Rev. Lois E. Van Leer

December 10, 2017

Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church


Several years ago I sent out an email to parents of our children because I noticed that very few of our families show up for what we call our early Christmas Eve or Family service. I am used to those services being chaotic with the sounds and movements of hyped young children all dressed up. Of their wonder when the lights go out and we light one another’s candles as we sing “Silent Night.” I asked the parents why they didn’t come to church on Christmas Eve. Their answer was not theological or upset with the service. They had Christmas Eve traditions that did not include attending church. I bet more families go to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker than they do to Christmas Eve services.


Now for years, I have been saying that we Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas out of sentimentality versus religious fervor. We remember the carols and hymns from our childhood when culturally, we could not escape them. We could not escape the Christmas story culturally either. I repeat what the English writer Anita Athill wrote, “It is simply that these stories are engraved in my imagination so deeply that they cannot be erased by disbelief. I believe that the Christmas story is being kept alive by a generation that will soon pass. Even our disbelief cannot eject this story as it is engraved deeply in our imaginations. But not so for many families today.


Which leads me to ask, “What will remain of the Christmas story in our denomination if it is not being passed down generation to generation? Who will have the sentimental attachment to the hymns we now sing as opposed to hearing them musaked in malls and stores from October through New Year’s? Will we still have Christmas Eve services? Who will be attending them? Who will carry the story into the future? What story, if any will be carried into the future?


Even if we do not carry Christmas engraved in our imaginations, we are all exposed to a season through every advertising gimmick and accoutrement possible. Magazine ads. Televison ads. Facebook ads. Catalogues in our mailboxes. Snowflakes stuck on the windows of Burger Kings and other fast food restaurants. Starbucks has special cups and drinks for the season. White elephant gift exchanges at office parties. Christmas has become thoroughly secularized.


Even so, every year I get hooked by this season. Christians talk about Advent as that four-week time of expectation and waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. That isn’t what hooks me. I still get all caught up in some vague expectation. It isn’t about presents though because Lori and I only get them for the children in our lives. We don’t spend hours in malls or even online searching out the perfect gift. We have no spreadsheet to make our way through. Yes, I am taken in by this one day when the world seems to stand still to be humbled by a child. I will always remember the angel’s words, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward all.” But that isn’t the whole season.


Out here in the Pacific Northwest, the season also gets all tangled up in darkness and grey skies and the insistence of rain. Even though this year we are expected to only get 1” of rain in December compared to the usual 5”. But when the cold set in and the skies cleared and the sun made an appearance, people were beside themselves with relief. I hadn’t even noticed the rain. What I did notice was the evening sky and fog in the valley and the glorious moon. The whitened rays of the sun in the morning and the orange tint at sunset. The other night after a meeting at church, I was drawn into the sanctuary by the moonlight coming through the chalice skylight into the sanctuary, splaying itself all over the lone evergreen tree. I couldn’t have ignored it if I had tried. Perhaps it was the stillness and the utter quiet. Or the clarity of light piercing the winter dark.


So much of this season is about participating in rituals or traditions that we have long forgotten the origin or original intent of. If you are a musician, there are infinite pieces or music for you to play or sing. But once again, it isn’t about theology so much as about tradition. The Christmas story is told over and over from a variety of perspectives.


I think we get hooked in spite of ourselves by expectation and hope. We can’t help it. We are primed for it by our culture. And if we enter into the religious aspect of the season, it is all about waiting, expectation and hope. We may even be trying to recreate that sentimentalized version of our childhood Christmas experiences. Or if you are a pagan, you are emerging from the religious closet to reclaim an ancient tradition of fire and light and rebirth. If you are Jewish, you are laying a lot on Hanukkah, a most minor of Jewish religious holidays, to compete with and make up for Christmas. If you are Muslim, you are just trying to make your way under the radar so as not to be seen or to offend.


There are so many facts that get overridden in this season in favor of myth and story. Why is that? I began to wonder, what is it about this seasonal story that has made it stick for over 2000 years and permeate our culture? There are the historical facts that involve the supposed conversion of a Roman emperor who then made Christianity the official religion of the empire. There was the yoking of church and state in those early centuries. There were wars and crusades and inquisitions that drove out all but the Christian all across Europe and parts of what is now Asia. There was the colonizing of lands for the thrones of Europe which were either Catholic or Protestant but never anything but Christian. And the Europeans who came to this country came here to establish a Christian nation regardless of who or what else might have been there before their arrival. Christianity was a conquering religion. It still seems to be one even though our country is no longer the Christian city on the hill, the beacon of light the pilgrims and puritans desired. And yet, of all the Christian seasons, it is the Christmas one that persists.


