December 29, 2013

Christmas Past

Christmas has passed once again with families all over the world celebrating the day within their own religious, cultural, and family traditions -- that is, if they celebrate Christmas at all.  Many people of the world do not.

The early Quakers did not celebrate religious holidays, believing that every day given by God was special and no single day warranted religious recognition over any other.  Modern members of the Religious Society of Friends may acknowledge Christmas in various ways or not at all, depending on the beliefs and traditions of their Meetings.  Quakers in general, however, have negative reactions to the rank commercialism that characterizes Christmas in America.

Englishman Thomas Nast's drawing titled "Merry Old
Santa Claus" from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.
Seeking insight into early Quaker attitudes in this country about Christmas and its traditions, we consulted some letters, diaries, and journals written by Quaker women in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was not surprising to find that the Christmas holiday was seldom mentioned.
The letters of Anna Briggs Bentley (1796-1890), originally from Maryland and living on the Ohio frontier in the early and mid-19th century, occasionally described family activities during late December and early January.  Almost all of her references were to slaughtering farm animals, the bitter cold they were experiencing, the health or ill-health of family members and neighbors, sewing and mending, cleaning, and meal preparations.  No mention was made of the Christmas holiday as something the family acknowledged or marked in any way.
Illustration from 3200 Old-Time Cuts and Ornaments edited by Blanche Cirker.
Anna Briggs Bentley's lack of reference to the Christmas holiday is understandable.  She and her husband were rural Quakers with only occasional need to travel to nearby towns where the population was more urban and where Christmas was publicly celebrated by non-Quakers.  Further, they joined the conservative, Hicksite faction after the schism of 1827 divided the Religious Society of Friends.  The Hicksites followed the traditional teachings of the religion, including refusal to acknowledge or celebrate religious holidays.
The diary of Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807), on the other hand, provided some references to the Christmas holiday and the new year.
December 31st, 1778
"First day: Went this afternoon to S. Emlen's came home after Night, little-Molly with me, several guns fired off very near us --the Bells ringing according to the old foolish custom of ringing out the old year." (Crane, 89.)
December 25th, 1793
"Christsmass, so call'd, keep't by some pious well minded people religiously, but some others as a time of Frolicking . . . ."  (Crane, 120.)
December 31st, 1794
"Another year past over, and our family mercifully keep't together - How many calamities  have we escaped? and how much to be thankful for.  - Molly Drinker, Sally Smith and John Smith went to Clearfield, they dined there, Henry and Hannah came back with them, they spent the evening at Edwd. Shoemakers, with near 30 young people- 'tis not the way I could wish my Children to conclude the year, in parties - but 'we can't put old heads on young shoulders' . . . ." (Crane, 142.)
Illustration from 3200 Old-Time Cuts and Ornaments edited by Blanche Cirker.
December 25th, 1795
"Called Christsmass day: many attend religiously to this day, others spend it in riot and dissipation.  We, as a people, make no more account of it than another day. . . ."  (Crane, 158.)
December 25th, 1805
". . . . about one o'clock I heard a dull heavy thumping, I could not account for after listening some time I heard musick, then concluded that the first Noise was a Kittle-drum - a strange way of keeping Christsmass . . . ." (Crane, 277.)
December 25th, 1806
"Christsmass . . . . last night or rather this morning I heard the kettle-drum for a long time it is a disagreeable noise in my ears, it was after one o'clock, and at two, I sat up and took a pinch of snuff, which I do not do, but when I feel unwell and uncomfortable - I had sleep't none, nor for some length of time after . . . ."  (Crane, 289.)
Elizabeth's diary entries clearly reflect her attitude toward Christmas while acknowledging that such a holiday existed and was celebrated throughout the city of Philadelphia where she lived. In her urban environment, the existence of the holiday and its traditions could not be ignored, but they were not adopted by her Quaker family.
Elaine Forman Crane, Ed.  The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth Century Woman (Abridged Version).  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Emily Foster, ed.  American Grit, A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier.  Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.
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1 comment:

  1. I have read such accounts in old books. I was just telling a friend today, "It's pretty crazy that because the US is such a melting pot, we have encountered and adopted many traditions from other cultures, and for some reason (commercialization) we think we need to honor all of them. Ex. tree, stockings, St. Nick, feasts of various sorts - not just one ethnicity, etc." It's a bit crazy when 'they' don't even know for a fact what day Jesus was born. I am not Quaker, but I must agree ~ every day is a blessed gift.
    Thank you for sharing.