A Note from the Editor: Early Shaker Christmases
The United Society of Believers was founded in Manchester, England, in 1747. Their nickname, Shakers, was a shortened version of the derisive term “Shaking Quakers,” which was bestowed because of the group’s vigorous movement during worship. Their leader, Mother Ann Lee, and eight followers established themselves in New York State in 1774. According to the Hancock Shaker Village website, the group was “seeking the freedom to live, work, and worship according to their main religious tenets: celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. The Shakers also believed in racial and gender equality, simplicity, and pacifism. They dedicated their lives to creating a working Heaven on Earth amidst the boundless opportunities presented by settlement of the New World.” Eventually, the Shakers founded eighteen communities in ten states, and in the decade prior to the Civil War, the Shakers reached their numerical height with approximately 5,000 believers.
I have long enjoyed learning about Shaker history and culture. For a portion of my childhood, I lived less than two miles from the Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts, and I have visited the fine museum there a number of times. I’ve toured the Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and the Enfield Shaker Museum in Enfield, N.H. I've also visited the museum at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, which is home to the only remaining active Shaker community. (Eight primary Shaker sites in the United States are open to the public.)
I receive The United Society of Shakers Newsletter by email, and I was intrigued by what I learned about how early Shakers observed Christmas in the November-December 2012 issue. Below is an excerpt:
[Y]ou might find it interesting to step back in Shaker history and learn how differently Christmas was marked by earlier Shakers. Not until 1876 did the Shakers here in Maine celebrate Christmas with a decorated tree and gifts and Christmas carols. What were those earlier years like for the Shakers? Daniel W. Patterson, the pre-eminent scholar of Shaker music, writes in his major work, The Shaker Spiritual, “In the earliest years, Believers (Shakers) were agreed that Christmas was not to be kept ‘after the manner of the world,’ but ‘had a labor’ to know whether to observe the day at all, and whether to reckon it by the old- or new-style calendar. Mother Ann (the founder of the Shaker church), left others to discover the proper order. One good Believer, Hannah Hocknell, did not ‘feel satisfied’ as to the ‘propriety’ of observing the day, so she rose on Christmas morning intending to set about her business. As she dressed, ‘some unaccountable operation’ repeatedly prevented her from putting on her shoes. Mother Ann then pointed out that this was ‘the most prominent sign recorded in the scripture of holy and sacred ground and purposes.’ As Hannah had intended to wash clothes and clean up the house, the sign meant that the ‘spiritual house ought first to be cleansed in a special manner’ on Christmas.
Father Joseph (Meacham, Mother Ann's American successor) built on this teaching in the 1790s, when he set Christmas as a ‘central time’ for ‘confessing and putting away sins, and all wrongs from the camps of the Saints, and cleansing the spiritual house.’ His ordinance had the implication, later specifically stated in the Millennial Laws of 1845, that ‘on Christmas day Believers should make perfect reconciliation, one with an other; and leave all grudges, hard feelings, and disaffections, one towards an other . . . and to forgive, as we would be forgiven; and nothing which is this day settled, or which has been settled previous to this, may hereafter be brought forward against an other.’
Christmas was for the Shakers therefore for almost 100 years a Fast Day. Maybe the traditions of those early Shakers and more specifically the words that framed those traditions can be useful today.”
For those interested in learning more about the Shakers, you can view the websites hyperlinked in the second paragraph or peruse several Shaker-related articles featured in the holiday 2006 issue of New England Ancestors.