well, and stay inside using the trick of a “Christmas tree.” The next year several families had one.

In a few short years the Unitarian cultural elite transformed Christmas from a celebratory ruckus, to a calm occasion that focused on decoration and gift giving. If you are one of the many who laments that Christmas is not about family values or the birth of Jesus… well… it never really was. And if you feel that now it’s a bit too culturally pervasive and focused on consumerism, we have only ourselves to blame.

This post is a preview of the January edition of The Madison Unitarian. Subscribe by becoming a member of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.


Service Sunday Recipes

On Service Sunday, our Food Hauler team served up a storm. Many a member has requested the recipes. Thanks to Emily and Trudy for sending these along!

Super Food Salad
Serves 5 generously, 8 as a small salad.


  • 1 bag of baby kale, washed and torn into bite size pieces
  • 1 c cooked quinoa (any kind works)
  • 1 c cooked french lentils (du puy) – can also use brown lentils, which are easier to find, but they don’t have the same taste/toothsomeness
  • 1 small beet, shredded (don’t need to peel if it’s small)
  • 1/2 c shredded carrots
  • 1/2 c dried apricots, chopped fine OR dried blueberries or currants
  • 2 T toasted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or walnuts
  • 1/4 c crumbled feta, optional


  1. Toss the quinoa and lentils with 1 T of dressing.
  2. Just before serving, drizzle dressing over salad greens and toss thoroughly. Add the rest of the ingredients and toss just until combined

Makes 1.5 c – store extra in fridge for future salads.

  • 1 cup neutral salad oil, such as canola
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 t salt (or less, to taste)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Use an immersion blender to blend oil, garlic and shallots. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until emulsified. If you don’t have an immersion blender, shake vigorously until blended.

Refrigerator Pickles

  • 2 cucumbers, sliced 1/4″ or thinner
  • 1 small onion, slice in half, pole to pole, then slice thinly
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1/2 c white vinegar
  • 1/2 c water
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 dill flower

Stir water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a small pan and bring to boil.
Toss cucumbers, onions and dill together in bowl. Pour hot liquid over. Let cool and refrigerate until serving. Make at least 2 hours ahead so they have time to cool. Stored in fridge, will last for a month.


A letter to Madison’s Chief of Police

Last Friday, local activist group Young, Gifted and Black held a rally in support of their leader, Brandi Grayson.

Michael Schuler, our Senior Minister, wrote the following letter to Chief Koval to address the police’s alleged harassment of Grayson.

September 7, 2015

Dear Chief Mike Koval:

I have been following with both interest and growing concern recent reports about Brandi Grayson, a leader of Madison’s Young Gifted and Black Coalition, and her dealings with the Madison Police Department.   Ms. Grayson and her allies claim that she is being singled out and harassed because of her outspoken criticism of your department’s unbending policy on the use of deadly force and the excessive number of arrests and detentions of Madison’s residents of color.

An objective observer might agree that Grayson has offered valid arguments on both scores; and while it is certainly true that she often indulges in strong rhetoric and even hyperbole to drive home her points, this speaks to the frustration she and many others feel about a society that for decades has failed to come to grips with its racial inequities.  Brandi Grayson is provocative, passionate and articulate.  I have heard her speak on several occasions, including as a guest presenter at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, where I have served as Senior Minister for twenty-seven years.   She is prepared to practice civil disobedience, but has never advocated nor employed violent tactics.  I do not always agree with her, but I do believe she has a right to her opinions, stated publicly, even if public servants like you and your officers find them distasteful.

Chief Koval, you have told the press that you do not believe that such “targeting” has taken place and that the examples Ms. Grayson cited were the result of “miscommunication,” “a volatile crowd scene” and, mere “coincidence.”   At the same time you stated that “we cannot sit idly by and permit inflammatory rhetoric to go unchecked as though it was ’fact.’”   The latter sounds suspiciously like an admission of culpability.

I have lived in this community for over a quarter of a century and in the past have had nothing but admiration for “Madison’s Finest.”  I am not passing judgment here, but Ms. Grayson’s reports do raise serious questions.   I trust that you will take every necessary step to ensure that even your critics are treated with the respect and forbearance that all citizens in a free and open society deserve.


The Rev. Dr. Michael A. Schuler
Senior Minister, The First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI


On September 26-27, First Unitarian Society will host its first Black Lives Matter weekend. All those in Madison are invited to attend and join us in honoring black lives lost.


