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Friends' Christmas Experiences
In preparation for writing an article on Friends (Quakers) and Christmas in 1998, I posted on several Quaker e-mail lists, news groups and Web discussion lists a request that Friends share their experiences with celebrating, or not celebrating Christmas. I give some responses and other comments from Friends below. I received much more than I could fit on one Web page. This is Part 1 of 4 parts from that time, with a fifth part added for more recently received material. -Bill Samuel
Readers should understand that this is not a representative sample of Friends' views across the world, which is inherent in the way I solicited these experiences. While these responses are mostly from North America and the United Kingdom, the majority of Friends live in the Two-Thirds World. The country with the greatest number of Friends, Kenya, is not represented at all. This sample is also probably not fully representative of the broad theological spectrum among Friends.
Paul Thompson, Scone, Scotland:
When I am asked why I "do not celebrate Christmas", I tell my questioners it is not a case of "not celebrating". The closer one lives to Christ, who makes all things new, the less proper it seems to treat 364 days as less special than one. So I cannot idolise one day above 364!
Today Christ is born in me, in each of his people, and in us all together. The star never leaves the sky, the song of the angels is never stilled, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men"; shepherds and wise men never cease to adore.
Christ's work in us is the new birth: to preach the good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. This day (each day!) is the scripture fulfilled.
Daniel P. (Dan) Whitley, Pastor, Clintondale Friends Church, Clintondale, New York, USA:
I find no problem with having a Christmas tree, giving presents, singing Christmas carols and having a few lights on the porch. I can't stand the commercialism of Christmas, and often get depressed for a while, but in the end I am glad to have the community lit up with lights and the anticipation of Christmas morning.
My best memory was shortly after becoming a Christian when I heard the song "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day." A real spiritual experience. I felt Christmas in a new way. I am sure that it had a lot to do with having Jesus on the inside.
Our family celebrates whenever we can get together! I agree that each day should be appreciated for what it has to offer, but I enjoy celebration.
Our celebration of Christmas has little to do with gifts.
My brother almost always gives me a window or a door for Habitat for Humanity. Another brother often gives me a flock of chickens or a goat for the Heifer Project.
My parents gave contributions to the AFSC from the time I was a little one till they died. I gave my grandchildren a share in Blair Island (To cover costs of restoring it to its natural state. When I lived in England I adopted parts of stone walls in the names of loved ones.
We do draw names and spend between $20 and $50 on one person. So we aren't totally giftless. But the joy is in the being together telling stories, jokes . . . singing carols . . . working puzzle . . . and of course eating. We usually invite anyone we encounter who has no family to spend Christmas with. A few years we have had jewish friends celebrate with us then lead Chanukah celebration as the sun was setting.
My vice at Christmas is my love for our christmas tree and collection of nativity sets. The first nativity set was a gift from my first day school teacher when I was 5. As we travel we pick up memories that we can hang on our tree. Native dolls when we were in Greece and Paris. Tiny wooden shoes from Amsterdam. Paper flowers from Mexico. Shells from beaches. Angeles from England.
So for me Christmas is a time to contact old friends and enjoy friends and family, but not to spend unreasonably.
Two Christmases I took advantage of other peoples desire to give gifts, and ran gift wrap stores with the profits going to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Vince Schueler, Olympia (WA) Friends Meeting:
Christmas Morning, 1997
Olympia Meeting House
Five of us waited in the cool, still air
Surrounded by a small sea of unfilled chairs
We came in response to an impromptu call
To gather on Christmas Morning
Mostly we sat, not much was spoken
And waited for hearts to open
Daughter and her mother
Enfolding each other
Feeling blessed to share the day together
And honoring their bond
Another felt the world in pain
Brought to focus by a homeless man
Passed on the way to meeting
Shown our gifts and what needs giving
Found in the stillness as we listened
Feeling the Spirit moving
And softening our hearts
We held each other as we ungathered
On this day like any other
Elisabeth Monsma, Twin Cities (MN) Friends Meeting:
I live in a very ecumenical household: my kids were raised Methodist, I am a Quaker and my husband is a Buddhist and in AA. My Meeting holds a Christmas Eve Meeting for Worship followed by a time of sharing, which tends to include people's hopes and fears around the season as well as personal joys and concerns, often closing with a few carols. My husband comes with me to this gathering, and I accompany him to a Christmas Eve AA gathering. We also go together to his Buddhist New Year's day celebration (their biggest group gathering of the year). We try to keep the gifts simple and of personal meaning, and make the exchanges on New Year's Day rather than on Christmas.
I don't suppose there's anyone more steeped in being "Quaker" than my mother. She often says, "You are the 13th generation of Quakers on my mother's side. Your daddy's family have been Quaker since 1870." But Christmas in our house is a tradition. We do the Christmas eve thing with a big dinner and later presents under the tree. The thing that sets ours apart is HOW the presents are done.
