Keeping Christmas

I’m an absolute stickler about keeping the full Twelve Days of Christmas; it’s just too great and grand a feast to confine to a few days—even a full week. I’ve waited all year for this: I’m not going to be cheated out of a single second if I can help it.

That’s just the thing, of course—sometimes we can’t help it. Responsibilities, the demands of the world, children going back to school, loved ones traveling home, interruptions—all can conspire to rub the bloom—momentarily or prematurely—off our Christmas rose.

(Case in point: last night I’d planned a lovely fireside dinner, a house a-shine with candlelight, and the last chapter in our holiday read-aloud. The reality was that we spent the better part of the evening out looking for our dog, Flora, who’d panicked and bolted at the first report of some gorgeous fireworks our dear neighbors brought over. Thank the Good Lord–and a kind stranger who was unloading her groceries at 11 o’clock at night–we found her, tired, wet, and filthy, and were able to bring her home with many a promise of a good bed to hide under next time we shoot off fireworks! I couldn’t stop hugging her. But it certainly wasn’t the Tenth Day of Christmas we’d planned…)

I totally sympathize with Laura’s sentiments about the fading of the bright sheen of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the melancholy of “over.” I don’t do overs well, either—you should see my husband trying to extract me from Jekyll Island at the end of every visit. Not a pretty sight, I can assure you. So I don’t share my thoughts here with any sort of superiority or stoicism. It’s precisely because it’s all so dear to me, because the sacred significance of it all burns brighter each year, because the “over” is unbearable, that I’ve come to recognize the gift of just a little bit more. My Catholic and Anglican friends have the right idea, as far as I’m concerned. We’re celebrating the most momentous event in history to date—why not keep the party going?

I realize there’s a certain defiance in observing the full Twelve Days, which I love. I love the firm stance in the middle of the stream, even if the rest of the world is coursing by on both sides. I love the resolve of the thing, the quiet, secret joy of it.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is my favorite of the whole year: a glad dance between sociability and utter indolence, and I guard it fiercely.

But I’ve come to honor the early days of the New Year and the last days of Christmastide for their own unique beauty. I’ve learned to give myself the gift of keeping Christmas, not just until January 1, or the day Philip goes back to the office, but for the whole, long, lovely feast. I need space in this week for a day or two of thoughtful recreation: journaling, planning and praying over the New Year, catching up on the Advent reading I didn’t have time for. After all the weeks of preparation, and such a rich spread of fellowship, I need a bit of contemplative solitude before my heart is ready to say goodbye to Christmas. (I also need a few more sugar cookies and gingerbread caramels.)

If I decorate slowly and with ceremony, the reverse is true, as well. I used to fall on the house with the Grinch’s fury on the morning Philip went back to work after the holidays, then spend the rest of the day alternately crying and cursing the barrenness of my rooms. But for the past several years, I’ve taken it slow, committing the Christmas week greenery to little fireplace bonfires, while freshening candles in the Advent wreath (red tapers for Christmastide!) and changing out the kitchen table centerpiece (this year a mirrored tray of newly-potted paperwhites). I’ll leave the boxwood wreaths in the kitchen windows until Candlemas, and the nativity will stay out through the 8th. And as for the doorway festooned with Christmas cards—well, all those bright faces can keep sharing their smiles through the end of January! One year I left my red ribbons up until Valentines; other years I’m ready for the starkness of pale blue walls and unadorned candlelight. Silly as it may seem, I just try listen to the sound of my own heart, to pay attention to whatever bits of sparkle or sparseness my winter soul needs.

But the tree—the tree stays up till Epiphany.

I’m no Downton fan, but I wholeheartedly agree with Lady Mary’s sentiments regarding the Christmas tree.

I’ll admit, when Philip and I first started observing the Twelve Days of Christmas it kind of felt like pretending. Every fir tree on the side of the road hurt my heart (okay, it still does), and the de-Christmased stores were a trauma (now I just stay out of the stores altogether). It was hard to believe it could really still be Christmas when the rest of the world had moved on. But if the observance of Advent and Christmastide has taught me anything, it’s that we are made for both anticipation and savoring. We are wired for a fully three-dimensional experience of life, and the feasts and holy days are no exception. It has taken Philip and me some time to cultivate a culture of Christmastide in our home, but I am so thankful that the traditions of our faith and the rhythms we have built into our own lives have made these twelve blessed days an experienced reality. There are certain traditions we save for deep in the season, certain records and recipes that don’t make an appearance until after New Year’s. Things I do in the middle of the day that I rarely (never) give myself time for, like playing the guitar by the fire, and learning a new craft (this year it’s needle felting—more on that later, I promise!).

