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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 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
Andre Boulanger, Phoenix, Arizona, USA:
I don't know that my giving up on Christmas had much to do with Quakerism. I just came to a point in my life where it all seemed very wasteful and a source of unnecessary anxieties.
Gerry Palo, Denver, Colorado:
We have a rather elaborate, or rather simple but extensive way of celebrating Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in our home. Part of the Advent observance we introduced to the Ann Arbor Friends MM in the mid eighties with some success, though I don't believe it was repeated later.
At the beginning of Advent we set up a little creche scene consisting of a cave, with no people or animals around it. Nearby we have little wooden figures of the shepherds watching their flocks (the flocks are little pieces of cotton). On the other side of the room, in "Nazareth", Mary, Joseph and the donkey start on their journey to Bethlehem, with the angel guiding them. Each week they will move closer, arriving on the fourth Sunday.
Each week we bring "gifts" to the creche. The first week it is the stones (and we have a verse to go with them), then gifts from the plant kingdom, then from the animal kingdom, and finally the representatives of the Human Kingdom arrive, as Mary and Joseph come to the creche. Throughout the Advent time the number of candles in the room increases as the days get darker and darker. Every night we have our regular devotions with verses and songs, and often a story to go along with an Advent calendar. We also have an Advent wreath, lighting first one, then two, then three, then four candles on the successive Advent Sundays, and lighting them each night at devotions. On Christmas eve the fifth candle, in the center, is lighted.
We sing a little song each time we light the Advent wreath candles:Advent, Advent, a candle burns.
Advent, Advent, a candle burns.
First stone, then plant, then beast then Man --
Then stands the Christ Child at the door.
We introduced the creche and the "gifts" of the mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms, along with the verses, at meeting for worship, during the first part of which the children would bring their gifts. Then one of us would read a verse about each of the kingdoms of nature and how they lived in us and supported our own lives etc. and how the Christ Child was approaching and wanted to be born in our hearts.
Our Christmas celebration continued at our home. At meeting there was no specific celebration for Christmas, but there was some carol singing, and I think that there may have been a few members who actually had meeting for worship on Christmas day, but I don't remember now.
We would buy our Christmas tree on the day of Christmas eve. We could do that then with only one child, but now we get it a couple of days earlier. We set it up and the children each put an apple on the tree, which signifies the Tree of Paradise. The only other decorations are an angel on the top and a little corkscrew ornament representing the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve. December 24 is Adam and Eve day.
We do let the children put out their stockings for Santa to fill. We talk to them about how he is Christ's servant, according to the age of the children. After the children go to bed, the angel comes down from the top of the tree and decorates it, also adding lots more candles to the room. We put real candles in the tree itself. The presents are all from real people, with the exception of the contents of the stockings, which are from "Santa Claus".
In the morning the whole room is decorated, and the child is now in the manner in the creche. The shepherds have left their sheep and are present there at the manger (the dog has stayed behind to watch the sheep). The creche is surrounded by angels (made from cloth by my wife) along with other decorations. children gather behind a curtain and wait for the candles to be lit. The curtains are drawn all around, so the room is somewhat dark. Then a bell is rung and they come down singing "Angels We have Heard on High", the first Christmas carol. The room is flooded with candle light.
After reading the Christmas story and singing a carol or two, the children open their stockings. That is all to begin with. Then they have breakfast and we go to church, wherever there is one that has Christmas day services, usually Lutheran.
The opening of the rest of the presents takes place over the twelve days of Christmas. Instead of cutting back on Christmas presents in order to place the focus on the real substance, we stretch the gifts out, bathing them in the mood of the whole celebration and lifting them up, so to speak, to the spirit. So each day we open one present, often a small one. This means that instead of a big glut of present opening on Christmas day, the mood of giving and receiving gifts spreads out over the whole twelve days, and long after the other children (and adults) are burned out and have Christmas behind them, we are still having Christmas. By January 6 it is time to say goodbye to the tree and to Christmas for another year. It also helps us to carry the spirit of Christmas to the other days of the year, to those following Christmas and even beyond, as the glow of the Christmas time radiates out beyond the day itself.
We repeat the Christmas morning ritual each morning of the twelve days, with curtain, candles, bell, songs, and opening one present each. Meanwhile, on the evening of Christmas day, the Three Wise Men start their journey from another corner of the room. A candle serves as the star, and it goes before them, a little way each night. We sing We Three Kings (all five verses, which we know by heart!) as the star moves and then the kings. Each child moves a figure (as they did with Mary and Joseph during Advent). Then we have our devotions for the Christmas days. On January 5 the wise men arrive at the creche scene, the shepherds having long ago gone back to their fields.
