In a recent article by Garrison Keillor, "Don't Mess with Christmas" at Salon.com, Keillor stops joking around and comes out swinging at Unitarian Universalists. (It can also be found under the title "The Christmas Dividend" at the Chicago Tribune in a slightly modified form. The Salon.Com is the one I'm quoting from, as it is even more offensive than the other.) It's all right there in the subtitle on Salon.com: "It's a Christian holiday, dammit, and it's plain wrong to rewrite 'Silent Night.' Unitarians, I'm talking to you!" In the article Keillor attacks intellectuals, Cambridge, First Church of Cambridge (Unitarian), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian Universalists. About Emerson (and of course Emerson was Unitarian) he says:
You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bons mots that have been leading people astray ever since.
About Unitarian Univeralists he says:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.And if all that wasn't enough, there's a bit of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure: "And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck." Not enough? He also trashes Pagans: "Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah."
Well, Unitarian Universalists have a lot of claim to the holiday he's protecting, of course. People of our faith wrote the carols "Jingle Bells," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Unitarian Lydia Marie Child wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods," too. And, of course, Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol, was a Unitarian, and with that publication deeply influenced and even changed Christmas as we--and Keillor--know it.
Keillor's big complaint is that we change the words to songs in our hymnal, and, in particular, "Silent Night." The changes that's got him all irate come in the second verse, where we drop the chorus "Christ the savior is born" and repeat the chorus from the first verse, and in the third verse similarly dropping "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth," and changing "son of God" to "child of God." Now, I don't know what's better about saying "child of God" then "son of God," since I don't think there's any debate that Jesus himself was actually male, granted. And on Christmas Eve I usually print the more familiar words in our order of service rather than going with our more theologically correct ones. This is pure practicality. The one year I didn't do this, I had people singing two sets of words, and it was a big mess.
On the other hand, Keillor is falling prey to a major fallacy that says, "the way I remember things from my own childhood is the way things always have been and always should be." His personal history has become the authoritative version of what Christmas should be, and what hymns should be.
But, of course, neither Christmas nor hymnody is like that. It's part of the grand tradition of hymnody that we take old hymn tunes and put new words to them. For example, take "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Yes, in our hymnal the tune that many know as "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is set to different words: "Forward Through the Ages." This hymn tune, St. Gertude, is older than both hymns, and the author of "Onward Christian Soliders" lived from 1834-1924, whereas the author of "Forward through the Ages" lived from 1840-1929. So the songs are actually both relatively old, and relatively contemporary with each other. But "Forward through the Ages" is less famous than "Onward, Christian Soliders," so many might mistakenly think that we had just decided to write new words to replace a militaristic song we didn't like. Another example of the pattern of hymnody is the British patriotic song, "God Save the Queen." Our American patriotic tune "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is written to the same tune. There are church hymns written to it as well. Another example is the old English folk song "Greensleeves" which we sing at Christmas as "What Child Is This?"
Those are examples of putting new songs to old tunes. Of course, simply changing the words is done quite a bit, as well. The aforementioned song by Lydia Marie Child is a great example of this. Some sing it as a Christmas song, some as a Thanksgiving song. Some sing it as going to Grandmother's house, some as Grandfather's. The original lyrics might surprise you--they are, in fact, Grandfather and Thanksgiving, not Grandmother and Christmas. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has verses of the original poem dropped and reordered. "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" probably has a verse dropped in the Lutheran hymnal Keillor sings from (sorry, I don't have a Lutheran hymnal nearby to confirm, but this site skips the pivotal and important third verse).
Now, do I tell any Christians who sing Unitarian and Universalist Christmas carols wrong to get their own holiday? Do I call it spiritual piracy or cultural elitism? No, I call it hymnody or the oral tradition. (But that's probably intellectual elitism for me to say so.)
As for "Silent Night," the original lyrics are in our hymnal: they're in German (well, we only have one verse in German in our hymnal, but it's there). And the translation most Americans are familiar with isn't a literal translation at all. We don't have that bit about the baby's curly hair in our words at all. And there were a few translations before Americans settled on just one as our most dear and familiar. So changing the words to "Silent Night" is part of a grand tradition that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are continuing.
Keillor writes, "Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation." Well, if we took away the Pagan "improvements" to Christmas, we'd have to take away his holly and his ivy, and, most importantly, his Christmas tree. If we took away the Unitarian "improvements" to Christmas, we take away the Christmas turkey, the carols I mentioned above, A Christmas Carol, and the idea of focusing on charity and giving to those less fortunate during the season. If we take away "improvements" to Christmas that happened during the Victorian age, we take away Christmas cards and Santa Claus, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and all the eight reindeer. If we get down to the original American version of Christmas, we wouldn't be celebrating the holiday at all. The Puritans didn't celebrate it. His precious "Silent Night"? An innovation. Mary didn't sing "Silent Night" at the birth, you know.
Keillor rightfully calls all the trappings of Christmas not what the holiday is really about. But the song "Silent Night" is just one more of those trappings. His attachment to his particular set of words for the song isn't about the spirit of the season. It's about one more chance to attack Unitarian Universalists and other religions. And I'll tell you what Christmas is not about: this type of religious prejudice. Peace on Earth, goodwill to all. This Unitarian Universalist has had enough. On Sunday afternoons, my radio will get tuned elsewhere.