Some years we have a grand Twelfth Night revel; this year we’re just having a couple of friends for soup and mulled wine. (Unless the forecasted snow interferes!)

Some people need to jump into the New Year with wild abandon, of course—but for Philip and me, wide spaces of anticipation and enjoyment are requisite. And with a few years and a lot of memories under our belts, we’ve grown into Christmastide. I’ve gained the confidence—or the unconcern, whatever it is—to keep Christmas, not just observe it as it flies. In many ways, this old house, with its memories and sympathies and secrets, has given me that confidence; if anything, it knows what it means to stand still while the current of time swirls madly by on both sides.

Tonight the house is a-shine with candlelight, and Mario Lanza is crooning The First Noel (the ultimate Epiphany song) on the stereo. After we get back from the barn there’s leftover Shepherd’s Pie to look forward to, and the last chapter of Shepherd’s Abiding.

Peace on earth, y’all. And a blessed Eleventh Day of Christmas!

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10 thoughts on “Keeping Christmas

  1. Oh I’m right there with you! Savor, it is a good word for it. Slowly un-decking the halls helps with the shock of it being over. My littlest looked horrified when there were no Christmas songs on the radio, he, of all my kids shares my love of letting it go quietly and with ceremony.

  2. While I haven’t commented, I have been reading this lovely blog throughout the Christmas season, and I have appreciated every word. I especially appreciated this posting and wanted to thank you for it.

    When our daughters were young, they came to ask when “the wise guys were coming”.

    I have always kept Christmas through the 12 days and I have the habit of taking down Christmas slowly, as well. It is the time for me to reflect, to read my Christmas books, to enjoy the candlelight, to really read the cards we receive . . . ah, I could go on, but you have said it far better and made this eleventh day of Christmas all the brighter.

  3. I usually find that the week between Christmas and the New Year spilling over into the first week of January are the most peaceful. I can finally unwind and just enjoy being. Note to self: next year make sure to celebrate through the 12 Days of Christmas. I did decorate slow (what little I did) and have put things away slow this year. Still have my mantle decorated – it will linger for awhile. Thank you for sharing such beautiful words about the season.

    Also, love the story of your friendship. I have one friend that has been in my life since we were mere babes, such a treasure. One that I met later in life but who is definitely my soulmate. Great friendships are rare and to be treasured.

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. I have looked for the post each day through the season. I would love to see other series in the future. These had such a calming and uplifting view to the season, while still reminding us of what is truly the things to share, remember, and celebrate. Thank you.

  5. Love this! You write beautifully on something that has been on my mind quite a bit as of late. We are made for anticipation and savoring!

    I think this is why I’ve always felt an enormous let down after Christmas Day. The blues usually hit me hard then. I’ve dreaded this time since I was a child, actually. I’ve never understood why, after celebrating such a momentous occasion – the beginning of the turning point of all of history – a winter’s long depression would set in on December 26. “Seasonal affective disorder” our modern world calls it.

    How about “defective celebration disorder”! This makes me think that I’ve tried to fit all the Joy in one day and it’s simply impossible. It becomes a fit of frenzy that’s too much for my finite frame. My serotonin levels can’t take it! 🙂

    Eternity entering time must be enjoyed slowly and with savor. Otherwise, we choke.

  6. Thank you, Lanier and Laura. You have enriched Advent and Christmas for me. I sincerely hope that you return next year (and succeeding years!)— this site has been a true joy!
    (I shared on instagram.)

  7. Lovely! Yes, Anglicans and Catholics still remember the 12 days of Christmas. So do we who are Orthodox Christians! I am still in the 12 days as we mark Christmas on Jan 7th! And I totally agree with the rhythms of the liturgical year giving life such richness, fast then feast! and feast all the days! For the Nativity Fast for us we (if our health allows) are fasting from meat and dairy (other than the wonderful fish days!) and once Christmas actually comes we FEAST full up to the even of Theophany (Epiphany in the West)! I can say that my experiencing of feasting is so much greater because of the fasting and it’s just a wonderful way to live, would not trade it for anything! It’s such a special time of year!!! Glad you share the love of it!!!

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