While Friends globally hold differing views on the holiday season, early Quakers did not mark Christmas as a day different from any other. In his book, Christmastime in Pennsylvania, Don Yoder argues that while Quakers were against Christmas celebrations, some Quakers in mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania “succumbed to a modified attention to Christmas at least as a family festival.”[1] For a humorous look at what early Quakers did on Christmas, below is a post by Rob Pierson, originally posted in Quaker Life in December 2011, copied here with the author’s permission.

For a modern discussion on Quaker and the holiday season, QuakerSpeak, a member-supported project of Friends Publishing, recently published interviews of Friends and historians discussing their views on Christmas, titled “Do Quakers Celebrate Christmas?”

[1] Don Yoder, “The Folk-Cultural Background,” in Christmas in Pennsylvania, ed. Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder (Lanham, MD: Globe Pequot, 1999), 9.

Early Quaker Top 10 Ways to Celebrate (or Not) “the Day Called Christmas”

By Rob Pierson

Until they got mushy and liberal in the last century, Quakers didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. In fact, celebrating “the day called Christmas” was a good way for a Friend to get him/herself dragged (figuratively) before the monthly meeting and asked for an explanation of such worldly behavior.1

As a member of Mushy Yearly Meeting firmly committed to the Testimony of Holiday Ambiguity, I’ve urged the Committee for Worrying about Change to consider how we might recapture the zeal with which early Friends did not celebrate the holidays. After painstaking research, combing through Friends’ journals and late-night talk shows, the committee has gathered the following “Top 10” surefire ways to recover the true meaning of Christmas — oops! the day called Christmas — in the spirit of early Friends.

