Saturday, January 03, 2009

On the 10th Day of Christmas: To Make Much of Time

...or is it the 9th Day? I was looking at one of my reference books (a brick-and-mortar book, not an on-line source) which said January 2nd was the 8th Day but I had figured, counting Christmas Day as the 1st Day of Christmas, it should be the 9th.

First of all, some people think the 12 Days of Christmas actually precede Christmas, the way Holy Week leads up to Easter, I guess. But in the old days, people celebrated Christmas beginning on Christmas Day and observed it for 12 days before ending the celebration on Epiphany, the 13th Day. With all the Christmas carols being heard at the same time, it’s easy to think everything we observe about Christmas – at least those people who observe the religious aspect of it – happens in one day, making it quite busy at the manger with all the shepherds and the wise men toing and froing. But the arrival of the Wise Men is actually observed on Epiphany which is January 6th.

Some people count the days beginning at sunset much the way the Jewish calendar is observed. It always make for confusion to see two different calendars giving different dates for a Jewish holiday: one will be the day on which the observance begins and the other implies “it begins at sundown the day before.” Anyway, that would make December 26th the first “full” day of Christmas which begins at sundown the night before.

When I was teaching in Connecticut, I attended a Russian Orthodox Church in Willimantic. I’m not Orthodox, in fact had never attended an Orthodox service or even heard any of the music until I was a senior in college and my Church Music class went to a small church to observe a service. I was so intrigued by the experience, I decided to check out a church near where I lived in Rochester the following year and then again in Connecticut where I ended up singing in the choir.

Orthodox Christianity uses a different calendar from what we’re used to. Christmas in most Orthodox churches, then, will coincide with Epiphany in “Western” Churches. So by going to the Willimantic church, I could observe 24 days of Christmas. It’s confusing for the kids, though, because the rest of the world seems to be celebrating it before they are, so what many families did was celebrate the gift-giving, secular aspect of Christmas with their neighbors but then observe the spiritual celebration in their church later. It also meant, as some of my fellow choristers pointed out with a smile, they got to celebrate two New Year’s Days, too.

Anyway, the calendar is a fairly arbitrary thing. There is no direct, fool-proof way to calibrate “time” – we have gone from a society that was fairly vague about it until, between the invention of more refined clocks and watches, then the electric light to help us more easily stay up past sunset (when candles aren’t enough), we now observe a “leap second” to adjust our calendar as the earth’s movement shifts slightly in its rotation.

I hope you used your Leap Second wisely before midnight on December 31st!

Then, too, January 1st wasn’t always the beginning of the New Year. It used to be observed around the arrival of Spring, according to the equinox. March was the first month on the Roman calendar before 46 BC. The arrival (or return) of Spring would certainly bring with it a sense of something new or at least renewal. But since nothing in the heavens is going to tell you the New Year begins – now! – it’s all a matter of book-keeping. Every now and then, adjustments have to be made because someone figured something wrong somewhere. Hence the addition of leap days and other various tweakings over the centuries.

Janus, the two-faced god looking both forward and backward, became a symbol of this newly added month with the Julian Calendar. Janus was an king of Latium whose citadel, built on one of the Roman hills, the Janiculum, had a double gate that was kept closed while the kingdom was at peace, but remained open during times of war. During the Christian era, according to Maymie Krythe’s “All About the Months,” this gate was closed only four times.

About January, the 19th Century English poet John Clare (not to be mistaken with another John Clare) wrote in The Shepherd’s Calendar:

Now musing o’er the changing scene,
Farmers behind the ravern screen
Collect, with elbow idly press’d
On hob, reclines the corner’s guest,
Reading the news to mark again
The bankrupt list, or price of grain,
Puffing the while his red-tipt pipe,
He dreams o’er trouble nearly ripe;
Yet winter’s leisure to regale,
Hopes better times and sips his ale.

Things in the new year had to be better. But before there were “bankrupt lists” or prices of things to worry about, there were wolves that came out of the woods, where everything they’d fed on had either migrated, gone into hibernation or died. So they would invade the villages and attack people. This is why the ancient Saxons called this month Wolf Month. With the Recession of 2008, we may be thinking once again there are wolves at the door.

