When I worked in the busy office of a large church and had the church calendar to hand, it was very difficult to ignore the Christian cycle of holy days. In fact, my whole job was to create things based on those days. I often tried to observe these holy days as an incentive to get ‘closer’ to God as we were advised to do by our religious leaders. I went through the devotionals and prayed the prayers. However, I could never reconcile in my mind why Lent and Easter followed so closely after the supposed birth of Christ in December. No sooner had the joy of birth been celebrated than we had to clothe ourselves with ashes and mourn Jesus’ death. Surely someone made a boo boo on the church calendar?
The more I learned of these arbitrary dates on the calendar and of the Church’s attempt to co-opt pagan dates for Christian purposes, the more I realized that we weren’t truly following anything but what a few priests decided at a council way back in the annals of time. Then one could argue about which church actually decided this and who is the ‘true’ church, blah, blah, blah. This was a theological rabbit hole down which I’d gone before and did not want to go down again.
George Fox and his Quakers traditionally ignored church holidays, which was quite a radical position considering that the entire community from which they sprang was steeped in religious practice and Church of England tradition. Many were arrested for keeping shops open on Christmas Day. So what problem did the Quakers see in Christmas and Easter? George Fox writes in his journal:
I returned by Kingston to London, whither I felt my spirit drawn ; having heard that many Friends were taken before the magistrates, and divers imprisoned in London and other towns, for opening their shop windows on holidays and fast-days (as they were called), and for bearing testimony against all such observations of days. Which Friends could not but do, knowing that the true Christians did not observe the Jews’ holidays in the apostles’ times, neither could we observe the Heathens’ and Papists’ holidays (so called) which have been set up amongst those called Christians, since the apostles’ days. For we were redeemed out of days by Christ Jesus and brought into the day which hath sprung from on high, and are come into Him who is Lord of the Jewish Sabbath, and the substance of the Jews’ signs. (page 669, London Yearly Meeting edition, 1975)
Observing any religious holidays were not an option for Quakers in 1673 according to Fox. Every day was supposed to be a holy day, not just an arbitrary few on the calendar. Today, I’m sure there are many Quakers who put up Christmas trees and celebrate with their family and friends because they have non-Quaker children and grandchildren who love the holiday.
So should Quakers observe religious holidays now? Do we follow the religious convictions of those of a different time and era or do we follow our conscience informed by the Light? The answer is obvious isn’t it? The basic premise of The Religious Society of Friends is that the Spirit moves us, as a body, in ever evolving convictions. The Light, the same then, now, and forever, always enlightens those who listen and what was good for Quakers in 1673 may not be good for Quakers in 2015.
Personally, I did not find Lent and Easter helpful in bringing me any closer to the Christian God. Contemplating Jesus’ death is supposed to make the Christian feel guilt keenly; guilt that sinful mankind forced God to send Jesus to die that we might have eternal life. This guilt is then supposed to induce more devotion and commitment to the Christian life as defined by that religion. But this just seems emotionally manipulative to me and is one of the chief problems I have with Christian atonement theory. But that’s another post.
There are some Quakers who find all of the Christian symbolism and continued adherence to church cycles very un-Quakerly in that we are clinging too much to one particular religious tradition. Why not, they may ask, observe the Muslim holy day of Ramadan or the Spring Hindu festival of Holi? Or to be even more radical, why celebrate anything religious at all? The beauty of Quakers is that we are left to make our own decisions as spiritual adults and not be told what to do like recalcitrant children.
So, given the history of Quakers then and now, What canst thou say?