The members of Richland Meeting settled another year’s Christmas tree problem at meeting for business on a Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t as big of a “whoop-de-do” as some of us expected it to be. When the smoke cleared, we decided to have a decorated tree in the schoolhouse again, but not in the meetinghouse. In almost everyone’s opinion, that would really be un-Quakerly.
In 2010, we’d had more of a debate. There are legitimate arguments against having a Christmas tree. First, Quaker tradition doesn’t recognize Christmas; every day is considered the Lord’s day, and none is more special than another. Second, simplicity is an important Quaker testimony. There are no adornments in the meetinghouse. Dressing up a person or a place promotes pride, and is contrary to the testimony of equality. Third, Christmas trees began as a symbol in a pagan religion, and Friends are, for the most part, Christians. Fourth, another testimony is stewardship of resources: is cutting down a tree in tune with that? Everyone scoffed at the mere suggestion of a plastic tree.
The schoolhouse is used by a lot of non-Quakers, though. Local churches join us to serve meals to needy people twice a month through our Food for Friends program. While it wouldn’t bother us too much, guests might think there’s something odd about Quakers if there were no holiday decorations at all. A Christmas tree would probably make them feel happier, and the kids had already begun to put up strings of white lights and homemade snowflakes. Besides, the building is 150 years old and the roof recently leaked; a tree hides a messy corner that is being repaired.
We couldn’t come to any conclusion to what Friends call a “sense of meeting.” A Quaker meeting is not a democracy. Nothing can be done without a general consensus. If one person has a strong enough opinion and will not yield (or “stand aside” as we call it), we cannot act. And some of the more traditionalist Friends held their ground. We tabled the idea of a Christmas tree for another year.
We began talking about the issue again because we received an offer for a free Christmas tree. It was discussed at length by Inter Communications and Outreach Committee (ICOC), and a consensus was reached to put a proposal to meeting for business. I was a little nervous. I like peace and quiet and didn’t look forward to the renewed debate. There was a flurry of emails among committee members about how to present the proposal in a way that would cause the least stir.
I got to meeting for worship a little early that morning. I noticed that, in preparation for our candlelight Peace and Light celebration the next week, someone had put candles and sprigs of evergreen on the meetinghouse window sills. “Hmm…” I said to myself. “Decorating for Christmas, are we?” That was more adornment than I’d seen since somebody brought in flowers in the spring. It made me wonder about the Christmas tree proposal. Most of us were raised in other denominations and grew up sitting in crowded churches at Christmas, with blaring organs, big choirs and colorful, flamboyant celebrations. Nostalgia kicks in sometimes.
Everybody knew it was coming, so the Christmas tree proposal was held for the end of the meeting for business. The discussion was pretty much the same as the year before. A few lingering grudges surfaced, but most people either didn’t care (I was one of them), or wanted the tree. Several of those in opposition gave their opinion and then stood aside. So we decided to have a Christmas tree in the schoolhouse, but we didn’t make any promises for the future. Whether or not to have a Christmas tree is a prime example of the type of proposal that must be brought to meeting for business every year.
Myriad traditions fall under the umbrella of Quakerism, and Friends respect all beliefs and practices. Because each Friend is a unique individual with freedom of thought and conscience, it can only be through cooperation, compromise and joint effort that such a diverse group can ultimately stand together in the Light.