A Unitarian response to Garrison Keillor’s “Don’t Mess with Christmas” campaign

May 2011, Update: Here’s a video discussing Garrison Keillor and Unitarian Universalism.

photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News / Landov

UUs Respond to Garrison Keillor

On December 16th, 2009 Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion (PHC) published a syndicated column titled “Don’t Mess with Christmas.” In it he states “…it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite ‘Silent Night.’ If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn ‘Silent Night’ and leave ours alone.”

It is true that the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association has a slightly different version of Silent Night.  But I think Garrison Keillor is missing out on some key information about the origins of this holiday.  He is such a smart man.  Isn’t he aware of the origins of this holiday?

The kind of spiritual piracy he is attributing to Unitarians is, as I understand it, exactly what was the Christian Church did to the pagans.  One might also note that there are many versions of Silent Night as the English version is one of many translations. This website lists translations in many languages with over 20 English versions.

But I’m no historian so I need those of you who are Unitarian Universalist ministers, religious educators, music directors/leaders,  theologians, historians, and other members of our congregations with extensive knowledge of the history of Christmas to step up and respond.  In the spirit of Christmas, outreach and education I’d like to invite you to take a moment to

  1. Read Keillor’s “Don’t Mess with Christmas” column and
  2. Add a comment to these online articles with your response
  3. Share your thoughts with Mr. Keiller via Prairie Home Companion’s “Share your post with the host” feedback form. “Honest comments and criticism are always welcome! “

You may find Keillor’s column on the following websites.  You might craft your response and then cut and paste into each of these sites.

Unitarian Universalist Hymnal and Chalice Photo by Peter Bowden

As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist I’ve participated in many Christmas celebrations and late night Christmas Eve services.  I will tell guests surfing in that in my home congregation’s tradition  our minister did speak of Jesus and the meaning of Christmas and the holy and the divine.  Hundreds of us gathered together in the darkness at the end of the service and sang Silent Night by candlelight. And these were holy nights.

Growing up in a Unitarian church I also had the opportunity to learn about the evolution of Christmas.  I am well aware that much of the present form of Christmas involves elements  incorporated from Pagan solstice celebrations. I would love for someone with a more thorough understanding of the history of Christmas to educate Mr. Keillor.  To me the kind of changes that he is complaining about are of the same nature as those that gave rise to Christmas as we know it today.

Given that word is spreading the Keillor has “sparked a Christmas controversy” I think we should do our part to educate people about Unitarian Universalist history and views of Christmas.

UU’s Responses (updated 12/18)
Here are some related posts on other blogs you might enjoy reading. They may inspire you in your own reflection and blogging.

The Rev. Edmund Robinson wrote the following response to Keillor’s column. I’ll share it here as it is getting buried in the column’s  comments.

Garrison Keillor, I’m talking to you!

I have listened to PHC for most of my adult life (for most of that time I have been a UU and for the last 10 a UU minister) and I have lots of dear friends in the folk community who have appeared on it and poet friends who have been featured in your writers almanac, but you have really lost it with this post.

1. The only words changed in Silent Night in the current UU hymnal are that the lines “Christ the Savior is Born” and “Jesus Lord at thy birth” which conclude stanzas two and three are replaced by the equivalent ending line from stanza 1, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” They are omitted because many UUs do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, as implied by the term Christ and Lord.

2. Yet we celebrate the birth of a human Jesus as one of the great religious teachers of the world. The Nicene creed which we do not recite contains assertions which are not supported by scripture or common sense and ignore the whole point of Jesus’ ministry. It is because we take Jesus seriously as a religious leader that we celebrate Christmas; we helped establish it as a public holiday in the early XIXth Cent., and it was Unitarian minister who introduced the Christmas tree to America.

3. Emerson was an apostate to the Unitarians of his day, and yes he wrote some things which were later used to support a cult of individualism. If you checked a UU church today, you would find that community is celebrated over individualism and Emerson is honored for his spiritual insights as contained in the Divinity School Address, the very apogee of his apostacy to his contemporaries. He was not invited back to Harvard for 30 years after that address.

4. You comment about Jewish songwriters is frankly anti-Semitic and I’m deeply disappointed in you.

5. Don’t you think that the idea of a Christian “club” is contrary to the whole spirit not only of Christmas but of who Jesus was? This is a guy who outraged his contemporaries by eating with tax collectors and sinners. Is this “club” defined only by those who can accept the doctrine of the Trinity in all its self-contradiction?

