“When the time called Christmas came, while others were feasting and sporting themselves I looked out poor widows from house to house, and gave them some money.” George Fox’s Journal
As we enter into the holiday season I often reflect on Friends’ history concerning holiday celebrations and how that changed over time. Historically Friends stay clear of holiday observances and rituals. Most books of Faith & Practice explain this by stating we believe that all days are equally holy. While this is historically true there is more to the story.
One of Friends earliest concerns had to do with the “true and acceptable worship of God.” The 17th Century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay in his “Apology for the True Christian Divinity” devotes Proposition XI to worship. It is under Proposition XI that the “testimony against the keeping of days” arose. Section 3 of this proposition states “We are persuaded that all days are alike holy in the sight of God.” The belief concerning “the keeping of days” included the plain numbering of days of the week and months.
The Book of Christian Discipline (now called Faith & Practice) for various Yearly Meetings weren’t in print until the late 18th or early 19th Centuries. The 1806 Book of Christian Discipline from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting admonished Friends that only the “worship and prayers which God accepts, are such as are produced by the influence and assistance of his holy Spirit” are to be used by God’s people. Observation of “public fasts, feasts, and what they term holy days; or such injunctions and forms as are devised in man’s will for divine worship.”
So the main concern was that holidays represent human invention, not a movement of the Spirit. The same concern for being true to the inward life extended to banning outward rituals of baptism and the communion. There was a similar concern that arose concerning “vein and empty customs” (Barclay’s Apology, Proposition XV), especially those deemed “frivolous diversions” (such as dancing and gambling), the taking of oaths, and participation in warfare.
Until recent times Friends schools and businesses remained open on holidays. Quaker businesses often faced fines and vandalism for keep their shops open on Christmas Day. Contemporary Quaker views on observing holidays is far less rigid than it was for our ancestors. Nevertheless Friends tend to reject commercialism of the season and endeavor to practice simplicity in our homes. Like George Fox we share concern for those living in poverty or despair.
My own view with regards to holidays has changed over time. For several years I made it a point not to observe Christmas in particular, based on my understanding of Quaker principles and a rejection of the materialism that this holiday represented. I was fond of pointing out that Christmas had its origins as a pagan holiday, having arose from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Nevertheless I could always be persuaded to listen to and even sing Christmas carols. They were part of my childhood and are connected to fond memories. The custom of putting up a Christmas tree in my home happened rather suddenly. One day I came home from work to find one in my living room, brought in by my life partner Tom. I simply laughed and surrendered the last of my objection. We have had a tree in our home every year since then. Those first couple years we made our own ornaments. I still reject overt materialism as inconsistent with following Christ, but I’m a lot less judgmental about those who go all out with their decorations. Interesting enough I don’t recall ever giving up Thanksgiving observance or even Halloween. The first may reflect my love of good food and the second is about having fun watching children in costumes. Halloween is also an especially treasured holiday in the gay community. I have always loved fireworks, but I prefer to think of them as not connected to any particular military display such as Independence Day.
May whatever family traditions (if any) you observe this year be full of Peace and Blessings. I leave you with these words from a 19th Century Celtic hymn called Quaker Benediction.
“When the song of the angel is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”