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.

No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant, 2021

An edited version of the Pageant enacted at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Opening words

Excerpt from the poem “I’m not a religious person but” by Chen Chen.

Chalice Lighting

We stand at the turning of the year,
Poised in a moment of stillness.
The past spreads out behind,
What is to come lies before us.
The sun lies low in the sky,
The days are brief and cold.
Night enfolds in lingering time
Our cares, our grief, our hopes.
We await the return of light.
[adapted from public domain material]


from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
read by 2 Narrators

A: Christmas as we know it today is a nineteenth century invention. The reading this morning is from one of the chief inventors of Christmas, a Unitarian named Charles Dickens.

B: “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

A: “Merry Christmas!” said Scrooge, “What right have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

B: “Come, then,” returned Scrooge’s nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough.”

A: Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

B: “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

A: “What else can I be,” said Scrooge indignantly, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

B: “Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

A: “Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

B: “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time,” returned the nephew, “when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant

Narrated by 2 readers.

The minimalist costumes were made out of cardstock. Click here for instructions and patterns. You should also make a large Star out of cardboard (most art stores can sell you shiny silver or gold cardboard). You’ll also want a supply of shiny gold pipe cleaners, from which people can make Angel halos (a simple circle that you put on your head — make a sample to show people as they come in).

You’ll want to have someone pass out the animal headbands, sheep masks, shepherd’s head scarves, pipe cleaners, and Wise Person crowns as people come into the service. For those who pass out costumes, note the following: each person may choose ONE animal headband; AND they may choose a sheep mask OR a shepherd’s head scarf; AND they may take a Wise Person’s crown if they wish; AND they may choose to take a gold pipe cleaner from which to make an angel’s halo. So each person can take at most 4 items.

Be sure the Narrators have one each of: animal headband; sheep mask; shepherd’s head scarf; Wise Person crown — so they can demonstrate how to put the costume on. The Narrators will also take Herod’s crown, the laurel leaves, and the Star.

A: We are going to retell the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus this morning, but we are going to give it our own slant. We’ll base our story on two early Christian stories of Jesus’s birth, the books of Matthew and Luke. We’ll make this a story of freedom and liberation. And since we are Universalists, ours is a story of hope for all people.

B: Instead of just listening to or watching the story of the birth of Jesus, we are going to get inside it. At various points in the story, I will ask if some of you would be willing become one of the characters in the story. To make this a truly immersive theatre experience, everyone will remain in their seats. Children and adults who took costumes as you came in, you may put them on at the correct time (wait until we tell you to do so). [If you kept extra costumes to distribute during the pageant, mention this now.] And in a couple of cases, I will ask for specific volunteers to have very simple costumes.

A: Now let’s begin. If you wish, close your eyes for a moment. Transport yourself to another time and another place. Imagine that a story is going to unfold before your very eyes, a brand-new story you’ve never heard before. Imagine that after years and years of hearing stories about women and men bowing down before powerful kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants, you finally hear a story in which three powerful wise people kneel down alongside some shepherds before one tiny, new-born child.

Imagine that after years of hearing story after story telling of terrible wars, you are at last hearing the friendly story of a baby: the story of a humble carpenter and his wife, the baby that is born to them in a stable, shepherds in a star-lit field who go to see the new-born child, and peaceful animals who gather round in the stable where the baby lies in the cow’s feeding trough. Imagine that at last you are going to hear a story in which everyone is longing for peace on earth and good will to all persons, everywhere.

Imagine that after years of hearing stories about the results of hatred and oppression and persecutions, you finally are hearing a story about the transforming power of love. Now slowly open your eyes. Listen and watch carefully. Let the story begin!

B: To start the story, we need someone to be Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. I’m going to bring Caesar the laurel leaf crown (you may keep the laurel leaves when we’re done).

[Narrator brings cardstock Laurel Leaves to someone in the congregation. A good person to choose for Caesar is the board president or treasurer.]

A: In those days, long, long ago, a decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, saying: “All the world should be registered so they can pay taxes to me!”

All the people were required to go to the town where they had been born to register. For some people, that meant a long journey. Joseph, a carpenter, had to go all the way from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David. He went with Mary, the woman he was planning to marry, because she was expecting a child. They started on their long journey, traveling by day, and sometimes even by night, their road lit only by stars.

B: If you look carefully, you’ll see an imaginary Mary and Joseph walking on their way to Nazareth. Since this a starlit night, could everyone else please hold up your hands like this [show], as if your hands are twinkling stars…

A: Joseph and Mary knew it was not going to be an easy journey, because Mary was almost ready to have her baby. At least they had a donkey Mary could ride on. And at least the twinkling stars made the road seem friendly.

B: Thank you for the stars. Now that Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem, you can put your hands down.

A: When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. But the inn was the only place in town with comfortable beds. Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a stable cut into the side of a hill. And they settled in to sleep there among the animals.

B: Next we need some animals. If you received an animal ear headband as you came in this morning, you can put it on now, like this [demonstrate putting on a headband]. — [If you have extra headbands, you can say: “We have extras, so if you’d like one now, please raise your hand.” The other Narrator can distribute them.] — We’re going to have cows, mice, donkeys, bunnies, and chickens.

