I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at email@example.com or Grace Milton directly for details.
Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.
In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.
I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.
The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.
However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.
The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.
The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.
But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.
When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago.
I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.
What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.
What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers.
My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.
And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games.