I remember years ago digging around to find out the “facts” of Jesus’ birth. But facts are no match for the power of myth. We, too, will celebrate the myth here at WUUC. A stable will appear for Christmas Eve along with a manger, animals, angels, and two young parents. But the writer Annie Dillard’s description of her pilgrimage to Christ’s supposed birthplace in Bethlehem has nothing to do with an inn or a stable. It is a descent into a cave. She says that generations of Christians have built monasteries “that clamp onto to it in clusters like barnacles.” The Greek Orthodox Church owns the Church of the Nativity which is supposed to be the original site of the birth. It is a cave full of chambers that one makes one’s way down and through. She writes: “This was the place. It smelled of wet sand. It was a narrow cave of about 10’ wide…people had to kneel one by one under arches of brocade hangings, and stretch into a crouch down among dozens of gaudy hanging lamps…A fourteen-pointed silver star, two feet in diameter, covered a raised bit of marble floor at the cave wall. This silver star was the X that marked the spot: Here, just here, the infant got born…In the center of the silver star there was a circular hole. That was God’s bull’s eye.” She concludes, “Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto.”


Reading Dillard’s description got me to thinking about other things that we take for truths or granted during this season. I started with stockings because they have always been my favorite part of gift stuffing and opening. I had remembered hearing that during the Depression, an orange was sometimes the only gift in a stocking and that it was precious. But why? Well, the story goes that the Turkish born St. Nicholas had inherited a large sum of money which he promptly used to help others. Passing through a town he heard the story of a poor man who could not find husbands for his three daughters because he did not have the money for a dowry. So, St. Nick went to the house at night and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney, one for each daughter. Turns out the sacks landed in three stockings that the girls had hung to dry by the fire. Oranges in stockings represented the gold St. Nick had left. In the Great Depression, many families barely had enough money to survive much less buy gifts. So the gift of an orange, itself a rarity, or a walnut was a great treat. The orange took on the symbolism of generosity and care for others.


That discovery led me to an article from the December 26, 1883 edition of the New York Times entitled, “The Christmas Stocking.” Indulge me here while I read you parts of the article. It is talking about the revival of the Christmas stocking which had apparently been eclipsed in recent years by the sale of that pagan symbol, the Christmas tree.


…in late years, that the Christmas tree has superseded the Christmas stocking has been sincerely lamented by persons of artistic and devout tastes… Christmas without stockings seemed inappropriately and insufficiently celebrated. The German Christmas tree- a rootless and lifeless corpse- was never worthy of the day… The New England stocking… did not have sufficient room for ordinary Christmas presents…On the other hand, the tonnage of the Western stocking- especially that of the Chicago type- was so great that it could not be filled except at a cost which few fathers of families could afford… what was needed was a stocking especially designed for the reception of Christmas gifts. This want has been met by the invention of the Smith Christmas Stocking…it is elastic. The economic parent can fill it at a little more than double the cost of filling a New England stocking, while the wealthy and generous parent can crowd into it more than could be forced into the Chicago stocking…its elasticity is not affected by the climate so it can be used in any part of the country…a watertight metallic compartment in the region of the toes is for the reception of molasses candy. It must be confessed that the ordinary Christmas stocking is not well adapted for the reception of this soft and sticky substance… Let us welcome back the stocking of our fathers- that is to say, of our female ancestors. The Christmas tree, dropping melted wax on the carpet, filling all nervous people with dread of fire; banishing the juvenile delight of opening the well-filled stocking in the dim morning light…has had its day, and the glorious reaction in favor of the sacred stocking will sweep it away forever.”


This my friends, from the New York Times, the paper of record in this country.


Well of course such dissing of the Christmas Tree jogged my memory because I remembered that it was a Unitarian minister that was supposedly responsible for the introduction of the Christmas tree in this country. Now it is true that decorated trees had been seen in Pennsylvania in the 1820’s when German or Hessian soldiers were fighting for the British during the American Revolution. But Charles Follen is credited with bringing the decorated Christmas tree to New England which we all know was once the center of the American and Unitarian universe.


Charles Follen was born in a principality of Germany in 1796. He was studying law at university when he left to fight Napoleon. But he contracted typhus and never saw any action. He returned to university with a desire to reunite Germany under a democracy and respect for human rights. He became a leader of the student fraternity known as the Bund der Schwartsen or Band of Blacks. The group joined a national student union, the Burschenschaft, who believed that when the time was right, progressives would rise up and overthrow the tyrants of Germany. One of Follen’s close friends assassinated a conservative writer who had mocked the beliefs of the student union, hoping to precipitate this revolution. Follen would be arrested and released twice in connection to the murder. He began to fear for his life and fled to Switzerland and then Paris. There he was encouraged to go to America with some letters of introduction. After less than a year of learning English he was called to become the first instructor of German at Harvard. There was no textbook so he had to create the course himself. He also taught gymnastics which was a new sport at the time.


Living in Cambridge, he would eventually meet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and other Transcendentalists. They welcomed his ability to translate German philosophers whose thinking “paralleled Transcendentalism.” He was also introduced to William Ellery Channing and began meeting regularly with him and others to discuss religion and philosophy. It was Channing who encouraged him to pursue the ministry. At Channing’s’, he met Eliza Lee Cabot of the Boston Brahmin Cabots who were said to only speak to God. He would marry Eliza.


