Thursday, 26 December 2013

Why We Should Return to the 12 Days of Christmas

For many in the United States today is the day after the Christmas season. They will take down their Christmas trees. They will take down their Christmas lights. Every single Christmas ornament will be taken down and put into storage. And while I suspect that while there are many who are relieved that the Christmas season is "over", there are many of us who are a bit down because most of society thinks the Yuletide is over.

It wasn't always this way. Indeed, the original Twelve Days of Christmas run from the evening of 24 December (Christmas Eve) to the day of 6 January (Epiphany). The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas developed very early in the history of Christianity, and many of the customs associated with the season have their origins in the Germanic pagan festival of Yule (called Géol in Old English) and the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. In England during the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of nearly continuous celebration, with the festival climaxing on Twelfth Night (the evening of 5 January). The early colonists of North America would bring the custom of the Twelve Days of Christmas with them from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. The Twelve Days of Christmas are still celebrated to some degree in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth (indeed, in the UK and in many Commonwealth countries today is Boxing Day), but over time it was forgotten here in the United States.

It is difficult to say why the Twelve Days of Christmas ceased to be celebrated in the United States, but I suspect much of it has to do with the holiday shopping season. The Christmas shopping season evolved over a number of years starting in the late 19th Century. New York City sweet shops held Christmas sales as early as the 1820's and 1830's. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as "Santa Claus' headquarters". In 1874 Macy's set up the first of their legendary Yuletide window displays and  had Santa Claus in the store for the first time. Eventually the day after Thanksgiving (now known as "Black Friday") would come to be regarded as the first day of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. As early as 1907 the The Evening Times of Cumberland, Maryland made reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. In an issue of The Indiana Progress dated November 27, 1917, a retail store makes reference to their holiday line being ready the day after Thanksgiving.

There can be no doubt that by the Thirties the day after Thanksgiving was considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. Indeed, it was  in 1939 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last (and that year, fifth) Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of the month in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. The move proved controversial and in 1941 Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as the date of Thanksgiving in something of a compromise.

Regardless, it seems likely to me that during the 20th Century (and probably very early in the 20th Century at that) the Christmas shopping season in the United States became conflated with the Yuletide itself. People stopped thinking of the Yuletide as the evening of 24 December to the day of 6 January and began thinking of it as lasting from the day after Thanksgiving to 25 December. Christmas Day, once the beginning of the festival, effectively became the end.

To me the conflation of the Christmas season proper with the Christmas shopping season in the United States is most regrettable. Quite simply, to me starting the celebration on the evening of 24 December and ending it on the day of 6 January is far better than starting it on the day after Thanksgiving and ending it on the day of 25 December. First, it must be considered that Christmas, like the Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia from which it borrows much of its imagery, is essentially a winter festival. Even today much of the imagery associated with Christmas is that of winter: snow, snowmen, Santa's fur lined suit. The songs associated with the holiday often mention winter imagery, even in their titles: "White Christmas", "Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow", "Frosty the Snowman", and so on. The imagery of the Yuletide stands in stark contrast to the Christmas shopping season in the Untied States, now regarded by many Americans as the Christmas season. Astronomically winter does not begin until 21 December. This means the majority of the Christmas shopping season unfolds during autumn, when there is little chance of snow, much less cold weather, in many parts of the United States (indeed, here where I live there is even little chance of snow on Christmas Day itself). I suspect that this is why many Americans have trouble getting into the Christmas spirit. Quite simply, it's not yet winter and as a result it doesn't feel like Christmas.

Another reason the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas is superior to the American Christmas shopping season is that in many respects it would be more advantageous to the very merchants who invented the Christmas shopping season. As Christmas is celebrated in the United States today all gift giving is centred on brief time: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Despite this, it was traditional to give gifts throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. Indeed, the idea of giving gifts on all twelve days of the Yuletide forms the basis for the classic Christmas carol "Twelve Days of Christmas". In focusing all of their attention on Christmas Day, then, merchants are ignoring eleven more days during which gifts could be given. And, of course, the more gifts given, the more money they would make. Quite simply, the day after Thanksgiving would no longer be quite so important as far as Christmas shopping goes!

Third, I think the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas might be better for Americans' mental health. Let's face it, January can be a very depressing time for many Americans, and I think it is because of more than the holiday season being over. It's cold. The nights are long and the days are short. If you live in a small town or rural area there is often very little to do. In returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas, then, we could make at least the first few days of January a little brighter. Christmas carols would still play on the radio. The lights and trees would still be up. Suddenly the drab and dreary days following the New Year would be a little merrier. Indeed, we would have one more day to celebrate. In addition to Christmas Day and New Year's Even, we would have Twelfth Night! This would be of great help to the average American in that they might no be quite so susceptible to the January depression common to many.

Ultimately, I think a return to the Twelve Days of Christmas would be very beneficial to Americans and much preferred to the Christmas season as many celebrate it today. Regardless, I will keep my tree and my lights up until at least the day after New Year's Day. And I will continue to listen to Christmas music too. For me the Yuletide does not end with 25 December.

1 comment:

Blakeney said...

Could not agree with you more. For several years now I have wished that the Christmas holiday was more than one day (I don't know if we Americans could do the traditional 12, but even 3 days instead of 1 would be an improvement). It would give us all time to wind down from the frenzy and just relax and enjoy the company of friends and family.