Five Yuletide Songs

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Sermon — “Five Yuletide Songs”

This really isn’t going to be a sermon. Partly, this is an excuse to sing some holiday songs — because singing is one of the best things about the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season. But the other reason I wanted to do this service is because I was trying to figure out exactly what a Christmas carol is.

First of all, a carol is a Christian religious song. We’re most familiar with Christmas carols, but there are also Easter carols and Whitsuntide carols. Second of all, “Christmas” has a precise liturgical meaning: it is one day only, December 25. The weeks before Christmas are actually the Advent season. Strictly speaking, you sing Advent carols during Advent, and save the Christmas carols for Christmas day.

In short, many of the songs we call “Christmas carols” are not Christmas carols, because either they’re secular (and not religious), or they’re about another holiday altogether.

Our first song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” is not religious, and it’s a wassailing song. Wassail is an alcoholic concoction made from apple cider and spices. To go wassailing means to go from house to house singing a song about wassail, in hopes that whoever is at the house will give you a drink and maybe some money. Wassailing probably dates back to pre-Christian paganism. It mostly involved people from the laboring classes going to the houses owned by the elite classes. After the wassailers sang, the rich people were supposed to pass out wassail and money — and if they didn’t, the wassailers might vandalize their house. This helps explain why Christmas was made illegal in the seventeenth century Massachusetts. The rich folks didn’t want working stiffs expecting handouts; and the old pagan custom of wassailing was undermining the Puritan social order.

[At this point in the service, we sang “Here We Come A-Wassailing”]

Our next Christmas song is “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont. James was a drinker and a ne’er-do-well whose debts got so bad, he and his wife had to live with his father, a Unitarian minister. Hoping to get rich quick, James then tried his luck in the Gold Rush, but returned to Boston two years later completely broke. He continued to live with his parents until his wife died in 1856. He then left his children with his parents, and went to Savannah, Georgia, to work as the organist at the Unitarian church there, where his brother was minister. James married a woman from Savannah, and they had to go live in her parents’ house. The Unitarian church closed because it was an abolitionist church, but James stayed in Savannah and wound up having to serve as a clerk in the Confederate Army, while his brother was a chaplain in the Union army. It’s hard to know how someone with such a tragic life could write such a happy song.

“Jingle Bells” is a sleighing song, not a Christmas song. The mid-nineteenth century genre of sleighing songs was a racy genre in its day — a young man and a young woman alone in a sleigh without supervision! But now, it evokes a sense of Christmas nostalgia.

[At this point, we sang “Jingle Bells”]

With our next song, “Go Tell It on the Mountains,” we finally get to a Christmas carol. It’s also an African American spiritual. It first appeared in print in 1901, in the book “New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in the 1871, were the first African American superstar musical group. They performed at the White House in 1872, and toured Europe in 1873, the first African American music group to perform abroad. The piano accompaniment we’ll hear is by Harry T. Burleigh, arguably the first great African American composer. In the early twentieth century, he was hugely popular as a composer of art songs.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “Go Tell It on the Mountains” became popular after someone — maybe activist Fannie Lou Hamer — changed the words to “Go tell it on the mountains / To let my people go.” Though we won’t sing those words, that fits the song well, since the longing for freedom and justice is inherent in every African American spiritual. And that longing for freedom and justice, a core teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, is an integral part of the Christmas story itself.

[At this point, we sang “Go Tell It on the Mountains”]

“Good King Wenceslas,” our next song, takes for its hero a real person. Wenceslas ruled Bohemia from the year 921 until his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, assassinated him a decade later. Wenceslas became legendary as a good and righteous ruler who cared for the poor, and he was later canonized as a saint.

Is “Good King Wenceslas” a Christmas carol? The feast day of Saint Wenceslas is September 28, and the carol mentions St. Stephen’s Day, which is December 26. So you could argue that this carol should really be sung on either September 28 or December 26. However, John Mason Neale, who wrote the words, first published this song in his 1853 book Carols for Christmas-tide. So the author of the words intended this as a Christmas carol, even though it doesn’t mention Christmas. But I think of this as a Christmas carol for a very simple reason: one of the core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth was to care for people who are poor and hungry, and that’s what this carol is all about.

When we sing this, it’s fun to have high voices — sopranos, altos, and children — sing the parts marked “High”, and low voices — basses and tenors — sing the parts marked “Low,” while everyone sings the parts marked “All.” Because we’re Unitarian Universalists, feel free to go ahead and sing all of the parts, or none of them, or whatever you want.

