Holy Conversations: The Battle for Christmas

What Christmas used to be is very different from what it is now, and Unitarian Universalists had a lot to do with its transformation. This is a little-known story that begs to be told.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas in America was a time of excess—more like Mardi Gras than anything else. It was a time to blow off steam and flaunt social conventions. You had cross-dressing, public lewdness, and role reversals of all kinds. People would choose a Lord of Misrule, and he and his court would act like sacred clowns mocking social conventions and those in power. People would come to the homes of the prosperous and sing songs, not out of piety, but to demand food and drink, or else. The songs that we sing at Christmastime today are all very different, expressing reverence or cheer as their central message. But not so with the songs in the past. In the past, if you were rich, you would have heard threats like this sung at you:

We’ve come here to claim our right
And if you don’t open up your door
We will lay you flat upon the floor.
That’s the old-style Christmas carol!

All of this explains one main reason why our spiritual forbearers, the Puritans, hated Christmas. The other reason, of course, was that Christmas has absolutely no basis in the Christian scriptures. The Puritans knew very well that December 25 was the date when Romans and other pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice. They also knew that the early church made December 25 one of its own holidays to compete with paganism and steal its thunder. For the Puritans, this was no excuse. So they banned it. In Massachusetts, Christmas was not allowed from 1659 to 1681. And beyond this, in more subtle ways, it was suppressed. People were expected to go to work as usual, and the day wasn’t even marked as special on calendars.

However, by the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was a growing feeling among Americans that Christmas could be reformed—that it could become a time of moderation and even positive feelings of religious reverence. And here is when our more immediate forebearers came on the scene, the Universalists and the Unitarians. Listen to these words by Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian who has written a definitive history of Christmas. He says, “In the forefront of [those leading the movement] were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated Christmas from the earliest stages of their existence in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, even before their congregation was officially organized. The Unitarians were close behind. Compared with Universalists, Unitarians were more genteel, and (for all their theological liberalism) more socially conservative. Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to. And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.” This is what historian Stephen Nissenbaum says, in his classic work, The Battle for Christmas.

For more of the story, come to our 7:30 pm Christmas Eve service. In fact, please consider joining us for all our holiday services: the Moravian Love Feast on December 10; Sunday services on December 20 when we focus on the Christmas Truce of 1914; and then, of course, our delightful Christmas Eve services at 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and seasons greetings!


Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister