Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Quaker Christmas

A close-up of a metallic red bauble with swirling white patterns, hanging on a Christmas tree. Other decorations and lights are out of focus in the background.
As I described in my previous post regarding Halloween, Quakers have a traditional testimony concerning times and seasons, that different days and different times of the year not have liturgical significance. However, as I also set out in that post, we can see value and benefit of festivals without ascribing them inherent religious significance.
In this post, I shall be applying the same approach to Christmas, and all of the things that go with it, both liturgically and culturally – advent, epiphany, even the secular new year celebration.
Christmas is possibly the most culturally pervasive holiday across the English-speaking world. It is frequently celebrated by both atheists and the generally irreligious – especially those raised in the Christian culture of the English-speaking world – and by those of non-Christian faith communities, as well as by Christians, who you would naturally expect to celebrate it. Our streets are decorated with lights, TV advertising takes a dramatic shift, and gifts are exchanged in all sorts of contexts, such as between friends at school and workplace “Secret Santa” arrangements. Indeed, gift-giving may be the most consistent element of cultural Christmas observances. We are also surrounded by imagery, music and encouragements about gathering the family together, about peace and love, about celebration. It is also a key festival in most forms of the religion that is historically dominant in the English-speaking world – Christianity.
It is not traditionally a key festival for Quakers, even Christian Quakers, due to the testimony concerning keeping of times and seasons; no day is holier than another, and thus there are no holy days – Quakers kept no religious festivals at all. Even the cultural trappings of it would be frowned upon by a very traditionalist Quaker, as marking the festival at all could challenge that testimony – as well as working against the idea of pious simplicity that Quakers have long espoused.
This raises two questions, though I shall focus only on one; the question of Christmas and Quaker simplicity is a trivial one, except in so far as modern ideas of Quaker simplicity are not straightforward. If your way of “doing Christmas” does not accord with your own understanding of simplicity, it is largely in your power to address that, as your conscience directs. The lack of simplicity does create difficulties related to equality, however – particularly economic inequality; this is a subject I intend to return to in a further post in the run-up to Christmas. The more difficult question is around times and seasons, that making this fuss over a religious festival is against long-standing, if neglected, Quaker teaching.
That neglect is obvious in the Meetings I have experienced, and in those I have heard about from other Friends. We hold Meeting for Worship on Christmas day, even when it falls on a day on which we would not normally hold Meeting for Worship; Children's Meetings may put on a nativity performance, albeit often somewhat Quakerfied. We may even sing carols as part of it, among elements intended towards making it an all-age Meeting for Worship (a term often used to explain semi-programmed Meeting for Worship intended to be welcoming to families, at least in Britain Yearly Meeting). Many Meetings will do similar things for Easter, too, though my experience does suggest it's not as widespread.
On the face of it, this would seem to be giving liturgical significance to these holy days. I'm not really sure that it is, however. In an unprogrammed Meeting for Worship on Christmas Day, it is likely that you Friends will receive ministry that relates to the day, whether it's a specially held Meeting or not, and the same goes for Easter and the various specific days around it – and Remembrance Sunday, and Holocaust Memorial Day, and so many other commemorative days besides. That does not mean that liturgical significance is given, unless you are assuming that Friends prepare such ministry (I suspect that they do, on occasion, but by and large I think such ministry is genuinely spontaneous and Spirit-led). It simply means that these matters are fertile areas for the Spirit on that day, possibly due to mental preoccupation – and possibly because the Spirit causes people to think about them.
It is, then, a cultural and intellectual significance, rather than a liturgical one. The absence of liturgical significance is important for two main reasons: firstly, that we not consider one day more holy than another, but secondly – and of more practical importance – that we not limit our consideration of the meaning of that festival to that time of year. We should not only consider the lessons of the events of Holy Week at Easter, just as we should not only consider the horrific waste of war during annual Remembrance activities, or whatever lesson goes along with burning failed terrorists in effigy on November 5th. Whatever lessons we can draw – whether we are each Christian or not – from the story of the Nativity, we should not draw them only at Christmas time. That does not, however, preclude us from being more reminded of them at that time of year. When we are surrounded by such observances in wider society, we cannot avoid being so reminded – unless, I suppose, we were to become a closed community with little or no contact with the outside world. That immersion produces the cultural and intellectual significance reflected in our activities as a Meeting and in spoken ministry.