[At this point, we sang “Good King Wenceslas”]

Our last song is “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” Two different people — Emily Huntington Miller and Benjamin Hanby — wrote similar lyrics about a visit from St. Nicholas in the mid-nineteenth century. I went with Emily Miller’s lyrics, adjusting them a bit to avoid gender stereotyping.

I love this song because it’s one of the songs and poems that added Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, to our Christmas mythos. I wouldn’t call it a religious song. It’s just happy and fun and not at all serious, and as such it presages a whole raft of later fun Christmas songs, ranging from “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer,” to “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

I also love this song because Emily Miller tried to write from a child’s point of view. As goofy as it is, the song does capture some of what it’s like to be a child at Christmas. It reminds me, just a little bit, of my own childhood Christmases.

[At this point, we sang “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”]

As I said, this sermon is mostly an excuse to sing some fun holiday songs. But I hope it also gets you thinking about how our current Christmas mythos encompasses a wide range of moods and feelings. Some of our favorite Christmas songs are indeed Christian; but other favorite Christmas songs are actually pagan or completely secular. Some of our favorite Christmas songs touch on serious topics like poverty, freedom, and justice; while other favorite Christmas songs are just goofy and fun.

Maybe this helps explain why Christmas is such a big deal in our society. Christmas has grown beyond a purely Christian holiday to a broader cultural phenomenon. The Christmas mythos now has so many elements that there’s no way to incorporate all of them into your own personal celebration of Christmas. And so each family has the opportunity to make Christmas be what you want it to be.

If you want to focus your Christmas on the person of Jesus, you can do that; you can even choose your interpretation of Jesus — the kind personal Jesus, the social justice Jesus, the radical rabble-rousing rabbi Jesus, and so on. If you want to celebrate the pagan holidays of Yule and winter solstice, you can do that. If you want to leave out the religious content and make it a more-or-less secular cultural event, you can do that. If you want to ignore Christmas completely, that’s more difficult but it can be done.

And however you have decided to celebrate (or not celebrate) Christmas, I hope that connecting with family and friends is a part of this holiday season for you. For it is this which lies at the heart of every human celebration — our very human need for connection, for escaping loneliness and isolation to reach out and connect with other human beings.

Is It Religion? (part four) — Christmas

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is titled “Jingle Coins.” It’s a parody of “Jingle Bells” which Dan learned from the San Francisco Rocking Solidarity Labor Chorus:

Dashing through the mall, I’m spending all the way,
I’ve got to buy more gifts, it’s almost Christmas day!
And then I go online and buy more useless stuff;
I have no self-esteem which means I’ll never buy enough.

Jingle coins, jingle coins, credit cards from banks,
Retailers are in the black, and so we all give thanks;
Jingle coins, jingle coins, money in their tills,
Oh, what fun it is to shop, and to call it all good will!

The junk I buy all comes from China and Hong Kong,
Where there’s no overtime, workdays are twelve hours long;
They get so little pay they almost work for free,
So I can buy cheap ornaments to dangle from my tree.

And when I get the bill, I’ll find out what I spent,
Twelve thousand seven hundred bucks and fifty-seven cents.
Who cares if I’m in debt, it doesn’t bother me,
As long as I’ve got heaps of junk to stash under the tree.

The second reading comes from the Christian scriptures, the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 18. This translation is by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

Someone from the ruling class asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You are not to commit adultery; you must not murder, or steal, and you are not to give false testimony; you are to honor your father and mother.’”

And [the man] said, “I have observed these since I was a child.”

When Jesus heard this, he said, “You are still short one thing. Sell everything you have and distribute the proceeds among the poor, and you will heave treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me.”

But when [the man] heard this, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.

When Jesus observed that he had become sad, he said, “How difficult it is for those with real money to enter God’s domain! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.”

Sermon — “Is it Religion, pt. 4: Christmas”

Back in 2010, I sang for a short time with the San Francisco Labor Chorus, and in the first reading you heard the words to “Jingle Coins,” a parody song they used to sing. I may not have remembered the words exactly right, but the opening lines went: “Dashing through the mall, I’m spending all the way, / I’ve got to buy more gifts, it’s almost Christmas day!”

It’s easy to parody Christmas. It’s easy to see Christmas as just an excuse for buying lots of useless stuff, an excuse for consumerism. Honestly, that interpretation is not exactly wrong. Businesses do in fact see Christmas as an opportunity for selling more stuff to all of us. And equally honestly, it’s fun shopping for other people; it’s fun buying Christmas trees and holiday ornaments. It’s a cheerful thing to do.

