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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 2 of 4 parts from that time, with a fifth part added for more recently received material. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to go back to Part 1 now. -Bill Samuel
Greg Stone, Allen's Neck Monthly Meeting, South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, USA:
Sorry - this isn't going to be brief and it may not be at all what Bill Samuel is seeking, but it does speak to the subject and it is something that has been building in me over the past few weeks and I would like to share it.
I am new to Quakerism, but old to Christmas. That is, in a mostly secular fashion - but with loads of love - we have always celebrated Christmas in our home. But this will be my first Christmas as a Quaker - nay, my first Christmas as a fully-committed Christian - and that has already changed how I view the approaching season.
Perhaps I should explain that term, "Christian," however, for I fear some would not apply it to me. I define myself as a Christian meaning I am a follower of Jesus. I am not, however, a worshiper of Jesus as the "only begotten son of God." In a sense I guess I see Jesus as the first Quaker. That may sound a little silly - and certainly to some Friends and others even heretical or blasphemous, but no disrespect is meant, either to the beliefs of others or to Jesus. I simply think he is the best example we have of a person most in tune with the "inner light." The light shone in him like in no other - and perhaps that's what some mean when they call him the "only begotten son of God." I don't want to quibble over words because I think words can unnecessarily divide us when they should bring us together. I mentioned this position not to make a case for it, but to say that within the context of this position I can still respond positively to words which may have been written with a different definition in mind. I believe that it is appropriate, then, to celebrate this day of his birth, mythical as the moment might be, for the myth carries with it a strong spirit of light and love. I very much want to feel and share that spirit.
In this context I was recently looking for a musical instrument even I can play with ease and I rediscovered the recorder and have been practicing Christmas carols on it. I play the carols over and over and as I do I sing the different verses in my head. Each time I find myself considering what the words mean to me and why they move me. It's curious, because the words celebrate things, such as a "virgin birth" and "angels" that I certainly don't accept on any literal level. So I consider how I do accept them and why they continue to move me, for moved I am and I don't think it's a simple nostalgia. The carol I find that most fits my understanding of Quakerism is "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
First, I like the mood set by its first two verses. I have no reason to believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem on December 25, but picturing in my mind a small village on a dark, still night I have an overwhelming sense of humbleness and stillness, which to me is an ideal setting for us to listen for that "still, small voice" within us - to invite God into our lives, and certainly in celebrating the birth of Jesus we are inviting God into our lives. So I do feel that in a very real way, in the words of the carol's first verse:
"The hopes and fears of all the years
And I am in harmony with those angels in the second verse who
While mortals sleep the angels keep
For in those rare and most "wonder full" moments when the sense of God's presence permeates me within and without, I would say that like the angels, I am keeping a "watch of wond'ring love."
But by far, for me, the most moving verses are the last two and although they were written by an Episcopal minister of the last century whose theology would be miles apart from mine on what I'm sure he regarded as very critical points, I think they express remarkably well a Friends approach to Christmas - whether celebrated on this day, or any day:
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our lord Emanuel."
Words are curious things. They can divide us, as I say, but a poem - a carol - is more than the sum of its parts - much more than the definition of its words or phrases. You can't pick the words apart and express their meaning in any way than that in which they appear. The carol presents us with an experience and while I am mindful that the experience Phillip Brooks (the rector of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia when he wrote this carol) had in mind may be expressed differently in a theological discussion, I think he has conveyed a spirit that we share and I feel a harmony with him when I sing his carol.
So among other things this Christmas we will gather to sing carols with a small group of family and friends that includes a Jewish couple, another couple who are either agnostic or atheist (I'm not sure which), a dear friend who I would characterize as a "cultural despiser" of religion, and several who are to one degree or another "religious" in a traditional sense. We will sing these words and I believe in each heart there will be a stirring in greater or lesser proportions of something that is fundamental to all of us. We will have difficulty naming it and talking about it, for it is something that can't be contained in a name and won't be confined by even the most well-meaning definition, for it will be that which is ultimately important.
Is this an appropriate Quaker approach to Christmas? I don't know. But it feels right to me and I have never looked forward to the season more.
