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.
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.
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.