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Enjoying the Christmas holiday? Thank Unitarians

The Puritans may not have been quite as dour as we think, but their aversion for celebrating Christmas is well known - and persisted in Massachusetts long after they were gone. Aline Kaplan recounts how 19th-century Boston Unitarians began to change that.

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The former Holy Trinity Church in Boston's South End was the heart of Boston's German Catholic community in the 19th century, and was a major influencer on the adoption of Christmas traditions in this area.

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Ms. Kaplan doesn't explain where the Unitarians came from, nor that they were nothing like today's Unitarian Universalists.

The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas or Easter. That's because, as strict Calvinists, they followed a doctrine called sola scriptura. They recognized the Bible as the only valid authority in matters of religious practice, and nowhere in the Bible are Christians commanded to celebrate Jesus's birth on December 25, nor is the traditional formula for figuring the date of Easter to be found anywhere in scripture. Therefore, these celebrations were dismissed as remnants of paganism, which, indeed, they are. Easter is named for Eostre, a Germanic fertility goddess.

The Separatists, or Pilgrims, of Plymouth Colony likewise followed this doctrine, and Thanksgiving was invented in large part to substitute for the rejected Christmas.

Some time late in the eighteenth century, someone studying scripture realized that nowhere in either Testament is there any mention of a Holy Trinity. While there are myriad references to a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit, the idea that they are all of them aspects of one God is not there... and, therefore, the logic of sola scriptura required that the doctrine of the Trinity be rejected. This was a problem, because the doctrine of the Trinity had been upheld for some 1,500 years, and almost all Christians cherished it.

In the end, the Congregational church in New England split down the middle. The faction rejecting the Trinity called themselves Unitarians, while the other faction called themselves Trinitarians. The Unitarians were still Christians, still saw Jesus as the Son of God, and still worshiped much as they had before; they just didn't recognize the Trinity. Harvard and Harvard Divinity School sided with the Unitarians, so the Trinitarians founded Andover Theological School (today's Andover-Newton Theological School). The two groups stopped speaking to each other and gradually evolved in different directions. The Trinitarian faction eventually became the United Church of Christ; the Unitarians eventually merged with the Universalists. Drive through any Massachusetts town today and you'll find a First Church or First Parish; it will either be UU or UCC, depending on which faction it belonged to.

The tradition of not celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts lasted well into the eighteenth century.

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were one side of a disagreement in the Christian church about universal salvation -- that is, whether everyone's soul would be saved, or whether some souls were destined for eternal torment. There's some nuance about "what if there's some finite period of punishment or correction first for some people, and *then* salvation" and other variations, but that's the basic idea.

They eventually *mostly* merged with the Unitarians in the 1960s or so because both religions had converged on a similar set of liberal ideals and dropped Christian dogma, but there are still some just-Unitarians and just-Universalists kicking around who didn't agree with the merger for one reason or another.

There are also UU (or just U) churches here and there that are recognizably Christian, although UUs broadly are not. I grew up UU and it's weird to encounter that! Even weirder is UCC, which is *definitely* Christian, but with liberal ideals like UU. (Growing up in Virginia, it was a long time before I realized that Christians could be nice people. Most of the ones I was exposed to were awful talk radio Christians or televangelists or whatever.)

Both unitarianism and universalism have been around in one form or another for quite some time, of course, even when and where they weren't organized as such.

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"Say: He is one, He is the Sustainer;
He begets not, nor is He begotten,
And there is no one equal to Him."
-- Qur'an 112:1-4.

As for universal salvation, the idea that an omnipotent God of love would condemn anyone to eternal torture seems more than a little contradictory, so I can understand the appeal of universalism. Those who believe religion necessary to promote morality and social cohesion, on the other hand, can't imagine heaven without hell, as that would lead to license and anarchy.

A Muslim theologian named al-Ash`ari once approached his teacher, al-Jubba`i, with a question he could not answer. He proposed to al-Jubba`i that three brothers are born. The first grows up to be pious, steadfast, and respectful, who gives of himself for his neighbor; the second becomes a notorious robber and murderer; the third dies in infancy.

Al-Ash`ari asks: what will become of them after death?

Al-Jubba`i assigns the first brother to a high place in heaven, the second to hell, and the third to a lower place in heaven than his eldest brother.

Says al-Ash`ari: but what if the third brother were to ask God, why didn't you let me live long enough to earn my eldest brother's high status?

Al-Jubba`i replies that God knows that if the child had lived, he would have done evil things and ended up in hell.

But, asks al-Ash`ari, what if the middle brother were to ask God: why then did you let me live, knowing as you did where I would end up?

Al-Jubba`i has no answer; there is an inherent paradox in God being all-knowing, all-powerful, and just. Al-Ash`ari himself simply asserted that God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful, and God is just, "bila kayf" ("and don't ask how").

In universalism, however, God is not just, but forgiving, and so there is no paradox.

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I mean, playing with words is fun, but most people know (or should) that Unitarianism grew out of Christianity, something neither Judaism nor Islam did. They are hardly the same.

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Sunday is "the Lord's day" (Spanish "domingo"), but it is not the Sabbath. The Sabbath (Spanish "sabado"; Russian "subbota") is Saturday.

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Aline Kaplan's post — and the post she links to (which is from a UU church in New Jersey) — both mention some, but not all, of the Boston-area connections of the individuals they cite.

Charles Follen lived on Waterhouse Street across from Cambridge Common, at the corner of what is now Follen Street, when visitors to his house saw his Christmas tree, and wrote articles about it in the popular press. This was one of the first Christmas trees in the United States, just in Boston. He had emigrated from Germany and at the time was a Harvard professor. He later became minister of the Unitarian Church in East Lexington, which is known as the Follen Church. He actually designed the church building himself, but died in a shipwreck before it was completed.

Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears [not "Edward" or "Sear"], who wrote "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", was minister of a Unitarian church in Wayland.

While James Lord Pierpont lived in Savannah when he wrote "Jingle Bells", the song is about his earlier days living in Medford. (Some claim that he actually wrote the song in Medford.) It's been alleged that the song is about informal sleigh races that young men held on the Medford-Malden road, today's Route 60. Or as one critic put it, the song is about young men trying to impress their dates by speeding in fast vehicles, and then having accidents [getting "upsot"].

Dickens' and Longfellow's connections to Boston are well known, but I can't find any Boston connections to Clement C. Moore. He was a lifelong New Yorker and had a summer house in Newport.

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  • Charles Follen who brought the Christmas Tree to Boston
  • I can barely imagine Christmas without a tree of some kind. I even like the aluminum ones with the color wheel. I wish they still made those. I had a money tree last year.

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    I don't know where the author's version came from but to be nitpicky, it is not the version I'm used to seeing.

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