Garrison Keillor Is no "Companion" for Unitarian Universalists

Many Unitarian Universalists, myself included, are regular NPR listeners.  And among them, many listen regularly to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."  It's on weekly at about the time I leave church, so I have listened to it many times.  Garrison Keillor makes a regular practice of poking fun at Unitarian Universalists on his show.  I've often had church members come and tell me he mentioned us again, often with delight, because we're so rarely mentioned in the media.  One example of a Unitarian Universalist joke attributed to Garrison Keillor is: "A sign at the Unitarian church said: Bible study at 7:00. Bring your Bible and a pair of scissors."  So, yes, some of the joke are funny, some point out our foibles and idiosyncrasies.  But lately I've been turning off NPR whenever "A Prairie Home Companion" comes on.  Listening to him talk about us over the years it's becoming more and more evident that he isn't laughing with us--he's laughing at us. 

In a recent article by Garrison Keillor, "Don't Mess with Christmas" at, 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 "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.


For more on the history of "Silent Night" and its translations, see
Lizard Eater said…
Great post! Keillor's essay was so mindbogglingly bad, so ignorant of any Christmas history or -- hey! -- the welcoming message of love -- I wondered if it were satire. If it were, it was so poorly done, so without cleverness as to be uninterpretable as such.
Robin Edgar said…
"Listening to him talk about us over the years it's becoming more and more evident that he isn't laughing with us--he's laughing at us."

Probably. . .

But let's face it U*Us.

Sometimes U*Us say and do ludicrous things that literally beg to be laughed *at*. So U*Us should be reasonably open to being laughed *at* as long as the poking fun at U*Us is not outright mean-spirited and hateful.
"So U*Us should be reasonably open to being laughed *at* as long as the poking fun at U*Us is not outright mean-spirited and hateful."

Robin, I agree, and have been relatively open to it with him until this point. I think he's crossing a line now to mean-spirited and hateful, especially with the line, "And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls... and the rest of that dreck" and with "if you're not in the club, then buzz off." Well, I'm clearly not in his club. So off goes the radio from his program.
Albatross said…
For a faith apparently incapable of adequately marketing itself, Keillor's criticism and jokes are (to me) a welcome change to being completely overlooked.

Any marketing director would start by telling us to change our unwieldy ten-syllable name, and come up with a catchy five word phrase that adequately describes us.

Until we have the sense to present ourselves in a manner that informs rather than confuses the public I suggest we appreciate that there's one old curmudgeon who actually brings us into the public view occasionally, even if we don't always like his message.

How much, do you think, would it cost to PAY someone with Keillor's audience to mention our "product" at all?
Asilegap said…
I heard rumors that he was taking his daughter to a UU chruch in the Twin Cities (which shall remain nameless in case I'm wrong and for their privacy).
Until this, I thought he secretly wanted to be a UU.
His comments quoted here are just ugly.
Robin Edgar said…
Albatross said - "Any marketing director would start by telling us to change our unwieldy ten-syllable name, and come up with a catchy five word phrase that adequately describes us."

That is probably why the acronym UU aka U*U is used so often by UUs aka U*Us Albatross. BTW, as far as a catchy five word phrase that adequately describes U*Uism aka The U*U Movement :-) I belive that UUA President Rev. Peter Morales did a bang up job of that in his "stump speech" announcing his candidacy for UUA President. I seem to recall him describing The Ten Syllable Denomination as The Tiny Declining Fringe Religion™ or something like that. . . ;-) I must say that I have had quite a bit of good clean fun poking fun at *that* turn of a phrase, which is sadly an all too truthful and accurate description of Unitarian*Universalism these days.

Rev. Cyn I have not yet entered into a free and responsible search for the truth and meaning of Garrison Keillor's latest "rant" but will do so soonish and get back to you about it. I will say however that U*Us are far from being immune to engaing in mean-spirited and hateful criticism of other religions or religious people of various stripes. (I am not even going to mention Republicans here. . .) This is particularly true of the "fundamentalist atheist" faction of Humanist U*Us that I have had some rather unpleasant run-ins with over the years. Heck Rev. Peter Morales, who may well have been a member of that U*U faction at one time, if he still does not have a foot in it these days. . . managed to insult and defame if not "demonize and marginalize" most of the world's major religions, and a good chunk of its smaller ones, in "name-calling" ALL "old religions" as "obsolete religions, created for another time" that "lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression" and "contribute to the darkness" of "hatred, injustice, prejudice, ignorance" in the aforementioned (and perhaps appropriately named) presidential "stump speech". I am pretty sure that Rev. Peter Morales was very *inclusive* of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam along with Hinduism if not Buddhism in *that* blanket condemnation of "old religions". I guess that Scientology is off the hook not being an "old religion" and all. Not sure if Mormonism and Bahai'ism count either being *comparatively* "new religions". Unitarian*Universalists aka U*Us who want to enter into a free and responsible search for the truth and meaning of what I have just asserted here could do worse than get started by reading Rev. Peter Morales' 'Religion For A New America' sermon cum "stump speech".

