Sunday, December 23, 2007

Quakers and Christmas

There was an article in today's paper on Christians who do not celebrate Christmas. Briefly, the reasons some Christians do not celebrate Christmas include: it's now a secular holiday; it has become too commercial; there is not really a Biblical basis for believing we have the right calendar date or that Jesus wanted us to celebrate his earthly birth.

The article listed some Protestant denominations that have had times, at least in the past, of not officially celebrating Christmas, and the Quakers were listed.

While recognizing that the questions of whether Quakers are Christians or are Protestants are themselves contested questions (but let's not get sidetracked with these questions for the moment...): The reason that Quakers didn't/don't officially celebrate Christmas may not be so much for reasons like those summarized above, but probably has to do more with the fact that (most) Quaker Meetings don't "officially" recognize any holidays.

Yet I know that many (most?) Quaker families do celebrate Christmas at home. And some Meetings do mark the occasion in a number of ways (singing Christmas hymns, having a special potluck, maybe having a special Meeting for Worship on Christmas day, though I have seldom seen the latter during my many years among Friends).

So I am curious about Friends' thoughts on this. If you feel so moved, please consider responding to some or all of the following:

  • Does your Meeting do anything special for Christmas? (Any other holidays?) Why or why not?
  • Do you celebrate Christmas at home?
  • If so, do you regard it as a secular/cultural holiday or a religious one? That is, does your way of celebrating it come more from family traditions than from your Quakerism, or vice versa? (I know that Quakers want to say that there is no distinction between their Quaker life and the rest of their life, but those who do not come from Quaker families may engage in Christmas traditions inherited from their non-Quaker families even if they now infuse them with Quakerly meanings).
  • Do any of you hold strictly to a Quaker-inspired practice of not honoring any holidays in any special way, including Christmas? If so, how do you communicate this to family and friends who may expect some participation?
  • If you do celebrate Christmas, what about the way that you celebrate it is most meaningful to you? Or, if you could celebrate Christmas any way you wanted, how would you?


  1. Our Meeting (Orange County Friends Meeting) in SoCal holds an annual Christmas potluck dinner. We sing some songs, the children put on a play and perform on musical instruments. We also 'adopt' a needy family each year and provide gifts and Christmas foods for that family.

    Though our family is non-theist, we do celebrate Christmas in a simple way--we exchange a few simple gifts (often handmade) and play games together and with F/friends. We send out Christmas postcards to distant friends and enjoy receiving their cards. We bake special seasonal treats and make gingerbread houses. We also have some favorite Christmas carols that we enjoy listening to, playing on our instruments, and singing--most of them the traditional religious carols rather than contemporary holiday music.

    Because most of my spouse's extended family are Japanese Buddhists, we celebrate New Year's Day with them--eating traditional Japanese foods for that occasion. My family of origin is Mormon so when we spend Christmas with them we participate in whatever celebrations they are involved in (choir programs, scripture readings, etc).

  2. I keep writing and rewriting my comment to make it shorter, but it keeps growing. I've been thinking about these issues myself, although not as coherently, so your questions spurred a lot of thought.

    My small meeting had a solstice query last Sunday; ecumenical about rebirth and new coming. A Friend also had an evening of carols and snacks at her house - so while the worship aspect is not noting Christmas in particular, socially/community-wise, there were Christimas things.

    I only started attneding meeting during the summer, so this is all new to me. One of the things that drew me to quakerism was the idea of not 'officially' recognizing holiday - that *each* day has grace in it and should be celebrated.

    My immediate family has always gone over the top w/ the consumption aspect of the holiday; also the lights, tree, eggnog, etc. I'm single and w/o kids, so I celebrate with my family.

    Personally I would love to hold to a strict Quaker-inspired practice of not honoring any holidays in any special way.

    Explaining this to my parents would be impossible - they love Christmas and the ritual of exchange. Although I've told my Dad I've been attending Quaker meeting, I haven't been explicit about my exploration of quakerism to anyone in my family. I'm not sure why - I think, in part, that they won't take it/me seriously. Certainly not it terms of Christmas! No matter what, some participation in terms of my travelling, gift-giving, etc. will always be required. I'm struggling with this a lot - I want my family to have all the happiness possible and I don't want to disappoint them, but I also want to be truer to my own needs and how I feel led.

