Quakers, Easter & Christmas

KAYLIN (no location posted) ASKS:

Why don’t Quakers celebrate religious holidays?


For a couple centuries, avoidance of common Christian observances such as Easter and Christmas was as distinctive a tenet among the Quakers (a.k.a. Friends) as their famed pacifism. There are exceptions but that’s largely in the past, especially with Christmas. The Friends General Conference explains that “traditionally Quakers did not celebrate any religious holidays because all days are ‘holy days’,” but today “most Quakers celebrate a low-key Christmas, and sometimes Easter, as part of our larger culture.”  Quakers will typically downplay festivities and reject the commercial push toward materialism in gift-giving, in line with the faith’s principle of simple living. Local Friends meetings differ regarding whether and what holiday worship services to hold, just as Quaker branches are divided in theology between liberals and evangelicals. There’s lively discussion on the Internet about Quaker families’ seasonal practices at home.

George Fox (1624 – 1691), an Englishman oft imprisoned for his faith, is commonly regarded as Quakerism’s founder. He was influenced by the Puritan movement, which opposed Christmas celebrations and outlawed them when it ruled Massachusetts colony during Fox’s lifetime. Fox indicated his feelings in an early journal entry, noting that while others indulged in Christmastime feasting and frolicking “I looked out poor widows from house to house and gave them some money.” (Nowadays, the Friends’ George Fox University in Oregon happily programs Christmas concerts and Easter egg hunts.)

The 1806 Rules of Discipline for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends declared the predominant policy that believers cannot join in “public fasts, feasts, and what they term holy days” that were “devised in man’s will” (i.e. not by God’s will) because “outward observations” have been supplanted by “the spiritual dispensation of the Gospel.” Each day of the year was to be holy unto God, not just special “days and times.” That same emphasis on inner spiritual life over outward ceremony underlies the Quakers’ elimination of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which remains a distinctive practice for all segments of the faith.

Jehovah’s Witnesses strictly forbid Christmas and Easter observances for a reason that some Quakers have also cited, that these  holidays lack a biblical basis and stem from paganism. Similarly, in bygone days the Quakers followed a “plain” or “scriptural” calendar that rejected common English names for days of the week and the months because they originally referred to worship of the sun and moon (Sunday, Monday) or pagan deities (January for Janus, Thursday as Thor’s day). Instead, Quakers would speak of First Day, First Month, etc.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Pablo Paz

    Close, but like many outsiders’ perceptions of Quaker theology (granted, a very nebulous area with vast disagreements at every stage in our history), Richard Ostling misses a few important points in describing Quaker faith …although he’s mostly accurate about practice.

    Quakers do not reject the sacraments that most Christian denominations practice –even those Quakers who do not identify as specifically Christian. “Each day of the year was to be holy unto God, not just special “days and times.” That same emphasis on inner spiritual life over outward ceremony underlies the Quakers’ elimination of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which remains a distinctive practice for all segments of the faith.” Just as Friends did not eliminate ministers –although our worship traditionally has no designated human leader– or doctrines –although we have no creed–, we did not eliminate baptism and communion. I would refer you to London Yearly Meeting (The Yearly Meeting, or polity, of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain)’s excellent booklet “To Lima, with Love” a response to the World Council of Churches’ unity statements on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, in which they point out “We hold in testimony for the entire Church that outward ceremonies are unnecessary for a truly spiritual religion.” We have eliminated the human-ordained leadership and direction of cultic proceedings, we have eliminated the outward ceremony of water baptism, and we have eliminated elements of bread and wine from our worship, believing that the outward rituals actually distract from the spiritual reality for which they are supposed to stand. Likewise, we believe it is every Friend’s responsibility to birth the Christ spirit anew in their heart every day, to bear their cross and sacrifice for God every day, and to resurrect for the world the Messiah, the willingness to love and make real the Kingdom of God every day. We are each and every one supposed to be God’s ministers and let our lives preach the Life and Truth that revives us. We have eliminated the laity. If a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual truth”, we strive to make our entire lives our one sacrament. Most of us experience baptism of the Holy Spirit at some point in our spiritual journeys and we frequently experience deep spiritual unity, a “gathered meeting”, in our silence, whether any speak or not — our communion is from heart to heart and between the individual soul and God.

    Just like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Jesus and Muhammed, and all the monotheists for >3000 years, our baptism, communion and ministry are real; we say, “Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” They are as real as our Creator.

  • Lisa Cawyer

    I grew up Quaker (not my family, just me for the most part…long story); in what was then known as California Yearly Meeting. Our church certainly celebrated Christmas and Easter…and not in a small way either! Those times are some of my favorite childhood memories. We even celebrated Halloween (to keep us out of trouble, I think); with fun programs for kids.

    We did not practice Baptism or Communion. We did have “Communion after the manner of Friends” which is a time of prayer and meditation prior to the sermon each week…which is something I miss very much. It was a Friends Sunday School teacher who taught me about being “born again”, after which I prayed to receive Christ. Unfortunately, that church along with most other Quaker churches that were around back then in our area no longer exists.

    Now that I am a Baptist, I appreciate taking part in communion, and have come to believe that symbols do matter. They are reminders…just as Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”). Perhaps the lack of these reminders partly explains why some so-called Quakers have forgotten our Savior and thus no longer even consider themselves Christians? (What is there to “Quake” about then…over a religion one makes up themselves?) I cannot even imagine. I’ve always considered myself a Christian first, and whatever denomination…well, not even second. It’s down aways on my identity list after woman, American, etc. I pray that Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity will someday come to pass.