First is Christmas carols after a huge dinner (and the dishes are done). Then we read the Christmas story from Luke. Then a prayer for Christmas, for those we love who are not with us and for those who don't have any family or friends to celebrate Jesus' birth. Then the annual reading of T'was The Night Before Christmas, then presents. Usually not many presents unless you consider the grandkids, nieces, nephews kinds of people. I agree that it's somewhat secular, but yet the family time is priceless.
Jenny Steel, Sutton Preparative Meeting of Friends, London, UK:
I have always understood that Friends don't observe times and seasons in the same way as other people and certainly not as "the Church" does. I've always felt that this gives me more freedom to celebrate whenever it seems right. I don't see it as a negative testimony, but a positive one affirming the value of every day. Friends are not "against" seasons, and I've never heard of anyone suggesting that we shouldn't be in tune with the natural seasonal environment around us. It's just an alternative approach to the observance of Church holidays and celebration of specific days as if they are more important than others, as a ritual.
At the meeting where I grew up we always had a Christmas Gathering where carols were sung, with themed readings and a children's tableau (which I participated in - a photograph of me dressed as an angel is evidence). There was even a tree decorated with presents when I was a child. The gathering still happens every year and is an opportunity for old friends and Friends who have moved away to return. This is usually the only time I see the children of the people whom I grew up with! The children of the meeting usually present a short play with the aim of provoking thought about the true meaning of the "Christmas season" and we have a collection of gifts for refugee children.
We all know that we are doing this as a social event and for the benefit of those who enjoy community singing. It isn't a carol service, and I think it's a great occasion. I suppose it reminds me of my childhood and I value it for that reason. I personally love Christmas music - I know the words are based on stories that are probably myths but the music creates such an atmosphere and is of such a quality that as a musician I can't ignore it. I will never stop listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge, no matter what. Of course, I can listen to it all year round.
Rosalind C. Mitchell, UK:
I suppose I mark Christmas because it's there, and not to do so is a distinctive statement in itself - rather like wearing C17 "plain" dress would be. Not that I do much - I usually get an invitation or two to dinner but personally, on the day itself, I prefer to lock the doors, unplug the telephone and settle with my own dinner, usually a duck or something else I wouldn't normally be able to afford, a bottle of wine and a pile of favourite films on video.
Nor, I have to admit, do I pay much heed to the Christian aspects of the festival, although in the weeks beforehand I will attend and enjoy the various carol services that go on. But to be quite honest I really think it's overplayed as a Christian festival - there's no biblical evidence to place Christ's birth at the end of December and indeed, midwinter is probably the least likely time for the event (whoever heard of shepherds watching their flocks on hillsides in late December?).
One should not, I think, be too dismissive of the pagan origins of festivals, what this in fact boils down to is an agrarian society marking the natural breaks in the agricultural year - in this case after the ploughing is done and the sowing of the next year's crop awaits. After the sowing of course we get Easter, and with the harvest safely in in the autumn we get the fire festivals, which manifest themselves as Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes as well as traditional harvest festivals, and not forgetting of course the secular American Thanksgiving. For the societies which originated these festivals, they were a rest from labours and of course they were so heavily dependent on forces beyond their control for a successful harvest that it's scarcely surprising that an element of intercession with these elemental forces should come into the rituals. It was only later that the early missionaries attempted to impose Christian meanings on the festivals, and then not universally successfully.
Perhaps we in our post-industrial world where our dependence on time and the seasons has been lost, and in consequence many yearn for the simpler life, we should pay more heed to the real "true" meanings of these festivals and rejoice in them.
Cara Thornton, Krakow, Poland:
This is a topic of great interest to me, I personally have a conviction about not celebrating holidays, have only recently begun to act on it. I admit that I came on the idea as a result of contacts with Jehovah's Witnesses. Now, I may not agree with everything they say--Wanda's proposition that I go preaching with her notwithstanding, though she stops talking like that when I tell her that the fact remains that I believe Jesus is Jehovah...--but why be proud and assume that for that reason, Jehovah's Witnesses have nothing to say to me? Such an attitude would be worse than unjustified...
In principle, I regard each day as equally holy, though I can see celebrating holidays mentioned in the Bible. Ones of pagan origin, maybe someone else is comfortable with merely adding Christian content to them, but I find the origin of these holidays off-putting personally, which is perhaps a matter of a weak conscience. I see no reason to be interested in them, in that the Bible gives us certain holidays, Christmas is not among them in any way shape or form... On the other hand, the NT tells us to remember the death of Christ. I would question whether this is to be done on any particular day, particularly in a Gentile environment.