On Epiphany day, January 6, which is also Three Kings day, we open any remaining presents, take down the tree and decorations, and take the tree to the recycling place. Christmas is over for another year.
We started doing this when our first child was two. Now she is thirteen, with brothers nine and seven. Last year for the first time we let her help "the angle" decorate the tree. This was a kind of rite of passage. She has the knowledge now that it is in our hearts and through our hands that the angel, Santa, and the Christ Child bring their gifts. As the other children grow up they will take part too. I suspect that the process will become simplified as time goes on, but we try to make the celebration more than a one day affair. We experience how through the Advent season it casts its shadow -- or its glow -- before, and how in the twelve days of Christmas, leading up to Epiphany, its light continues to shine. The last flicker of it we experience on Candlemas, where we have a special meal and bring out all the candles for the last time before putting them away. Candlemas is a European Catholic feast with pagan origins, that occurs on February 2 (Groundhog day). Practically, it is the day that the candles, which have been made during the previous weeks of winter, are blessed for use during the coming year. From now until about Whitsun we burn three or four candles, diminishing their number until in summer there is only one left. Then the numbers increase again as the days get shorter, and the new Advent cycle begins again.
Gavin Walker, UK:
Aren't we getting a little over excited about this Christmas thing? After all, we might not choose to celebrate it the same way as most other people, but I'm not going to make my non-Friends friends feel uncomfortable just because they invite me to join them in a bite to eat or a christmas song or two?
Actually, I enjoy the holiday season. It gives me the opportunity to say 'hello' to some folk I might not have talked to for a while, and I get a kick out of the whole santa claus thing. And strangely enough, my enjoying that part of it doesn't shake my faith or beliefs to their core.
I have some very strong beliefs about peace, poverty and man's inhumanity to man and I'm never going to compromise those for anybody. But if I'm caught mouthing a verse or two of 'Silent Night' I'm not going to lose sleep over whether I've lost my faith or not.
And if you really want to enjoy people enjoying their faith try getting invited to a Chanukah celebration. It's great!
Richard Ogden, York, UK:
I am not against "times and seasons", since they'll happen with or without me. I used to like very much the idea of not (outwardly) observing things like Christmas or Easter (or birthdays, or the passing of the seasons...) But I think I *need* these times and seasons as an integral part of my religious life.
I do not like singing carols (I hate them actually!) and I hate the sentimentality of Christmas, but I see no reason why I shouldn't mark the darkest time of the year, cheer it up with candles, good food, good company and a few days of not working. I see it as a way of "blessing" what is otherwise a horrid time of the year.
Sometimes I have put candles in the garden in November (at night) and just sat there contemplating the darkness and tried to prepare myself for the three months or so when I will be indoors all the time that the sun is up. I need to recognize misery, difficult times and challenges too: they are also part of my life.
I mark midsummer too: simple things like picking wild flowers and making a point of enjoying the sunshine, walking about and sniffing the wonderful early summer air and giving thanks for it.
New Year used to have no meaning to me: my new years come in the autumn (with the new academic year) or in the spring (with my birthday and green leaves). But then in 1996, a lot of my relatives and friends died, about a half dozen of them. I was depressed, enraged and desperate for it all to go away. When Jan 1 1997 came, I stood in the doorway to our house with some friends and we blew those little party trumpets loud into the street: I *needed* to get rid of 1996 and welcome in a new (calendar) year: it had suddenly become important to mark and ending to something and declare it over, finished with.
As for marking real seasons... when autumn comes I have a little ritual, that I take a few leaves and bring them inside. When the green leaves reappear in the spring, I crumple the leaves and put them back into nature and say good bye to the winter, and remember important things that have happened to me in the spring. Each year I do this (I'm on year 14) it means more and becomes more significant.
These rituals aren't remotely "Christian" in the sense that I relate them to the life of Jesus. But they're part of my own story-telling, and along with the stories of creation, the exodus, christmas and easter (which are for me not bound to particular times of the year) they form part of the web of my religious life.
It's the *empty* rituals, the ones that have no genuine meaning for me, that I don't like and that I try to avoid.
Olwen Evans, UK:
Many years ago, in winter, during a period of mental illness I became seized with a fear that the Spring would not return. Even when it did return, it took another six months for me to recover sufficiently to be discharged from hospital.
Ever since I have felt that pagan celebrations of the seasons are honest expressions of gladness that Creation continues to unfold as God intended. They seem far less pretentious than church festivals and I do not feel it at all unquakerly to celebrate them.
The harvest supper, the real thing after the day's work in the fields, strikes me as far closer to the Last Supper than what goes on in front of altars.
