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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Friends' Christmas Experiences
Part 3

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 3 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

Mary Ellen Chijioke, Swarthmore, PA:

My father had his own solution to the Quaker problem with Christmas. Since Christmas should not be tied to the calendar but can - and does - occur any and every day of the year when Christ is born in the hearts of individuals, he used "Merry Christmas" as his year-round greeting. Whenever he walked down the streets in our town, where he was a very prominent personality, the merchants all tried to forestall him with a "Happy New Year."

Jim Booth, Red Cedar Meeting, Lansing, Michigan, USA:

Christmas in the Booth household is pretty secularized I'm afraid. I love the music of the season and get to the local Messiah production and the LSO pops concert, plus our men's chorus will sing 12 or so engagements. The PBS TV music specials are really nice, especially those from the colleges as BYU and St Joseph's? (Northville Minnesota).

We have a big family dinner with the kids and grandmothers and grandkids and then open presents. We try not to overdo the presents but you can only restrain grandmothers so much and that at your peril. Christmas is a celebration of our family. This gathering may be Christmas Eve, Christmas day or a Sunday.

The notion that our secular celebration is more Quaker than perhaps a special Mass and parade with statues of the Holy Mother etc. may be a bit of my perverted thinking.

At Meeting, we don't have a Christmas eve or morning service. The kids usually do something of a Christmas pageant (presented after Meeting) and a family near the Meeting will have an open house after Meeting on the Sunday before Christmas. Sometimes we have carols before Meeting but singing is not a strength of our Meeting.

Again, the emphasis is on family and kids.

For me, the religious side is the celebration of Jesus's birth every day of the year. The secular side is a celebration of our family.

Contributed later by Jim Booth:

In the discussions of Christmas, no one has commented on the use of Christmas cards. I'd be interested in others participation in this custom.

We do not send them. We do send one of the infamous "Holiday Letters" of news of our lives and concerns to out of town friends and relatives of about 1½ pages.

I always feel awkward when colleagues at work I see every day give me cards and I don't respond.
Maria Graves, Michigan:

Your invitation to write about our Christmas experiences has reminded me of some special ones. Looking back now, it's interesting to me that the Christmases that have been the most memorable were the ones that were spent making Christmas meaningful for someone else. One year, our family went down to Choctaw Indian Friends Center to deliver packages that our meeting had collected for them. As a college student, I remember that I was more interested in staying home to catch up with my high school friends than driving to a strange place with my parents. But I went, and on Christmas Eve, we stayed in a dark, cold lodge, ate a simple meal, and slept on hard bunks. I had trouble getting to sleep because I was uncomfortable, unhappy, and in a strange place. Then it occurred to me how much more so Mary must have felt that first Christmas Eve when she was away from home, no place to stay, and in labor! She must have been very lonely and scared.

Every other year or so, our big family meets for Christmas at our local Quaker Camp and we help them with a project. A few years ago, we made new bunk beds for all the cabins. This year we're insulating the meetinghouse. There will also be time to stuff ourselves with turkey and play games. It is more fun than you can even imagine. We have a picture (from the bunk bed project) of our whole family covered in saw dust and grinning ear to ear. This is one of my favorite Christmas memories.

When the cousins were young, we would all draw names and buy gifts each year. Now that we're older, the gift tradition has diminished to just filling stockings which we open after our Christmas meal. As a kid, I remember being eager for Grandpa to hurry through his reading aloud of Christmas story excerpts from the bible so that we could open presents, but now hearing Grandpa read those verses is my most cherished part of Christmas. How blessed I am.

Harry Albright, a member of Canadian Yearly Meeting living in the UK:

To answer the historical question posed by Mona, Friends have long had a testimony against "times and seasons". This grew out of what early Friends saw as the hypocritical stance of celebrating, for example, Christmas on one day a year - and then forgetting the message of Christmas for the other 364/5.

