Tag Archives: Christmas

Old Joy, old Hark

At the Christmas Eve candlelight service, we’ll be singing “Joy to the World.” We decided to keep the words as they appear in the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, substituting only “Let us our songs employ” for “Let men their songs employ” (that is, using inclusive language for all humanity, but retaining the masculine gender for Jesus and God). I made up sheet music with all four parts of the traditional Lowell Mason harmonization, sized to fit a typical 5-1/2×8-1/2 inch order of service. I’m including links to the PDF below, in case someone else might find it useful. Also included is “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” as it appeared in Hymns of the Spirit (and which is not in either of the current hymnals). We substituted “Born to raise up those on earth” for “Born to raise the men of earth”; and in the second verse, we kept the Unitarian “Sun” instead of the more orthodox Christian “Son” found in other denomination’s hymnals.

PDF of “Joy to the World”
PDF of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” 

Nonprofit Christmas shopping

For many nonprofit institutions, this is not going to be a very merry Christmas. Take Sing Out!, for example, a nonprofit devoted to supporting folk music, and to “making music a part of our everyday lives.” Over the years, Sing Out! has published songs from people like Woodie Guthrie, Pat Humphries, Emmylou Harris, Mississippi John Hurt, Cordelia’s Dad, Pete Seeger, etc., etc. Like Seeger, Sing Out! gives lots of emphasis to socially conscious songs and music. It’s a good organization. I want them to survive.

Well, I don’t have much money this year, but I always try to do some charitable giving at Christmas time — after I give money to Heifer Project, I’m thinking maybe I’ll give give some money to Sing Out!. I suppose if I were a Christmas-gift-giver, I could give subscriptions to Sing Out! magazine, or buy a few Rise Up Singing books to give as gifts.

I suppose the mall owners and the big box stores need us to shop there so they can pay their workers starvation wages. But I think maybe I’ll spend my small Christmas budget with nonprofit organizations instead.

How the Christmas tree came to New England

Hey, it’s Christmas day, and for the last hour you’ve been sitting and watching your cat rip ornaments off your Christmas tree. Suddenly you ask yourself, “But wait, how is it that the German custom of Christmas trees got imported to North America?” Well, different people brought it to different regions, but here in New England it was a Unitarian, Charles Follen (1796-1840), who introduced the huge green cat toy custom of the Christmas tree to us.

Follen was born in Germany, was a professor there for awhile but was too radical for the political authorities. He fled to escape political persecution, and arrived in the United States in 1824. By 1829 he was a professor at Harvard. Harriet Martineau, a prominent British Unitarian, visited him at his house in Cambridge, and she wrote this account of the first Christmas tree in New England (although as you will see, it was really a New-Year’s-Eve tree):

“I was present at the introduction into the new country of the spectacle of the German Christmas-tree. My little friend Charley [Follen], and three companions, had been long preparing for this pretty show. The cook had broken her eggs carefully in the middle for some weeks past, that Charley might have the shells for cups; and these cups were gilt and coloured very prettily. I rather think it was, generally speaking, a secret out of the house; but I knew what to expect. It was a New-Year’s tree, however; for I could not go on Christmas-eve; and it was kindly settled that New-Year’s-eve would do as well.

“We were sent for before dinner; and we took up two round-faced boys by the way. Early as it was, we were all so busy that we could scarcely spare a respectful attention to our plum-pudding. It was desirable that our preparations should be completed before the little folks should begin to arrive; and we were all engaged in sticking on the last of the seven dozen of wax-tapers, and in filling the gilt egg-cups, and gay paper cornucopia; with comfits, lozenges, and barley-sugar. The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub, which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls, and other whimsies, glittered in the evergreen; and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it. When the sound of wheels was heard, we had just finished; and we shut up the tree by itself in the front drawing-room, while we went into the other, trying to look as if nothing was going to happen. Charley looked a good deal like himself, only now and then twisting himself about in an unaccountable fit of giggling.

“It was a very large party; for besides the tribes of children, there were papas and mamas, uncles, aunts, and elder sisters. When all were come, we shut out the cold: the great fire burned clearly; the tea and coffee were as hot as possible, and the cheeks of the little ones grew rosier, and their eyes brighter every moment. It had been settled that, in order to cover our designs, I was to resume my vocation of teaching Christmas games after tea, while Charley’s mother and her maids went to light up the front room. So all found seats, many of the children on the floor, for ‘Old Coach.’ It was difficult to divide even an American stage-coach into parts enough for every member of such a party to represent one: but we managed it without allowing any of the elderly folks to sit out. The grand fun of all was to make the clergyman [i.e., Charles Follen] and an aunt or two get up and spin round. When they were fairly practised in the game, I turned over my story to a neighbour, and got away to help to light up the tree.

“It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze; and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze; and no harm ensued. I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in; but in a moment, every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke; only Charley leaped for joy. The first symptom of recovery was the children’s wandering round the tree. At last, a quick pair of eyes discovered that it bore something eatable; and from that moment the babble began again. They were told that they might get what they could without burning themselves; and we tall people kept watch, and helped them with good things from the higher branches.

“When all had had enough, we returned to the larger room, and finished the evening with dancing. By ten o’clock, all were well warmed for the ride home with steaming mulled wine, and the prosperous evening closed with shouts of mirth. By a little after eleven, Charley’s father and mother and I were left by ourselves to sit in the New Year. I have little doubt the Christmas-tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.”

