Friday, 19 December 2014

Unitarians, Dickens and Christmas.

A ‘Dickensian’ Christmas?

Every year it seems that certain elements of the British press and religious groups get ever more hot under the collar with regards to the increasing commercialisation and secularisation of Christmas – the Christian festival that marks the supposed birth of Jesus who traditional Christians see as the son of God. Newspaper editors hark back to the popular myth of the ‘Dickensian Christmas’, the perfect Christmas of carols, family and friendship and a good dose of morals. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, stated in 2010 that Jesus was being  ‘air-brushed’ out of Christmas and there is even a ‘Campaign Against the Secularisation of Christmas’ established by evangelical Christians.  But what is a ‘Dickensian Christmas’? It is rather ironic that Charles Dickens the creator of the ‘modern’ idea of the Christmas festival, did so to broaden the appeal of Christmas, and as a Unitarian, did not see Christmas as the birth of the divine son of God but as a day to explicitly remember ‘ the man Jesus Christ’ who was the ‘Great exemplar’ and ‘proof of loving kindness’. For Dickens and other like-minded individuals Christmas did not have the same religious connotations and overtones as it would for Trinitarian Christians, for example. That Dickens – and others – created the modern notion of a family Christmas is doubly ironic as Unitarians for much of their history had been anti-Christmas!

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree was introduced first to Germany and it became popular as a symbol of Nationalist and Romantic sentiment during the 1770s due to the writing of Woerthe and the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Germany. The Unitarian poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was travelling in Germany in the early 1800s and wrote about the Christmas Trees and the custom of bringing in evergreens in 1809. The story was published in America in 1820 and its ideas taken up by the likes of Catharine Sedgwick, the Unitarian educator and writer. The Christmas Tree was first introduced to the United States in 1832 by Rev. Charles Follen, a German immigrant, Harvard graduate and Unitarian Minister. Follen introduced his first Christmas Tree at a Dinner Party held on Christmas Eve 1832 to garner support for the Abolitionist cause, of which he as a major part. A guest at that party was Harriet Martineau, sister of the great British Unitarian Minister, Theologian and essayist Rev. James Martineau. Harriet, a keen writer and social commentator, adored the Christmas tree and saw it as a way to bring the family together, across generations at Christmas. She wrote about the Christmas tree in a story written in 1835. Like Follen, Martineau linked the Christmas tree to the Abolitionist movement: she saw the Christmas tree as representing benevolence to the poor, succour to the weak and support for the downtrodden. Part of the emerging ‘Christmas Tree Tradition’ included the distribution of the sweets and pastries used to decorate the tree to the poor.

Its rather ironic that the vaguely triangular shape of the Pine Tree is often used as an illustration of the 'Holy Trinity' when the tradition of the Christmas Tree was introduced to Britain by Unitaraisn!

A Christmas Carol

What Christmas would be complete without some rendition of Dickens’s classic? Either on stage, in film or by the muppets or Dr Who. A Christmas Carol evokes an idealistic Christmas and one that is very Unitarian – if not secular - as neither God nor Jesus make an appearance. Dickens was a convert to Unitarianism from Anglicanism: on his tours of America he was hugely impressed by the great Unitarian Ministers and essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. Dickens was a social reformer who wrote scathingly about the social condition of his day and what does appear in Christmas Carol is the idea of a family Christmas. A Christmas of charity, helping the poor and above all the idea that any one can change; even the most miserable of misers, Scrouge, is transformed through ‘Christian pity’ by the suffering of the ‘deserving poor’ pricking his conscience. Fellow Unitarian writer, Louisa May Alcott wrote of a similar Christmas in her novel Little Women, stressing a family-centred Christmas based on the universal values peace, love and charity.


It Came upon the Midnight Clear

In London in 1836 the Rev. James Martineau stressed in his defining Christmas sermon the family-centred Christmas over a celebration of the birthday of the Son of God; indeed the Sir Isaac Newton (a closet Unitarian) had argued in the 17th century that Christmas should not be celebrated on 25th December as it was highly unlikely to be the actual date of birth of Jesus, and anyway, 25th December was the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. Unitarian Minister, Rev. Edmund Sears took up the theme of peace and charity in his hymn It Came upon the Midnight Clear written on Christmas Eve in 1849. In it Sears emphasises the message of Angels on the first Christmas peace on earth, goodwill to men and liberation to those who suffer under ‘life’s crushing load’ rather than the birth of Jesus. So too did Quaker, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1864 poem to peace, I heard the bells on Christmas Day written whilst serving as a soldier during the American Civil War.

Santa Claus

Thought of as the quintessential Christmas poem, The Night Before Christmas, in which the figure of Santa Claus as we know think of him appeared was written by American writer Clement Moore, who like Charles Dickens, was a convert to Unitarianism because of its emphasis on social justice and open-mindedness. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose drawings of Santa Claus have become the basis of the popular image of Santa, was also a Unitarian; his famous drawing appearing in Harpers Weekly in 1863.

Jingle Bells

James Pierpoint was the brother of the Rev John Pierpoint, the Minister of Medford Unitarian Church, Massachusetts. James was the organist and choirmaster of the church and in 1850 was asked to write a song for the Sunday school children to sing at a Thanksgiving service. It soon proved to be very popular and was published under the title One-horse open sleigh in 1857 and by its current title in 1859. James and John were the son of Unitarian Minister, Rev. John Pierpoint and all three were, like many other Unitarians, actively involved in the Abolitionist movement; unlike his father and brother, however, James was not a teetotal advocate of temperance and was something of a ‘bad boy’.

Concluding thoughts…

Largely under the influence of Unitarian writers, Christmas became a feast for children and family. The symbol for that feast was the Christmas Tree. The Christmas myth was seen not as a religious truth, but instead as the archetypal holy family that all families could emulate, with a perfect child, strong loving mother and a father who found comfort in a politically and professionally stressful world within the privacy of his faith and his family.  It was perhaps because Unitarians did not view Christmas in the same way as other Christian denominations that they were able to transform it into the family-centred holiday we now think of. Being Unitarians, of course, there was also good deal of social reform included too! The ‘Dickensian Christmas’, therefore, is far from the religious holiday beloved of the press and Christmas card industry, but a family-centric holiday for the entire family, above all for children.  Are Unitarians, as one right-wing American blogger recently suggested, ‘to blame’ for the modern secular Christmas? Or would it have happened anyway?

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