But, and here's the bit that's often misunderstood, they did not say that celebrating Christmas was wrong in and of itself, as long as it was not confined to that day - and as long as simplicity and all the other testimonies were lived on that day as well. It is the same principle by which we (mostly) hold Meeting for worship on Sunday, and not on other days, although we hope to be guided by the spirit on any day of the week (and may, indeed, be worshipful at any time in any place). That's the key, and while I do not make particularly big deal of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or any of the other Christian holidays myself (although they are a nice excuse to bring family and friends together), still the reasons those days are held as special by the Christian church are important to me, and I seek (imperfectly) to live those messages every day.

David Albert, Olympia (WA) Friends Meeting:

Both my wife and I grew up in Jewish families. While neither of us would call ourselves "Jewish-Quakers" (it is hard enough just being a Friend without the hyphens), needless to say our backgrounds influenced the way we came to understand and eventually "celebrate" Christmas.

Listening in meeting for years about the angst caused by the consumerism around the Holidays, as well as the associated alcohol use and elevated suicide rates, we found it very simple as Friends to deal with the 'gift problem': we simply don't. We make it clear to our children that if there are things they want or need, anytime of year, they should tell us and we'll be happy to discuss it. This doesn't mean we have outlawed frivolous requests: we simply have dissociated them from religious feeling.

Both of our daughters are musicians. Several years ago, a local supermarket chain advertised for church choirs to come sing at their entrances to collect money for the Salvation Army. My older daughter went and told the store manager that Quakers don't have choirs, but she wanted to play her violin instead. She has collected over $200 each year, and together we all go down to the Salvation Army to make our contribution. Since we work regularly at the local soup kitchen, our daughters are quite familiar with the plight of local residents.

On Christmas Day, it has become a tradition for her to take her violin and go from room to room at the local hospital, starting in the pediatric ward, and play Christmas carols. Then we will often go for a hike to celebrate the fact that nature too will be experiencing a rebirth after a long, dark winter. We also participate in the national Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.

On the day after Christmas, we travel to Seattle for the annual Messiah "Sing and Play-In" at the large Unitarian-Universalist Church. Usually there are more than 700 musicians or would-be musicians in attendance, and it is quite a spirit-led event.

We celebrate Chanukah in our house too {as well as Deepavali, Santa Lucia Day, the Feast of Joseph (I have a story about Joseph's Annunciation in the December Friends Bulletin}. But again, not in the traditional way. We find the original story celebrating militarism and religious fundamentalism anathema to our beliefs as Friends. Eight years ago, I wrote a children's story trying to combine the traditional foods and feelings of Chanukah with the good cheer associated with Christmas. After lighting candles, we retell the story each day for 8 days. My kids also built themselves a little stick-puppet theatre, and have made puppets over the years to go with the story. It has been fun to watch how the new annually-drawn puppets have changed over the years. So here's the story:


Once upon a time and space -- for a time without a space is like a nose without a face -- at the far northern edge of the town, which was at the far northern edge of the county, which was at the far northern end of the country, at the far northern edge of the continent, at the far northern end of the northernmost world, there lived a very poor family consisting of a mother, a father, eight children (4 boys and 4 girls), and an old cow. In the cold, northern winters they didn't have enough to eat, or enough fuel for the fire to keep warm, and they couldn't afford electricity. Still, they were happy enough, and kept themselves happy by singing together every evening.

One cold and windy day in darkest December, the youngest daughter met an old, shrivelled woman a the northern end of the town square. The old woman was wearing a tattered brown cloak that covered her whole body and which she drew up over her head. The old woman complained that she had no place to stay and nothing to eat. "Come home with me," said the girl, "we don't have much, but I'm sure we'll share what we have."

And so they went home together. The family welcomed the old woman, even though there wasn't much in the pantry to eat. [In fact they were so poor, they didn't even have a pantry.] They had a bunch of potatoes which had lots of black spots in them, so they cut out the black spots and made potato pancakes. They had a bag of wormy apples, so they cut out the worms and made applesauce. The old cow gave nothing but sour milk, so with their potato pancakes and applesauce they had sour cream.

It gets dark early in deep December and the house had no electricity, so the father went to the candle box, but found only one small candle left. The father lit the last candle, and the family gathered around the table to sing songs for the old woman, and also for themselves. The music was beautiful, and somehow the light of the candle seemed brighter as the family sang. Soon, one by one, first the children, and then the mother and father drifted off to sleep in the one family bed, where they huddled together with the old cow to keep warm. The old woman slept in the old armchair by the table.