A: The gentle animals welcomed Joseph and Mary into their stable. And that very night, the time came for Mary to give birth. It was a stable, so when the baby was born of course there was no cradle for Mary to lay her baby in. But one of the cows was kind enough to lend her feeding trough for a cradle, and Joseph and Mary laid their new baby there among the hay in the feeding trough.

B: Now we need some shepherds. If you borrowed a shepherd’s head scarf as you came in, you can put it on now, like this [demonstrate]. We also need sheep for the shepherds to watch. If you took a sheep mask as you came in, you can hold it up now, like this [demonstrate holding the sheep’s mask in front of your face].

A: In that region, there were shepherds who lived for months at a time out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep by night. They had to watch over their sheep because there were wolves in the hills that would gladly eat a sheep, if they could get one. Do I hear any Wolves out there in the wilderness?

[Wait for someone in congregation to howl like a Wolf.]

B: Now we need some Messengers from the God of the Israelites, also known as Angels of the Lord. If you made an angel halo from the gold pipe cleaners we passed out to people as they came in this morning, you can put your halo on now.

A: On this night, as the shepherds stood watch in their fields, a messenger from God, also known as an angel, stood before them. This angel was truly magnificent, a being who was neither male nor female, and the glory of the God of the Israelites shone around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, when the shepherds saw a messenger from God, they were terrified. But the angel spoke gently, saying to them:

“Do not be afraid, for I have appeared to bring you good news of great joy for all the people of Israel. To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah. This will be a sign to you: you will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.”

Then the angel who had spoken went on to say: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth let there be peace and goodwill among all people everywhere.”

B: Now anyone who wants to be an angel, whether or not you have a halo, please stand up and become a whole host of angels. If you have a halo, put it on like this [demonstrate].

A: And there was a whole host of angels singing and praising God, and the shepherds were amazed.

B: Angels, you can sit down again. Now it’s time for a quick costume change, because we need shepherds, sheep, and friendly animals once again [demonstrate costume change — take off halo, put on one of the other costumes].

A: Upon hearing the message from their God, and hearing the songs of the angel choir, the shepherds said to one another, “This is amazing! Let’s go up to Bethlehem and actually see the baby the angel told us about!” Being good shepherds who cared about their sheep, they brought the sheep along.

So the shepherds went to Bethlehem with their sheep, and there they found Mary and Joseph and the new baby, just as that angel had told them. (Afterwards, the shepherds would tell everyone what the angel had said to them about Mary and Joseph’s new baby, and everyone who heard their story was amazed.)

As for Mary, she already knew her baby was wonderful. But she listened carefully to what the shepherds said, and treasured all she heard in her heart.

The shepherds and sheep gathered around the feeding trough admiring the baby. They praised their God for this wonder of new birth, and they prayed and hoped that what the angel said would come true — that there would be peace on earth and goodwill for all people, even for lowly shepherds.

B: Now we need some Wise People, who are also royalty. If you’d like to be one of the Wise People, please put on a crown, like this [demonstrate].

A: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three wise persons, who were kings and queens from the Far East, came to Jerusalem. As these three wise persons journeyed their long, slow journey to Bethlehem (actually, it took them 12 days to get there, which is why we talk about the twelve days of Christmas), they noticed that their way was lit by a large and bright star.

B: We need someone to be King Herod. I’m going to bring Herod a crown (you may keep the crown when we’re done).

[Narrator brings cardstock crown to someone in the congregation. It’s fun to give this to a board member or other well-known congregational leader.]

A: First the wise persons went to visit King Herod and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the skies and we have come to praise him and bring him gifts.”

The three wise persons learned from King Herod about a prophecy which had been spoken long ago, that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So the wise persons set out for Bethlehem, and as they walked, they saw ahead of them the star as they first had seen it in the Far East.

B: Would someone be willing to hold up the star? (You may keep the star when we’re done.)

[Narrator brings cardstock Star to a member of the congregation]

A: The wise persons followed the star until it stopped over the stable where the newborn child was lying in the cow’s feeding trough.

When the wise persons entered the stable and saw the new baby, they were overwhelmed with joy at this new life. They knelt down to worship him, and they opened their bags and brought out gifts of gold (because the crowns of kings were made of gold) and frankincense and myrrh (myrrh was what was put in the oil used to anoint kings).

B: Now we are done. But please leave one of your costumes on, while we finish telling the story.

A: Look around at this scene. It is a special night, with stars and angels and shepherds and wise persons and animals. And they are all admiring a special baby that has just been born. Why would all these people stand around for such a long time to admire a tiny new baby? There is only one reason I can think of — because the birth of a child always brings hope for the future. And for a people who lived under oppressive Roman rule, all the while longing for liberation, the birth of a child must have been fraught with extra meaning. Will this be the child who leads us to freedom? Will this be the child who breaks our bonds of slavery and establishes a reign of peace and righteousness?

So it is in our world today. In a world that sometimes seems hopeless, we still look with hope to the future. Every time a baby is born, we hope that this child will be one of the ones who leads us to a world of righteousness. And every time we tell this Christmas story, it reminds us that we must go out and work for liberation and justice. We — you and I — are the ones who are responsible for making sure the world is a better place for all the babies that are born.