  1. Slaughter Hogs. This is how Alice Allen’s Quaker ancestor recorded the day in 1882: “Dec. 25. We killed three hogs. Uncle Austin Gray and Tom Brady helped us. We went to meeting in the evening. Weather pleasant with some snow.”2 New Years Day was equally festive: “Pa and I hauled two loads of wood in the forenoon. Afternoon I fixed my boots. It was snowing all day.” Unfortunately, fewer Friends today slaughter hogs, mend our sneakers or haul our crude oil. So, perhaps, we could spend December 25 grilling some turkey burgers and paying utility bills?
  2. Sell Things. That’s right. ‘Tis the season for blatant capitalist enterprise! If there’s one thing early Friends agreed upon, it was that there’s no better day than December 25 to man the cash registers in defiance of both law and custom. Since Friends saw Christmas as an un-Christian outward ritual foisted upon them, it followed that only godless heathens would close up shop. Celebrate your Quaker heritage by demanding that the local mall reopen bright and early Christmas morning or by marketing your seasonal George Fox Apps and ring tones for download.
  3. Repair Windows. No, not the computer operating system (since it’s still not clear what operating system was preferred by early Friends), but do recall that many Quakers spent December 25 sweeping up broken glass. As George Fox noted in 1689: “We have greatly suffered both imprisonments, and the spoiling of our goods, because we could not observe your holy-days, as you call them, and for opening our shops we have been much assaulted by the rude multitudes.”3 So, if those mass mailing for George Fox Apps and ring-tones you sent on December 25 convince some neighbors that you are an anti-social misfit, you are in good company. Count your blessings for your physical safety but check your Windows™ for any malware.
  4. Accumulate Debt. Yes, sad to say, early Quakers racked up serious holiday charges and fines — legal fines. In some cases, penalties for ignoring Christmas ranked second only to charges for refusing to take up arms. For example, Joseph Borden was fined nearly 7,000 pounds sterling for not bearing arms when riding patrol but another 2,000 pounds for “opening his Shop on Holy-days.”4 Today’s Quakers fear MasterCard™ more than magistrates, but it is important to follow George Fox’s example and pay money where it is due. “When the time called Christmas came,” he writes, “I looked out poor widows from house to house, and gave them some money.”5
  5. Employ Seasonal Workers. Nothing says Quaker Christmas quite like hiring some unemployed seasonal laborers and supervising a major building project. Quakers Herbert Griffith and William Fortescue discovered this strategy in 17th century Barbados:… on the 25th of December, the Day called Christmas-day, Herbert Griffith and William Fortescue, standing to inspect some Workmen employed about the Wall of a Burying-place, were observed by William Goodall, a Justice of the Peace, as he passed by; who in much Anger called to those who were with him, saying, Is there no Constable here? Lay hold on these Rogues …6One suspects the workers were grateful for the Quakers’ Christmas Day graveyard shift, but this strategy propelled Herbert and William straight to Top 10 item number six.
  6. Get Arrested. The Quaker “rogues,” Herbert and William, were arrested, knocked to the ground and dragged away. Constables locked them in stocks, then sent them to jail for four weeks before releasing and promptly re-imprisoning them for six more weeks. A jury trial set Herbert and William free just long enough for the judge to set aside the verdict and throw them back in jail. A second trial, in October, found both men innocent again — since neither had tools in hand at the time of the heinous Christmas wall-building. One suspects that few of us are going to jail for committing Christmas this season. But perhaps there are still some rogue Quakers to be found, laborers to be employed and walls that need building up or tearing down around the world this holiday season.
  7. Avoid Frolic. A young John Woolman complained of being “much troubled” by the behavior of his fellow Americans: “I observed many People from the Country, and Dwellers in Town, who, resorting to Public-Houses, spent their Time in drinking and vain Sports.”7 Luckily Woolman missed the advent of happy hour, ESPN and big-screen TVs. Still, when he visited Blackwater, Virginia, in December 1817, he seemed to find most Friends out at the mall: “there are but few Friends; and it being the time called Christmas, many were preparing for their intended frolick.”8
  8. Go Green. Yes, eco-green. Although there are few signs left of the early Quaker “Reduce, Reuse and Repent” program, Friendly eco-warriors waged a major green campaign against the rampant consumerism of colonial America. Writing in 1656 to those well-known profligate party-animals, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, two Quaker women asked: W hat is the ground, and cause, and reason, that about the time called Christmas, there is so much provided of the creatures, that which people calls good Chear, which abundance is provided against that time, and wasted upon the lust, and destroyed, and this is in most places through the Nation …? 9 Today, good cheer comes pre-packaged, vacuum-packed, year-round, online, in the super-economy size. Please dispose of properly.
  9. Sit and Wait. Okay, this one was predictable. Go to meeting, or hold a meeting where you are. Although both Quakers and Christmas have changed over the years, nine out of 10 Quakers can still find consensus that there’s nothing better than a group of Friends gathered together and breaking spontaneously into silence. Just don’t try taking this door-to-door like caroling.
  10. Celebrate Christ. Well, I know this is pretty radical and controversial, but remember, every day, in Quaker terms, is Christmas Day. It’s not that there’s no Christmas; there’s just a whole lot more of it than most people expect. As one Quaker puts it:T he closer one lives to Christ, who makes all things new, the less proper it seems to treat 364 days as less special than one … Today Christ is born in me, in each of his people and in us all together. The star never leaves the sky, the song of the angels is never stilled.10So, Friends, I hope you enjoy your day in the company of early Friends. The angels are never stilled. Glory to God! Peace on earth! Good news of great joy for all the people! And on behalf of Mushy Quakers everywhere, I wish you the day called Christmas of your choice.
    1. Mark Dixon, “Re: Quaker Christmas Traditions,” 9 Nov 1998, Quaker-Roots-L Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ QUAKER-ROOTS/1998-11/0910646229.
    2. Alice Allen, “Re: Quaker Christmas Traditions,” 11 Nov 1998, Quaker-Roots-L Archives, http://archiver.roots web.ancestry.com/th/read/QUAKER-ROOTS/1998-11/0910848525.
    3. George Fox, “Inward AndSpiritual Warfare, And The False Pretence Of It. And A Distinction Between The True Liberty And The False,” 1689, in Works of George Fox, Vol. 6, 1831.
    4. Joseph Besse, Collection of the sufferings of the people called Quakers, Vol. 2, 1753, Ch. VI. Barbadoes.
    5. George Fox, Journal Or Historical Account Of The Life,Travels, Sufferings, Of George Fox, 1694.
    6. Joseph Besse, Collection of the sufferings of the people called Quakers, Vol. 2, 1753, Ch. VI. Barbadoes.
    7. John Woolman, Journal of John Woolman, 1774.
    8. William Williams, Journal of the life, travels, and gospellabours of William Williams, 1828.
    9. Margaret Killam and Barbara Patison, Warning from the Lord to the teachers and people of Plymouth, 1656.
    10. Paul Thompson, “Friends’ Christmas Experiences Part 1,” http://www.quakerinfo.com/quakxmls1.shtml, includes paraphrase of Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas.”
Categories: Meetinghouse

1 Comment

Doug Smith · December 11, 2020 at 4:23 pm

Enjoyed the Quaker Christmas Blog. Especially the comment about the Plimouth Pilgrims. They were not Puritans and showed it. How quickly the Plimouth settlers were dumped in with the Puritans of 1630.

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