Christmas – Every Day or Never?

No doubt an old-fashioned Quaker Christmas was a cozy time according to some traditions or records or family memories, but in the beginnings of our history the day was a pretty grim occasion. Like other dissenters, Friends felt no religious unity with a festival whose very name implied a "popish mass." It was part of the superstition of an apostate Christendom, from which all seekers for the primitive Christianity should abstain. So, with the peculiar Quaker obstinacy which often outstripped the dissent of other non-conformists, they demonstrated their protest by doing business as usual on the holiday.

Nearly all the references I can find in Quaker records to "Tenth Month 25th" (as it was then) are to arrest and imprisonment, or to suffering overt violence for working or for keeping open shop on that day.

From Aberdeen to Cornwall, from Denbighshire to Kent, instances can be cited. "The magistrates of the city caused the officers to pull down and take away the signs which were hanging before Friends’ shops." "Some of the troopers of my Lord of Oxford’s regiment . . . forced them to shut their shops." "For working upon the day called Xmas day . . . put in the stocks." "Twenty yards of linen cloth taken for setting open her shop windows on that day called Xmas day." "For opening of her mother’s shop windows on the day aforesaid . . . put in a cage." At Norwich in 1676 a special committee was appointed to take an account of the sufferings of such Friends as opened their shops on the day.

A second aspect of the early Quakers’ feeling about Christmas was their objection to its frivolity and license. An unpublished paper of George Fox in 1656 (mostly in cipher, or shorthand) is extant, addressed to

"You that be observing the day you call Christmas, with your fullness, with your cards, with your playgames, with your disguisings, with your feastings and abundance of idleness and destroying of the
creatures. . . ."

More than twenty-five years later George Fox’s step-son-in-law, William Meade, expressed a concern to the Meeting for Sufferings about "the unruliness upon the day called Christmas" and apparently offered to go himself and speak to the Lord Mayor of London about it. There were printed protests by various Friends against the luxury and frivolity of the day. Just today as I write this letter there has come straight from England Violet Holdsworth’s attractive new brochure, The Shoemaker of Dover, and I find that Luke Howard, whose acta sanctorum our Quaker hagiographer here recounts, was the author or joint author of a long epistle condemning both the practices of Christmas observers and the attempt to coerce non-observers.

Sometimes Friends themselves were guilty. It was no other than the well-known George Keith who informed his Monthly Meeting of "the public offense given by William Steven, weaver, and Elspeth Spring, his wife, in going upon the 25th of the tenth month [1672] to his wife’s mother’s and remaining idle all that day and keeping it in feasting there."

Though the culprits at first justified their conduct, the minutes recorded next month that they acknowledged their guilt to the Friends deputed to go to Tillakerie and "speak with these persons anent their scandal." The marginal entry, still avoiding the hated word, runs: "Anent two professing Truth countenancing the debauched time called Yule."

Since those early days Friends’ attitude to Christmas has probably changed a good deal. The old puritan objection survived most conspicuously and longest in the Quaker boarding schools, which deliberately set their winter holidays (if any) so as to avoid including Christmas. Bootham School in York first made Christmas a holiday in 1857, and Ackworth School a few years later. If I am not mistaken, the boarding schools at Westtown and at Barnesville did not recognize Christmas until the twentieth century.

There are valid objections to the present day observance, especially to its commercial exploitation, but they are not the old charges of popish superstition or profane excesses.

One feels that, while it may be well to think Christmas thoughts at least once a year, there would be less hypocrisy if one made every day a day of remembrance of the Prince of Peace. The most recent and not most inaccurate of the many popular articles about Quakerism—"They Call Themselves Friends—and Mean It!"—shocked me by its boxed headline, "The Quakers recognize no Sabbath . . . ," until I read in the text a more satisfactory explanation: "They reason that God can speak more clearly in silence . . . they feel that such speech can come on any day of the week and that one day is no holier than others."

And so with Christmas. By the good Friendly principle of leveling the secular up to the sacred we ought to make every day a Christmas day, whether we concur in a formal one-day holiday or not. Yet there is danger that what we assign to no special time is as good as never done. For example, what was I to reply to the friendly High Churchman who one day suddenly said to me: "I know you Friends celebrate the Lord’s Supper inwardly and not with bread and wine, but it never occurred to me to inquire just when and how often do you keep it?" Was I to say: "Oh, any time, that is, it may be, never"? Perhaps the most honest answer would be merely "Now and then."
"Now and Then" was a pen name used by Henry Joel Cadbury for 266 columns that appeared in Friends Journal and its predecessor, Friends Intelligencer, between 1941 and 1973. This is the unrevised text of one that appeared in 1943. It is being reprinted at the request of Alice Brown; see "Cadbury still speaks to us today" in the November Forum.