Friday, December 25, 2009

A Response to Garrision Keill0r: Our Unitarian Universalist Christmas


Dear Mr. Keillor,

I read your article last week on called “Don’t Mess with Christmas.” The sub head said, “It’s a Christian holiday…and it’s plain wrong to rewrite Silent Night. Unitarians, I’m talking to you.”

Now, I have always thought that you, the host of the NPR show Prairie Home Companion, were sort of an adopted Unitarian Universalist, right up there with Poet Mary Oliver. I even know UU ministers who don’t start writing their sermons on Saturday nights until your show is over. I guess, I was wrong.

Your article goes on to say this about a Unitarian Church you visited recently in Boston, “Silent Night has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God.” You conclude, “Christmas is a Christmas holiday – if you’re not in the club, buzz off.”

Oh, Mr. Keillor, there’s so much wrong here, I don’t know where to begin.

You seem to have forgotten that December 25th is an arbitrary date for the birth of Jesus, picked sometime in the 4th century because it was the day of the pagan feast of the unconquered sun, spelled S-U-N, not S-O-N. Those “Christian” symbols of holly and ivy and evergreens and indoor candles you refer to were all part of those pagan solstice rituals. The early church was trying to co-opt this winter holiday to recruit non-believers to Christianity.

You conveniently ignore that even more recently the Christian church didn’t embrace the celebration of Christmas. It was outlawed by English Parliament in the 17th century and by Puritans in America during the 18th. It wasn’t even a recognized l holiday in the United States until 139 years ago.

By targeting Unitarians, you forget that many of the Christmas songs and stories you hold dear were written by Unitarians. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, It Came upon a Midnight Clear, Over the River and Through the Woods, even Jingle Bells. All Unitarian. Oh, and that indoor decorated Christmas tree? Yup, that’s our’s too.

So, Mr. Keillor, we Unitarian Universalists are gathered tonight to celebrate Christmas Eve, to hear the stories of the birth in the manger, the journey of the magi – to light candles and to yes sing Silent Night. Some of us were here earlier to watch the miracle of a children’s Christmas pageant. Some of us are Christian, and we celebrate our cradle faith’s traditions. Some of us, like me, grew up Jewish - - or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or secular – but have joined together in our wonderful liberal religion, finding a new religious and spiritual community.

We’re here, not because we think alike, not because we all believe that Jesus was the Messiah or even if there is a God, but because we love alike -- because we hope alike.

We know that those ancient pagans and those early Christians were on to something. That in the darkest time of the year, we need to bring the light inside, to be together with those we love, to reach out to those who have less than we do -- so that we can all be a little warmer, a little more connected, a little less lonely, a little less fearful.

We may not believe that Jesus is God, but we celebrate what Jesus stood for. Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Speaking truth to power. Taking care of those who are less fortunate. Working together to heal a broken world.

And we celebrate the birth of this one child as a reminder of the promise of each and every new life. In our church, Mr. Keillor, we teach our children that every child is a special child, that every child reminds us that they are “Emmanuel “ which means the divine is with us. We are reminded that every human life, no matter how humble its beginnings, can indeed bless the world.

See, Mr. Keillor, we believe in the miracles. Maybe not the miracles as they are told in the Bible stories, but in the miracles of our lives together. For some of us who are facing illness or personal tragedy or unemployment or family issues, we may be particularly struck by the miracle that we indeed made it to this night. But the reality for each of us is that tonight is the miracle. The miracles of your family – and mine – and the miracle that we are alive at all. The miracles that happen here, right here, in this community, when we join together. The miracle of this darkened sanctuary on this one night, remembering that in the darkest of winters, in the physical world or in the dark part of our souls, even the tiniest light can with faith become brighter and stronger.

In a few minutes, we will light the candles and join our voices and hearts and sing Silent Night. One tiny light will light another until our whole sanctuary is filled with light once again. We’ll do it as metaphor and for tradition and hope and community and love.
And because, Mr. Keillor, Christmas belongs to all of us who chose to celebrate it. I think your Jesus would have liked it that way.

With blessings for your holiday and New Year,
Rev. Debra Haffner, on behalf of the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT


Desmond Ravenstone said...

A co-worker of mine -- lifelong Roman Catholic, married to an Armenian Catholic -- asked me if I celebrate Christmas.

"I'm UU," I said, "we celebrate the whole lot."

"Oh, that's right!" she said with a smile. "Hanukhah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice. Good for you!"

Much more in keeping with the spirit. And she wasn't the only one I met who shared that sentiment.

TK Kenyon said...

Fantastic essay. Wonderful response to GK's dismaying screed.

I might add that Keiller was an invited guest and the *paid speaker* at the First Parish in Cambridge, UU. We can add "ungracious" and "backstabber" to the list of his transgressions.