If we are to accept this inevitability, and we insist on no outward recognition of Christmas (or Easter, or whatever) in our organised activities, then we have a mismatch between our spiritual and our secular lives – unavoidably recognising religious festivals on a secular level, while denying them on the sacred level. This mental contortion is not, I feel, likely to be conducive to spiritual growth.
It is perhaps time, then, as suggested by Rhiannon Grant in her own post about Christmas and Quakers last year, to renounce the testimony concerning times and seasons. It is clearly not one that we live out, after all. I am not, however, comfortable with renouncing the principle of this once-important testimony. The idea that we must not hold one day as sacred over others, and the idea that we must not restrict our consideration of important ideas to certain times of year, are key important ones that are at the heart of Quaker experience, for me. Yet it is true that we cannot keep a dogged insistence that this is an important Quaker teaching when it is so blatantly disregarded.
I suggest another way. We need not entirely renounce it – we need only be clearer on what we mean by it. We can reconstruct the testimony for modern society, and do so in a way that allows us to recognise, celebrate and gain benefit from the diversity of belief that we find today in our Religious Society, and the wider society in which it sits. Instead we must return to its essential foundation, the principle rather than the outward practice. Rather than insisting that people not outwardly observe holy days and other festivals, an insistence that would be very difficult to push through (though some of us might be inclined to prefer it as an end effect), we actively promote the idea of every day as holy – just as all life is sacramental. Our religious observances are, as near as possible, constant and continuous – not things we do visibly and publicly at certain times; indeed, preferably they are done visibly and publicly quite frequently, although we may not always explain how and why they relate to our faith. We draw religious significance from festivals by letting them be opportunities to particularly remember some idea, letting that be grist to the mill of our spiritual experience, but also taking active steps to consider things at times other than those specifically appointed for them. We can even extend this – as we already do in practice – beyond religious festivals to secular things like Holocaust Memorial Day, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Human Rights Day, or the International Day of Disabled People (aka International Day of People with Disabilities, or in UN-ish the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – but I'm not going to get into the politics behind those different terms right now). There's even an opportunity to extend it to festivals of other religions – you don't have to follow a South Asian religion to take learning opportunities from the stories of Diwali, and the Hindus and Sikhs I have known (I haven't known any Jains) are more than happy to allow those of other faiths to share in their celebrations.
From Christianity, the root religion out of which all the Quaker family has grown, we can take the idea of the whole season of advent, and see what it means to us. In many churches, advent not only builds towards the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, but also reflects the idea of the current existence on Earth of Christ – in our hearts – and the future coming of Christ in whatever version of Christian eschatology you happen to follow. All Quakers, whatever they think is the nature of the Inward Teacher, can feel commonality with the idea of considering the voice of that teacher within us, and even those of us with no eschatological beliefs can take the idea of the future coming of Christ and look beneath the surface of it, see that it refers to the perfection of the world – something that we are called to work towards, in our own (usually) small ways, even if we think it is ultimately unattainable.
For Christmas day itself, we have a choice – we can take the cultural significance of the day, usually around sharing and family, or the religious significance of the day. I am no expert on those, but themes that I have come across from Christian sources include a celebration of the promise of eternal life, a message of hope that the source of salvation entered the world, and the promise of peace. The hope theme is common to many midwinter celebrations – the world is at its darkest, but at this time it begins to grow brighter. The promise of peace surely causes some mental gymnastics, as the words of the gospels make it sound like an imminent matter, but it's been a while now, and there's no sign of it. The promise of eternal life is a consistent theme in some denominations celebration of pretty much every liturgical season and holy day, so it's hard to focus on that. However, all of these are themes that can speak to anyone, of any faith, if they are prepared to approach them with an open and curious mind – an exploration I plan on returning to before the end of this Christian season and festival.
