Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jingle Bells and Harps of Gold

Jingle Bells and Harps of Gold
Aiken UU Church
December 23 2012

Did Unitarians invent Christmas? Well, maybe the answer is a surprising one…we could say, at the very least, that Unitarians have influenced the way we Americans celebrate it. Because of four remarkable American Unitarians that we’ll hear about this morning, our holidays will be merry and bright, if not white!

Four years ago Doug Muder wrote an article called “The ghosts of Unitarian Christmas” in UU World; in it, he claimed that Unitarians reinvented Christmas:
“Unitarians didn’t just inherit Christmas from the orthodox Christian sects… To a large extent we invented it, or reinvented it. For years the orthodox didn’t know what to do with Christmas. Easter was the big religious holiday. In England, Christmas looked more like Saturnalia than anything Christian.

The actual caroling tradition was more like trick-or-treating than the way we picture it now. Rowdy mobs of the poor would stand outside the houses of the rich and intimidate them into offering food and drink. The Puritans hated the whole idea so much that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would fine you for celebrating Christmas.”
There was in fact a ban on Christmas that existed as law for 22 years, from 1659 until it was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. But even after the ban was lifted, the majority of colonists still shunned celebrations. Samuel Sewell, whose diary of life in Massachusetts Bay Colony was later published, made a habit of watching the holiday—specifically how it was observed—each year:
 "Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compell them to keep it," Sewell wrote in 1685.
“The Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts to build a new life had several reasons for disliking Christmas. First of all, it reminded them of the Church of England and the old-world customs, which they were trying to escape. Second, they didn't consider the holiday a truly religious day. December 25th wasn't selected as the birth date of Christ until several centuries after his death.”
 Charles Follen
Doug Muder says that the first change in American celebrations of Christmas came in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1832, in the home of Charles Follen, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist. He went on to found a congregation in Lexington that’s named after him today. Why is he famous? For bringing a tradition from his native Germany to America in 1832 - the first Christmas tree in New England. Now no home would be complete in its Christmas decorations without this ancient pagan symbol, and the White House lighting of the national tree by the president is just as much an American custom as pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey.
Maria Child
The next Unitarian to contribute to the American celebration of Christmas is a woman named Lydia Maria Child. In 1844 she wrote the poem "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day", which became better known as “Over the River and through the Woods.” It celebrates her childhood memories of visiting her Grandfather's House.
 It’s sometimes sung with lines about Christmas replacing Thanksgiving, so that the line "Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!" becomes "Hurrah for Christmas Day!" The song reflects wintertime in New England in the early 19th century, which at that time “was enduring the Little Ice Age, a colder era with earlier winters.” The picture that she paints of a family Christmas has become the iconic image that we all to this day aim to recreate, as we endure travel miseries to gather from across the country to share the holidays with our families.

Edmund Sears
The third Unitarian who changed the face of Christmas for America was a minister who wrote lyrics that paint a beautiful picture of a midnight scene in Bethlehem. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849, and we aren’t sure if the carol was first sung at his home by members of his congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, or in the Sunday school of the Quincy Massachusetts Unitarian church.
 But the tune we sing it by now was written a year after the lyrics by an organist from New York named Richard Storrs Willis.

James Pierpont
The final Unitarian whose music also impacted our Christmas tradition was based further south than Massachusetts – James Lord Pierpont, whose brother John in 1853 became the last minister before the Civil War to serve the Unitarian church in Savannah. In 1857 James wrote a song called “One Horse Open Sleigh” – and in 1859 he reissued it under a new name: “Jingle Bells.” Sleighing was a popular activity of the time, and it’s suggested that while in Savannah as music director of his brother’s Unitarian church, Pierpont was homesick and wrote the song about his younger days in New England.
Like many other important American songwriters, Pierpont didn’t get rich from "Jingle Bells" at the time, but later, "In the period of 1890 through 1954,“Jingle Bells” was in the top 25 most recorded songs in history."
The recognition of his composition came posthumously when Pierpont was elected into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. And more locally, in 1997, Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia established a James Lord Pierpont Music Scholarship Fund.
Looking deeper
Charles Follen, Maria Child, Edmund Sears, and James Pierpont – we as UUs should be justly proud of these 4 Unitarians as we celebrate Christmas. Even though there is one other Unitarian whose contribution to Christmas is hugely important – Charles Dickens - they have made the holiday uniquely American.
But just as Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” promoted the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, and universal values like compassion, friendship, and family, the contributions of Follen, Child, Sears, and Pierpont also come to us undergirded by equally strong convictions and a desire to create a world of peace and justice.
Let’s look a little more deeply into the stories of these four.
Unitarianism in the America of the early 19th century stressed the importance of rational thinking, and a personal, direct relationship with God. By 1825, Unitarian ministers had formed a denomination called the American Unitarian Association. Its members were outspoken on issues such as education reform, prison reform, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery.
The Reverend Lucinda Duncan, minister of the Follen Community Church in East Lexington Massachusetts, founded by Charles Follen in 1839, said of him: “Follen has left us a legacy of social action based on the principle of freedom.” Charles Follen was born in Germany in 1796, where aristocratic rule was reinstated following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and French domination. He was a student who joined in the revolutionary movement for reform, and a few years later as a professor he left for America, where he became Harvard’s first German teacher in 1825. 