Originally, going back to Roman times, presents were exchanged on New Year’s Day. In Italy, gifts given to children were said to be brought be the wise men who had brought gifts to the Christ Child. This would make more sense if the gifts were given on Epiphany, the Feast of the Wise Men. But this custom eventually became part of Christmas Day and a 4th Century bishop, St. Nicholas (whose feast day is December 6th), became associated with giving gifts to children, inspired by various legends associated with his life, and he eventually found himself converted into Jolly Old St. Nick, and, by way of the Germanic spelling Niklaus, Santa Claus (if there was ever a Sint Klaus in between, somewhere).

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, Christmas shopping did not begin until the Friday after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday” after which store profits would no longer be “in the red.” My dad, a merchant, would work on Wednesday night or Thursday to put up the “Christmas Displays.” I don’t think many places put Christmas decorations or merchandise out earlier than that, then. There was a Thanksgiving Parade in Harrisburg which would end with the arrival of Santa Claus, much as it does today, though now it’s often scheduled a week or two before Thanksgiving. One of the highlights was going downtown to Pomeroy's, a department store located at 4th & Market Streets, to look at their animated windows. Primitive by modern standards, even before computerized special effects, then it was simply magic and adults would line up behind the children to ooh and aah as well.

However, since merchants now need to make as much money as possible, it’s more likely Christmas goes up as soon as Hallowe’en comes down. Last year, I saw Christmas ornaments and toys for sale over Labor Day Weekend. I got my Bah Humbug scarf out early, that year.

I recall many childhood Christmas Eves spent decorating the tree, especially untangling strands of lights and then trying to find out which one was the burnt-out one. The tree might come down some time after New Year’s Day and sometimes we’d keep it up well into January. Nowadays, people are more likely to decorate the outsides of their houses – those that don’t leave them up all year 'round – when the weather is still mild which could mean well before Thanksgiving. The lights might not be turned on until the Friday after Thanksgiving, but they could be in place and ready for quite a while. People would go get their trees right after Thanksgiving. Advent became more associated with a time to decorate and a time to shop, getting pushed further and further back into November until it became the opposite of the 40-days of Lent (a period I call Glut) with Black Friday now somewhere near the middle of the cycle, not its start.

In the 19th Century, once decorations became associated with Christmas – the hanging of holly and ivy – you left them up until Candelmas. This is the feast day on February 2nd, forty days after Christmas, when Mary was expected to present her firstborn son in the Temple. Eventually, with its emphasis on bringing light into the winter darkness, this celebration co-opted earlier pagan rituals and feasts along with various observations about weather that led to the forecasting of Spring’s all-important arrival:

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
Winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.

Farmers, it was said, would rather see a wolf in their barns on Candlemas Day than the sun.

Eventually, this ritual was passed on to a rodent who, if he saw his shadow, would run back into his burrow to sleep a little longer, meaning winter would hang around for six more weeks. There have been some winters where, frankly, it felt like it was going to be six more months...

And Candelmas Eve was considered the day you’d take down your Christmas decorations. But these days, if you’re putting them up at the end of November, by Groundhog’s Day you’ve got quite a fire-hazard on your hands. Or you’re knee-deep in pine needles.

Then, too, how long should we be playing and singing those Christmas carols? If December 25th is the first day of Christmas, shouldn’t we be playing the carols – at least those related to various aspects of the holiday (the Nativity, the Shepherds, the Wise Men) – through the 12 days? But if you’ve been bombarded with them since Thanksgiving Day, many people are quite happy to put them away on December 26th. On the other hand, January 1st (New Year’s Day) is also the Feast of the Circumcision, another ritual of a boy’s birth but one that hasn’t resulted in any Circumcision Carols that I’m aware of.

It still saddens me to see people taking down their trees and throwing them out for trash pick-up the day after Christmas. At least wait until 12th Night has passed... It will give you time to practice writing 2009 on your checks.

- Dr. Dick

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