Christmas is Day 1
Last year, while flipping through cookbooks looking for something to make for dinner, I came across a Christmas gift that my aunt and uncle had given me a few years back: The Twelve Days of Christmas Cookbook by Suzanne Huntley. Originally published in 1965, the book features some holiday classics (mushroom caps, Yorkshire pudding) and some recipes that didn’t stand the test of time quite so well (jellied curry ring, chutney-A1 sauce), as well as my aunt’s marginalia noting her family’s adjustments over the years.
Despite my aunt’s testimonials, none of these recipes shot right to the top of my holiday menus. The theme of the book, however, immediately did. The book’s format took for granted something that my experience of Christmas in the U.S. has not—namely, an understanding that Christmas is the first day of the season of Christmas (the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas) and not the last. Think of it this way: on Christmas Day, you should really be planning to give your true love a partridge in a pear tree, not twelve lords a leaping.
And most people in the U.S. do exchange gifts on Christmas Day, even if they aren’t always of the golden ring variety. In 2010, Gallup said 88% of Americans were planning to give Christmas gifts. We spend weeks preparing, shopping, donating to our favorite causes, surviving advertising bombardments, and often going to more church services, all leading up to Christmas morning. Running to the tree and ripping through the wrapping paper is an exhilarating experience. For about five minutes.
After the Christmas Eve service or Christmas Day celebration, after the presents, after the Christmas dinner—what’s next? I suggest that you resist the urge to take down the tree immediately, write your New Year’s resolutions, or start shopping for Valentine’s Day candy.
Because Christmas is really the beginning.
What is it the beginning of, exactly? In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Christmastide, which is a twelve-day celebration that begins with Christmas and ends with the festival of Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in human form and often commemorates the arrival of the Magi. Many churches, particularly Orthodox churches, celebrate Epiphany as a religious holiday, but the feeling of Epiphany as a counterpoint to Christmas—think Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, wassailing, and the yule log—just isn’t what it once was.
I have a personal mission this year: I’m bringing Christmastide back. The giving of gifts of all kinds will just have begun. I invite everyone, of all faiths or none at all, to join me in the spirit. View whatever gift-giving festival you might celebrate this December as an invitation to the beginning of the season of sharing, not the end.
The world has many needs—for safe drinking water and food for those in need, for safety for those threatened by violence, for healthcare for those who are sick. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed. As an antidote, I’m choosing this year to spend Christmastide—a commitment of twelve days, not a lifetime—learning about, sharing information with my friends and community about, and giving to one particular area of concern for me (access to clean water). Maybe after Epiphany, I’ll be invigorated and sustain my commitment. But even if I don’t, I’ll have a new experience of Christmastide. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and stuck in inaction, I’ll have taken a first step to action—and even a few more (at least as many as it takes to Day 12).
Christmas is Day 1 of the Season of Giving. Keep an eye out for French hens, milk maids, and other signs of the season, because I can’t wait to see what happens on the days after. I think it could be something big.
 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It,” Gallup, December 24, 2010, http://www.gallup.com/poll/145367/christmas-strongly-religious-half-celebrate.aspx
Sandy is the Operations Manager at Still Harbor. Formed by the Christian tradition, she has a particular interest in the integration of the interior life with work and action.