Love on parade at Madison Pride

The sun came out on Sunday as hundreds of people prepared to march up State Street to show love and support for Madison’s LGBTQ communities. Madison’s three Unitarian Universalist congregations, FUS, James Reeb, and Prairie, marched together under the Standing on the Side of Love banner.

Marching towards the Capitol and around the square carried important symbolism – we need to continue Wisconsin’s tradition of leading the nation in legislative change for LGBTQ people.

View the photo gallery

This year, the theme of the parade was “the T is not silent”, meaning that gay and queer people, along with straight allies, need to be vocal champions of transgender rights. Speaking at the rally that followed the parade were Darla Lannert, an advocate for transgender veterans, and Christina Kahrl, a sports journalist who famously came out as trans on ESPN 12 years ago. Both women spoke of how, for transgender people, being visible in the world blazes a trail for young trans people coming to terms with who they are.

The crowd cheered when Kahrl said “love is a revolutionary act”.

The parade was organized by our community partner Outreach, which provides support services to members of Madison’s LGBTQ communities.

First Unitarian Society is an LGBTQ welcoming congregation.


The Unfunded Mandate to Create the Wright Trail

By Andy Gussert, FUS COO

Frank Lloyd Wright and Marshall Erdmann

Our public sites noticed tour visitors – whether from New Glarus or Norway  — were usually driving to or from another Wright location. A “Wright Trail” has been unofficially trampled down over the past twenty years, with local tours, maps and language developed informally over time by enthusiasts.

In April, staff from public sites gathered at Taliesin to brainstorm a blueprint for what a more developed route might entail. Understanding southern Wisconsin is a unique epicenter of Wright edifices, we sketched out some pathways for people to ‘Travel Wright Wisconsin’ from Racine to Spring Green. Continue reading “The Unfunded Mandate to Create the Wright Trail” »


News From the Red Floors, July 31 – August 6 2015

This Sunday I have the honor of inviting a special guest up to the pulpit.Andy Gussert


Mark Pocan, like FUS, has been an ethical voice of reason in Madison for over two decades.


He served three terms on the Dane County Board, fourteen years in the  Assembly, and the past three years in Congress. A small business owner, union member and advocate of progressive causes, Mark has worked across the aisle with conservatives, and also moved the center to the left by articulately reframing issues. 


He’s learned that “Values Unite, Issues Divide”, and will be sharing his reflections and experience with us here on Sunday.  You may want to come early, as it could be a full house. 

See you there, 

Andy Gussert, COO


Just Four Teachers Left to Find
The Children’s RE program has four… ONLY 4!… teaching spots left to fill. We are so close I can practically taste the joy of knowing that all of our teaching teams are FULL! So, what’s left that you can help close the gap on?
Saturdays: one teacher needed for Building Bridges (6th grade).
Sundays 9 a.m.,:one teacher needed for Celebrating Me & My World (pre-K).
Sundays at 11 a.m.: one teacher needed for Experiences with the Web of Life (K-1st) and one for Holidays and Holy Days (2nd-3rd grade). Interested? Contact Leslie at fusmadison.org/DRE

Continue reading “News From the Red Floors, July 31 – August 6 2015” »


News From the Red Floors, July 24 to 30 2015

Hi there,
Please join us this Sunday as Kelly delves into how we can see one another and ourselves for who we truly are.

Harpist Linda Warren will play music of Claude Debussy, so it will a lovely way to spend the morning here at FUS! The coffee/tea/lemonade will be ready for you.

We will be welcoming seven new members during our July Book Signing after all services, so look forward to welcoming them for their commitment to our Society.
I look forward to seeing you here!

Jeanne Sears
Coordinator of Member Programs


This Sunday in Summer Fun!
What happens when we build a home that has LOTS of outdoor space? We’ll find out what the lovable bear Henry does in Henry Builds a Cabin by D.B. Johnson. (Henry is inspired by Henry David Thoreau!) Then we’ll build our own “home.” What kind of nature do YOU want surrounding you? Summer Fun is for children ages 4-12 and is offered during the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday worship services.
Parents: please sign in with Leslie as you enter the Atrium building.

Continue reading “News From the Red Floors, July 24 to 30 2015” »


News from the Red Floors, July 17-23 2015

Dear friends,

It is good to be back with you at the Meeting House. For the past couple of weeks I have been away getting some much needed rest and family time.  Now it is back to getting ready for another fantastic year at FUS. This weekend promises to be fabulous as well.  Our services will be led by the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner who joins us from the Unitarian Society of New Haven to explore “Holy Ground.”