[Retrospect of Western Travel, Harriet Martineau (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), volume III, pp. 182-184. I added several paragraph breaks for onscreen readability.]

And that is how the Christmas-tree (which was actually a New-Year’s-tree), was introduced to New England.

Not long after that, Charles Follen lost his professorship at Harvard because of his radical abolitionist views. Influenced by William Ellery Channing, Follen then became a Unitarian minister. He served for many years in East Lexington, Massachusetts, at what is now known as the Follen Community Church — it’s still a Unitarian congregation, they still meet in the octagonal meetinghouse that Follen designed for them, and every year they sell Christmas trees out in front of the church.

OK, now you can go back to watching your cat rip the ornaments off your Christmas tree.

Folkish songs for Christmas

A bunch of us from the Folk Choir of First Unitarian in New Bedford will be singing Christmas carols and other seasonal songs (along with some other people) in downtown New Bedford tomorrow evening as part of the city’s annual Holiday Stroll. I put together some Christmas/solstice songs which meet the following criteria: (1) playable by folk instruments like guitar, soprano recorder, mandolin; (2) words which won’t stick in the throats of Unitarian Universalists (in several cases, words are taken from the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit); (3) guitar chords that actually work (we have actually played through all these songs); (4) songs pitched for medium-to-low voices (too many Christmas songs are pitched for sopranos and high tenors). We’re not going to be singing all of these, but I thought others might be interested in this collection.

Now up on my main Web site here: Folkish songs for Christmas.

Songs/carols include the following: Continue reading


“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

The Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659.


Christmas, commercialization, and ecotheology

The December 11, 2007, issue of Christian Century magazine, has an interview with theologian Nicholas Lash. Noting that Lash has written sympathetically about Marxism, the interviewer asks if Marxism is “still a philosophy that Christians need to engage.” Lash responds that there is no doubt that Christians still must engage Marxism:

Those who doubt that Christians still need to engage with Marx are as foolish as those who doubt that we still need to engage with Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel. At the heart of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production was his insight that it led, with almost mechanical inevitability, to what he called “the universalization of the commodity form,” the transmutation not only of things, but also of all relations, into commodities….”

Lash is British. Here in the United States, as we drift farther and farther to the right, most people simply dismiss Marx without seriously engaging his thought. Thus we have Christians and other religious persons in the United States decrying, say, the commercialization of Christmas (which is simply a specific instance of commodification), but refusing to engage in a serious critique of the capitalist system that has commercialized Christmas — understandably so, because after all it is not a good idea to be branded as a “communist” or a “socialist” here in the United States. Lash addresses the refusal of many U.S. Christians to take Marx seriously:

May I risk being a little polemical here, out of friendly exasperation? I can understand why, in a culture as driven and absorbed by messianic capitalism as is the United States, versions of socialism of any kind are hard to comprehend with sympathy. But please do not drag us [British Christians] in with you. There were, as any historian can tell you, the very closest links between 20th-century socialism in Britain and Christianity, especially Nonconformity…. We do not find Christian socialism in any way difficult to understand, because we remember it.

In my own Unitarian Universalist denomination, which is essentially a post-Christian denomination at this point, I see pretty much the same refusal to engage with Marx. Lots of Unitarian Universalists are worried about the commercialization of our lives, the breakdown in human community, the degradation of the environment, etc. But it seems we are culturally unable to draw on the analytical tools that Marx develops in Capital — tools which provide deep insights into things like the breakdown of community and the devastation of the planet.

Indeed, one of the weaknesses of current Unitarian Universalist theology, as it is practiced in our congregations, is that we pretty much ignore philosophers after Kant. The end result is that our theology, like our social justice programs, tend to be fairly irrelevant to the late capitalist situation. As someone who is concerned with developing a relevant Unitarian Universalist eco-theology, I’d have to say that it’s probably time for us to start reading Marx.

‘Tis the season

Brief observations from the Christmas season:

  • Even if I’d somehow managed to miss the endless Christmas carols and the hideous red-and-green displays in all the stores, I’d still know it’s the Christmas shopping season because of the sudden increase of spam — both email spam and comment spam on this blog (could it be that the evil spammers sell more Viagra during the Christmas shopping season?).
  • Our church was on the annual New Bedford Holiday House Tour, and we carefully prepared scripts for our tour guides telling about our huge Tiffany glass mosaic and our renowned Flentrop organ — but what people really wanted to know about was why there were doors on the end of the pews (to keep the drafts out in winter).
  • ‘Tis the season to eat rich foods — at our church holiday fair today, the baked goods sold far more quickly than anything else (we bought our share: two jars of jelly and three loaves of pumpkin bread).

Only twenty-five more days before life becomes calm again.

Christmas checklist:

  1. Eat a little too much — check.
  2. Call family and friends who live far away — check.
  3. Take a walk, to walk off some of the food I’ve eaten — check.
  4. Have something a little silly happen — check. (For the record: watching brother-in-law Jim play blues on a ukulele using a jelly jar as a slide.)
  5. Have the bayberry candle we lit last night burn down to the socket of the candlestick this morning, as dictated by the folk saying “A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings health to the house and money to the pocket” — check.
  6. Eat one last Christmas cookie before going to bed (and feel a little sick as a result) — oops, still have to do that.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.