This afternoon, after the Sunday services, we had a panel discussion about non-traditional traditions for Unitarian Universalist families celebrating the holidays. As I listened to the other panelists tell about their family holiday traditions, it became clear that your ethnic background has a big influence on how you celebrate holidays. With that in mind, here is my contribution to the panel discussion:
I grew up a New England Yankee, and a Unitarian Universalist. My Uncle Dick claimed that my mother’s family were Unitarians since Unitarianism began in North America, though Uncle Dick was notoriously unreliable on such things. My father’s side was Pennsylvania Dutch, and they were definitely Christian, members of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB), a German language Methodist group. When my father announced that he was going to marry a Unitarian, that sent his mother into a dither. She was the daughter of a EUB minister, and her husband, my father’s father, served as an EUB minister for two years before he became a newspaperman. So my grandmother was in a dither, and she went to her minister with the news that her eldest son was going to marry a Unitarian. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Harper,” he said, “the Unitarians are weak on doctrine, but they are good people.” This reveals the most important thing about Unitarian Universalists and traditions: we are good people who don’t pay much attention to doctrine.
When I was a child, my family’s traditions were mostly dictated by my New England mother. Dad didn’t stand much of a chance, since we lived quite close to my mother’s twin sister, and my mother’s mother, and they were the ones who came over for holidays; whereas Dad’s family lived way down in New York City and southeastern Pennsylvania, and didn’t drive up for holidays. So many of our family traditions derived from New England Yankee culture.
Thanksgiving provides a good example of how we did family traditions. As New England Yankees, we knew we were descended from the Puritans, which we confused with the Pilgrims, so we felt a direct connection with the Thanksgiving story. As it turns out, there wasn’t much of a connection; our ancestors were indeed religious dissidents, they just didn’t happen to be Pilgrims. The important point is that we thought we were connected to the Pilgrims. Because of this supposed Pilgrim influence, I think we took it for granted that we could do what we wanted with Thanksgiving; nothing was sacred, except what we decided was sacred.
Or maybe that was the Unitarian Universalist influence. We didn’t always say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, and I don’t remember God being mentioned very often. When I was quite young, my Unitarian mother made sure I knew that public prayer was not very nice, and that Jesus himself had told his followers that if they went out and prayed on the street corners, they were hypocrites. By the same token, Mom also taught me that Unitarians don’t have to bow their heads when they pray; in fact, bowing one’s head might be making too much of a public demonstration of one’s supposed piety. We might hold hands while saying grace, but we didn’t have to bow our heads, and the few graces I remember were short and to the point.
Then my eldest cousin started attending youth group meetings at her Unitarian Universalist church, and she brought back a grace from her youth group. She had us hold hands, then she said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!” So God was mentioned at least once at our Unitarian Universalist Thanksgiving dinner. And humor was allowed and even encouraged. Another time, one of the cousins suggested we go around the table and each say something we were thankful for. This non-traditional grace stuck for a few years, then disappeared. Our family traditions continually changed and evolved.
As we and our cousins got older, several of us experimented with vegetarianism. My mother and her twin sister did the cooking, and I’m sure they rolled their eyes at the fervor with which some of us expressed our vegetarian convictions. I can’t remember any special vegetarian dishes; what got cooked was what got cooked, and you ate it or you didn’t. Besides, we vegetarians knew that if we asked for a vegetarian dish, we might well be told to cook it ourselves; this was more Unitarian influence, straight from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance.” Another result of the Unitarian influence was that we were committed to social justice, and since we had all read France Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet, there was more than one lecture from the vegetarians on the ethics of eating meat: it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef! This was another result of our combined New England Yankee and Unitarian heritages: there was always plenty of guilt to go around.
Christmas for our Unitarian Universalist family was interesting, if somewhat confusing to a young child. When I was young, our Christmases had little mention of God; Jesus was referred to as Jesus, which made some of the familiar Christmas carols sound odd; and I was a little unclear on the Christmas story. We always went to our Unitarian Universalist church for the Christmas eve candlelight service, a service with great music, lots of carol singing, an opportunity to light candles, and a brief sermon which always seemed to focus on social justice rather than a re-telling of the Christmas story.
Back at home, we followed the long-standing New England tradition of lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve, just before you go to bed. Mom said, “A bayberry candle, Burned to the socket, Brings health to the house, And money to the pocket.” One year I asked what this had to do with Christmas. My mother gave a confusing answer to the effect that the candle helped light the way for Jesus and his family on their way to the inn. I’m not sure if she made that story up on the spot, or if that was something her Unitarian mother had once told her. Yet another principle of Unitarian Universalist holidays is that you get to make things up on the spot.
Christmas got more interesting as we children got older. One year I studied the Frankfurt School of Marxism at college, and realized that much of Christmas is a product of consumer capitalism. This Marxist analysis annoyed my family less than you might expect; as Unitarian Universalists, we were used to questioning everything; my sisters and cousins all challenged some aspect of just about every holiday or tradition we had. I guess we were lucky that we were all Unitarian Universalists; I think it must be very annoying for non-Unitarian Universalists when they have to put up with our incessant critiques and challenges. Although for me, such challenges are half the fun of holidays and traditions.
One last thing I should mention: The combination of Unitarian Universalist values and New England Yankee culture has made me very doubtful about all holidays. Those old Puritans thought the only holiday should be Sunday, the weekly day of rest. To celebrate anything else was to be idolatrous; idolatry consists of placing an undue importance on something which is not all that important. As I get older, I am surprised at how strong that feeling is in me. My partner and I do not exchange gifts on Christmas, and the main way we celebrate is we go out for Chinese food. Thanksgiving is a good excuse to have a meal with family. The important part of holidays for me is to maintain connections with family and friends, and to keep alive cultural traditions; engaging in a supernatural or metaphysical interpretation of holidays is placing an undue importance on something that is not important.
To sum up, then, here’s what I know about Unitarian Universalist holiday traditions:
1. we are weak on doctrine, and as a corollary we can make things up on the spot;
2. we are influenced by regional cultures;
3. we challenge everything and are critical of everything;
4. a sense of humor is required.