Christmas shopping is so fun and cheerful that American consumers are projected to spend a total of $1.2 trillion dollars on holiday shopping (see end note). Admittedly, holiday shopping also includes Hannukah spending and Kwanzaa spending and Diwali spending; but let’s be honest, in the United States nearly all of the spending is on Christmas.

If we translate that into billions of dollars, that’s 1,200 billion dollars. If we look at the other top three holidays for total spending, Mother’s Day is in second place with total spending of 36 billion dollars, while Valentines Day and Easter are tied for third place with 24 billion dollars each. Total Father’s Day spending reaches about 23 billion; Super Bowl spending about 15 billion; Halloween spending about $10 billion; Independence Day about 9 billion; and St. Patrick’s Day is a measly 6 billion. I wasn’t able to find any information on the spending habits of other holidays, so presumably those other holidays have so little spending that it’s lost in the noise.

Now, if you add together the non-Christmas holiday shopping events, the grand total comes to roughly 150 billion dollars. Compare that to 1,200 billion dollars spent for the winter holidays. We Americans spend eight times as much during the winter holiday shopping season as we do in all the other lesser holidays combined. We Americans spend an astonishing amount of money on Christmas.

Every year, we’ll hear from devout Christians who tell us that this is A Bad Thing. These devout Christians will tell us: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, not a consumer holiday. The most sincere among them might even refer to our reading from the Christian scriptures, reminding us that wealth may prevent us from living a truly Christian life.

Every year, we’ll also hear from devout atheists who also tell us that all this Christmas spending is A Bad Thing. The devout atheists have a different explanation for why Christmas spending is A Bad Thing. They will point out that ours is supposed to be a secular society, and a religious holiday should not result in the biggest consumer spending event of the year.

You will notice that we do not hear these kinds of arguments for any other holiday. Nobody thinks Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day are religious holidays. A few devout Christians believe Halloween has religious implications, but they simply find their own ways to celebrate. Everyone acknowledges that Easter is a religious holiday, but it’s easy to ignore Easter if you want to.

But you can’t escape Christmas. We see Christmas decorations in almost every store. We find Christmas logos on almost every online shopping site. Social media gets clogged with Christmas-themed memes. People start wearing red and green clothing and put reindeer antlers on their vehicles. The Town of Cohasset puts up lights around the Common, which no doubt are officially called “holiday lights,” but most people are going to think of them as Christmas lights. Christmas is everywhere. It has become an inescapable part of American popular culture.

Thus, the question of whether Christmas is religion or not is actually quite important. What if the devout Christians and the devout atheists are correct, and Christmas is in fact religious? If that’s correct, then America is in fact a Christian nation — or at least we’re a Christian nation from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And if America is a Christian nation, that may make the devout Christians and the Christian nationalists very happy, but it will make the rest of us very uncomfortable.

On the other hand, what if Christmas is not religious? What if Christmas actually has little or nothing to do with religion? That will make the devout Christians very unhappy, but it will also leave the rest of us felling a bit strange. If Christmas is not religious, if it’s actually a secular holiday, then why do we have these references to Jesus Christ, who is clearly a religious personage? Why do we talk about St. Nick, who is a saint, and who is therefore clearly a religious personage?

Here in America, we have arrived at a majority agreement that Christmas is both religious, and it is not religious. While this is a majority agreement, it is not an absolute consensus that everyone agrees with. Most obviously, the devout Christians say Christmas is not religious enough, while the devout atheists say that Christmas is far too religious. Less obviously, but more importantly, a small but increasing number of Americans follow a non-Christian religion; from the point of view of a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu, Christmas does indeed look religious. For people who belong to non-Christian religions, it might even seem dishonest to try and claim that Christmas is somehow not religious.

Nevertheless, we still think of Christmas as both religious, and not religious. To be more precise, Christmas is based on a major Christian holiday. We cannot escape the fact that Christmas celebrates the birth of someone named Jesus, a religious prophet whom Christians consider the founder of their religion, and more, whom most Christians consider to be one of the personages of the triune God. At the same time, Christmas is 1.2 trillion dollars of consumer spending and parties and gift-giving and concerts and too many calories and too much drinking and classic movies and decorations and visiting family members and many other things that have nothing to do with Jesus or religion. Like it or not, Christmas both is, and is not, religious.

