A highlight of the holiday season at my church is the annual Hanging of the Greens. With “Deck the Halls” playing in the background, the entire Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, New Jersey, parades into the sanctuary carrying a chain of sweet-smelling evergreen boughs. Once we have completely ringed the room, we lift our arms up to secure the giant boughs on waiting hooks. It’s as though the whole congregation is wrapped together inside a giant, living circle of green, and we leave the building feeling blessed. For me, this ceremony on the Sunday before Christmas is the real start of the holiday season.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have beloved holiday traditions. But at home many of us still struggle to find the right mix of family traditions for this time of year. Many UUs respect Christian traditions that celebrate the birth of Jesus but are personally uncomfortable with the idea that he was the Christ. Yet veering away from religious rituals throws them smack into the materialistic, secular approach to Christmas, and they don’t want to deify Santa Claus either.
In frustration some families simply water down remnants of their own religious childhood holidays, but then feel like they’re missing something. Others grew up with Jewish traditions and are already working to patch together celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas: How do they bring a UU flavor to the mix?
The inclusive nature of Unitarian Universalism and its acceptance of each person’s spiritual path ensures that there will never be a single sanctioned way of celebrating Christmas. Nor should there be. But we UU families can find more meaningful ways to celebrate this holiday that correspond to our shared beliefs.
I’ve been researching and writing about family rituals for a decade and have interviewed hundreds of families about their holiday traditions. I remember asking a teller at my bank how her family reconciled American celebrations with their Hindu beliefs when they emigrated from India. Thanksgiving was particularly vexing. Eating a traditional turkey dinner was out for them, as vegetarians. But, this woman said, her family felt truly grateful to be in America and loved the idea of a holiday whose purpose was expressing gratitude. So they opted for a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and their prayers on this occasion always include a prayer for the poor, sacrificial turkeys. They have shaped this holiday to mesh with their beliefs and, in my view, made it richer.
UUs can do the same with Christmas.
Let’s start by going back to basics: No matter how historically suspect the date may be, Christmas is fundamentally the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In UU classrooms and homes, Jesus is lauded as a wise man whose devotion to peace and justice are worthy of praise and emulation. All the Unitarian Universalists I know take the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. very seriously as a holiday: Should we celebrate the birthday of Jesus with any less intensity?
So let’s start by embracing the validity of celebrating Jesus’s birth and then consider how to observe his values and teachings in a UU context. Talk about his messages and methods to your children, share stories of Jesus helping the poor and outcast, feeding the hungry, and furthering peace. And talk about how closely these values align with the UU Principles.
Talking isn’t enough. Rituals require action. Jesus believed we should help those most in need. So one way to celebrate his birthday is to create memorable philanthropic traditions with your kids, even if you have very little money to spare. Here’s one simple ritual: I know a family who buys double groceries for every major holiday feast, including Easter and Christmas. If they are having ham and potatoes, say, they will buy a second ham, another bag of potatoes, and dessert and drop it off at a local charity that helps low-income families.
Part of your holiday craft traditions could be making and decorating a UU Helping Others box, to which the family will regularly contribute money for the coming year. You can cover a coffee can with paper, and cut a slit in the lid. The kids can donate part of each allowance. Christmas is a good time to vote on family charity: You can research three or four charities and discuss whether to support them all a little or to give everything to one. Make it real: If you decide to give money to Heifer International, which gives farm animals to needy families, for example, paste a picture of a chicken or pig on the jar and try to raise enough money to buy one.
Another idea is to make a family vow to serve your community in the year ahead. Light a chalice or a candle and promise to participate weekly or monthly in a local community service project. As you light the chalice, talk about why this is a season of light and how one of the ways UUs shine their light in the world is by helping others. Talk about how UU principles say that each person is precious and deserving and that we need to care for the earth. Then brainstorm some projects that help you live these principles. Your family could help feed and care for cats and dogs in a local shelter. Or pick up debris in local parks. Or read to the elderly in a senior center.
St. Nicholas Day, December 6, is another holiday that has UU compatibility. The loose model for Santa Claus, St. Nick was a real guy, a bishop who lived in what is now Turkey. He is said to have been extraordinarily generous to the needy, especially children, and preferred to give secretly. UU families can start a tradition similar to Secret Santas, in which each family member draws a name from a hat and then does good deeds for that person anonymously. One mother I know gives her children craft kits on St. Nicholas Day so they can make presents for others.
Some UU families and congregations celebrate the winter solstice, which also makes wonderful sense. The celebration of Jesus’s birth was moved to this time to coincide with existing pagan rituals, and celebrating the cycles of the earth fits with UU teachings to honor the environment. Some families have solstice trees and give gifts on this holiday. At my house, we turn out all the lights and talk about the significance of the solstice, then light multiple candles and throw open the front door and holler, “Come back, Sun!” Then we drink Sun Shakes (orange juice and vanilla ice cream) and listen to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
Celebrating multiple holidays this time of year, honoring many traditions while emphasizing our own principles is a very UU thing to do. But doing it more consciously with a UU spin can help us deepen the season’s meaning and stop the feeling that we’re just nibbling this time of year--while others are sated from a full meal.
There has been some controversy among letter writers to UU World recently over the issue of chocolate chalices sold through the UUA Bookstore. I’m strongly in the pro-chocolate faction. This is the kind of detail—bringing the symbols of our beliefs into our home celebrations—that will help deepen our children’s identification as UUs. My advice is to buy a couple boxes of chocolate chalices and fill your Christmas stockings. If you’re making cookies or cakes, why not write “UU” or draw a chalice on them with icing? Or make some ornaments in the shape of chalices for your tree?
If there’s room for a Hindu Thanksgiving, why not a UU Christmas?