    I'm hoping that there are some comments posted about how people deal with this issue. I'm also curious (and this goes off-topic, so I'll write about on my blog eventually) about how convinced Quakers 'come out' to their families/friends in general.

    If it were entirely up to me, I would prefer to focus on being present and seeking grace every day, with extra help on the Sabbath. I would like to have the end of the year, Solstice, Christmas, New Year's be a time of reflection, but one without the pressures and obligations of the traditional holiday season.

    The most meaningful traditions of Christmas to me are the music, especially things like the Handel, Vivialdi and the old religious carols. I find grace in beautiful music. I also do love some of the small family traditions - banging on the floor to make my father turn down the classical station's Christmas marathon (he likes to blare it at top volume) so I can go to sleep, I make the cinnamon rolls and my sib the coffee on Christmas morning, building legoes and doing puzzles, late afternoon phone calls to friends. I just wish they could be more part of regular life or happen at any time of the year.

    I enjoy the pleasure I see people get out of the holiday, too, and if it's only a few days that that happens a year, well, it's not my ideal, but at least there is joy. And I firmly believe we all need to seize the joy where and when we can find it.

  3. Thank you so much, Jana and Grey, for your responses! I very much appreciate all that you have shared.

    I myself feel divided about this. On the one hand, I am drawn to the idea of not honoring any one day above all others, but honoring every day. On the other hand, I find myself thinking that it is beautiful that there is still at least one day that has the power to bring ordinary life to a halt here in the U.S. (and of course some other countries as well).

    Yesterday I read that 82% of Americans who do not consider themselves Christian still do celebrate Christmas.

    While the commercialism can be troubling, the reminder that it is good to Give is an important reminder in U.S. culture today, I think.

    And the special kind of family togetherness that can happen on this day is also very beautiful. I appreciate this most of all.

  4. Our meeting in Northern Virginia has worship sharing on Christmas Eve.

  5. I don't know if they planned anything specific at the Meetinghouse because I haven't been attending lately due to various personal scheduling problems.

    How to Celebrate Christmas is a big issue looming the life of my fiance and I. I would like it to be a smallish, voluntary simplicity, quality-over-quantity family-plus-community event. He and his family are more into the traditional commercialism, but not to the extreme degrees I've seen in some families. Most of my family is that same way as his. It feels like a sort of uphill battle, to "be in the minority" of how it's to be celebrated, while still wanting to spend time with the families (which for me, I only have that opportunity 3 holidays a year, to see extended family, while he can see his much more frequently).

  6. I am going to answer for the meeting I grow up in (and my parents still attend)--it is unprogrramed and the one I currently attend (I have moved) that is programmed.

    Does your Meeting do anything special for Christmas? (Any other holidays?) Why or why not?
    -Hometown Mtg--Christmas Eve candlelight meeting for worship followed by carols. Some years, the weekend before people do a potluck/singing at a Friend's house.
    -Current Mtg--A week before (or so) a Family Christmas Party with soup supper, impromptu pagent and carols, an open house at the pastor's house and a candlelight Christmas Eve service.

    Do you celebrate Christmas at home?
    -Yes. Tradition is a present on Christmas Eve (usually our new PJ's) and than traditional Christmas morning breakfast together and stockings and presents and eating as afamily.

    If so, do you regard it as a secular/cultural holiday or a religious one? That is, does your way of celebrating it come more from family traditions than from your Quakerism, or vice versa?
    -I view it as a family tradition more than anything. While I am a Christian I am not convinced that Dec 25 is the actual birthdate of Jesus but is a good reflection time for me. I read a monologue at my current meeting from the perspective of Mary, and there was much food for thought. I do reflect on what Jesus's birth means to me personally.

    If you do celebrate Christmas, what about the way that you celebrate it is most meaningful to you?
    -I think just being with my family, and valuing the family time, as we are alls pread out and busy.