Bruce P A Dienes:
"The time they call Christmas" is how George Fox referred to the holiday, which he saw as a pagan rite that had been adapted to the Christian tradition to appease the pagan religions in the time when the Roman government made Christianity the state religion.
As such, many Quakers still decline to celebrate Christmas, particularly with the trappings of the pagan rituals such as the lit tree celebrating the festival of the return of the light, the mistletoe, etc.
In my experience growing up amongst Quaker communities in various parts of the world, there is a diverse interpretation of how to respond to this season. Some make a point of ignoring it, others put up a Christmas Tree in the Meeting House! I remember being puzzled at the reaction of some Friends who would have trees in their own houses, but were horrified at the idea of putting such a thing in a Meeting House. This seemed to go against the idea that a Meeting House is not any more or less a sacred space than anywhere else.
In Urbana-Champaign Meeting, there was a concern to foster awareness about the damaging effects of war toys. They hold a "Peace Bazaar" each year which, in addition to raising money for various local and international charities, provides a selection of non-violent toys for children. The season becomes an opportunity to witness to the Peace Testimony.
Often the New Year's celebrations are of more interest than those for the Christmas time. In Toronto Meeting we would often gather at New Year's Eve at a Friend's home, and at 11pm we would settle into the Silence and greet the new year with Meeting for Worship, which would break shortly after midnight. It was a good time to reflect upon our lives and our community as we began a new cycle of the year, and provided a non-alcoholic venue to gather and socialize together.
Eastern Young Adult Friends New Year's Gathering in the mid-80's (I don't know if they still do this or not) had an interesting ritual to greet the New Year. First, everyone would take off their watches and put them away. Then we would prepare a large feast of mostly "finger foods", and there were only two rules once we sat down to eat: no one would speak, and no one would feed themselves. Rather than focussing on one's own hunger, one had to become sensitized to the needs of others, without being told what they were! After the meal, we would quietly clean up, arrange chairs and settle into Meeting for Worship, which would end when the candle stub in the middle of the circle went out. (One year, the Clerk made the stub a bit too long, and after about two hours, someone felt moved to go to the centre and blow it out!)
Sally Schuder Ferrell, "Virtual Mother", Boomer, North Carolina, USA:
Simplicity is one of my favorite Quaker testimonies!
The desire to further simplify my life & the holidays has caused me to delete the Christmas tree part for the past 5 years. You can usually find someone to help decorate the thing, but after the kids & all have gone back home, there you are with a plastic or dead tree sitting in the living room with stuff all over it.<smile>
Christmas, to me, is an opportunity to relax & visit with family & friends & so all unneccessary work which interferes with this goal is to be eliminated. In our society, the majority of the work of Christmas still falls upon women & don't want to be too tired to enjoy myself.
Additionally, I've pared down the menu, baking, gifts & running around. I don't miss the extra work & I certainly don't feel deprived. People who *want* a tree in their house should probably have one. This works for me. When our son was small, we went into the woods each season & sawed down a tree, etc, etc. (it was always freezing cold, usually raining & I dreaded the event annually).
But, times change & it makes sense to reevaluate attempts at simplicity from time to time to see what you might be better off without. That way, you can look forward to the holiday season & enjoy it.
Dear Sally Ferrell,
You've raised some interesting points. I don't think that traditions, whether holiday or otherwise, were meant to be graven in stone. Because of the diversity of circumstances and belief, some people will choose to do one thing, others another. IMHO some of the problems that arise around Christmas occur because of notions that everyone should celebrate it the same way. Fortunately, I don't get the impression that people on Quaker-L are being dogmatic and prescriptive about it, but rather are refreshing in their ability to live and let live.
Now, having said that, my own views about what I want to do at Christmas are probably as strong as those of anyone on this list. You mentioned holiday baking. I should mention at the outset that I don't have children, and this may color my perspective, but I see no reason why people (male or female) should feel compelled to do vast amounts of holiday baking. On the contrary, I get the impression that most people over the age of 21 would be happier if there were less holiday baking, simply because so much of it is fattening. For a variety of reasons I usually do not entertain between the time of American Thanksgiving and Twelfth Night. For the Meeting party I hope I will have the time to make Buche de Noel or Tiramisu, neither of which is admittedly good for one's cardiovascular system; but that will be an exception.