He also became friends with the abolitionist leader, William Lloyd Garrison who was advocating for the immediate and universal emancipation of slaves. This was not a popular view in Boston at the time but one to which Follen would subscribe. None of this may be exciting to any of you but it is to me because Follen was hanging out with the who’s who of Transcendentalism and the founders of what would become American Unitarianism.


In 1830, Follen became an American citizen, welcomed a son, and was given a full-time chair in German language and literature at Harvard. Follen wanted his son to experience the German tradition of lighted Christmas trees that Follen had experienced in his youth. At this time in Puritan New England, Christmas trees were unheard of. Follen cut a small fir tree in the woods, put it in a tub covered with moss, filled paper cornucopias with dried fruit to hang on the three, put many small dolls on the tree as well as 7 dozen wax candles. He hid it in the drawing room and on Christmas lit the candles and brought his son and guests in to see it. The British author, Harriet Martineau, was present at this unveiling and wrote, “It looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of stick to put out any supernumerary blaze, and no harm ensued.” And so, the Christmas tree was established as part of the American Christmas, imported by a German convert to Unitarianism.


Follen would lose his position at Harvard because of his abolitionist stance. He went to All Soul’s Church in New York City to serve as its minister only to be dismissed within the year once again due to his position on abolition. For a while he traveled and lectured and preached until accepting the call to the newly formed Unitarian Society in East Lexington, Massachusetts which shared his passion for the abolition of slavery. Follen would design the church building which was in the shape of an octagon so that the congregation faced one another. He did not have a raised pulpit looming over his congregation but was on the floor level with them, symbolizing “community and equality.” At the ground breaking for the building in 1839, he offered this prayer:


May this church never be desecrated by intolerance, or bigotry, or party spirit; more especially may its doors never be closed against anyone who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity; within its walls may all unjust and cruel distinctions cease; and may all men meet here as brethren.”


The next year Follen was returning home on a steamship after lecturing in New York. The ship caught fire and sank in Long Island Sound and Follen drowned. He was 44. Not a single church in Boston would hold his memorial service in their church because of his abolitionist stance. Two months after his death, the Marlborough Chapel agreed to hold his memorial service. The Lexington Church still decorates a fir tree outside of its building every year.  So you see, there is more to the story of the Christmas tree when viewed through Unitarian Universalist eyes.


And of course we all know that our Christmas traditions have their roots in pagan traditions all over Europe and what is now the United Kingdom. Follen’s Christmas tree was really an evergreen tree that played a significant role for the Romans and the Celts. Given that it was one of the only trees to stay green in the winter, fir, cedar, and pine boughs and wreathes were brought inside to bring life into the home in the darkness time of year. Holly was used to decorate doors, windows, and fire places to ward off or capture evil spirits. Mistletoe was hung over doorway as protection against thunder and lighting and other evils. It was worn as an amulet or hung above headboards as a symbol of fertility. Ivy was worn as a crown, a symbol of fidelity, healing and marriage. Wheat was baked into breads and cakes for Solstice feasts and woven into wreathes as well as “figures to encourage sustenance, fertility, and an abundant harvest.”


A Yule tree was also an important symbol for pagans. Yule was another turning of the wheel of the seasons. The tradition of burning a yule log which was really a huge tree stump of an Ash tree, was started by the Scandinavians. The burning of the log in their hearth all winter long was in honor of their God Thor. It was believed that the longer the yule log burned, the faster the sun would return with it light and warmth.


Yule trees were actually decorated with gifts people wanted to receive from the Gods. They were adorned with pinecones and berries and other fruits considered sacred to the gods.


The tradition of lighting candles that we carry on today at this time of year also had its origins in ancient times. Of course it was a source of light but candles were burned to symbolize the light and warmth of the sun and to entice the sun/son God to return. They were also burned as protection against evil spirits in the home. Huge bonfires were lit to coax the sun to return.


One other interesting factoid about this season has to do with ginger. The spice. It was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders in the 11th century. There were strict laws regarding specialty breads at that time so gingerbread was only allowed to be made during Yuletide. Which is how it became associated with modern day Christmas breads and cookies. In towns in Germany, you can get a special kind of warm, small square pieces of delicious gingerbread served in a paper cone that you cannot get at any other time of the year: magenbrot.


I told you all of the above not to take the wind out of your Christmas holiday sails but rather to have us be aware of how far back the traditions we celebrate as our own stretch. And because I wonder how far into the future they will continue to stretch. What I can tell you is that being drawn into the sanctuary to be in the presence of the empty evergreen tree lit only by moonlight had for me, a very ancient connection as well as a present pull. Perhaps in the end, this season is simply what it has always been, a longing for the return of light and warmth. The comfort of a hope realized: “light is returning even though it is the darkness dawn.”