The next day when they got up, they were all surprised to see that the candle was still lit. In the evening, they gathered together again to eat their dinner of potato pancakes and applesauce and sour cream, and to sing songs around the table. And as the singing seemed to get more and more beautiful, the old woman seemed less shrivelled. And people began to gather outside to hear the singing, their noses pressed against the one small window.

And so it went. Every evening, the family ate their poor dinner of potato pancakes and applesauce and sour cream, and sang around the table, their faces and the one small candle still shining brightly. And the crowds around the window grew larger and larger.

On the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. It was Mayor Mayer (the mayor of the town) who, having heard and liked the singing so much, offered the family a job singing at city hall. But at that, the old woman stood up and took off her tattered cloak. Underneath she was wearing a robe made of gold. She reached into her pocket, and took out a small crown of rich red rubies and placed it on the little girl's head, and out of her cloak she brought a bale of fresh green grass for the old cow.

"I was hungry and tired and you took me in," she said, "and it gave you such joy to do it. I have a castle where any tired travelers, rich or poor, can stop and have a meal and spend the night. And since your have been able to make the poorest fare seem like the richest feast, I want you to come to my castle and take charger of the food, and the singing, and the hospitality. And bring the cow!"

And they did. And to this day we celebrate the family which made a feast out of the poorest fare of potato pancakes and applesauce, and the cow who could only giver sour milk, and the one small candle which stayed lit for eight days by the light of their singing.

Allistair Lomax, Fritchley, UK:

When I became acquainted with the faith of the Early Quakers, it came as quite a surprise to me that they did not observe times and seasons, and not only that, criticised Christian groups of their time for their unsoundness in doing so.

Further more, quite a few Friends in the 17th Century suffered for refusing to close their shops on Christmas Day, and carrying on their trades during this time.

Why was their views on such matters so strong that they were willing to suffer for not observing 'times and seasons' as the Early Quakers called them.

Their objection was two-fold; First of all there are biblical references which indicate that the observation of specific times was not part of the Christian faith, Paul in Galatians 4:9-11, expresses his disappointment at the Galatians turning to 'weak and beggarly elements'. Also in Colossians (2:22), Paul in reference to ordinances, says they '...are all to perish with the using'. Friends understood this to include the observation of specific days.

Secondly, and closely related to the biblical texts is their belief that Christ was the fulfilment of all that pre-figured and fore-shadowed him in the Old Testament or Covenant. Since Christ has fulfilled and ended the Old covenant in himself, he has fulfilled and ended all the ordinances of that covenant, which included the observation of holy days. The Early Quakers felt that to observe such days, including Christmas was a way of denying the coming and the presence of Christ. Since Christ was their 'Yea and Amen'. They took the non-observance of days very seriously, and since they believed that the Day of Christ was eternal, they were willing to suffer for his sake.

I have tried to follow this teaching as closely as I can. I neither observe nor acknowledge the existence of Christmas, and I do not send or receive cards. Having a non-Quaker wife with children (8, 6 & 2) does bring its problems. Our house of course, does include such observations, with the giving of presents etc. For my sake though, it is largely toned down. However, as most people reading this will realise, all my children get pretty worked up about it, just like any other children of their age. To this extent, I have to compromise to some degree, although, it makes me pretty uncomfortable.

In the work place, it gets real hard. I teach for a living, and get plenty of cards from my students, who often get upset when one is not returned. Also never attending the Christmas party makes you very unpopular, and gets you branded as a 'kill-joy'.

However, my greatest difficulty is among Quakers themselves. Most liberal Friends now have been brought into line with the rest of the world, and celebrate ad nauseum. As a conservative Friend, they cannot understand my personal opposition to it. I have often had to make a visible point of walking out of a Meeting when the carols start. My own Meeting at Fritchley did this for a number of years, until the practise of making special observation cease through lack of interest. I think this shows how far Quakers have wandered from their Christian roots.'

Want to read more? Go on to Part 4.

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