Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

In Quaker faith & practice, passage 27.42 says:

A… testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

Janet Scott, 1994

With all due respect to my friend and sometime co-tutor Janet Scott, I want to put forward some reasons why we should not just let this testimony go, but actively get rid of it. I think we will do better at keeping what Janet describes as its truth – will do better at remembering and celebrating the work of God whenever the Spirit calls us to do so – if we set aside some times to do so consciously, not mechanically but regularly. puts on ‘devil’s advocate for God’ hat

1. We already do.

Meetings hold Christmas celebrations. They have special meals, sing carols, and let the kids do a play. They cancel study groups and committee meetings, and expect that people will spend time with their families. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday, so this will be invisible – but when it doesn’t, meetings all over Britain hold special Christmas Meetings for Worship. Fewer meetings – but some – also hold extra Meetings for Worship on Good Friday (some serve hot cross buns as well). I once challenged this and was told that it was because people were free on the bank holiday, and indeed Yearly Meeting uses the May bank holidays for some two years of its three yearly cycle, but it’s very rare for local meetings to use other bank holidays, and not on anything like the same regular basis. There’s no special end of August Meeting for Worship, so there’s something about Christmas and Easter. If we are to be honest, we need to stop pretending that we don’t celebrate these festivals.

2. We’re Christians.

Okay, some of us aren’t. I’m not, actually – from time to time I think I might be starting to get on not-so-badly with this Jesus guy, and then I meet some Christian Christians, you know the type, the sort who think I’m doing it wrong if I agree with Jesus rather than singing slightly erotic songs about him, or who think I’ll go to hell for dating women, or who are sure that if I’d really read the New Testament I’d be going to their church. And when that happens, I decide that I’ll stay not-quite-a-Christian, thank you very much. As a Quaker, though, I am a member of a Christian church, and I shouldn’t be allowed to hide from that. Even stronger: I should be routinely offered the chance to engage with all that is helpful and enriching and spiritually fulfilling in Christianity in case I want to take the plunge and open up the maybe-I’m-Christian-even-if-I’m-not-one-of-those-Christians space. Celebrating Christmas is a chance for us to do that.

3. Christmas – and Easter – hold key theological messages.

“In some meetings,” Janet wrote in 1994, “Easter and its meaning is neglected.” Although I do know a few meetings where it is celebrated, the theological meanings of Easter – the Good News about the Resurrection, for example – aren’t the sort of thing we hear about very often in a typical Quaker meeting. Although Christmas is a bigger feature, how many Friends actually contemplate the implications of God being born in a human body, rather than enjoying a few good tunes and a mince pie? If we opened up and said, yes, we are going to celebrate these things, we could look more directly at how we celebrate them and whether we are getting the most spiritual benefit from the process. In time, this might extend beyond Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and other stories which are embedded in the Christian liturgical calendar.

4. Seasonal cycles support our commitment to sustainability.

When we regard nature as alien and winter weather as an obstacle, it’s much harder for us to buy into arguments about why we should save the planet. The seasons change all the time, but Christmas is a point at which it’s socially more acceptable to admire evergreen trees, reflect on the days starting to lengthen, and appreciate the beauty of snow. This can be a starting point for a process of connecting more deeply to the natural world – animals, plants, weather, and climate. The understanding we gain through that process can shore up our determination to make lifestyle changes and campaign for larger social changes in order to protect our environment.

5. It’s fun.

Which is sometimes enough reason all on its own.

This isn’t an argument for extra buying, extra plastic, or doing anything you don’t want to do. It is an argument for enjoying the process of giving a few well-chosen presents and spending time with people you love. It is an argument for sharing and discussing traditional stories, stories which can have a truth beyond the facts. It is an argument for thinking about how your Christmas celebrations can be simple, truthful, sustainable, peaceful. It is an argument for not apologising: if you’re going to put up decorations, sing carols, and eat with family, don’t feel you have to add “even though it’s not Quakerly”.We can use it as part of our Quaker path.

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9 responses to “Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

  1. I’m glad somebody else has also noticed the tendency of modern Christian songs to be all about the singer wanting to get ever so slightly jiggy jiggy with Jesus…

    On the more serious note, I have an issue with the tendency of Quakers to make a big deal of not buying proper presents but instead buying ‘token, fun presents from Poundland’; if one thinks sufficiently of somebody to buy them a present, buy them a proper present, something they’ll use and appreciate. Cheap rubbish joke presents aren’t a rejection of consumer society and the Increasing Commercialisation Of Christmas[tm] blah blah blah, they’re the opposite – one is handing over cash to a business in exchange for a piece of tat that’s cost environmental resources to manufacture and will cost environmental resources to dispose of, so what’s Simplicity about that?

  2. People tend to remember the negative part of the testimony to times and seasons (and the approach to sacraments) without recalling the positive part. In some ways, the positive part is the more important – if there is an important theological message, maybe one that goes beyond Christianity (maybe) to Christmas and Easter, we should be aware of them at all times, not at specific times of year. The negative part, the not keeping festivals, was supposed to be an affirmation of the positive, that they have meaning all year, just as every meal can be in memory of the last supper (or its broader meaning) and baptism is an ongoing process of, for want of a better word, sanctification by the spirit.

    Perhaps we can accept and embrace that we are not refusing to keep festivals now, but we should reaffirm the idea that festivals are not of inherent meaning, and the meaning that goes with them is true and worthwhile the whole year ’round.

  3. Dear Rhiannon
    Thank you so much for this. I agree with everything you say.
    I have long wondered whether the early Friends rejection of festivals was because the outward form had lost its deeper meaning, rather than a denial of the potential spiritual benefit of any ritual or symbol.
    Brought up in non conformist churches I share your feelings about whether or not to call myself a Christian. I certainly don’t believe the creeds but my values stem totally from my Christian upbringing. Today I have pagan leanings for much the same reasons as you express: we need to feel our connection to the natural world and events that mark the seasons help us to do that. More generally ritual which has personal meaning for me brings the power of naming and witnessing to my deepest intentions.
    I once attended an Appleseed course at Woodbrooke on advent. Here the theme was awaiting the return of the Light in a time of darkness. How much do we need to await such a return with faith and hope given what is happening in the world right now. So yes we can find deeper and very relevant meanings to Christmas.

  4. I’ve lately been wishing we still maintained this testimony, for the sake of contradicting those “Keep Christ in Christmas!” “it’s Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays!” angry sort of Christians.

  5. I get yout point about dating women, but I assert I am Christian all the more strongly, despite all my doubts and heresies, because I have been told I am going to Hell. I follow Christ. I am a Christian. How dare they? And given bishops Eva Brunne, Karen Oliveto and Mary Glasspool in three different denominations, I feel gratitude for the fellowship of more and more Christians welcoming me.

    • I admire your ability to take that position.

      • I am not sure it’s admirable. It could be arrogant- saying to others their understanding of Christianity, morality, the Bible etc does not matter- or alternatively mean, clinging to something which rejects me. I am willing to engage, but can be insulting mocking and dismissive. It’s also a matter of identity- I am Christian, as I am Scots.

  6. Pingback: Are we giving good evidence this Easter? | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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