This afternoon I was surprised to see that there is a Christmas tree in the "coffee hour" area of the Brooklyn Quaker Meeting that I attend. Apparently Brooklyn Meeting even holds a "Christmas Tree Festival" for our young people where Santa Claus makes an appearance! I find this all vaguely disconcerting and un-Quakerly.
Historically, Quakers have set themselves apart by
not observing any of the traditional Christian holidays. Friends have asserted that all days are holy, and that no particular days should be singled out as more holy than others.
Then there is the crass commercialism and
consumerism associated with Christmas, which is hard to jive with
Quaker values of simplicity and plainness.
In Quaker homes, everyone has to make choices that best reflect their own sense of Quaker values during the holidays. I personally really like Christmas trees and decorations. And if I had children, I would probably put up a Christmas tree and have some form of gift exchange.
But I know other Quakers that don't observe Christmas at all, don't put up a tree, and don't exchange presents. And of course there are Jewish-Quakers, Sufi-Quakers, non-theistic Quakers, Gaian-Quakers, etc who may be off put or offended by central symbols of a Christian holiday within our Meeting.
Other people in the Meeting I talked to were also a bit unnerved by the presence of the Christmas tree. But as someone told me, "I'm willing to let it slide for the more Christian Quakers who feel that the tree is important to them and their children." That is my feeling as well. I'm willing to feel a bit icky during the "coffee hour" if the tree brings cheer to other members of my community.
If someone put up a nativity scene, that would be another discussion altogether.
(Check out this interesting post and discussion about Quakers and Christmas here.)
[IMAGE: "Christmas Tree" by Somerslea, used under Creative Commons sharealike licence.]
6 thoughts on “A Quaker Christmas Tree?”
funny, i read this not long after seeing a short piece from neil gaiman about talking his jewish parents into a christmas tree as a kid – http://tinyurl.com/7gc3py .
and i didn’t know about the non-observance of holidays in quakerism… i like the reasoning. (coming from the bible belt, i’m used to hearing holidays or particular traditions condemned on suspicion of some vague connection to paganism. the idea that joy and holiness should be all the time is much cooler.)
I get a bit annoyed this time of year with all the Quakers observing Christmas. Christian Friends should be particularly annoyed since the defining element of our understanding of Christianity is that there’s all of this non-essential overlay of ritual and pagan practices cluttering up much of mainstream Christianity (Quakers made that observation before the Bible Belt was established!). It makes no sense to insist upon unprogrammed worship and then put up a Christmas tree.
I don’t mind Christmas trees, per se (I have one!), I just think to do it as a group represents a kind of muddled thinking that makes it harder for us to understand why we do the things we do. From a Quaker perspective Christmas is a secular holiday that shouldn’t be observed in a religious context: re, the last comment, it makes as much sense for a Jew to celebrate Christmas as it does a Friend. If we were more consistent with this more-or-less symbolic stuff, it would be easier to teach Quakerism. If we took the time in our meetings to explain why Christmas isn’t consistent with Quaker understandings then it would be easier when someone starts grumbling in business meeting that we should vote on something. I like meeting Christmas parties but wish we’d at least be more conscious about them. Once I asked a meeting to call it the “Day the World Calls Christmas” Party. We could use the tensions between Quakerly stoicism and mainstream Christian nostalgia as a teaching moment.
Whenever I post this kind of stuff on my blog I get comments how I’m being too Scroogey. But you know what? I think tensions between Jewish Friends and Pagan Friends, etc., would be a lot less if Christian Friends didn’t let the Christian nostalgia slide all the time. Oh well…
thanks Martin. I think one of the things that I love most about Quakers is that we don’t take for granted any of our practices, but we continually examine, question and critique them in light of continuing revelation and how they jibe with our Quaker values.
Christmas should be no different.
Looking forward to reading your rant on your blog!
I remember this from back when I attended there, years ago.
Didn’t bother me, personally. But I’m more for positive things than criticizing things, and tend to see the good and joyful, I guess. Trees are nice. Especially in the dreary winter.
And I had looked around a bit on the internet a few years ago, and it isn’t just Brooklyn; there are as many ways to mark (or not) the late December days as there are Quakers.
And for the ones talking about the Pagan and Jewish Quakers, they should be more open to the diversity that the tree represents, instead of wanting a dogmatic approach to December. And indeed — if we’re all about the plain and simple way of living, why ARE we defining people as Quaker-ands? We can’t say that trees are over the top and complex when we have to sub-define other Quakers.
The Christmas tree represents many things, but I don’t think that diversity is one of those things. It’s a pagan custom that was incorporated into the secular observance of the holiday, now mostly associated with the piles of gifts that go under it.
A Christmas tree IMO does not engender the kind of ecumenical, welcoming spirit that characterize the Society of Friends.
If we must choose some holiday icons to display in our meetinghouses, the ones for Kwanzaa frankly are more appropriate since they represent Unity, Collective Work, and Faith, among others.
I almost hit the roof when I first heard about Brooklyn’s Christmas Tree festival at meeting for worship with attention to business. I was about to rise to speak out against it, but was settled again by the person I was sitting with. She communicated to me very quickly that it was a deep-seated tradition in the community and that it would be better to stay low and let the community go where it wanted to on this one.
I remain conflicted about it. On the one hand, Brooklyn’s community is precious to me. On the other, the tree goes against what I have learned in my studies of Quakerism.
Then there’s my own human-ness. I have always loved the lights and the decorations of Christmastime. And add to that the confusing reality that in Valley Meeting (Haverford Quarter) in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting where I grew up, the First Day school put on a Christmas pageant every year. I remember being envious of the girl who got to play Mary when I had to put on a beard and be a stupid old shepherd. (A diva in the making even then!)This would have been in the late 1940s.
I have no answers, but I’m sure sitting with a lot of questions and confusions.