On a related point: at Christmas we receive lots of foodstuffs that we don't really want. Since I am under doctor's orders to cut down on junk food and increase my level of exercise, I would plead with anyone on this list not to give candy or food (let alone alcohol) as Christmas gifts unless unless one knows that the recipients purchase similar items at times other than Christmas. If you don't know people well enough to give them something else, I would recommend either not giving them anything at all, donating to charity in their name(s), finding out indirectly or directly about their preferences for gifts, or finding something generic and/or healthy. For example, most people can use picture frames, coffee or tea (there are some health benefits to drinking tea), cut flowers, or fresh fruit.
We have not sent Christmas cards since 1993 and are unlikely to do so this year. In 1994 we were literally in the process of making an offer on the house we now own, and we did not know what our return address was going to be. Since then, we have tended to have the kind of news that one does not wish to send or receive at Christmas (life-threatening illness in the immediate family, deaths in the extended family, and personal and professional problems, some of which are rather private in nature). Last year I e-mailed a few people who knew of the circumstances and phoned some others, in the latter case keeping my own part of the conversation very general. My spouse (who, BTW, is not one of the problems) has no interest in sending Christmas cards. As you might expect, what has happened is that friends and acquaintances who have not bumped into me have sort of wondered whether I have dropped off the earth. I have gradually reconnected with some of them at times other than Christmas and hope to do so with the others in the new year. In any event, even if I did want to send Christmas letters, I have little time to do so at this time of year, and it is easier for me to send brief messages when the opportunity arises.
Christmas trees are another matter. I happen to like them and have no qualms about going into the woods to a tree farm to cut it down, bringing it into the house, and decorating it. On the whole, I get pleasure from it. But for some people this is sheer drudgery. It might be a good idea for the people in the household who get the most out of a particular tradition to do most of the work. I realize that this is not possible with young children, but it might be posssible for older children or teens to take part in a decision as to whether to maintain a tradition for which no one in the household wants to put in the required effort.
On the whole, I probably sound like Scrooge, but I do not mean to do so. Plenty of people, whether Quakers or not, get a great deal of pleasure out conventional Christmas celebrations. I hope they enjoy them.
Stephen Moore, Rochdale, UK:
As Christmas comes I am reminded of a little girl, lets say she was called Melissa, who visited Father Christmas in his Grotto at the prison visitors centre here in Rochdale the other Christmas. Santa was actually the Clerk of the Monthly Meeting, a recently retired Headteacher who fitted the role very well.
Friends might have debated the propriety of spending the Meeting's money on a long red tunic with hood and a false white beard but Melissa didn't.
The men in the prison had got together to recreate the 'Animals of Farthing Wood' and the Chaplain had managed to arrange for them to be full-time chapel orderlies whilst the project took shape. They also held a sponsored event and raise 150 pounds, a sizeable sum from men who earn between 9 and 30 pounds a week whilst inside.
Local churches and mosques had surpassed themselves in their generosity when we appealed to them for toys and gifts. We had to press Melissa to take more than one.
She had come to the prison with mother to visit her Dad. He had a load of things he wanted to tell his wife. He was probably scared of the company he was forced to keep and could she get a few little things, perhaps a radio would be nice.
She was suddenly having to do things and take decisions that he had always done. She had a list of things she had to find out and it's tough suddenly being on your own with all the bills and the lawyers fee and family and friends walking away. Melissa didn't get a word in edgeways.
She looked a little old to still believe in Santa Claus but she expressed no doubts. She had a polaroid picture of herself and Santa by the great big pile of presents.
She came back to the Grotto. She wasn't a nuisance. She wasn't angling for another go. She just wanted to put her head round the door and see that Santa was still there. He was. She was reassured.
She wandered back through the tables of the visitors centre to her folks and back again to us to check that Santa was still there again. He was and if we've got anything to do with it he will be!
Want to read more? Go on to Part 3.
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