Quakers and Christmas aka the annual Scrooge post

It’s that sea­son again, the time when unpro­grammed Friends talk about Christ­mas. Click Ric has post­ed about the seem­ing incon­gruity of his meeting’s Christ­mas tree and LizOpp has reprint­ed a still-timely let­ter from about five years ago about the meeting’s chil­dren Christ­mas pageant.

Scrooge McDuckFriends tra­di­tion­al­ly have lumped Christ­mas in with all of the oth­er rit­u­al­is­tic boo-ha that main­stream Chris­tians prac­tice. These are out­ward ele­ments that should be aban­doned now that we know Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self and is present and avail­able to all of us at all times. Out­ward bap­tism, com­mu­nion, planned ser­mons, paid min­is­ters, Christ­mas and East­er: all dis­trac­tions from true Chris­t­ian reli­gion, from prim­i­tive Chri­tian­i­ty revived.

One con­fu­sion that aris­es in lib­er­al meet­ings this time of year is that it’s assumed it’s the Chris­t­ian Friends who want the Christ­mas tree. Argu­ments some­time break out with “hyphen­at­ed” Friends who feel uncom­fort­able with the tree: folks who con­sid­er them­selves Friends but also Pagan, Non­the­is­tic, or Jew­ish and won­der why they’re hav­ing Chris­tian­i­ty forced on them. But those of us who fol­low what we might call the “Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion as under­stood by Friends” should be just as put out by a Christ­mas tree and par­ty. We know that sym­bol­ic rit­u­als like these spark dis­uni­ty and dis­tract us from the real pur­pose of our com­mu­ni­ty: befriend­ing Christ and lis­ten­ing for His guidance.

I was shocked and star­tled when I first learned that Quak­er schools used to meet on Christ­mas day. My first response was “oh come on, that’s tak­ing it all too far.” But it kept bug­ging me and I kept try­ing to under­stand it. This was one of the pieces that helped me under­stand the Quak­er way bet­ter and I final­ly grew to under­stand the ratio­nale. If Friends were more con­sis­tent with more-or-less sym­bol­ic stuff like Christ­mas, it would be eas­i­er to teach Quakerism.

Theo and the Christmas treeI don’t mind Christ­mas trees, per se. I have one in my liv­ing room (right). In my extend­ed fam­i­ly Christ­mas has served as one of the manda­to­ry times of year we all have to show up togeth­er for din­ner. It’s nev­er been very reli­gious, so I nev­er felt I need­ed to stop the prac­tice when I became involved with Friends. But as a Friend I’m care­ful not to pre­tend that the con­sumerism and social rit­u­als have much to do with Christ. Christ­mas trees are pret­ty. The lights make me feel good in the dol­drums of mid-winter. That’s rea­son enough to put one up.

Unpro­grammed lib­er­al Friends could use the ten­sions between tra­di­tion­al Quak­er­ly sto­icism and main­stream Chris­t­ian nos­tal­gia as a teach­ing moment, and we could use dis­com­fort around the rit­u­al of Christ­mas as a point of uni­ty and dia­log with Pagan, Jew­ish and Non-theistic Friends. Chris­t­ian Friends are always hav­ing to explain how we’re not the kind of Chris­tians oth­ers assume we are (oth­ers both with­in and out­side the Soci­ety). Being prin­ci­pled about Christ­mas is one way of show­ing that dif­fer­ence. Peo­ple will sure­ly say “oh come on,” but so what? A lot of spir­i­tu­al seek­ers are crit­i­cal of the kind of crazy com­mer­cial spend­ing sprees that marked Christmas’s past and I don’t see why a group say­ing Christ­mas isn’t about Christ would be at a par­tic­u­lar dis­ad­van­tage dur­ing this first Christ­mas sea­son of the next Great Depression.

I’ve been talk­ing about lib­er­al unpro­grammed Friends. For the record, I under­stand Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions among “pas­toral” and/or “pro­grammed” Friends. They’ve made a con­scious deci­sion to adopt a more main­stream Chris­t­ian approach to reli­gious edu­ca­tion and min­istry. That’s fine. It’s not the kind of Quak­er I prac­tice, but they’re open about their approach and Christ­mas makes sense in that context.