Chuck Fager, State College, Pennsylvania, USA:
At State College (PA) Meeting, there is an annual gathering in December that happens as follows:
It is evening and when we enter the meeting room it is dark, except for a single candle on a table at the center of the room. We settle into worship as usual. Then as Friends are moved, individually or in family groups, they come to the table, light candles of their own, set them down, and perhaps say something. The attendance at this meeting is usually large, and by the time all have finished, the room is ablaze with the light of so many candles, as well as the feelings evoked.
As a relative newcomer to the meeting, I don't know much of the history of this observance. But the friend who "clerked" it last year explained that he had learned of it from german Friends, who, he said, held such meetings during the time of the Nazis and then the east german Communist government. (I hope they still do so, even with these various oppressors now in the past.)
I have been struck by how this "candle meeting" combines both Quaker simplicity, unprogrammed worship, and seasonal "decoration" into a very impressive whole.
Did I mention that afterward there is a great consumption of cookies and other such goodies? Would it be a Quaker gathering without such?
Judi Hodgkin, Australia:
It's a little different celebrating Christmas in Australia because while there are still all the 'Xmas' promotions with snowpeople, sleighbells and Christmas carols referring to snow and the cold and warm fires, most Australians are gearing up for the hottest part of the year and the last thing they want to do is huddle around a fire!!! I didn't see snow until I travelled to America when I was sixteen.
There are still very few 'Australian' ways of celebrating Christmas and my family were always careful to point out that every day of the year was special. Christmas was celebrated as a way of getting together with the extended family (cousins etc) who were not necessarily Quakers. Mum's best friend and her family are Mormons and Christmas Eve was traditionally spent with them. I remember going around and spending time with my friend, Vanessa and playing and talking in her room until we were too tired to talk anymore while Mum, Dad, Lorraine and Frank worked on completing the various Christmas presents that they were making for us by hand. Vanessa and I and other members of both families would eventually flake out with exhaustion and sleep until it came time to go home. Mum and Dad would take us all home and because we'd been up late, would be virtually guaranteed of a leisurely Christmas morning without children getting up at the crack of dawn. We had this big huge 6' silver tinsel Christmas tree. One year we put it up and it stayed up in the Lounge room for the next two years.
Christmas Day could be spent at any number of relatives places (the family is rather large) but it was always impressed upon us that it was spending it together as a family that was the important bit. If we went to Uncle Bill's then as far as I was concerned the best bit for me was to go swimming in the pool after lunch. If we were at Sockey and Grandpa (my Dad's parents), then it was a good excuse to go down to the beach after lunch.
I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't sing. Mum grew up in the Presbyterian church and sang in her church choir as well as in another choir when I was very young. She sang to us as children and we all sang together - the season was irrelevant, as were the songs. My sister, Marie who is 11 years older than me started at University when I must have been around 7 or 8. She joined the undergraduate choir. Every Christmas, they did concerts and sang in shopping centres and other places. I grew up with Christmas carols around me every year. Not the Bing Crosby/Muzak renditions of awful commercialised music but the medieval and classical range of Christmas carols from all nations. These are beautiful and anyone who deprives themselves of hearing these because they can't bear to hear the commercial stuff is missing out on a lovely range of music. With all of my sisters, my mother, my father and one of my brothers involved in the choir, I also sang with the undergraduate choir from about the age of thirteen every Christmas. I joined the choir officially while still in high school at the age of sixteen.
I find now, having moved to England, that I miss that aspect of my Christmases in Australia. Not the heat, the flies and the fact you had to wait for your Christmas dinner to digest before going for a swim, but the singing together. There isn't anywhere the same amount of live singing here. Another Australian event is 'Carols by Candlelight' - an event now put on by just about every local council in Perth. You all turn up to a park somewhere, buy little cheap wax candles that drip all over the place (and over your hands), stand in the dark with only the candles to see by and listen and sing along with a choir and a (usually little-known) celebrity. It's absolutely great. Okay, so it'd be very impractical in this country but it is a lot of fun.
There is one commercial contribution to the Australian Carol repertoire from Rolf Harris that I like because it's fun. The story goes that St. Nick (Santa) attempts to go around the world delivering presents to celebrate Christmas to all the children of the world but as the reindeer get further south, it gets hotter and they can't cope with it. They stop the sleigh and tell Santa that they can't go any further as it is simply too hot for them. Off in the distance they hear a deep but steady BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. On the horizon they see six large kangaroos who arrive and offer to take Santa around Australia. The chorus goes: (a Boomer is a large, male kangaroo)
Six white boomers, snow white boomers
Earl Prignitz, Richmond, Indiana, USA:
Want to read more? Go on to Part 5.
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