Quakers don't traditionally celebrate Christmas.The incarnation is something that we try to be conscious of everyday. Moments and places of God breaking into the world that catch us unawares are causes for joy and celebration at any time. I seem to recall Calvin taught something similar about the crucifixion and resurrection and the keeping of Good Friday and Easter. God's presence at the heart of the world's suffering, the hope that suffering will be transformed, and the reality of new life where it is are always with us; the challenge is having eyes to see.
It's interesting (and difficult) not celebrating Christmas in a culture where you can't get away from it. Carol services, trees, cards, carols on the radio and in shops, gifts, the obligatory rich food and mulled wine and, above all, the expectations make it nearly impossible. So what is the sensible way through?
It's been a complete refreshment to the soul and a very spiritually enriching experience to take a step back. Where there is real joy and excitement, it's wonderful to watch and join in. Where the impact of the story of Jesus' birth is genuinely challenging, delighting or changing lives, that's something to make the heart sing. It's been lovely, though, to avoid, as much as possible, the commercialism and the frenetic sense of having to engage in so many expectation-driven and only tangentially relevant activities.
The quiet has proved rich and I have pondered moments like
* The calm of midweek evening streets in Nottingham for a short interval after the shops have shut.
* The December Peace Supper when we ate and talked about education programmes to teach children skills of reconciliation.
* The silence in Sunday Meeting for Worship unusually punctuated by the children's contributions - a story, a single verse from a carol, a light given and stars made. (I still marvel at how the children enter into silence - a whole hour of it on this occasion!)
* A shivering man who asked us straight out, 'Please will you give me enough for a hot drink?' We got talking and I began to appreciate how easy it is, if you have some money, not to think about its real value. It takes a lot of 5ps, 20ps and 50ps to afford a drink, a meal or socks.
* Letters from friends around the world not heard from very often. Meetings arranged with old friends for the year ahead.
* The welcome of being invited into neighbours' homes, to the village Panto and to the WI dinner as strangers and newcomers.
* The neighbour who rigged up lights in our hanging basket to illuminate the driveway.
* Fires and the warmth of shared meals.
* The background of floods affecting friends in Cumbria and Yorkshire and Wales and the executions in Saudi Arabia reminding us again that the old, old stories of rulers and natural phenomena disrupting human life have contemporary relevance.
My one concession to conventional Christmas celebration was a tree. My father was a forester and we have my grandparents and parents' decorations, some handmade and dating back to the 1920's. I love to have a tree in the house for a short while each year because it reminds me of Biblical trees from the Garden of Eden (conveying knowledge and the power of life and death) to the Book of Revelation (where the tree on the bank of the river that flows through the holy city produces fruits that are 'for the healing of the nations.')
To those of you who have kept the 12 days of Christmas, may their joy and insight remain with you throughout the year!