Christmas

Christmas every day

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This year’s Christmas tree (a Cob nut) and natural decorations from the garden…

Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’.  My lot being Quakers.  Well, yes and no…

It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days.  Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England.  One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions.  In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights.  When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.

So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well.  But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year.  Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.

So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)?  I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this.  Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things.  It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.

I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message.  It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born.  It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time.  It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures.  The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background.  Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.

Look in, look out!

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Airton in the snow

In the spectacular landscapes of the Dales, the eye is constantly being drawn in every direction, pulled between the far distance and the nearest objects, fascinated by exquisite details and overwhelmed by the sweeping grandeur.  A covering of snow brings new clarity, revealing contours previously veiled under the dun colourings of grass and stone, so that it looks like the earth is newly born; and for a short, silent moment of amazement, all the rough edges and muddle of the world is forgotten.

The time seems ripe for such a moment.  After the noise of 2017, peppered with fearful and appalling events, as well as the compassion shown by the ordinary people who responded to them, we need to catch our breath.  Christmas always feels to me like a collective pause (at least once all the shopping, singing, decorating and cooking are over!) when the noise stops all too briefly and we each – consciously or unconsciously – look around to see what our world looks like today.

It can also become rather exclusive: a time when families gather, yes; but when those on their own become even more isolated.  This year, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has collated evidence from a range of organisations researching the prevalence and effects of loneliness in our society.  The results are worrying: people in all age groups and in many different situations experience loneliness, impacting on health, happiness and productivity and placing a burden on public services.  Loneliness can be physically painful – a continual knot in the stomach – like the faint echo of a bereavement for something that was never there.  For those on their own Christmas often doesn’t help.

But in the space that Christmas can at its best create, there is opportunity to reach out and include isolated people.  The family ‘unit’ beloved of back-to-basics politicians really is a modern invention, on its own a fragile thing; put it in a community, make it porous and outward facing and it becomes resilient, nurturing not only itself but the community at large, and receiving nurture from that community.  There are 52 weeks and 365 days in the year; having people from outside the immediate family round the table at Christmas can contribute to making that one meal the special celebration of community that Christmas has always been.

Can, but not ought.  It’s also right that each of us decides how to celebrate and whether we want to be together or to enjoy this time as a pause in our everyday proceeds and simply stand and take in the view.  Look closely enough and we might see something remarkable.  Listen and we might just hear the faint cries of a small baby inviting us to love for love’s sake and in that invitation, lead us simply to the surest hope available to our broken and confused world.

A joyous Christmas to all!