The words to *Silent Night* were not particularly changed. The congregation merely repeated "Sleep in Heavenly Peace" at the end of each verse instead of the traditional last two lines. The rest of the verses were kept the same.

Noted from Rev. Fred Small's essay at UU World:

Thank goodness Keiller didn't hear "God Rest Ye Unitarins." He'd have had another stroke.

Again, great essay. I'll keep reading your blog.


Robin Edgar said...

I am pretty sure that Garrison Keillor *actually* concluded,

“Christmas is a *Christian* holiday – if you’re not in the club, buzz off.”

Not unlike how *some* U*Us are want to effectively say, in one way or another. . .

“This Unitarian Church is *actually* an Atheist Social Club – if you’re not in the club, buzz off.”

Garrison Keillor seemed to be quite specifically sharing his concerns (as it were) about the rather problematic U*U propensity to remove any and all reference to God and Jesus from traditional Christian hymns, not just Christmas carols by any means. . . in a manner that is not all *that* far removed from the Stalinistic purging of persona non grata from historical records and similar "memory holing" as described in George Orwell's 1984.

Or at least that is how I read his saying -

I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God. . .

I have reasonable grounds to believe that is precisely why he went on to say -

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. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.

Perhaps Garrison Keillor should have spoken about spiritual vandalism. . . Besides being comparable to Stalin's purging of the images and historical records of political rivals, the Unitarian purging of God and Jesus from many if not most U*U hymns is not that far removed from how some ancient Egyptian pharaohs chiseled out the cartouches of problematic predecessors from their monuments.

I happen to believe that *those* concerns of Garrison Keillor are quite legitimate having seen no shortage of U*U hymns that have been subject to the UUA's Stalinist "pogrom" against God. How many "churches" do you know of where a "pastor" can dogmatically preach from the pulpit that God is "a non-existent being" and that belief in God "seems primitive"? Heck I well recall how Rev. XXXXXXX XXXXX of the Unitarian Church of XXXXXXXX (just making a point while complying with the Code of Silence that is written into the UUMA Guidelines that I am not actually a party to in any case. . .) somewhat gratuitously concluding a Sunday sermon in which he spoke about witnessing bush fires in Australia by declaring -

"God can be a son of a bitch."

Not that God *can't* be a bit of an S.O.B. every now and then. . . but this is hardly the kind of public pronouncement that one expects to hear from the minister of any "church" during a Sunday service.

So it would *appear* that when Unitarians aren't busy purging any mention of God or Jesus from their hymnals *some* Unitarians are busy publicly denying the very existence of God or even calling God an S.O.B. in front of a "captive audience". I am pretty sure *that* is more or less what Garrison Keillor was "ranting" about.

Dave said...

Right on with your letter to GK, Debra. One thing about it, it got lots of folks thinking no so much about the words to hymns as what the heck UUism means.

Dave Sammons
Golden, CO

Unknown said...

Why are you emoting on GK; I loved your piece on Chanukah; that was authentic. You faithfully related A significant spiritual touchstone. Last week the UU fellowship I attended sang a heavenly host of re-worded Christmas carols with Christ cleverly removed. Plopping Zeus squarely on the tabernacle so to speak. You sidestep GK's serious charge of "spiritual piracy" with a lengthy UU apology. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; acceptance of one another, and the right of conscience means we ought to respect the religious convictions of our neighbors regardless if they respect ours. The fact is that celebrating Christmas without Christ bothers most conscientious Christians and to ignore that is just plain wrong.

Robin Edgar said...

"Last week the UU fellowship I attended sang a heavenly host of re-worded Christmas carols with Christ cleverly removed."

Exactly. I am convinced that is precisely this U*U proclivity to "memory hole" God and Jesus, and even oblique references to Jesus such as Savior etc., from traditionally *Christian* Christmas carols and hymns that got Garrison Keillor's back up. What you say here is really little different from Keillor's own personal *observation* in his Op/Ed piece that "Silent Night" has been "cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God." The key phrase being "not so much about God." This is an issue that few U*Us would appear to want to address head on and, when they do, they tend go into disingenuous "apologetics" about Christmas "evolving". I expect that Garrison Keillor and other Christians would perceive the U*U habit of taking Christ out of Christmas as more symptomatic of devolution and degeneration than any beneficial "evolution" of Christmas. As Keillor says -

"Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah."

Starr said...

I hope you sent this note to Garrision Keillor.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Thanks for your comments. And yes, Starr, I sent it to him. Will post response if I get one! Happy holidays to all.

Robin Edgar said...

I expect that Garrison Keillor`s email inbox is positively flooded with "electronic communications" that are both condemning and praising his Op/Ed "rant". It will be interesting to see how he responds to the public outcry.

Mary Beth said...

Well said.