May 2011, Update: Here’s a video discussing Garrison Keillor and Unitarian Universalism.
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
- Read Keillor’s “Don’t Mess with Christmas” column and
- Add a comment to these online articles with your response
- 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.
- Salon.com “Don’t Mess with Christmas”
- Chicago Tribune “The Christmas dividend”
- Star Telegram “The Christmas dividend”
- Baltimore Sun – Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone
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 Chalice Blog – The usual UU excuses for listening to Garrison Keillor
- Rev. Cyn – Garrison Keillor Is no “Companion” for Unitarian Universalists
- Chalice Spark – Mr. Keillor and Silent Night
- rUUminations – Unitarians, Christmas, and Boundaries
- Jess offers a “Real” translation of the German Silent Night lyricsAND you can look here to see what the world is tweeting about Garrison Keiller in real time.
- Josh from First Parish in Cambridge – A Woebegone Excuse for an Opinion on Holidays
- Inner Light, Radiant Life – Keillor and “Misappropriation”
- Words, Music Meaning – one more UU blogs about Keillor’s Salon piece
- Rev. Thom – Garrison Keillor Goes Rogue
- To whUUm it may concern – I am not amused. (Warning: rant.)
- Rev. Daniel Harper – Garrison Keillor, righteous Christian, defender of Christmas
- Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt – Note to Garrison Keillor: Chillax!!! Post AND sermon
- UU World article by the Rev. Fred Small of the offending church, First Parish in Cambridge – Merry Christmas, Garrison Keillor! One of the great things about Unitarian Universalism is that, just as we don’t all pray from the same prayer book, we don’t all sing from the same hymnal.
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
Dies Natalis Solis InvictiMain 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. 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. This day had held no significance in the Roman festive calendar until it was introduced in the third century.
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. “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born”, Cyprian wrote. John Chrysostom also commented on the connection: “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .?”
Winter festivalsMain article: List of 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. 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. 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, a usage first recorded in 900.
The New Testament does not give a date for the birth of Jesus. Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Pachon 25. This corresponds to May 20. Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a major feast day in the Church of Roman Africa. 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. The equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. De Pascha Computus, a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the nativity. In 245, the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)” celebrated their birthdays. 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.
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. 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.
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.