  7. The kids at Schuylkill Friends (suburbs of Phila.) put on a little skit each year on a Sunday afternoon sometime before Christmas, and there's cake and coffee afterward.

    Yes, the commercialism gets to me too. This year I did a minimum of shopping for people, but that's because my two sons are now much older, so I don't have to do the toy thing anymore. I make a donation to AFSC and give their gift card to those I know will appreciate it.

    Other than that, I'm free to be more meditative now that our family is so much smaller, with my mom and other older family members passed on. I particularly like to use the time I have off to visit with friends that I don't get to see as often during the year because work has been so hectic.

    Way back when, before I was married and I lived with my mom, Christmas Eve was a big deal. My family is Italian, and my mom made a big dinner with various types of fish. She just sort of had an open house all night, and neighbors and relatives stopped by whenever and stayed till 2 or 3am, and my mom just kept putting food out. I have really great memories of those Christmases past ... though my own Christmas holidays are a lot different.

  8. We do a fair amount of celebrating at Reedwood Friends Church (Portland, Oregon, USA). We arrange a holiday dessert and program, we meet for worship on Christmas Eve (actually, several of the programmed meetings I've attended have Christmas eve services), and we've had a community Messiah sing that usually draws people from beyond Reedwood's own attendership.

    Also,there are Nativity and Christmas elements in the meeting for worship, although there's been an effort not to allow creeping sacramentalism (my words). Thus, the lighting of Nativity candles has been dropped.

    I find it refreshing that my travel schedule has required/allowed our family to move our own Christmas celebration to December 31/January 1.

    With warmest end-of-year greetings to you,


  9. Bridge City Friends Meeting (Portland, Oregon) observes the advent Sundays prior to Christmas in an eclectic way--with programming that reflects Christian and other spiritual practice. It is intergenerational and ends with a potluck.

    On Christmas Eve we host a meeting for celebration at the Multnomah Monthly Meeting meeting house--with all welcome from both meetings (or no meeting--we do have some neighbors who have attended over the years). This celebration includes many of the "standard" Christian Christmas readings and readings from other traditions that reflect the time of year. We also sing Christmas songs, and practice waiting worship.

    At the conclusion of this we light candles and "process" downstairs for cookies and such.

    Our family has a Christmas observance that is likely not easily distinguished from many Christian families, although this year we met with my wife's mother, and her brother and his family in Greece for Christmas. (We are in Athens, at the moment, coming home tomorrow. It will be great to be back where the blog comment page comes up in a language with which I have at least a nodding aquaintance)

    We read the traditional Bible verses, exchanged gifts on a "secret Santa" model--each of the ten of us giving one another a small gift purchased on the trip. We fixed a common meal in the evening.

    Timothy Travis

  10. Every year, SF Meeting has a meeting for worship followed by potluck dinner on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. This year, on the Sunday before Christmas, the children acted out the Nativity narrative as a play after the rise of meeting, and we gathered that evening for soup, hot cider, popcorn and candy canes while watching the movie The Nativity Story.

    In our family, Christmas is more of a family tradition than a religious observance. We usually travel to be with one or more of our sets of parents, siblings, or cousins. We exchange practical presents among the adults, and more or less practical ones for the children. This year, I crocheted hats for all the children and many of the adults.

    We usually manage to send Christmas cards in the years that we have moved to a new address - which has been about every other year for the last fifteen.

    This year, our apartment is having a mold outbreak and so I never did decorate any surfaces, but we did play a lot of Christmas music on the record player (a variety from Bing Crosby to cathedral choirs) and we sing a lot together. It was enough.

    I regularly struggle with the compromises between family expectations and my religious leadings. This year worked out pretty well.

  11. Thank you all! I am really moved by these responses!

    Happy New Year!

  12. Great Piece, thanks for writing it. I'm a member of Westport Friends Meeting, Westport, MA, part of New England Yearly Meeting.

    I posted a piece on my blog ( about the holidays and Christmas too, as I personally struggle with some of the aspects of what Christmas has turned into.