The fact that Christmas is both religious and non-religious can lead to cultural conflict. Andrew Torba, a Christian Nationalist and ultraconservative, recently devoted an episode of his “Parallel Christian Society Podcast” to his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about how people are trying to remove Christianity form Christmas. Torba is all bent out of shape because he found out that many of our favorite Christmas songs were — get ready to gasp in horror — written by Jews. I didn’t have the stomach to listen to listen to his podcast myself, but according to Religion News Service, a generally reliable source, Torba claims that this is all part of a conspiracy to turn Christmas into a winter holiday that Jews could also celebrate. Torba then said to his listeners, “Knowing this, how could you allow your household to be filled with this music?” (For the record, I know this, and I’m happy to fill my household with this music.)

It’s distrubing that Torba is looking in all the wrong places for a conspiracy that’s trying to take Christianity out of Christmas. There is such a conspiracy, and it’s not a secret conspiracy to take Christianity out of Christmas, it’s an open conspiracy to turn Christmas into profits. The guilty party is consumerism. Businesses that produce consumer goods actually do want us to go dashing through the mall, spending all the way, and then to pretend what we’re doing is in the name of holiday good will. These businesses really would like it best if they could take the religion out of Christmas, because that would allow them to expand their markets even more, and maximize their sales. Jeff Bezos, the former CEO of Amazon, knows he can get more consumers to spend more money if he can convince them that Christmas is really a winter holiday that non-Christians should also celebrate — and they should celebrate by spending money on the Amazon website. How could Torba miss the fact that the real threat to a religious Christmas is actually consumerism?

As it happens, Andrew Torba is the CEO of an alt-right social media site called Gab. He is, in other words, the owner of a consumer-oriented business. Torba is targeting the small market niche of alt-right ultraconservative Christian comsumers. This is how he makes his money. When you realize this, you also realize that his podcast might actually be a pretty good marketing strategy for promoting more people to use his company’s services. So of course he’s not going to point out how consumerism is a far bigger threat to Christmas than is singing “White Christmas” or “Let It Snow.”

It’s not entirely fair of me to pick on Andrew Torba. His tiny little social media company is not in the same league as Amazon. Yet Andrew Torba and Jeff Bezos and all the other CEOs of consumer businesses all make money by manipulating the religiosity of Christmas in order to serve their own ends. Andrew Torba and Jeff Bezos and all the other CEOs of consumer businesses seem more motivated by profits than anything else.

So the real question we are faced with is not whether Christmas is religious or not. If Christmas were just a simple religious holiday, instead of a holiday season worth 1.2 trillion dollars of spending, I would not be preaching this sermon. Think about it this way. There are three main holidays in the Christian calendar: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. There is no consumer spending associated with Pentecost. Therefore, there is no cultural conflict associated with Pentecost. As for Easter, even though there’s significant consumer spending on that Christian holiday, it’s an order of magnitude less than consumer spending at Christmas. As a result, there’s not much cultural conflict associated with Easter.

It should be obvious that I’m not telling anyone that you should spend no money at Christmas. Go ahead and spend money on Christmas if you wish (as long as you’re responsible and keep your spending within your financial means); or don’t spend money on Christmas; that’s entirely up to you. I’m not trying to tell you what to do. Rather, I’m trying to make an observation about Christmas as a whole.

The only reason that we’re even talking about whether Christmas is religious or not is that there’s so much riding on the question. Businesses that depend on Christmas for much of their profit want to have it both ways. When their customers celebrate Christmas as a Christian religious holiday, these businesses are only too happy to call it religion. If their customers celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday, then these businesses are quite willing to go along with that interpretation. With the non-Christian population in the United States is rising, which is to say with an increasing number of people for whom Christmas holds no interest as either a religious holiday or a cultural holiday, these businesses are also quite willing to call the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas the “holiday shopping season.”

Consumerism has put us into this odd situation where Christmas is both a secular cultural phenomenon, and a religious phenomenon, and an economic phenomenon. As a result, Christmas can make atheists and Jews and other non-Christians can sometimes feel as though Christians are forcing their religion on everyone else. Yet at the same time, some religious Christians (not Andrew Torba, but genuinely devout Christians) can sometimes feel as though the business of Christmas is forcing the religious aspects of Christmas to the sidelines. No wonder the culture wars have spilled over into Christmas.

As for the rest of us, all this can make Christmas feel a bit overwhelming at times. It is not pleasant to watch the culture wars play out in Christmas. Couple that with the subtle pressure businesses put on us to spend more money at Christmas, it is no wonder that Christmas can sometimes feel overwhelming.