I live alone, so there is no one else at home who wants to celebrate holidays. However, I still am not entirely sure what to do about it when someone invites me to their Christmas Eve observance (that's the 'big deal' holiday observance here in Poland). I guess last year I accepted the invitation, but I did say something to the hostess about my convictions, that carol-singing could be a problem in that I could have difficulty with the content of some of the carols (e.g. 'amid the cold of winter when half spent was the night...).
I do know that my convictions create problems with the fellowship I attend (Baptist), of which I am furthermore officially a member, in that theoretically holiday observance is required. I understand that maybe it is necessary to put it into the statute, in that this document governs the church's relationship with the government, and presumably this clause is in there to guarantee a Baptist's right to observe certain holidays. Just like, perhaps, that clause about members' obligations including the propagation of 'Baptist specifics' is in there to guarantee the right of Baptists to propagate their (non-Catholic) understanding of the Scriptures.
At present, I cannot be guaranteed that if I come to a holiday service, someone won't start preaching to the effect that all Christians should or do celebrate the holiday at hand (or, for example, 'this is the anniversary of Christ's birth'). So I simply quietly absent myself from holiday services, which is a problem since I play my violin every week at the worship services and if I'm not there, it is 100% certain someone will ask me about it. So far, only my close friends, the acting pastor, and the leader of the music ensemble which leads worship are aware of my convictions--I have not explained them to anyone else yet because I don't want to become the center of a controversy which could draw people's attention away from God.
I must say that it was no surprise to me to find out that Quakers have a testimony against times and seasons, but I was very happy to discover this. It is one of many reasons that in some sense I regard the Internet as my home Meeting, since I live in an area where there are no Quaker Meetings. I suspect that, unless I have a clear leading otherwise, I will sometime in the near future make my relationship with the Society of Friends more official--though of course I have to answer the question of whether the idea of membership itself is Biblical...
There is something I like to do at various points in the year, most notably my birthday and New Year's. Normally I do this alone with God, but for New Year's, I call up a good friend and we spend at least part of the evening together recounting what we have learned in the past year. Then maybe we go down to the river and check out the fireworks (a tradition here in Krakow) at midnight.Later, Cara wrote in response to someone else on a Quaker list:
I don't regard the celebration of holidays as 'inherently sinful'. I personally treat holidays mentioned in the Bible in one way, and holidays not mentioned in the Bible in another way. I can conceive of celebrating Biblical holidays, although I don't have a personal need to do so (I wouldn't refuse an invitation to Passover Seder, for example, the more so that it in some measure reflects the environment I grew up in, so it has some meaning for me). Let's say, I feel God is calling me to treat every day as holy and spiritually significant, rather than setting aside some days as 'more significant' or 'more spiritual' than others.
My problems with non-Biblical holidays:
1) Pagan associations: I do have a problem--maybe this is a weak conscience--with the idea of celebrating a day which used to (before Christian times) be devoted to, for example, the god Saturn (for all I know, maybe in some circles even today these days have retained their old pagan significance. I can still see, however, that some might decide to set this day aside for, instead, considering matters related to Jesus.
2) The truth question: What if someone tries to claim that December 25 is literally the anniversary of Jesus' birth? We don't know when Jesus was born, furthermore apparently there is evidence to suggest some other date (astronomical data, or something to that effect--maybe one of our 'house' astronomers can fill us in on the details). So if we start making such claims, we have a truth problem.
3) Potential stumbling block: Even if one doesn't assume that this is 'the anniversary', the assigning of a particular date does in some measure draw one's thinking in that direction. It can be a stumbling block. I would under such circumstances have to have good reason to assign a date for considering matters related to Jesus' birth, for example, some command of Scripture. But there is no such thing.
4) The testimony of Scripture--what to celebrate?: The NT commands us to remember Christ's death.
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. -I Cor 11:23-26
5) The testimony of Scripture--required holidays? Point 4 is the only thing in the NT which can remotely be interpreted as a command to celebrate a religious holiday--and even this interpretation can be debated in light of the following:
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. he who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. -Rom 14:5-6
This doesn't sound like a requirement. There are others who think otherwise, however, unfortunately including the official statute at the church I presently attend (in the absence of a Quaker Meeting).
6) The testimony of Scripture--spiritual reality:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. -Col 2:16-17
Friends of Truth/Glenside Meeting, Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA:
Jesus Christ has not established special days; therefore Friends of Truth does not, as a church, celebrate religious or civil holidays. When in company with others who observe days, we ask members to exercise restraint and to be careful that their conduct does not support superstitions or material wastefulness that sometimes accompany such celebrations.(From their Faith and Practice)
Want to read more? Go on to Part 2.
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