Then there's the New Year celebrations. Although January 1st appears on liturgical calendars marking the circumcision and/or naming of Jesus, in accordance with the traditions of that time and place (apparently the General Roman Calendar of the Catholic church prefers not to mention the circumcision), New Year is generally a secular celebration. This has meant that it remained an acceptable focus of circumsoltitial winter celebrations at times and places when Christmas, or religious festivals in general, were not favoured, such as communist Russia or anti-Papist Britain under the Puritans of England and Presbyterians of Scotland. Many people today celebrate it in a way that Quakers would, since at least the 19th century, traditionally rather disapprove – by getting blind drunk while staying up late. However, there are also many other ways of celebrating the new year, including vigils or a Quaker Meeting for Worship held over the turn of the year.
Two other days associated with the season, but not of great significance to most Christians in the English-speaking world, are St Nicholas Day and the feast of Epiphany; I mention them here because they are far more important, both culturally and religiously, in other countries, and if we are open to taking spiritual stimulation from all sources, we should consider those that are from an unfamiliar culture without being from an unfamiliar religion.
St Nicholas Day is observed 6th December in the western Christian calendar (or the evening of the 5th, if you're in some parts of the Netherlands – possibly due to the idea of observing festivals at the start of the day, and the former tradition that a day begins in the evening, though that's entirely my own guess at this point). In some countries it is celebrated with special church services, but culturally it is largely observed with reference to the saint's reputation as a bringer of gifts to children. In some countries, it is the principle gifting day of the season, while in others it is supplemental to gift-giving at Christmas. Indeed, the modern invention of Santa Claus/Father Christmas owes a great deal to St Nicholas, being based strongly on the Dutch traditional imagery of Sinterklaas, a folkloric figure strongly associated with (and arguably based on) St Nicholas. He's also accompanied by a black figure, sometimes several, sometimes in Moorish dress, in some traditions, which has raised some concerns for political correctness. In one French tradition, this figure became a helper of the saint after murdering and butchering children who were then miraculously revived; folklore can get pretty weird, sometimes.
In Francophone parts of Europe, German-speaking parts of Europe, across Greece and the Greek diaspora, and various other cultures, Epiphany is a highly important feast day, both culturally and religiously. It marks the end of the Christmas period, with the day before (or occasionally the day itself) being the “twelfth night of Christmas”, the Christmas celebration thus being the period from Christmas Day to Epiphany. This is related, of course, to the tradition that Christmas decoration should be taken down by Epiphany, falling on the 6th of January in the western Christian calendar. Epiphany marks the visit of the “wise men”, or Magi, to the new-born Jesus, and the giving of gifts. In French and German-speaking areas, it is celebrated with the eating of special seasonal cake – the precise nature differing between regions. In the Francophone version, the cake has a trinket baked into it, referred to as a bean, usually a small figurine. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the bean in gets to wear a (usually paper) crown. In Germany, small groups of young people go door to door singing, generally soliciting donations for a charitable cause. In Greece, some celebrations centre on the “great blessing of the waters”, and the banishing of folkloric figures that make it unsafe to sail at sea around midwinter.
All of this, and much more, is meet material for spiritual consideration, whether you are Christian or not – just as there is spiritual benefit to be had by all from consideration of Hindu, Jewish, Pagan and Islamic festivals. It matters not, for this purpose, whether you believe in the stories that explain holiday traditions and origins. All of these things, and the purely secular dedication of days to particular topics and causes by nations or international organisations, create meaning that we can benefit from in our spiritual lives.
Let us then not be dour and reject festivities. Let us take the light and life and fellowship and joy that festivals of all sorts can offer us, the opportunity to build community and have fun. The enjoyment of life can be holy in itself.
Likewise, let us then not simply follow the empty forms of cultural celebration of Christmas, nor elevate certain days as especially sacred; rather let us see the meanings that have been bestowed upon certain times and seasons by people themselves, whether it be by deliberate action or long tradition, and derive spiritual inspiration from them.
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