    My meeting also does a fair amount around Christmas as it seems to nurture our collective sense of community. And Christmas is a very big deal within my family as well. But still I struggle with it myself, personally.

    I've added your site to my reader so will look forward to your future postings.

    On my site I have a section called "Back Bench Rumblings" which is slowly growing.. but it gives me a nice porcessing outlet for some of my frustrations that I feel from time to time coping with being a Friend!

    I'd be honored if you had a minute to check my site out and perhaps consider linking. I take care of several sites connected with my work and I'm just getting into blogging since early fall.

    Peace/Joy, Kevin Lee

  13. Thanks for posting this insightful commentary on Quakers and Christmas. I struggle like other Friends do about what to do on this Holiday.

    I was shocked to see that my meeting in Brooklyn actually puts up a Christmas tree and has Santa Claus visit the kids!


  14. Our Meeting in Frankfurt/ Germany has an 'advent celebration' which is an afternoon mfw followed by tea and spiced cookies.

    People tell stories from books for childrens of all ages; we remember absent friends/ the time a homeless couple joined us last time on advent; (we felt blessed and always refer to them as Mary and Joseph)/we listen to / make classical Music (esp kids play instruments). Like in a mfw the intuitively chosen music of one friend triggered sth important in another. (Gluck ballet Music).

    Our only 'ritual' is that we light candles and put them on a board. In silence, with a spoken thought of someone/ sth or a thanking.

  15. Here in winnipeg there is no official celebration sometimes one member of a family will celebrate while another does not. Many of us participate in buy nothing christmas carolling in the malls of anti-capitalist hymns or folks carry on as usual, some take the stat day off to volunteer to serve food/do dishes at Charitable soup kitchens along side unitarians, Coptics and other denominations who either formed before the 3rd century addition of the nativity story into biblical canon or who witness to celebrating everyday equally well. celebrate and give thanks today!

  16. Early morning contemplations as I get ready for our Christmas Celebration at Framingham Friends Meeting in Framingham, MA. I agreed to present a reading from the Bible, and asked for suggestions as I didn't have time to decide what to read, nor do I know the Bible very well. Gratefully, I've been give three selections to read about the story of the birth of Christ. I've decided to do a reading from Luke where the birth of Christ is presented from the persepctive of the what the community thought & felt. I come away perplexed as we do not discuss Christ much all year except at Christmas and Easter. Yet, we do pursue thoughts, questions, problems about how to live simply, with concern & action for justice and social well being for all near & far ~ I think that in doing so we are trying to carry out the work of Christ ~ and are trying to teach our children to do so. In our meeting we also talk about the lives and works of others who carry out such work. Personally, I compare those folks & their work to Christ, I even consider them wordly prophets ~ like bodhisattvas. From this perspective I do not fully consider myself Christian because that would exclude other faiths and persepctives on love and light. However, so as not to squirm, flinch, or struggle, I find the context, Quaker community, that I've wandered into a wonderful way to make meaning and to carry out good work and love in the companionship and care of others... to walk this middle road, maybe the way Christ did when he came to know who he was born to be...and what he had to do, where he lived.

    In Joy - for the day ~ Felice

  17. Found this blog fascinating. May I use it in our meeting's newsletter? - Brighton, England. Nov 2013.

    Harvey Gillman

    1. Sorry not to reply sooner, and it's probably too late now, but, yes! I am glad you found it interesting.

  18. Sitting here trying to prepare my heart and mind for Meeting with carols being played in the background, glitter, tinsel and cards in all around I see.
    On the one hand I am struck by a recent report that suggests Christmas Dinner is one of the few times people in families sit round a table and eat together (no Thanksgiving in the UK). Whatever draws us to together and helps us know each other in the things that Eternal seems worthy and not superfluous. It is also a time when people focus on the needs of others for example QHA.
    On the other hand it is a time of conspicuous overconsumption. A modern day potlatch Maybe unwanted, definitely unneeded and yet something I can sink into and enjoy.
    On the one hand spiritual and on the other so very mortal.
    Les Hereward Kingston and Wandsworth Area Meeting BYM