How do we celebrate Christmas?

December 16, 2010

How does a Quaker college celebrate Christmas?  To answer that question is to plunge deep into the much bigger question of what it means to be a Quaker college.

By virtue of being Quaker, are we Christian through and through — and if so, how do we understand being Christian?  Do we extend a wider welcome, an invitation to those of other faiths, or for that matter no faith at all?  Or do we merely tolerate those of other faiths, letting them know all the while that they will have to accommodate our faith, our beliefs, our rituals and celebrations?

Here at Earlham we take our Quakerness seriously.  It is something that shapes our current purposes and practices, not merely something that is part of the history and heritage of the college.  Our Curricular Vision Statement, just approved last week (joyously, and in unity) describes our curriculum, present and future, as being shaped by Quaker values and perspectives (what Quakers call testimonies): respect for all persons, peace and justice, simplicity, integrity and community.

We mean to be a college and a community that sees religious practice as part of the search for truth that is essential to our mission. A few years ago, we worked out our approach to religious life at Earlham in a splendid statement that affirms that we are Quaker to the core, and also affirms that we welcome those of other faiths, pledging to find time and space and encouragement for their practices, too.

So how we celebrate Christmas cannot be something peripheral or decorative; it goes to the heart of our identity as a college.

A decade and a half ago we could avoid the question because our calendar had us on a break between terms from before Thanksgiving to after Christmas.  (And of course a century and a half ago, we had only Quaker students and faculty, and barely paused at all to celebrate Christmas day — on the argument that every day was holy.)

Today, you see expressions of Christmas all around campus: decorations put up by various staff members or offices, gift appeals to help the needy sponsored by various groups, including student organizations.  We encourage similar expressions of religious observance timed to other religious calendars: Jewish, Islamic and more.

Earlier in the week we had a carol service in Stout Meetinghouse that showed Earlham at its Christmas/Quaker best.  Students read passages from the Bible that tell the Christmas story.  Because we are a community of many nationalities and countries, they read them in Portuguese, Serbian and Korean as well as in English. (The languages change every year.  One recent year we had a student who could read gospel passages in Aramaic.)  All in attendance sang carols, and the Concert Choir sang some (beautifully), too.  Afterwards, we lit candles and went out to light luminaria that marked the campus walks around the Heart and out to National Road.  We had hot chocolate and cookies in Earlham Hall lobby afterwards.

This was a well-attended, joyously Christian service, open to all and required of none.  It found a place for no other religious tradition, knowing that we will find occasion for those celebrations, too, opening these to all and requiring them of no one.  And we will find occasions, too, for dialogue between and among those of different faiths, even dialogues that address the hard questions from which conflict can arise.

This is how a Quaker college celebrates Christmas, at least this year.  Every year we give it fresh thought, because every year it must be fresh and genuine.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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