When­ev­er I post this kind of stuff on my blog I get com­ments how I’m being too Scroogey. Well I guess I am. Bah Hum­bug. Hon­est­ly though, I’ve always like Quak­er Christ­mas par­ties. They’re a way of mix­ing things up, a way of com­ing togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty in a warmer way that we usu­al­ly do. Peo­ple stop con­fab­bing about com­mit­tee ques­tions and actu­al­ly enjoy one another’s com­pa­ny. One time I asked my meet­ing to call it the Day the World Calls Christ­mas Par­ty, which I thought was kind of clever (every­one else sure­ly thought “there goes Mar­tin again”). The joy of real com­mu­ni­ty that is filled once a year at our Christ­mas par­ties might be symp­tom of a hunger to be a dif­fer­ent kind of com­mu­ni­ty every week, even every day.

  • “Chris­t­ian Friends are always hav­ing to explain how we’re not the kind of Chris­tians oth­ers assume we are (oth­ers both with­in and out­side the Society).”

    Well, not to me. My expe­ri­ence of com­mit­ted and rad­i­cal Chris­tians, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the Soci­ety, is not the same as my expe­ri­ence of the kinds of Chris­tians you are telling us peo­ple so often assume you are. 

    Actu­al­ly, my prob­lem with the way my Meet­ing cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas was not at all about “hav­ing Chris­tian­i­ty forced on me.” It was about hypocrisy. If the Meet­ing want­ed to cel­e­brate Christ­mas with a Christ­mas tree, a Christ­mas din­ner, and Christ­mas car­ols, then to my mind the Meet­ing could choose to do that — I just want­ed the Meet­ing to be hon­est and open about it, and not pre­tend the cel­e­bra­tion was some­thing it wasn’t. I espe­cial­ly didn’t want them to pre­tend it was root­ed in unpro­grammed Quak­erism, because it wasn’t (and isn’t). What were we cel­e­brat­ing? The sea­son in gen­er­al? The birth of Jesus? Peace on Earth and goodwill? 

    One of my favorite times in my “home” Meet­ing used to be East­er. That may sound star­tling. Part of why I enjoyed Meet­ing for Wor­ship so much each year on that day was the sep­a­ra­tion of out­ward obser­vances from Friends’ inward expe­ri­ences. In par­tic­u­lar, I loved hear­ing com­mit­ted Chris­t­ian Friends talk about their expe­ri­ences of East­er and of Jesus’ res­ur­rec­tion. I loved the hon­est shar­ing of our spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences, some­thing all too rare. 

    I want there to be room for more of this kind of hon­esty, from Friends of all kinds of dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of the Divine and dif­fer­ent thea/ologies. It hurts us all when any of us are asked not to speak the truth of our experience. 

    Also, don’t assume all Pagan Friends object to Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions in our Meet­ings. There are Pagan Friends who embrace them. I don’t get it, but that’s okay; I don’t have to. 🙂 

  • Mar­tin, I unite with all that you’ve writ­ten here. Hav­ing come across that old cor­re­spon­dence from years ago real­ly high­light­ed for me what I would do dif­fer­ent­ly today, as a Conservative-leaning Friend. Your post speaks to my condition.

    That said, like the Grinch, even the apophat­ic Quak­ers can’t keep Christ­mas from com­ing on the 25th of Twelfth Month! 

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  • You remind­ed me of a claim I haven’t been able to for­get, or con­firm: that Ebenez­er Scrooge was a Quak­er. His non-celebration fits, and there were cer­tain­ly Quak­er bankers.

    Of course he was fic­tion­al, but hmmmm.….

    • @Liz Yes the jug­ger­naut of Christ­mas doesn’t pause for anyone’s moral

      @Simon I too could imag­ine Scrooge as a Friend. For­tu­nate­ly the all-knowing
      Wikipedia lists a cou­ple of inspi­ra­tions for the Scrooge
      none of them seem to be Quak­er. I guess we weren’t the only skinflints
      in England.

  • I believe that we need to expand the “Christ­mas” sto­ry. I believe we need to rec­og­nize the sto­ries (plur­al) of Chrit­mas as ways to describe what Jesus meant and means to oth­ers as a grown man. Do we cel­e­brate the birth­days of ML King, Wash­ing­ton, Lin­coln, etc. by sto­ries of their birth or tales of their adult impact. I think we need to iden­ti­fy the human inter­ac­tion with God as direct, hum­ble, sig­nif­i­cant and like chil­dren. “Unless you become like one of these…” I also think we need to tell the sto­ries of Dec. 25 and sim­i­lar dates. The rea­son for green trees and can­dles as sym­bols of the return of the “light.” We ned to intro­duce the “Fes­ti­val of Lights” as a time of the sun over­com­ing dark­ness, etc.