I don’t have a solution to all this, but I do have a suggestion. In the weeks leading up the Christmas, let’s remember to be gentle with one other. When we talk with non-Christians who feel that someone else’s religion is being forced on them, of course we’ll have the sensitivity to not talk about Christmas. When we talk with devout Christians who feel that Christmas is being turned into something they do no like, of course we’ll try to be equally gentle with them. And when we talk with the people who feel overwhelmed by Christmas but who can’t escape it because it’s everywhere — in the supermarket, on Cohasset Common, on TV and all over social media — we can be equally gentle with them.

And we should remember to be gentle with ourselves, too. As Unitarian Universalists, we might fit into any one of these categories — non-Christians, devout Christians, people overwhelmed by Christmas — and, being flexible Unitarian Universalists, we could even fit into all three of these categories at once. So let’s be gentle with ourselves. If you celebrate Christmas, take it at a pace that feels comfortable to you. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, find ways to escape from the pressure. If you ever feel overwhelmed, take care of yourself and find some way to relax. To paraphrase a famous Christmas song written by a Jewish songwriter, may you find some way to be happy tonight, perhaps with some beautiful sights, or just dreaming by the fire.

End note:

As pointed out by several who heard this sermon, the figure of 1.2 trillion in Christmas spending is a projection. Others have projected lesser amounts will be spent in the 2023 Christmas season. But all the estimates I’ve seen hover around one trillion dollars.

Christmas Eve homily

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Thinking back to when my sisters and I were Unitarian Universalist children, I don’t remember my parents or my church ever telling us much about the beliefs associated with Christmas. I don’t remember spending any time on the virgin birth, redemption from sin, all that traditional theology — theology which, I have to admit, I still don’t fully understand today.

The story we learned as Unitarian Universalist children was fairly simple and straightforward: We were taught that we celebrated the birth of Jesus because he grew up to be an amazing human being whose teachings transformed the world. And tonight I’d like to speak briefly with you about how his teachings could transform the world today.

When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, I didn’t hear much about traditional theology, but I do remember hearing the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a story that Jesus told after he had grown up, and it gets at his most important teaching.

If you recall, the story goes something like this: A man was traveling down the winding, steep, dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell in among thieves, who took everything he had, and left him, injured and dazed, on the side of the road. Along came a priest of the great temple of Jerusalem — a very holy person — looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Along came a Levite, another very holy person, looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Then along came a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a despised race; today we would call them a marginalized group. Along came this Samaritan. He got down off his mule, he bandaged up the man lying by the side of the road, he took him to an inn and paid for him to be cared for until he recovered from his injuries.

Part of the point of this story is that the priest and the Levite were very good at theology, and they could explain all sorts of religious doctrines to you. However, as the story makes clear, they were not so good at practical religion. By contrast, whatever his beliefs may have been, this Samaritan was very good at practical religion; he was good at things like having courage, helping the suffering, and loving his neighbors.

This was a point that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made when he talked about the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. He said: “The first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked, was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ Then the good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” This was how Dr. King explained the difference between theoretical theology and practical religion. (1)

Anyway, this was the kind of thing my sisters and I were learned growing up as Unitarian Universalists: perhaps we didn’t get much instruction in theoretical theology, but we were taught practical religion. So we heard the Christmas story pretty much as you are hearing it tonight, but the emphasis was always on what the Christmas story called us to do, not what we were supposed to believe. That is still true of us Unitarian Universalists: we don’t worry much about what to believe, but we are concerned with what the Christmas story calls on us to do.

Of course it’s not just Unitarian Universalists who focus on the ethics of Christmas. Rev. Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister, wrote a poem that sums up Christmas for those of us who prefer practical religion. His poem is titled “The Work of Christmas,” and it goes like this:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart. (2)

I would only add that Howard Thurman’s poetic description of Christmas can be boiled down to that most profound teaching of Jesus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

This, to me, is the central teaching of Christmas. Perhaps you are an atheist who doesn’t believe in God at all. Or perhaps you believe that Jesus was the son of God. Or perhaps while you believe in God, you believe Jesus was a son of God only in the sense that any one of us is a child of God. Or perhaps you believe in something entirely different. Yet what we happen to believe matters less than what it is we do with our lives.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a person who became a great teacher, a person who explained in simple terms the great truth that we are here on earth to help one another. Jesus taught us that we should try to be more like the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught us: We don’t need to be priests or Levites, we don’t need to be really smart people who knew a lot about theological theory. Instead, Jesus taught us that we are here to heal the broken, to strengthen the fainthearted, to feed the hungry, to have courage, to rebuild the nations, to return to no one evil for evil — to make music in the heart.

This is the real message of Christmas. This is the real miracle of Christmas.


(1) Transcribed from an audio recording of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968.

(2) Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).