The Christmas season begins each year for me when I hear Miss Piggy sing, “Five Gold Rings! Ba-dum bum bum…”
Since I was little, that album, John Denver and the Muppets “A Christmas Together” has been my favorite. And not just my favorite Christmas record. That’s why my first listen each year, after dinner on Thanksgiving Day, is always so special.
Early in our relationship, my husband banned me from playing it in July: only from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and even then only once per day (at least when he’s listening).
It instantly fills my heart with the simple joy and wonder of Christmas when I was five… when there was nothing in the world more thrilling than sorting out the color-coded branches of my family’s slightly battered fake Christmas tree and nothing more awe-some than sitting alone in the living room in the dark watching the lights blink on and off, illuminating ornaments my brother and I made—salt dough ornaments so dear to my mother that she still puts them on the tree 30 years later, each crumbled figure carefully packaged in a Ziploc baggie with a hole punched through for the hook.
Hearing these songs brings back memories of sitting on the floor exploring my parents’ small collection of vinyl records, trying to find the Muppets or the Chipmunks, and hearing the story of each one I’d pick up… the unknown relative who supplied a still-unopened album of bagpipe music as a wedding gift, my mom swearing that the Barry Manilow records were my dad’s, and my dad swearing that they were hers. I would open up the leatherette case of cassettes and find dusty tapes of my dad’s voice that he sent home from his lengthy Naval submarine deployments. Tiny glimpses into who my parents were as a couple and who we were as a family.
Those stories led to my parents’ stories of Christmas when they were kids… the year that my mom and her brothers cleverly peeled back the tape to peek at the gifts they had been wishing for before Christmas. My grandmother knew they had done it, of course, and returned everything. Quite a surprise for them on Christmas morning! There were also more solemn Christmas memories like the year my dad’s childhood home burned on Christmas Eve.
Even though my mom and dad, who were raised Disciples of Christ and Southern Baptist, respectively, could never find a church where they both felt at home, Christmastime became religious in a peculiar way for me. Giving was—and is—the constant bedrock in our family. And it truly was the thought that counted…not going through the motions of gift giving or dollars and hours spent in the mall. Rather, it was reflecting on the people that we love, on what we love about them, and on what matters to them that counted. It was paying attention that counted.
Because my Christian parents inadvertently managed to raise us as godless heathens, I learned and understood the stories behind the carols in my own way. A carpenter and his young wife love their beautiful new son so so much, even though he was kind of unplanned. The new mom has big dreams for her son who would grow up to be one of the world’s greatest teachers. The baby symbolically is born near the darkest night of the year, just when we need the hope of a new dawn, bringing the light of love and the potential of new life to the world. A village comes together to support the new family.
My favorite song from John Denver and the Muppets also appears in my favorite Christmas special, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, an O’Henry-esque tale about a poor widow and her son. Emmet and his Ma each secretly plot to win the Frogtown Hollow Christmas Eve talent contest in order to surprise the other with a special gift. Ma fantasizes about buying Emmet a guitar with mother-of-pearl inlay. Emmet wants to put a down payment on a used piano to replace the one Ma hocked to put food on the table. Music binds them together and keeps the memory of Pa Otter alive. So, Pa’s favorite song appears on this album, and without saying a single word about twinkling trees or Santa Claus or Jesus, it’s just about the perfect Christmas song. Here’s how it ends, “Like a baby… when it is sleeping… in its loving mother’s arms… what a newborn baby dreams is a mystery… but his life will find a purpose… and in time he’ll understand… when the river meets the sea…. When the river meets the almighty sea.”
Reflection by Bruce Gaunt
I sometimes think I was born a Unitarian Universalist, but I know I wasn’t. I grew up in New Jersey and during my first ten years my family lived in a suburban neighborhood in the little town of Maywood, just across the river from New York. My memories of religion during that time consist of attending services at the Dutch reformed church in Hackensack, with my mother and older brother. As soon as the sermon started, my mother would take from her purse a small pad of paper on which I was allowed to draw. The activity focused my attention and more importantly kept me quiet and I have no memory whatever of the minister or his sermons. I have since learned that Dutch reformed is a fairly conservative protestant Christian religion, a form of Presbyterianism.
Memories of Christmas celebrations during those years all revolve around neighborhood caroling and parties with cookies and hot chocolate and annual visits to our community by Santa in his sleigh. My visions of his arrival are fuzzy, but I am pretty sure the sleigh had wheels. On Christmas morning, my brother, Ned, and I would wake up at about 4 am and run to our parents’ bedroom, jump on their bed, and beg to go downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Our parents would usually delay us for an hour or two, but inevitably we won out. I miss that. Our children, Nathan and Hillary, now 39 and 36, had to be dragged out of bed at 9 or 10 am to begin our celebration. I don’t remember how old I was when I learned that giving is more exciting and gratifying than receiving, but I have enjoyed watching our children and now our grandchildren learn this important message.