Those of you with the credentials can help fill in the gaps in Mr. Keillor’s understanding of the history of Christmas.   The more the merrier! And please note that writings in support of Keillor’s statement and against are all encouraged.  I don’t want UU’s complaining, but educating.  Let’s discuss the issue.  Has Unitarian Universalism evolved the point where we are no longer eligible to sing Silent Night?  Are we only allowed if we stick to the original?  And which original version is that?  Anyone have the skinny on which version has the Keillor endorsement?

If your history is rusty you can visit wikpedia’s Christmas entry and review the Pre-Christian background section

Pre-Christian background

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

Main article: Sol Invictus

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means “the birthday of the unconquered Sun.” The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian; and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin.[48] Emperor Elagabalus (218–222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday.[49] This day had held no significance in the Roman festive calendar until it was introduced in the third century.[50]

The festival was placed on the date of the solstice because this was on this day that the Sun reversed its southward retreat and proved itself to be “unconquered.” Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus.[6] “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born”, Cyprian wrote.[6] John Chrysostom also commented on the connection: “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .?”[6]

Winter festivals

A winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needs to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached.[51] Modern Christmas customs include: gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts.[52] Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the word Yule is synonymous with Christmas,[53] a usage first recorded in 900.

Christian establishment

The New Testament does not give a date for the birth of Jesus.[6][54] Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Pachon 25.[6] This corresponds to May 20.[55] Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a major feast day in the Church of Roman Africa.[6] However, in Chronographai, a reference work published in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox, popularizing the idea that Christ was born on December 25.[56][57] The equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December.[58] De Pascha Computus, a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the nativity.[59] In 245, the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)” celebrated their birthdays.[60] In 303, Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, which suggests that Christmas was not yet a feast at this time.[6]

Feast established

An early reference to the date of the nativity as December 25 is found in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome in 354.[61] In the East, early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany (January 6), although this festival emphasized celebration of the baptism of Jesus.[62]

Christmas was promoted in the Christian East as part of the revival of Catholicism following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The feast was introduced to Constantinople in 379, and to Antioch in about 380. The feast disappeared after Gregory of Nazianzus resigned as bishop in 381, although it was reintroduced by John Chrysostom in about 400.[6]

21 thoughts on “A Unitarian response to Garrison Keillor’s “Don’t Mess with Christmas” campaign

  1. To some degree I agree with Garrison Keillor. I have always thought it odd that we have our own words for most of the traditional Christmas hymns. I mean, if we were to observe some sort of Jewish or Buddhist holiday, would we change the text? Or the meaning? We might try to understand it in a UU light, but really Christmas is about the birth … See Moreof Jesus ‘as a savior’ whether or not I actually choose to think about it that way personally. I tend to think that if we are going to celebrate a holiday that ‘is not ours’ we should observe them the way they already are within their original faith tradition and glean from them what is meaningful to us as UU’s.

    1. Thanks for your comment Heather.

      I don’t think of this as a holiday that is not ours. I see it as “ours too” given that our congregations evolved out of Christian and then liberal Christian congregations. Keillor uses the term “spiritual piracy” in his column. I see it not as piracy but as evolution. In this sense, aren’t we still singing within the context of the original tradition?

      If you watch the UU video titled “You’re a Uni-What?” on youtube you’ll see me and my wife talking about the Bible. We hold a big giant Bible in that segment. After the video was made a fellow UU asked how did we ever convince a church to give us their Bible to use. But you see, it was our congregations Bible.

  2. It’s interesting that the only Christian hymns that didn’t get “adapted” (hymnbook commission so delicately put it) were those from the African American tradition.

    I enjoy Garrison Keillor. He speaks more truth about “Unitarians” as he calls us than I ever read in any of our publications.

    He may be one of the only voices that allows us to laugh at ourselves.

  3. Unless Keillor is singing “Stille Nacht” I don’t think he has a leg to stand on complaining about “Silent Night.”

    I don’t mind Keillor’s comments about UU’ism, because any press is good press. The more he talks about UU’s, however he does so, the more of a chance somebody will hear of us who hasn’t before.

    I think our faith can stand on its merits, irrespective of any individual’s feelings about it.

  4. On this issue, I believe Garrison Keillor had his head stuck someplace ludicrous. But let’s refrain from getting bent out of shape at his getting bent out of shape. That only leaves the whole world twisted and ludicrous.

    Let’s not overreact. The time for a fatwa has not come.

  5. I agree with Paul. But then, I also agree with Keillor, in that dreadful little phillipic of his that Salon published, where he wrote, of the locals he sneered at, “having seen geniuses in the throes of deep thought step into potholes and disappear.” I hope he finds his way out of that nasty pothole.