More later. . .
Kari said…
Yes, yes yes! Love the bit about the curly hair of the babe in the original German.

Thanks much!
Robin Edgar said…
Well, having freely and (ir)responsibly read the piece now, I can honestly say that I see little, or indeed nothing, in it for you or any other U*U to take much offence at Rev. Cyn. For starters it seems that Garrison Keillor is *playing the role* of a moderately cranky curmudgeon who is a sweet little pussycat when compared to some of the *real* cranky curmudgeons who populate the U*U World.

Keillor makes a valid point when he says, "I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God)." I and other Unitarian theists are not favorably impressed with the U*U proclivity to "memory hole" any mention of God or Jesus in various traditional Christian hymns in order to make them more palatable to atheist/agnostic Humanist U*Us. I do not even identify as a Christian yet find this U*U revisionism to be questionable, and even just plain *wrong*. Such revisionism could well be seen as a form of cultural (mis)appropriation. As Keillor says, U*Us can write new hymns if they don't like the traditional Christian ones.

I love his take on Emerson's saying -

"To be great is to be misunderstood."

Especially since I am great and "misunderstood" myself! :-)

Indeed this tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable Unitarians to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness. Except for the niggling fact that there aren't a million Unitarians. . . OK I am just having a bit of fun here.

Allow me to plagU*Urize Keillor again and by saying -

And all his hoo-ha about listening to the voice within and don't follow the path, make your own path and leave a trail and so forth, encouraged people who might've been excellent janitors to become bold and innovative U*U ministers who turned a once respected and influential American religion into a tiny declining *fringe* religion. . .

Not all of them by any means but *enough*. . . And there is no mean-spiritedness here any more than when Rev. Peter Morales lamented the readily observable *fact* that Unitarian*Universalism *is* "a tiny, declining, fringe religion" can past and present U*U ministers absolve themselves of any *responsibility* for that regrettable fact of life?

I think not.
Robin Edgar said…
:If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone.

Keillor has a point here although it does ignore the fact that Christians did not leave alone many things that were sacred to pre-Christian religions or even post-Christian religions like Islam. . . Gotta love the unwitting "body modification" that early Christians did to the prehistoric Goddess sacred site Glastonbury Tor.

No U*Us? ;-)

I still get a wry chuckle over *that* one, although it would have been better all round if Christians had simply left Glastonbury Tor alone AFA*I*AC. . . To paraphrase the famous Trix cereal advertisement -

Silly Christians.

Clits are for pagans. :-)

So as much as I believe that many of your point are quite valid Rev. Cyn I do believe that you are over-reacting somewhat to Garrison Keillor's seemingly somewhat tongue in cheek "rant". In any case, if you *really* believe he is prejudiced against U*Us perhaps that is all the more reason to listen to his show. U*Us know what they say about knowing your enemies and keeping them close to you. That is certainly the philosophy that I follow. ;-)

And no, I don't consider you to be my enemy Rev. Cyn. Far from it. In fact I consider you to be rather more appropriately described as an ally in some ways and genuinely appreciate your ongoing openness to my critical comments even when we disagree on some matters.

Perhaps it is not to early to wish you an enjoyable solstice holiday regardless of how you go about celebrating it. Garrison Keillor and many other Christians might be surprised to learn that the spectacular death and rebirth of the sun during total solar eclipses is the *real* "reason for the season", at least insofar as pre-Christian pagan religious beliefs and practices go.
cejaxon said…
One commenter on Salon reminded us that Kellior has recently had a stroke, that this can cause personality shifts, & recommended he see a neurologist. Perhaps officious advice coming from a stranger, but medically correct, & I am hopeful Kellior does so.

With that in mind, I wouldn't boycott his show just because of this article. What he said in that article doesn't render untrue, inartistic or unfunny what he's done before.

What I find both bizarre yet a bit flattering is his view that we UUs are such "elites." Do the UU rewritten verses of Silent Night get blared out from the rooftops? I'm thinking not. I'm thinking a man with a weekly radio show & best selling books & someone who wrote for the New Yorker for a long time & who had a movie made about him -- that guy's a member of the elite. The rest of us, maybe not so much.
Unknown said…
I would encourage all of you to not be so thin skinned. He takes shots regularly at Lutherans as well.
villemezbrown said…
I really like this post. It is well-thought out, researched and argued, but you don't hesitate to include your own feelings and reactions too. I also appreciate that you mention the attack on intellectuals, as this really bothered me from the very first line of the article.

My minister posted a link to the Keillor article on facebook, which prompted many comments and much discussion. I have linked to your post on my facebook page because I think it is such a great response.

Thank you!

Anonymous said…
I'm a UU in Cambridge MA. Great post! I couldn't agree more.
Anonymous said…
> Listening to him talk about us over the years it's becoming more and more evident that he isn't laughing with us--he's laughing at us.