When I was ten and Ned was fifteen, we moved to Red Bank, a town near the central Jersey shore, recently described by New Jersey magazine as “the hippest little town in New Jersey.” Count Basie was born there, Bruce Springsteen grew up near there, Jon Bonjovi lives across the river and John Stewart recently moved there.
In Red Bank, we joined the Methodist church. My brother remembers that while the Dutch reformed minister was focused on sin and forgiveness, our Methodist minister was more interested in social and community concerns. Clearly, this is one reason that my transition to Unitarian Universalism was an easy one. As I think of the liberal Methodist philosophy, I consider the faith to be a generic form of Christianity and sometimes wonder if Methodists were the ones that put the “x” in “xmas.”
At the Methodist church, I regularly attended Sunday school and was part of the Methodist youth fellowship. I have never been a scholar of history, religious or civil, so I don’t remember much about bible teachings. I do remember being given little religious education pins to wear. Each year if you had perfect attendance, you received a little dangle to hang from the pin, kind of like what the military gives you for being an expert marksman.
We celebrated Christmas in the Methodist church much the same as we do here at UUCA, with candlelight services and lots of carols and fellowship on Christmas Eve.
It’s the reason that hearing the story of Christmas and singing the familiar, if somewhat edited songs, gives me a wonderful feeling of warmth every year. That and the fact that, even without the candles, the choir loft is the warmest place in the sanctuary. I become my inner child every year when our minister says, “Christmas has come as it always does” and then recites the words of Howard Thurman’s poem, the work of Christmas:
When the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to teach the nations, to bring Christ to all, to make music in the heart.
Unitarian Universalism allows me to be open to my own childhood stories and to the stories and beliefs that come to us from other religious backgrounds. The existence of god, heaven or hell, is not what matters to me. How I live my life and in doing so, how I treat others is what is most important. So even if I wasn’t born a Unitarian universalist, I’m happy to be born again.
Reflection by Mary Ann Oakley
Christmas in the Christian tradition? That takes me back to when I was a child, growing up in the Presbyterian Church. We often went to the Christmas Eve service at church, and then were permitted to open one gift before we went to bed. Of course, my earliest childhood memories were of toys from Santa, the beautiful tree, and the smell of evergreen.
I remember the little bags of candy and an orange that we got every year at Sunday school. One of my sisters dropped her orange during the church service, and it rolled all the way down to the front. Before anyone could blink, she crawled on the floor beneath five or six pews and I don’t know how many legs, retrieved the orange, and crawled back the same way she came. I don’t remember a thing about the sermon, but I will never forget the loving laughter from the congregation. That same sister played one of the Three Wise Men in the Christmas play and sang the “Myrrh is mine” verse, off key. Families seemed to be the focus of our Presbyterian congregation, at least at Christmas time.
As we grew older, eating our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve became a family tradition, so Mama wouldn’t have to cook all day on Christmas. We were always allowed to open our one gift before going to bed with visions of sugar plums and full tummies. When I was in high school, Godfrey (we were high school sweethearts) joined us and I ate with his family on Christmas day. I remember the loving warmth of a kitchen full of good smelling food. Godfrey and I were pinned the fall of our sophomore year at Duke. My youngest sister was six at the time and was totally underfoot in the kitchen that Christmas Eve. Mama asked us to take her for a ride to see the lights so she could cook in peace. Once, as we stopped at a stoplight, Godfrey leaned over and kissed me. “Oh,” exclaimed my sister, “I’m going to tell Mama.” And she did, at the dinner table. That evoked even more of the usual laughter.
After Godfrey and I were married, we adopted the Christmas Eve dinner tradition. When we had no extended family around, we invited friends. One year we had a Jewish couple to celebrate with us, as we had celebrated a couple of Passover seders with them. Then we hosted the same two other families for more than 20 years until the children grew up and scattered, and grandparents went to be with grandchildren at Christmas. Christmas is togetherness and love, and we have had lots of that over the years.
But most of all, to me Christmas is music. I grew up singing and loving the carols—old and new–and I know all of the words to most of them. My family had them on those little 45 rpm records. For some reason, my mother and an aunt played them all day on July 4. I really don’t know why, but I loved listening! My very favorite is Handel’s Messiah. Godfrey and I have gone to hear that gorgeous music at Christmas time almost every year since sometime in our teens. I don’t subscribe to all of the theology, but I love the words and the music. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “Every valley shall be exalted.” “Unto us a child is born.” “Hallelujah!” So our house is full of Christmas music beginning right after Thanksgiving, and my car radio stays tuned to the 24/7 Sirius Christmas Pops. I can drive around, singing and celebrating as loudly as I want, and no one can tell me I’m singing off key!
