So a UU Facebook friend alerted me and the rest of our circle yesterday that Garrison Keillor had published an editorial rant, "Don't Mess with Christmas", on Salon.com directed at Unitarian-Universalists and their penchant for revisionist hymns and carols. My friend’s few sentences were full of anger and denouncement of Keillor as unworthy of making such a criticism, and were very uncharacteristic for my fellow UU’s usual demeanor. His words had definitely pushed her buttons somehow.
When I finally was able to read Keillor’s piece, I was pretty shocked myself. It was angry and denounced others with none of his signature understated and understanding humor about the human condition. It seemed more like something you’d expect from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, but not this gentle giant from Minnesota.
I am a big fan of Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”, including his stories from Lake Woebegone and the funny and poignant but reassuringly human goings on of the residents. His monologues of the goings on in this bucolic Minnesota town often include lampoons of Lutherans and UUs, poking fun at (some) UU’s penchant to take God out of otherwise Christian religious rituals or couch spiritual wisdom with a disclaimer acknowledging God, “or whatever or whoever you believe in”.
To be fully candid, as a member of a Unitarian-Universalist congregation for the past 18 years and having studied to some degree the thoughts and actions of historic Unitarians, we UUs can be guilty of a certain hubris when it comes to our religion relative to others. At our best, we acknowledge that there are “many spiritual paths” and celebrate life-affirming elements of many of them across the spectrum – Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Pagan, Humanist, Buddhist, Native American. But at times we are guilty of thinking we have the most highly evolved faith, including (from what I have read) in early 19th century America when Horace Mann and other Unitarians put forward the argument that Unitarianism was the purest and most essential form of Christian thought. In a more contemporary context, UUs who try to be open-minded and welcoming at times enforce essentially a Republican-free zone.
So given all that, we UU’s, like all our fellow humans, are guilty of being imperfect, at times unknowing and still evolving. And as such we are legitimate objects of criticism, preferably the gentle and loving kind that Keillor usually dishes out with a wink and a smile. But certainly not in this case!
If I had been sitting and having coffee with my buddy Garrison and he delivered his rant, I think my first reaction would be to acknowledge the emotion I am hearing and say, “Wow... this really pushed your buttons and made you angry! Say more about that.” Then I might go on to say that, if it were me (and if friends can’t tell you this sort of stuff who can), I would have couched my anger in terms of “I statements.” Such as, “To hear someone changing the lyrics of a classic Christmas carol really makes me angry,” and then go on to say more about who I am and what my buttons are, rather than judge others as “wrong, wrong, wrong”. I have found those kind of “I statements” as generally more effective because they don’t push the recipient of the criticism into such a defensive position, precluding any opportunity for them to grow from the feedback.
I think I would (and do) take particular issue with his statement, “Christmas is a Christian holiday – If you’re not in the club, then buzz off.” Buzz off? Buzz off? That actually is his one statement that pushes my buttons! Yes, the celebration of Jesus’ birth as the “son of God” is a Christian tradition. But in our country and much of the Western world the celebration of Christmas is much more than that, and includes that other iconic character in the red suit and all that he stands for.
As I’ve said in another post, my mom, who believed in God but was not a Christian, believed in Santa Claus (at least the metaphor of Santa Claus) with all her being. To my mom, Santa was all about celebrating and honoring children, and modeling that good behavior for all the rest of us in a society where being “childish” is an epithet and which is otherwise too often child and youth unfriendly. Should my mom, who was not a Christian but loved the Santa Claus holiday, “buzz off”?
Still smarting a bit from my own pushed button, I would like everyone to remember that Christmas is the one religious event that is sanctioned in our country (and elsewhere) by a secular holiday. We don’t all get time off for Hanukah or Ramadan! You could make the argument that Christmas has become bigger than Christ’s birth, despite what Fox News, Christian right-wingers, and Keillor say. Santa Claus certainly embraces themes of Pagan Yule, Solstice and Saturnalia, along with acknowledging the wonder and possibilities of the birth of a child, and honoring that incarnate soul with gifts.
And then there is the commercial consumerist behemoth, including the much anticipated “Black Friday”, that is built around the celebration of the holiday. That certainly goes way beyond anything having to do with the principles of Jesus and the Christian faith that emerged from those principles. Maybe it would be a good thing in the long run if our marketplace “buzzed off” in terms of commercializing this holiday. So buddy Garrison... I’m not a Christian, I’m an atheist. But I am going to take the liberty to joyfully sing the songs about Santa or baby Jesus, even perhaps some watered down UU versions, if that’s what the assembly is singing. And for your Christmas present, rather than coal in your stocking, I would like to wish you a return to your usual wonderful loving and knowing self, as soon as possible!