Follen was influenced by Boston Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and began to study for the ministry. He married in 1828, became an American citizen and a father in 1830. In December 1832, wanting to recreate the beauty of a decorated tree from his childhood years in Germany, Follen went out into the woods and cut down a small fir tree. He then set it in a tub and hung from its branches small dolls, gilded eggshells, and paper cornucopias filled with fruit, and set candles in it. Harriet Martineau, an English Unitarian and journalist who was visiting Boston, described what happened next:
"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… 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."
This was not the first Christmas tree in America, but after he set the example in New England of decorating it, it became a widespread popular custom. And the Follen Community Church commemorates this by lighting a tree every Christmas on the church lawn…but it also works hard “to remain true to Follen's example as a social activist.” Here’s the untold story: “As an American, Follen took up the fight against slavery with the same spirit the younger Follen protested the injustices in his native country.
His uncompromising abolitionist principles once lost him a job as pastor of All Souls Church in New York City; he was outspoken in his stand against slavery at a time when abolition was still highly controversial, even in Massachusetts. Harvard did not renew his professorship in 1835, and his wife later said that it was his outspoken views that cost him his Harvard position.”
Taking a position as minister for the small congregation of East Lexington, Massachusetts, he designed the octagonal church which still stands, laid out so that the minister would not be elevated above his parishioners.
Except that tragically, Follen did not live to preach in that church. He was killed in 1840 at the age of 44 in a fire on board the steamship Lexington while crossing Long Island Sound.
Maria Child was another Unitarian abolitionist, and also became a Unitarian as a young adult; she chose the new name Maria to go by at this transformative stage of her life. She became an advocate of women’s suffrage, but her work as an author brought her fame at a young age: she wrote several controversial books, the first being a novel about racial intermarriage at the age of 22. When she was 31 she published “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans,” which became the most influential anti-slavery non-fiction book ever written.

She turned her attention in later years to Native American advocacy, working ceaselessly for the rights of native people to have good education, to speak native languages, and practice their own religions. She passionately opposed the American government's policy to forcibly drive the Cherokee people from their tribal lands. When she was 66, she wrote “An Appeal for the Indians,” a controversial call for government officials and religious leaders to bring justice to American Indians. She inspired other advocates with her writing, which also led to the founding of the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners and the creation of the Peace Policy during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, although nothing came of that policy.
So when we remember Maria Child for writing the poem “Over the River and through the Woods,” it is such a small part of her impressive lifetime of achievement and advocacy.

Someone whose song lyrics are seen as prophetic is Edmund Sears, who wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1849. Unlike the first verse with its recreation of the scene in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, the final verse focuses on the hope that peace on earth will prevail:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
         the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
         two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
         the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
         and hear the angels sing.”
The Reverend Edmund Sears served a small congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts in the 1830s, but when he moved to a larger congregation he suffered a breakdown after 7 years. He then moved back to Wayland, where he wrote the carol. Sears was also a fervent abolitionist during the Civil War, but it is thought that the song refers to the hope of peace following the Mexican-American War, which had just ended in 1849.

As adventurous as Sears was fragile, James Pierpont was the son of a Unitarian minister, and could trace his family lineage back to Charlemagne and beyond to England under William the Conqueror. He was sent to boarding school when a young boy, and a few years later ran away to sea for a short time. As an adult, he had a "Gold Rush" adventure, leaving his wife and children in Massachusetts. He returned to Massachusetts but soon joined his brother in Savannah, giving organ and voice lessons to support himself while organist and music director of the Unitarian church. A year after his first wife died of tuberculosis, he married the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.
In 1859, after publishing the song “One Horse Open Sleigh” and re-releasing it as “Jingle Bells” the following year – neither time a hit – Pierpont saw the Unitarian church close due to its position on abolition. But while his brother returned north, James Pierpont stayed in Savannah with his wife and, remarkably, joined the First Georgia Cavalry when war broke out. He even wrote music for the confederacy, but maybe the soldiers on both sides sang “Jingle Bells” on cold December nights while they were camped out before a battle.
 His father, in contrast, served as a chaplain with the Union army in Washington DC. After the war James Pierpont moved to Valdosta and then to Florida, where he died in 1893. His family has one more connection of note – his nephew was the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, said to have more money than the U.S. Treasury.

The Unitarian Church in Savannah still calls itself the “Jingle Bells” Church, but since the roots of the song trace to both Massachusetts and Georgia, there are historical markers in both states. This, Martha Boltz writes in an article on the Civil War, means that the song represents the War Between the States in a very literal way.

But here’s a real achievement for Pierpont: “Jingle Bells” was the first song — and the first Christmas carol — performed in outer space, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford sang it on December 16, 1965, during the flight of Gemini 6.
The Civil War: “Jingle Bells,” sung by the North and the South at Christmas

So “Jingle Bells” may not be the most profound song – it may not have the nostalgic picture of family warmth and happiness at Christmas that Maria Child’s song does, and it may not be a prophetic call for world peace like Sears’ carol is – and its author may not have been the most noble of advocates for peace and justice - but along with the Christmas tree of Charles Follen, it may be the most popular symbol of Christmas in this country.
And so that’s why we can say that Unitarians invented Christmas…and merry Christmas to all of you.

Gaye Ortiz
December 23 2012