One of the revolutionary changes that occurred in my celebration of Christmas was when I realized that it was a “tide”, not a day. I recall as a kid wondering what that word meant. You know, the “Yule Tide Carol”. And what was this thing about “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” As a rural Protestant, all there was to Christmas was December 25th. While there was a lot of stuff happening before that day with the “Christmas” label, the celebration of Christmas, for all practical purposes, was one day.
Fast-forward thirty years, add three kids and a wife, a dozen or so relatives, an ever-widening wealth of friendships, it seemed that something was terribly bent about Christmas being just a one day celebration. Instead of celebrating the day as the coming of the Saviour, it was more of a logistical contest, managing the yearnings of children wanting to open all their gifts on Christmas morning, fixing a hot breakfast followed by a huge dinner, and having the dining room fill with friends and family, topped off with a marathon dish-washing. Come December 26th, nothing except exhaustion.
As a lover of history it was no secret to me that sometime before 1900 people had a broader understanding of Christmas. To Europeans, Christmas-tide was a period of time extending from the day Jesus was born to Epiphany, when he was visited by the wise men. Those twelve days were replete with activities that had little to do with giving gifts. Most people could not afford the orgy of materialism we see today. While gifts were exchanged throughout this period, it was at a much smaller scale and most everything people gave was personally made or had significant practical value. Food, for example, was vital – as was clothing. To give someone a pair of shoes was a blessing from heaven. People moved from household to household sharing food, liquid refreshment, music and stories.
Today, Christmas is now fast-tracked. It starts with the madness called Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. The Drudge Report fills with headlines of fights and even deaths resulting from the rush of people. It is then followed by Cyber Monday when on-line services compete to sell their goods over the Internet. Charities are now chiming in with a special day on Tuesday. The rest of time is filled with Christmas pageants, cantatas, concerts, carol singing, office parties, and so on. Christmas Day comes along, usually proceeded by a Christmas Eve service at your church. Some families have a tradition of opening some gifts on Christmas Eve. But Christmas Day is the climax where people rush to the Christmas tree and open a mountain of gifts, followed by a huge feast. It is a day of fond memories. But then it ends.
Historically, it was the other way around. Prior to 1920, there was not much consumerism. Gifts were usually hand-made. Pre-Christmas parties were often the luxury of the wealthy. For many commoners, Christmas was twelve days long. It was during this time that carols were sung, gifts exchanged, gatherings made around a Yule Log. It was more spontaneous. There was no rush. It is the Christmas I dream of having every year.
How can we regain this tradition that expands over two millennia?
Start with the family. Attempt to wean your children off of the Christmas morning rush. We felt we were successful if we could stretch it out over two days, beginning with Christmas Eve. This will definitely be the toughest assignment. But, over the years, it may actually work. Isn’t it sad that kids open up a half dozen gifts, all scattered out over the floor, filled with joy and excitement yet they hardly know the gifts are there after the day is over. Imagine replacing that with a gift each day and each day that gift is special. That may be the most idealistic proposal in this essay – good luck.
Staying with the family, attempt to arrange trips around Christmas-tide rather than Christmas Day. Let your extended family members know that it is OK if they come December 28th or News Year Day. It is still Christmas! Vice versa, you can avoid much of the Christmas chaos at airports and highways by traveling during off-days. You may notice that ticket costs vary considerably if you choose days that are less frequently traveled. The greatest dividend is that your family members can travel without feeling harried, rushed or unsafe.
Third, scope out your acquaintances and see who you can have over for dinner. The biggest tradition of Christmas-tide is that the nights are filled with fellowship, food, drink and even some rowdiness. While not advancing the latter, the other three things look quite attractive. Have this week reserved for friends and those who are without family. Get to know someone new. Invite the neighbors for an evening of left-overs.
Fourth, check to see if there are ways you can extend service to those in need. It is nice that members of the community chip in and provide a mountain of food and a hot meal to those in need on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. But they are in need the rest of the year and you may find it more meaningful to see how their needs are met on a regular day.
Fifth, really get radical and sing Christmas Carols! Imagine how weird that would be in our modern society. But that is what folks used to do, singing carols during Christmas-tide. Being shy, you may want to start with a carol-sing at your home or local church. Then get brave, and spread out to nursing homes, homeless shelters, or schools. But one great idea is to bake up a batch of cookies and share them with people if you must go door-to-door. You might be surprised what you will get back – I can imagine that everyone on your street will have a mountain of leftovers to share!
This is just the beginning. I can imagine that buried deep into the past are a bevy of lost traditions that await our discovery. Christmas-tide can definitely be the most joyful part of the year.
© Copyright 2016 to Eric Niewoehner