the friend online
22 December 2006

With all the seasonal fever in the newspapers about the erosion of Christmas by politically correct forces, we should not forget that it was Quakers who led the campaign against Christmas from the very beginnings of the Society. We are very grateful to Joanna Clark and Josef Keith for looking through the archives of the Society's Library for the earliest Quaker views on Christmas.

Friends were jailed for working and opening their shops on Christmas day itself. Friends eschewed all church feasts as being created by the church – and anything ending with a 'mass' was of course rejected.

Ever reluctant to mince his words, George Fox published his challenging tract in 1677, The Hypocrites Fast and Feast, not God's Holy Day', writing: 'Where did ever Christ or his Apostles command any Believers, or Christians to observe Holy-dayes, or Feast-dayes; and let us see where it is written in the Scriptures of the New Testament, in the four Evangelists, or the Epistles or the Revelations? That ever Christ or his Apostles gave the Christians any such Command, that they should observe the time called Christmas, or a day for Christ's Birth?'

In 1649, Fox was already railing against mainstream celebrations: 'I was sorely exercised in... warning such as kept public houses for entertainment that they should not let people have more to drink than would do them good, and testifying against their wakes and feasts, their May-games, sports, plays and shows, which trained people up to vanity and looseness, and led them from the fear of God, and the days they had set forth for holy-days were usually the times wherein they most dishonoured God by these things... I was moved to also to cry against all sorts of music, and against the mountebanks playing tricks upon their stages, for they burdened the pure life, and stirred up people's minds to vanity.'

However, Fox didn't just spend his time haranguing revellers or at home scrawling cutting tracts. Modern Friends will find echoes in their modern work at homeless shelters. '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'.

The 1691 Epistle from Yearly Meeting included stern advice on public celebrations: 'No fellowship may be held or had with the unfruitful works of darkness, nor therein with the workers thereof. Avoid unnecessary frequenting of taverns, alehouses, all looseness, excess, and unprofitable and idle discourses, mispending the precious time and substance to the dishonour of truth...'

And in the 1759 epistle there was no softening. 'Treat with' is an archaic version of the more modern Quaker usage 'to elder'.

'There being some disagreement in the conduct of friends, respecting the illumination of the windows of their houses, upon what are called rejoicing nights... it is desired and advised by this meeting that wherever a defection of this kind appears, some friends treat with the unfaithful therein...'

Both these extract were reproduced in the 1833 edition of the Book of Discipline, showing that Friends were still standing apart from the festival that would soon enjoy even more bauble-isation under the reign of Victoria and Albert. 'We have thought it right, as a society, to abstain from observance of days set apart, without divine direction, for the religious commemoration of particular events... The public celebration of important events in the church, on certain specific days, arose and increased as the simplicity of Christianity declined...'

It is interesting to see how the modern interpretation of the testimony to times and seasons in Quaker faith & practice 27.39 and 27.42 put a positive start on what was, on this evidence, pretty strong condemnation of Christmas. We may be in the era of tolerance, but grumpy Friends will find plenty of Quaker tradition to back them up should they choose to abstain from the feasting.

However you choose to celebrate the next two weeks, all of us at The Friend hope that you have a very peaceful and happy time.

Clare Marie White


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News round-up

Clare Marie White
Crocodiles & cobras for the Christmas holidays
Rowena Loverance
An orthodox Christian perspective on Christmas
Ian J Prior
Thoughts from the river
Barbara Mitchels
Welcome to Quaker Writers, the new Friend adventure

Quakers & Buddhists together
Clare Griffin
The Grimké sisters
John Lampen
Doing December Differently
Judy Kirby
Be ye doers of the word…
David Boulton
Joshua Whiting: citizen, countryman & Quaker
David Firth
Christmas Spirit
Sally Aspden
Philani’s work
Fiona Burtt

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