Yesterday I went to WalMart. The huge Christmas tree that one saw just as he or she walked into the store was gone. There was no trace of holly to be seen. Worse yet, there was no eggnog in the dairy section, nor were there any cherry cordials anywhere in the store. It was as if as far as WalMart was concerned, Christmas was over.
Now I now that some reading this may point out that yesterday was 29 December, four days after Christmas Day. While this is true, it ignores the fact that Christmas is not one day, but a festival that is twelve days long. Traditionally Christmas took place from the evening of 24 December (Christmas Eve) to the day of 6 January (Twelfth Day). And while I must confess no one outside of churches seems to have recognised the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas in my lifetime, when I was a lad there was at least some recognition that the period between 26 December and 1 January was part of the Christmas season. Oh, radio stations generally ceased playing Christmas music after 25 December and most TV outlets would not show holiday oriented specials and movies after 25 December. But all businesses would keep their Christmas decorations up, including their trees, until at least 2 January. In the days when I was growing up, it was generally recognised that New Year's Day was a part of the Christmas season, even if almost everyone stopped celebrating the holidays before Epiphany.
Of course, WalMart apparently forgot that Christmas lasts twelve days long ago. While I seem to recall that even as recently as the Naughts they kept their ornaments up longer, I also remember an advert they ran back in the Naughts beginning 26 December (it may have first aired on 25 December for all I know). The commercial began, "Now that the holidays are over..." Ummm, it's not even New Year's Day yet! From the commercial it would appear that WalMart believed the holidays ended with Christmas Day. The fact that they had no ornaments up in the store yesterday demonstrates that they apparently have not learned any differently since that advert aired.
I would not be so irritated at WalMat for taking down their Christmas decorations so early if they did not put them up so early as well. I went to WalMart on 1 November this year. I was confronted by the huge Christmas tree at the front of the store and Christmas music playing over the intercom. One would have thought it was the middle of December! Going by this, I almost believe that WalMart thinks the holiday season begins the day after Halloween and ends on Christmas Day. No, it doesn't. In fact, I think the vast majority of Americans do not think of it as "Christmas time" until Thanksgiving at the earliest. Many of us don't think of it as the holiday season until much later!
Now I'm guessing many reading this might ask why celebrating the Yuletide at least until New Year's Day is such a big deal. Well, for me there are several reasons. The first is simply tradition. Until the 20th Century, when the holiday season became convoluted with the holiday shopping season, Christmas was observed as a festival that lasted for the traditional twelve days. The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was first published relatively recently, in 1780 in England. Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, makes reference to the twelve days of Christmas. Even when I was a growing up there was some recognition that Christmas did not end with Christmas Day. It has only been the past twenty years that certain merchants and media outlets have forgotten that Christmas is twelve days long and New Year's Day is a part of the Christmas season. In ignoring this tradition we effectively break with the past, we break with what our ancestors practised for years. This sets up what could be a dangerous precedent. If we forget the twelve days of Christmas, what is to keep us from forgetting Christmas all together?
The second reason is that Christmas is essentially a winter holiday. In both the United States and the United Kingdom its imagery deals with winter--snowmen, snowflakes, sleighs, and so on. Now winter does not begin until 21 December or 22 December. In insisting that the "holiday season" runs from 1 November to 25 December, then, WalMart and other merchants are placing the bulk of the Yuletide during autumn! Unless we are willing to change Christmas imagery to fallen leaves and pumpkins (not unlike Halloween and Thanksgiving), then we need to keep the Yuletide in its proper season.
Of course, that brings me to the third reason for observing the Twelve Days of Christmas. In the United States, at least, we already have holidays that take place in autumn. Both Halloween and Thanksgiving are very big holidays here in the States, and both are closely tied to their season. Unfortunately, for many years Thanksgiving has been in danger of losing its own identity. Almost all major stores have their Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving, if not as early as WalMart (who put them up 1 November). Worse yet, in the past some networks and cable channels have aired Christmas movies on Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is very much in danger of becoming just another part of an overly long Christmas season. Given how early many stores are putting up Christmas decorations and start selling Christmas ornaments, I have to wonder that in a few years Halloween may not be as well! Of course, if society began observing the Twelve Days of Christmas again then we probably would not see stores putting up Christmas ornaments until later, adn Thanksgiving would remain its own special day rather than an mere extension of the "Christmas" season.
As to my fourth reason for celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, it is simply that I believe the average American needs a break after a long year of work. The way we celebrate Christmas now the average American does not receive much of a break Far too much emphasis is placed on shopping for gifts to be given on 25 December. making a time that should be one of joy all too stressful for the average American. If we celebrated the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, then gifts could be given on any of the twelve days, not just Christmas Day. This would give people more time to shop for gifts, which would reduce the amount of stress people experience during the holidays. I might also point out that it could also bring in more money for retailers like WalMart who seem to turn Christmas into an autumn holiday!
Of course, there are signs that at least the period between 25 December and 1 January may be increasingly regarded once more as part of the holidays. At least since the early Naughts the DMX Holidays and Happening digital music channel has continued to play Yuletide tunes until 31 January when it switches to what I can only describe as "party music." Various television outlets have also shown signs of regarding the period between 25 December and 1 January as part of the Christmas season. This week AMC showed The Polar Express several nights in a row beginning with the night of 26 December. Oxygen showed the movie Elf this week, after 25 December. This trend has been taking place for a few yeas now, so one can only hope that it continues to grow.
Indeed, I am hoping it will continue until even WalMart, the veritable Grinch of late when it comes to the holidays, realises the error of their ways. It is bad enough that WalMart seems to believe that 1 November is a good time to put up Christmas decorations. It is even worse that they think 26 December is the day to take them down. Christmas is a winter holiday, not an autumn one, and it should be observed as such!
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