Musically Kim and Reggie Harris will be us sharing their blend of traditional African-American spirituals and freedom songs with original folk.  Kim and Reggie sign of life, love, the quest for freedom and the importance of community.  Their music makes you want to sing, celebrate and enjoy the goodness of this life we share.

Please join us!

With gratitude and love,

Minister of Congregational Life

Summer Fun! 

This Sunday during Summer Fun we are going to “Search for What is True,” on our beautiful grounds. Get ready for a fun treasure hunt! All children ages 4-12 are welcome to join us, no advanced registration needed. Just sign in with Abby Whisler at the Greeter’s table so we know to count you in.

Fall Anti-Racism Workshop
Community engagement group Groundwork is hosting a 6-week workshop in the Meeting House this Fall. It is geared towards white people interested in prioritizing racial justice individually and collectively. Register at groundworkmadison.com/workshops


Elves Wanted
FUS’ Family-to-Family Holiday Giving program needs more elves for the upcoming holiday season. Can you offer our committee just a few hours of your time between September and December?
*Publicity Elf: We publicize only within FUS. Last year’s elf can walk you through it.
*F2F-to-FUS Liaison: Keeps communication between the committee and the church running smoothly.
*Co-Volunteer Coordinator: Someoneo knows, or wants to get to know, other FUS members and coax them into helping.

If you can help or want to know more, please call Susan Dinauer at 233-2385, 235-8698 or via sdinauer@gmail.com

Volunteer at Dane Dances
The objective of Dane Dances is to provide an environment where relationships can grow between people of different backgrounds in Dane County. Volunteer or come along. More at danedances.org


Awesome orchids
A coordinated effort by master woodworker Dave Weber and artist Tom Garver, both FUS parishioners, will ensure that the Atrium pulpit will always be adorned with fresh flowers. Dave is crafting a maple planter using leftover scrap from the building of the Atrium. Tom purchased six phalaenopsis orchid plants for it. So, when no one has signed up as a flower donor in the flower calendar you’ll see blooming orchids, thanks to Dave and Tom.


Dying Wise with Author Stephen Jenkinson
Thursday, July 30
“Die Wise” teaches the skills of dying, skills that have to be learned in the course of living deeply and well. Author Stephen Jenkinson shares his insight at this intimate event. Doors open at 6.30 p.m. on July 30. $10 suggested donation. To guarantee a seat, please register through Eventbrite at:


What Matters: Faith & Values Shaping Economic Justice
Tuesday, August 4
National Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director, Rudy Lopez, will give a talk and interactive workshop on worker justice. Rudy’s workshop will remind participants that, drawing on our faith and values, we already have what we need to see beyond the austerity budget and move Wisconsin forward as an economically just society. 7 p.m., August 4. Spanish interpretation provided. Donations encouraged.


Pride Parade
Sunday, August 9
Our congregation will march as Standing On The Side Of Love alongside James Reeb UU Congregation and Prairie UU Society. The parade begins at 1pm August 9th. Please wear your Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt or wear yellow. If you plan to march, please alert Elizabeth Barrett via ebarrett@tds.net. We need people to carry the 12-foot-long banner plus our smaller banners and a few folks to learn a simple flag routine to perform along the route. The Parade route begins on State Street and marches up to and around Capitol Square. Details at lgbtoutreach.org


Get your Standing On the Side of Love t-shirt
Bright yellow tshirts are worn by UUs at public events to show that they stand together against oppression. It is perfect to where to Pride and any other event where love needs a presence. Save on shipping and get yours for $20 in the Commons on Sunday.


Opportunity to tour Dane County Jail
Thursday, August 13
FUS’ MOSES Ministry Team is providing an opportunity to tour the Dane County Jail on August 13th at 7:00 pm. The deadline for signing up, which includes filling out a form, is July 30th. Please email Juli Loker for details at lokerfam@gmail.com or call 608-231-9163.


Service Sunday: Save The Date
Sunday, August 23
Each year FUS members and friends get out and contribute to a number of projects in our community. Registrations will be open soon online and in the Commons after services. Stay tuned!


Join in our annual art fair
Applications are now being accepted for Art in the Wright Place, FUS’s annual (and wonderful!) art fair. Art in the Wright Place will be held on Sunday, November 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. This sale is an excellent opportunity for area and FUS artists to sell their handmade items while raising funds for our Children’s Religious Education programs. Previous media have included fibre arts, photography, jewelry, origami, pottery, beadwork, woodwork, quilting, basketry, art glass, watercolor, and more. For more information, go to fusmadison.org/artfair; or to apply, go to fusmadison.org/artreg.


As you travel, gather the waters.
Water Communion is on August 30.