Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Personally, I’m still suspicious, because I’ve never found seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, or even five gold rings under the Christmas tree. But as long as we’ve mentioned the ecclesial calendar, let’s get that part straight. Christmas Day is the end of the four weeks of Advent—and the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas, which run till January 5. Or Twelfth Night, as that last Christmas evening is called: the night before Epiphany and traditionally a time for skits and celebration, with a Lord of Misrule appointed to lead the festivities.
That’s why Shakespeare called his play Twelfth Night, even though it has nothing to do with Christmas. Nothing, that is, except that it’s joyous, comic, contains in the misruly clown Feste what may be one of Shakespeare’s few self-presentations, and was first performed in 1602 on Candlemas. And Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, marks the absolute, final, pack-it-all-up end of the Nativity season—40 days after Christmas, 28 days after Twelfth Night—by which point the Christmas decorations had to be taken down to avert bad luck.
Now, all that’s distinct from the Octave of Christmas in the Catholic church, running the seven days from Christmas to a week later and called an octave because people who speak Latin count in odd ways. And things work differently in the feasts of the Eastern Orthodox churches, based in part on whether those churches keep to the old Julian calendar, in which case the Nativity falls on what’s January 6 for the rest of the world. Things work differently, as well, in the stricter of the Protestant churches, which don’t really do feasts—and, in the case of the Puritans, actually tried to ban Christmas celebrations.
Through the Christmas season, we have the feast of St. Stephen, which is called Boxing Day in England, Wren Day in Ireland, and December 26 in the rest of the world. And the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by King Herod. The feast of the Holy Family. The feast of St. Sylvester on New Year’s Eve day, which the Scots call Hogmanay. The Solemnity of Mary, and the feast of the Holy Name, and . . . it’s a mess, isn’t it? Even in the church calendar, the run from the first day of Christmas through to Epiphany and on to Candlemas has no clarity of narrative, no firmness of organization, and no sharpness of lesson.
Except, perhaps, in the sheer messiness of it all. Despite all the advertisements and canned carols that begin even before Thanksgiving, Advent is structured as a clean and penitential time. Christmas itself is the chaos. It’s there in the clutter of the unwrapped presents. There in the fridge full of leftovers. There in the burned-down Advent candles. There in the disordered piles of sheet music on the piano. There in the pine needles falling on the carpet. There in the jumble of ornaments. There in the fireplace ashes. There in the unshapely mounds of shoveled snow.
Christmas doesn’t come to us as a neat and tidy thing. It is not, as C.S. Lewis would have put it, a tame holiday. Even secularized into “holiday trees” and reindeer and snowflake designs, it will not hold still—as who could imagine that it would?
Apart, of course, from the designers of glossy catalogues, none of whom seem to realize that white furniture, delicate ornaments, and outrageously expensive glassware won’t survive even a single day of Christmas with actual people in it. Sometimes, glancing through a Williams-Sonoma catalogue or the upscale advertisements in the Sunday New York Times, I picture the breakage that would follow an old-fashioned Lord of Misrule, leading wild children on a Christmas dance through the oh-so-tasteful settings. It’s a small thing, I know, but it adds to my Christmas joy.
And Christmas joy is the point, isn’t it? The theological point, the psychological point—and even
the sociological point. Christmas is the untamed, all messy and unruly, set outside ordinary time. It smashes through our ordered experience, and it lasts for days. Twelve of them, in fact. Or maybe forty. A good long while, anyway.