It's worse; he's laughing at us while getting way too many of us to laugh along with him. Soon enough he'll snap, like Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes at the end of "A Face in the Crowd," and tell all us yokels just what he really thinks of us to our faces. Then we won't have to bother turning off the radio whenever we hear his syrupy insincerities, 'cause he won't be airing them any more.
@Adele - Thank you for linking to my blog!

@Anon2 - I think he already has snapped and told us what he thinks of us.

@cejaxon - I was already starting to tune out anyways. Interesting hypothesis about his change from, I think, cranky curmudgeon to vitriolic hate-spewer.
@Robin - I have to disagree. From my perspective, this has reached a new level of nastiness from Keillor. Regardless of other nastiness from other people, I don't have to tolerate it.

@Dan - Yes, he's well known for making jokes about everyone. The problem is, this wasn't joking.
Anyone interested in UU hymnody, here's a paper that was recommended:
Robin Edgar said…
I am not all that familiar with Garrison Keillor Rev. Cyn, so I have been giving him the benefit of the doubt, but if you truly believe that he is actually being nasty towards Unitarians, Jews and other in his over-the-top "rant" then I would certainly agree that you do not have to tolerate any nastiness from him or anyone else for that matter. I generally don`t tolerate nastiness when I encounter it although I do try to often attempt to determine the motivation for whatever nastiness I may encounter. So you have my moral support when it comes to not tolerating nastiness, especially if it arises from prejudice and bigotry of one kind or another.
Steve Ewbank said…
Somewhere I read about how UUs adapt material from other religious traditions, and have not been aware that this borrowing has unintentionally upset those whose religious tradition has been borrowed from. Maybe, in a way, this is a similar. I can understand how he sees we are interfering with something sacred, something he loves. However, we are not forcing our adaptation on others, as this is something we sing in our own churches.
dtedac said…
Rev. Cyn,

I just found your blog and I enjoyed reading your comments.

As a Catholic, I know that Keillor takes shot at us as well. Usually I think he was poking fun, but I have to agree with you that this article is over the line. If he is trying to be a curmudgeon in a funny way here, I don't see it. It sounds a little bitter and biting.

Have a great and blessed season.

Pete M said…
Nice column, and I agree with you that Keillor's rant is not entirely in fun.

I go to the UU church in Ann Arbor, and didn't realize (until now) that the lyrics to Silent Night had been changed.

While it sounds like the changes weren't dramatic, I think that changing them is a mistake. Singing a hymn doesn't require you to agree with everything in it, but taking a hymn that is sacred to others and changing the words does strike is misappropriation and potentially offensive.

If we were to sing a song from another spiritual tradition (Jewish, Hindu, Native American etc.) I suspect we wouldn't even consider rewriting the words.
Robin Edgar said…
Interestingly enough U*Us. . . A free and responsible search for the truth and meaning of Garrison Keillor's appparent anti-U*U "rant" reveals that Garrison Keillor himself told U*Us that he was not a "companion" to U*Us seberal years ago. Check out these quite "prophetic" words of Garrison Keillor that were posted to UU World magazine editor Chris Walton's now rather defU*Unct Philocrites blog on Thor's Day, October 2, 2003 -

"Beneath this cool tolerant exterior beats the heart of an old *reactionary* and *pulpit-pounder* and if you ever put me in front of Unitarians with a microphone, I'd be hollering about man's inherent sinfulness and unworthiness and singing "Are You Washed In the Blood". I'd be roaming the aisles, *poking* people, baying like a dog. It wouldn't be a pretty sight."

So maybe U*Us should have taken *those* words of Garrison Keillor seriously way back when. . .
Anonymous said…
I like Garrison, but worrying about the words to Silent Night - with Seth and Amy (Saturday Night Live) - Really?
Don't we have more important things to get our panties bunched up about?
Christmas (look it up in Wikipedia) started off as a pagan holiday. If we are going to get all torqued up about this why don't we start by giving the winter solstice back to the pagans? Does anyone know why Christmas is on December 25 instead of December 21? The winter solstice shifts a day every 700 years or so. When the date was set at December 25, that was the winter solstice.
While we are taking care to insure the purity of hymns someone should tell the Catholics to leave the words of Charles Wesley's hymns alone. He wrote those lyrics about needing second crisis work of grace for a reason. He was a Methodist who believed in holiness. So knock it off already. You think the Jesuits entitle you to change whatever you want?
At any rate we really should take a page from the Puritan songbook and ban Christmas as the drunken bacchanal that it is. Most good Christians would want nothing to do with this exercise in debauchery.
Davionics said…
I'd have to agree with the hymnodic piracy claim. You site, for instance, Onward Christian Soldiers as an example of where it's okay to steal the tune since the words you're replacing them with are from, roughly, the same time period of the tune's composer. I don't get the justification. When Arthur Sullivan first wrote the tune, it was specifically as a setting for those original words. So, by replacing the words you are going against Sullivan's intent.

I can understand a tune written in, say, 1600, which has had several sets of lyrics applied to it, where you come in and apply yet another one. But I just don't get the wholesale theft of the world's hymns and folk tunes. Why not just write some fresh tunes?

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