    I think Friends need to expand the idea of “Christ­mas” and cel­e­brate the Jew­ish, Pagan, etc. cer­e­monies which have had and con­tin­ue to leave last­ing impres­sions on chil­dren and adults.

  • JayT


    My post from today at Flex­i­ble Forms (http://​jtblog​.lin​da​jo​hansen​.com/​2​0​0​8​/​1​2​/​2​4​/​o​n​-​m​o​o​d​s​-​a​d​v​e​n​t​-​a​n​d​-​k​e​e​p​i​n​g​-​h​o​l​y​-​d​a​ys/) speaks to this, partly. 

    The post explains that my family’s sea­son­al cel­e­bra­tion has been “more poly­glot than any pure Quak­er would feel entire­ly com­fort­able in, but I’m not try­ing (Was I ever?) to be pure. I’m just thank­ful to have had my way open to being fam­i­ly with such live­ly and con­sid­er­ate people.” 

    Jay T.

  • Algis

    Dear Friend, 🙂

    Your good thoughts remind me very much on an intrigu­ing line from Gospell of Thomas, “7. Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when con­sumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion con­sumes, and the lion becomes man.”” This is about pow­er of con­sumer­izm of course 🙂 — it is hard not to be “con­sumed” by com­mer­cial­ized “Xmas” ways and things (everybody’s in this desacral­ized rit­u­al) and it is still hard­er to “con­sume” this all hum­bug in a way that even this col­lec­tive self-deception would be sme­thing beyond super­fi­cial pleas­ant­ness and slack affir­ma­tion of family-bonds.

    At least here in Lithua­nia, east­ern EU, where I live, all the extend­ed fam­i­ly gath­er­ing and “mag­ic” of Xmas is used by fam­i­ly women as a scene for gos­sip­ing and com­pe­ti­tion and for men as escapism in prank­ing, vod­ka, beer and steam-baths (many rur­al hous­es have one). At least the chil­dren do enjoy some play­ing togeth­er and reciev­ing toys o oth­er gifts.

    What I am most­ly revolt­ing against in Lithuan­ian X-mas it is this rit­u­al­iza­tion of “spe­cial time” when every­body “should be nice” (most­ly insin­cere, dis­tanced “warm­ness” and mate­r­i­al gifts) to each oth­er and then for­get­ting that “nice­ness” in everyday-life. This is a kind of self-deception every­body agrees with lack­ing the courage and per­se­ver­ance to exchange freely warm atten­tion in usu­al, day-to-day conditions.

    Speak­ing about pleas­ant­ness of light and colour­full dec­o­ra­tions dur­ing the win­ter­time — it is absolute­ly so, but me per­son­al­ly I refuse to con­fine these things to a “tree” (although we also have one) :). I use many lamps of var­i­ous kinds and colour­full prints and oth­er dec­o­ra­tions and var­i­ous table-games or sha­rades to main­tain my family’s (we have three sons) sero­tonin lev­els dur­ing dark­ness of winter.

    God bless you, in all things friend­ly — Algis (from Vil­nius, Lithuania)

  • Hey Mar­tin,

    I like your post. It’s all true. At the same time, I think there’s some­thing impor­tant about hav­ing times of the year when we remem­ber cer­tain things. This doesn’t have to be done rit­u­al­ly – with a Christ­mas tree (what’s that sup­posed to remind us of any­way???) or presents or what have you, but it’s been good for me for the last few years to just think of hol­i­days as reminder days. It’s not that God is par­tic­u­lar­ly present on that day or that it’s more holy than oth­er days, but it’s a good time to reflect and remem­ber that part of our sto­ry, and see what Christ has to teach to the peo­ple him­self this year, this moment, on this topic.

    This of course doesn’t address your ques­tion of what to do regard­ing Friends of var­i­ous belief sys­tems, but at least for Friends who call them­selves Chris­tians, I don’t think it’s all bad to cel­e­brate Christ­mas. We just need to do it in a way that calls into ques­tion the assump­tions of our cul­ture about what Christ­mas means.

    By the way, my father-in-law told me he found your blog the oth­er day by ran­dom­ly search­ing on Google on a top­ic he was inter­est­ed in…I told him about Quak­erQuak­er and that it might be an eas­i­er way to find blogs he was inter­est­ed in in the future! =)