12 UU Gifts to the Christmas Tradition

Unitarians and Universalists combined in 1961 to form Unitarian-Universalism, a liberal Christian religion that holds several principles in common, among those being social justice, and an appreciation of the diversity of religious practices of other religions.

Today it is Christmas, and I wanted to share with readers the 12 gifts that Unitarians or Universalists have given to the Christmas tradition, at least as it is practiced in the United States.    These gifts reflect the principles I mentioned above.    These historical footnotes were taken from a sermon given by Rev. Denise Tracy, who was the celebrant for our Christmas Eve service last year.

  1. In the American colonies in the 1700s, while the Pilgrims were against the celebration of Christmas, Unitarians began celebrating Christmas by serving others on that day, particular the poor and less fortunate.   A narrative description of this can be found in the beginning of the story “Little Women” written by Unitarian Louisa May Alcott.
  2. In 1798, a British Unitarian, Samuel Coleridge, wrote in an article for the Christian Register, a British Unitarian newspaper, about the German tradition of giving gifts on Christmas.    As a result, the idea of gift giving began in Unitarian homes in England and then spread across the ocean to the USA shortly afterwards.
  3. In 1821, a baby girl named Clara Barton was born in the early hours of Christmas day.   She became known as the “Other Christmas Baby.”  She grew up as a Universalist, became a nurse during the Civil War and later founded the Red Cross.   (This is more of a gift from Christmas to the Unitarian-Universalist tradition.)
  4. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore, a Unitarian, wrote a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”   By that time, Christmas was a religious celebration, but he wanted to have Christmas as a holiday to be enjoyed by children as well.    The poem became well-known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
  5. In 1825, a Unitarian scholar named John Bowering, wrote the Christmas song “Watchman, Tell us of the Night,” which advocates the values of peace and truth.
  6. In 1833, a Unitarian Minister named Charles Follen placed a Christmas tree in a public building for the first time in America, at the Unitarian Church in Lexington, MA.
  7. In 1843, the British Unitarian Charles Dickens wrote the Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits that try to make him repent for his selfishness and hard-heartedness.   In the end of the story, Tiny Tim proclaims the Universalist sentiment “God bless us every one!”
  8. In 1847, a Catholic named Placide Cappeau was commissioned to write a poem entitled “Cantique Noel.”   He asked his colleague, Adolph Charles Adams, to write the music.   When it was discovered that the music was written by a Jew, the music was forbidden to be performed in the Catholic Church.   In the USA in 1855, an ardent Unitarian abolitionist named John Sullivan Dwight, translated Cantique Noel into English, and we know it now by the title “O Holy Night.”
  9. In 1857, an abolitionist named James Pierpont, who was a Unitarian minister in the Savannah Unitarian Church in Georgia, was missing his home in Massachusetts in the wintertime when he wrote the song “Jingle Bells.”
  10. In 1849, Europe was embroiled in war and the USA invaded Mexico.  Unitarian W. P. Hunt wanted a hymn with a vision of Peace for the World, and since he didn’t find any that he liked, he wrote “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”
  11. In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s only son was severely wounded in the Civil War.    His wife was in the midst of melting sealing wax, when she accidentally set fire to her own gauzy clothing and was enveloped in flames.   She died the next day.   On Christmas morning, Longfellow heard the bells from the church and wrote the song “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day”, as a way of saying that despite his personal tragedy, he would not lose faith.
  12. In 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Unitarian Universalist couple from Connecticut, Gloria Shayne and Noel Regny, wrote the words and music to “Do You Hear What I Hear?”.  They wrote it as a prayer for peace on behalf of the world’s children.

So no matter what spiritual tradition you belong to, I wanted to present you with this post showing the gifts that Unitarians and Universalists have given to the celebration of Christmas here in the United States.


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