By Sharon Hoover
In the December 15, 1983, issue of Friends Journal , Quaker scholar Henry J. Cadbury reported that for early Friends, the very name of Christmas implied a “popish mass,” part of an authoritarian, superstitious “apostate Christendom, from which all seekers for the primitive Christianity should abstain. So, with the peculiar Quaker obstinacy . . . they [Quakers] demonstrated their protest by doing business as usual on the holiday.” Cadbury found references in Friends’ writings for “Tenth Month 25th (as it was then) that recorded arrests and imprisonments for working or for keeping open shop on that day” wherever Quakers were living in England. The magistrates and troupers kept busy pulling down Quaker sales notices, shutting their shops, and putting the recalcitrants into the stocks or into jail.
Quakers not only objected to the religious trappings of Christmas but to the playfulness, even license (masked—and sometimes debauched—balls, drunkenness, etc.) of the celebrations that surrounded it. Cadbury cites an unpublished paper of George Fox in 1656, addressed to: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 the abundance of idleness and destroying of the creatures. . . .
William Meade, George Fox’s son-in-law, many years later, offered to his meeting that he would go talk to the “Lord Mayor of London about the “unruliness upon the day called Christmas.”
Friends boarding schools, reports Cadbury, kept the strictest rules about Christmas the longest. It wasn’t until 1857 that Bootham School in York, England, allowed Christmas Day to be a holiday and Westtown and Barnesville in the United States did not recognize Christmas until the 20th century.
By 1986, however, Friends Journal devoted a complete page to “A Friendly Children’s Advent Calendar,” suggesting an activity for every day in December, such as making decorations, giving a gift to a needy child or to a food bank, listening to holiday stories or to the appropriate Bible verses, baking cookies, learning Advent songs, writing letters, acknowledging Hanukkah, thanking gift-givers, helping to clean up the decorations (December 30) and planning “some helpful things you will do for others in 1987” (December 31).
Importantly, Henry Cadbury points out that the basic idea among Quakers is the “Friendly principle of leveling the secular up to the sacred.” In other words, every day, life and hope are born anew—babies are born every day in stables and in war torn countries. Every day is also a day of suffering and a day of resurrection. Every day is a holy-day. I like to think of each day as a meeting for worship with a concern for living.
Like many readers, however, I grew up in a traditional Protestant denomination. I lived in a small rural town, devoted, for the most part, to its children and community. I also was blessed to grow up in a family that prized words—spoken and on the page— and music.
All summer, I saved small change that came my way in a rabbit-fur mitten hidden in the back of my bottom dresser drawer so I could buy ingredients and supplies to make gifts for Christmas. How many handkerchiefs with crocheted edgings did my teachers, grandmothers, aunts, and female neighbors receive? How many initials did I embroider onto handkerchiefs for male relatives and friends? How many rag dolls did I make for younger siblings? How many cookies did my grade-school youth group make? How many baskets did my older youth group deliver? How many beautiful songs did we lustily sing in churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals—many for which I still recall every word?
We went to the county seat to shop each year once in December. We decorated an inexpensive tree. We went to Gramma’s for chicken dinner on Christmas Sunday and had the other side of the family over for Christmas turkey dinner. We received two gifts: a “toy” from Santa Claus and a pair of new, soft flannel pajamas Mother made that we prized (no bedroom heat, and she could choose soft, fuzzy flannel well). Sometimes we also received handknit mittens or a hand-built toy box, or—on one memorable Christmas—I received a beautiful hand-smocked and embroidered blouse.
But let me tell you the memories I treasure most vividly. I recall the dark, cold nights of December, the sky of blazing stars, a still night flooded with moonlight casting shadows through the elm, walnut and maple trees that filled our village, the softly thrumming music in my body when I walked home from church or school (about a mile). I remember the hush as we solemnly lit the homemade Advent candles, one each Sunday evening until the one on Christmas Eve. And I remember the gentleness of the girls and boys, men and women, and the animals in the barn, all of which seemed for a few weeks to embrace me with the love that I prayed—then and now—that all the persons and animals in the whole world could know, wherever they were, in whatever climate, in whatever situation. The love that I knew filled the universe. I never understood that feeling— nor needed to—but it’s more difficult to feel today in the mass of street lights in which I live and since my own children and grandchildren have moved more closely to the early Quaker model of Christmas.
If you see me singing quietly, lighting a single candle in the darkness (what darkness I can manage among the street lights), don’t imagine I’m homesick for “the good old days.” However, do realize that I miss the sheep moving softly in the pasture with only the light of the stars and moon to outline them. That I miss the twinkle of colored Christmas lights as I turn toward the house. That I miss what I sometimes imagined to be an angel’s song. Although even now, I occasionally think that I hear an angel singing.
Sharon Hoover is a member of Alfred (N.Y.) Meeting and an attender at Lewes (Del.) Worship Group.