Friends have a historical testimony against the celebration of special days, because “one day is no more holy than another, as all days are the gift of the most High” (see Friends (Quakers) and Christmas, by Bill Samuel 12/1/1998).
However, the “return of the light” at Winter Solstice is celebrated by cultures around the world, and many Friends come from families and communities in which winter festivals carry valued personal significance.
For December, we invite contributors to tell us about their personal experiences of Quakerism and the Holidays, as well as about how they understand and acknowledge the cultural importance of this time of year.
[This introductory post was originally published on The Empty Path.]
Modern Friends are sometimes challenged by the early Quaker tradition of eschewing religious and secular holidays.
We live in a sacred tension.
Our faith and practice call us to attend to the Divine, not to be distracted by outward forms of worship or of the larger culture in which we live. However, the truest bonds of family and culture call us to attend to those shared memories and traditions which give collective meaning to our lives.
How do we honor both sorts of leading?
I don’t write this post to answer that question, but simply to share some irresolvable puzzles of my own.
In 2008, my fictional alter-ego Walhydra published a post called Yule Blood:
Walhydra realizes that “blood” is not a word folks usually associate with Yule…. Even so, on Yuletide morning, [she] marked her black front door with a splash of blood-red ribbon.
It was as if she were making certain that the angel of midwinter darkness would pass over their home and allow the first born light of the New Year to shine upon them….
Before the West invented the so-called infrastructure,…Yule was not necessarily a friendly, cozy season. It still isn’t for the impoverished majority of the world.
At midwinter, the hope of the clan was that the hunters would drag back enough bloody meat from the forest to replace the dwindling grains and fruits and nuts of the harvest.
That was the red on the cloak of Father Yule. The blood….
The other blood of the season is woman’s blood. No babe is born without blood and the danger of death….
This year, though, with Christmas coming in the midst of a global economic crash, it’s the first time in decades that Walhydra has sensed a collective awareness of the finiteness of life. Of the importance of nurturing and conserving what we already have, rather than recklessly consuming the future.
We may be starting to remember that the ancient Yule was about survival.
Maybe our family—at least the hardiest of us—will survive until spring.
In the 1950s, my Lutheran pastor father—who loved family ceremonies— invented a way to keep us three kids from becoming too frantic about the wait for Christmas morning. I’m not sure where he got the idea or when he and Mom started this, but on Christmas Eve each of us received a little gift…sort of an appetizer.
At some point, Dad added “Little Christmas Eve,” and then “Little, Little Christmas Eve,” in order to stretch out the fun.
Remember, this was a preacher’s family in the 1950s in Ohio, so we are talking little gifts, even on the Day. But it was the family event, not the gifts, which made it special.
Waiting was the essence of the Christmas season of my childhood—as I believe it is for all creatures who watch the decline of the sun and long for the return of warmth and light.
In my family we had the traditional Advent Calendar, and the whole family gathered after dinner each night to light the candles representing the week of Advent, and to read selected scriptures, meditations and prayers.
Then we sang.
This is still my favorite Advent hymn.
Favorite because it is as much Pagan and Jewish as Christian. Because, for me, it resonates with the imagery of hope used by many peoples.
Ransom from exile. Wisdom. Dayspring. Desire of nations….
And so it is.
For a couple centuries, avoidance of common Christian observances such as Easter and Christmas was as distinctive a tenet among the Quakers…as [was] their famed pacifism. There are exceptions but that’s largely in the past….
The Friends General Conference explains that “traditionally Quakers did not celebrate any religious holidays because all days are ‘holy days’,” but today “most Quakers celebrate a low-key Christmas, and sometimes Easter, as part of our larger culture”….
George Fox…indicated his feelings in an early journal entry, noting that while others indulged in Christmastime feasting and frolicking “I looked out poor widows from house to house and gave them some money”….
The 1806 Rules of Discipline for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends declared the predominant policy that believers cannot join in “public fasts, feasts, and what they term holy days” that were “devised in man’s will” (i.e. not by God’s will) because “outward observations” have been supplanted by “the spiritual dispensation of the Gospel.” Each day of the year was to be holy unto God, not just special “days and times.”
—”Quakers, Easter & Christmas,” Richard Ostling