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.
Friends 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.
I 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.