So sang the children in the nativity play I enjoyed this week, having been drafted to accompany the renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘A Merry Christmas’ on the keyboard to book-end the performance. Not having children of my own, witnessing a school nativity from the outside (as opposed to being a tea-towel wearing shepherd the last time I had anything to do with one…) was a delightful first. The children sang, shouted their lines and gesticulated with gusto, all in splendid costumes that rivalled the attire of anyone on a big-time stage. A production worth stopping and looking in for sure (assuming you were a parent or had something to do with the school of course).
The line that stuck out brought to mind the dozens of times this year I’ve noticed walkers and visitors to Airton stop by at the Meeting House, accepting the implicit welcome of the open gate, and step inside our remarkable building. Intentionally simple both inside and out, this humble pile of stones nonetheless seems to appeal, offering perhaps a moment of rest on a long walk, a fascinating peak into history or just shelter from the rain. It’s meant much more to thousands of people over the centuries of course and to us who know it now, as a living Meeting House, a cultural venue, polling station (all too often of late…) and community facility.
But without the people, familiar or strangers, it is just a pile of stones – the contents page of a lost history perhaps. It’s those who built, expanded, maintained and cared for these buildings whose story they tell; and principally, that story revolves around the obvious question of ‘why?’
The answer to that question lies in the 17th century beginnings of Quakerism: a coalition of dissenting voices gathered from various parts of this country, particularly here in the north-west of Yorkshire and northern Lancashire, many of whose lives are documented in some of the older books on our library’s shelves. Their spiritual journey had brought them to a point where they no longer wished to be bystanders in faith, receiving titbits of wisdom from priests and people in authority, being told what to find significant and finding that that included little about their daily lives. For these dissidents, it was no longer enough to attend services, perform rituals, take instruction from above. They believed they could be authors of their own journey, both as individuals and as communities. So they gathered in simple, out of the way places, waited on the wisdom they found within themselves, shared their thoughts with each other and grew in confidence and faith.
Today’s Quakers might individually follow a variety of religious faiths and even none but that story of seeking one’s own wisdom and listening to the wisdom of those around you regardless of status or personal history unites them with the forbears who occupied this meeting place and the hundreds of similar places that quickly sprang up around the country in the latter half of the 1600s.
Taking the time to engage both with the world and one’s own thoughts in company is no indulgence. It’s no less than an opportunity to stop and look inside. And when that opportunity is taken, sometimes what is found inside is precious – no less than one’s own contribution to the peace and wholeness of the world. Not just something to be passed by, whether in the busy-ness of Christmas or at any time.
Have a peaceful Christmas and come to visit us in the new year!
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.