Christian though I may be today, it’s not how I was brought up. Well, unless you go back to the grade school years, when we attended the local Methodist church semi-regularly. But during the 60’s, my formative middle- and high-school years, I was raised Unitarian. The former pastor of my current Presbyterian church still delights in calling me a “lapsed Unitarian.”
In the past couple of years, some conservative commentators have tried to start a controversy that they dub The War On Christmas. While there are no uniforms, the enemy is readily identified by their use of the greeting “Happy Holidays.” After all, if you don’t say “Merry Christmas,” it proves that you are intent on subverting the True Meaning Of Christmas, and that you’re a persecutor of Christians.
Not surprisingly, this extremist viewpoint has led to a considerable backlash in our pluralistic culture. At first, the Happy Holidays sayers defended their words as a way of expressing warm wishes not only to Christians, but also to people of other faith traditions, or even no faith tradition.
This defense has been insufficient to dislodge the Christmas Warriors from their hardened position, so now this seems to be the year of the counterattack. It is taking the form of a Facebook meme along these lines: “When you say you’re angry at me for saying Happy Holidays, that makes me angry at you. Don’t you know that people celebrated the winter solstice long before the Christian church co-opted the holiday in an effort to win more converts? If you’re going to be that way, just un-friend me now.”
The whole thing makes me sad.
I don’t want to celebrate the emergence of light from the darkness with a war, not even a verbal one. There can be no winner; as soon as we start framing it in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong, who wins and who loses, we’ve already missed the point.
It turns out, though, that the whole dust-up reminded me of how we celebrated Christmas when I was growing up. Part of our family tradition was to read the sacred story together on Christmas morning at the breakfast table, before we ever went into the living room to see the tree and the presents.
As far back as I can remember, we would read the first twenty verses of Luke 2 together, each of us reading in turn. Then in 1962, a couple of years after we started attending the Unitarian church, Nick Cardell, the minister, gave our church and my family the gift of a Unitarian Christmas devotional. Starting then, my family read this devotional each year, right after the traditional story in Luke.
It’s Unitarian, so of course it’s not phrased in exclusively Christian terms; yet it honors and affirms the sacredness of the Christmas story. For me, its universality transcends, and triumphs over, today’s battle of the season’s greeting.
I lost my copy long ago, so I called my Mom to see if she still had it. Of course she did; Mom’s a retired librarian. Her copy is on paper, but rather than ask her to scan it and e-mail it, I asked her to read it to me on the phone, as I entered it into my computer. My eyes misted over as I typed, as they do every year when I hear the sacred story. Now I offer this Unitarian Christmas devotional as my gift to you. May it brighten your days in this Advent time of gathering darkness.
(A brief stylistic note: a product of its times, the devotional is not expressed in gender-inclusive language. I have chosen to present it in the form that I know it from childhood, though I certainly encourage you to translate it into the form of expression that makes it most meaningful for you.)
A Unitarian Christmas Devotional
Nicholas C. Cardell, 1962
Since men first began to have faith in the regular cycle of the year, winter has symbolized not only an end to things, but a new beginning too. It became a reminder of the hope of spring that always lies just beneath the cold and desolate-appearing surface of things.
Man has discovered that there have been many beginnings: beginnings of stars and systems, of planets and life; the beginning of a life each time a child is born. But of all these, the most wondrous and fertile beginning in the family of man was the birth of human love, and with it, the genesis of a dream – the dream of “love as God” over all the world of man.
In each of our lives the dream lives on, and from time to time we incarnate the dream – it becomes flesh and dwells within our lives, full of beauty and truth. And every year we celebrate the hope of its full fruition; of its pure perfection. We honor the birth of a child named Joshua, whom men call Jesus, born we know not when, in a year we choose to call the year One — another new beginning. We know that, as we celebrate that imagined, guessed-at day, the dream is reborn in every infant child. For each one is the hope of the world, a prince of peace. We say Merry Christmas on that could-be day of Jesus’ birth, and celebrate it as if it were also the long-before beginning of the dream.
In the beginning man said, “Let there be love in this life,” and there was love, and man saw that love was good, and there were Buddha and Jesus, Gandhi and Schweitzer; and that was only a beginning – the first day.