  6. As a member of the congregation that sponsors the Cambridge Forum, host of Mr. Keillor this past Monday evening, I am mostly offended at his column, and the metaphorical spit-in-our-face.

    For much more of my thoughts, feel free to surf over to my (brand new) blog, at http://eclecticly.blogspot.com/

    Hopefully future posts to the blog will be more positive, and this can prove yet another good outcome of Mr. Keillor’s rather spiteful article.


    Not to our denomination
    Comes a moment to decide;
    Ev’ry question is kept open,
    Never do we take a side.
    Hesitation is a virtue,
    Now is not the time to choose.
    Safety is in indecision,
    Never win, but never lose.

    Circumstances alter cases,
    One’s poison another’s meat.
    Since we are not sure which we are
    It is better not to eat.
    We are independent thinkers,
    We are not amidst the throng;
    Although we cannot be in the right,
    We are never in the wrong!

    From the “Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife” by the Reverend Christopher Gist Raible

  8. God rest you Unitarians

    God rest you Unitarians, let nothing you dismay.
    Remember there’s no evidence there was a Christmas day.
    When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say.
    Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;
    Good tidings of reason and fact.
    There was no star of Bethlehem; there was no angel song.
    There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long.
    The stories in the Bible are historically wrong.
    Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact.
    Good tidings of reason and fact.

    Much of our Christmas custom comes from Persia and from Greece.
    From solstice celebrations of the ancient middle East.
    We know this so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.
    Good tidings of reason and fact; reason and fact;
    Good tidings of reason and fact.

    From the “Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife” by the Reverend Christopher Gist Raible, published by the Unitarian Universalist Assn.

  9. I was born and raised in Austria, the land where “Silent Night” was composed and first performed. I side with Garrison in the defense of authenticity. I am horrified to hear “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…” sung in languages other than the original German. This practice should be outlawed. It is as reprehensible as bootlegged copies of the “Terminator” movie! Ah, another Austrian! Singing this song in another language is an act of apostasy comparable to the horrific act of reading the Qran in a language other than ancient Arabic. After all, that was the language GOD spoke! Shame on all who approve of desecrating the original “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…” by the act of translation!

    I also take issue with the assertions in this blog that Christmas has its roots in ancient traditions of various sorts. I know for a fact that the REAL Christmas was invented in Austria.

  10. Wow, what is this drivel. I am so tired of Christians whining about Christmas. Sorry, it’s become a secular holiday as well…deal with it. Who cares if people rewrite songs? I’ve never listened to his radio show (I prefer to listen to music on the radio, or news..I abhor these type of “talk” programs as they bore me to tears) and I certainly won’t be after reading his pompous drivel.

  11. I am being very Green here by recycling this comment that I just left on Rev. Cyn’s blog –

    Interestingly enough U*Us. . . A free and responsible search for the truth and meaning of Garrison Keillor’s appparent anti-U*U “rant” reveals that Garrison Keillor himself told U*Us that he was not a “companion” to U*Us seberal years ago. Check out these quite “prophetic” words of Garrison Keillor that were posted to UU World magazine editor Chris Walton’s now rather defU*Unct Philocrites blog on http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000429.html Thor’s Day, October 2, 2003

    “Beneath this cool tolerant exterior beats the heart of an old *reactionary* and *pulpit-pounder* and if you ever put me in front of Unitarians with a microphone, I’d be hollering about man’s inherent sinfulness and unworthiness and singing “Are You Washed In the Blood”. I’d be roaming the aisles, *poking* people, baying like a dog. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.”

    So maybe U*Us should have taken *those* words of Garrison Keillor seriously way back when. . .

  12. Keillor was raised in the Plymouth Brethren, a premillennialist Darbyite sect. As an adult, I believe he has gravitated toward the Episcopalians, not the Lutherans. He lampoons the Lutherans on his show because they are so ubiquitous in Minnesota, where it is based.

  13. I find this funny……. In the past I could understand the Unitarian voice in Christianity. Unitarians believed in many of the central doctrines of the faith but understood God’s grace to ultimately extend to everyone in final united humanity.. Today I look at Unitarianism and I ask what is the point? Gone is any belief in Christ’s work on the cross as the Son of man and God as well as other previously held beliefs. Now all are welcome to come to develop their own sense of spirituality amongst a ground of truth seekers many of whom at their core question universal ideas of truth. With that being said let Unitarians dance, play, and sound out their monotone hi-order fashion. Impressing others through the theater of their own self made importance. ….No problem here ……

    Joe P

    PS What a mixed up world… Is it even worthy of intellectual or spiritual respect????

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