Yes, to me Christmas is music, family, friends, love. Isn’t love the real message of Christianity?
Reflection by Kay Golan
When I agreed to participate in this service and began to write my reflections on Christmas from a Christian childhood, I did not expect it to give me such insight into my spiritual foundation.
Yes, my spirituality and theology have evolved but my spiritual foundation is firmly fixed in Christmas. I was raised in the Methodist faith and church in Athens Georgia in the 1950’s and 60’s– a pretty standard white middle class boomer upbringing with a significant southern flavoring. I say raised in the church because that is what they said then and because we were literally there a lot and the community had significant impact on my value shaping. Now, don’t get me wrong, my parents were not overly religious, they just believed in the value of the routine of attending church and the value of being part of a community and contributing in ways like like money, teaching Sunday school, being on the board, president of the women’s society or bringing cookies to the Christmas pageant or fried chicken to Wednesday night supper. We did not talk much about God or Jesus unless I asked, but we religiously adhered to the routine of meal blessings, attendance at events, bedtime prayers and Christmas.
So I would say that Christmas with its magic and traditions was the primary cornerstone of my spiritual education and grounding. As I said, my theology has evolved from the days of singing my first Christmas carol but the themes stay the same: Magic, The Power of Story, Hope, Community and the Spirit of Giving.
• There was magic at Christmas for me growing up. Magic of the magis who came with gifts for baby Jesus, Magic reflected in the Christmas story and The Gift of the Magi, Magic in the air when it gets crisp and cold, magic in both the colored and white twinkly lights and other sparkly things. I was taught that the magic of the unexplainable surrounded Jesus’s birth and to this day I am comfortable with the unexplainable.
The power of story
• Each year my father read the Christmas story form the family bible. We did not read from the bible much, so that alone was special. There was something special about the words rolling off his tongue, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus……” and my favorite part “ And lo, the angel of he Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shown round about them…. And the angel said, “ Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people …. ….” The power of a young couple and an innocent baby finding safety in the Nativity and being honored by earthy shepherds and educated wise men spoke to me from the first time I heard it and to this day I find it and the message of Peace on Earth, good will to men, calming and reassuring to hear on Christmas Eve. One of my favorite parts of decorating for Christmas is putting out my Nativity scene.
• And playing out the story in a Nativity scene or pageant has always been fun and joyful to me. My older sister was in the live Nativity Scene and I have been an angel, a shepherd and even a wise man in pageants over the years. But my favorite role was in high school as the narrator for the Christmas pageant dressed in a beautiful bathrobe, made by my mother, of shimmering fabric with silver and gold threads. And when I had my own child, we started a Christmas pageant with his first grade class here at UUCA and we have participated as a family every year that we have been in town with friends at Rocksprings Presbyterian’s 50 year tradition of a live nativity scene.
• Jesus’s birth meant hope. Hope that a baby for whom there was no room in the inn can achieve greatness; hope that the world could be better, hope that I can be a better person.
• Christmas always meant more community activity at our church as well as school. And our Christian faith home – be it First Methodist or St. James Methodist– provided a sense of accepting community that was at its best at Christmas.
• Also, mother, like many women, was the keeper of the calendar and connectivity with groups at the church and community. She was a long time member of a sewing circle – her women friends who usually worked on Christmas ornaments or crafts all year. I have brought this Christmas ball, hand made by my mother, one of 20 that decorate my tree today, to honor my mother and sense of community.
Spirit of Giving
• When cruel children at school teased me because of my belief in Santa, I asked my father, “ Is Santa Real?” He paused a long time, pondering in his heart no doubt, because he always told the truth and then he said, “Honey, Santa is a spirit, the spirit of Giving in fact – giving at Christmas and throughout the year and we do not understand how all that works —- except that it is more blessed to give than receive.” I did not ask more questions for I was comforted and was able to hear the bell, mentioned in the Children’s book The Polar Express, for much longer than most and sometimes I even hear it today. In fact, my theology related to Jesus and Santa is very intertwined to this day.
So when I say, I love Christmas, it is not because we always had the story book, movie version of the perfect Christmas, it is because, it always gets me back in touch with my spiritual core and gives me hope that what is not right in my world or the larger world has a fresh chance and the hope of good things to come in the new year bathed in the solstice light of the star of Christmas.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA) is one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, with roots in Atlanta going back more than 120 years.
We are a community of faith that encourages and supports the individual spiritual quests of its members, who share a respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person and a commitment to social justice.
UUCA’s 700 members and contributing friends hail from all corners of the Atlanta area and represent many diverse backgrounds.