Celebrating Christmas after December 25
Fear not. This is not a debate on old calendar vs. new… Rather, it is a look at when to lay down the fast and begin to feast. The rest of the world has already begun celebrating Christmas. Ironically, one of my local radio stations began their “All Christmas Music” blitz the day we started fasting. We are nearly a month into the Nativity fast with just a couple of weeks left until we celebrate Christmas. Since I became Orthodox, I have not participated in quite so many pre-Christmas celebrations, but I certainly still want to enjoy Christmas parties and celebrate the season. Consequently, I decided early on in my Orthodox life that I would celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas.
So many people mistakenly believe that the 12 Days of Christmas refer to the days leading up to December 25. When I was growing up as a Catholic in Southern Louisiana, we did not celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, per se, but we did know what they were, and as such we left our tree and decorations up until January 6. Then, we exchanged them for King Cake and parades to celebrate Epiphany (the Three Kings journeying to meet the Christ child) and began the carnival season before Lent. For me, it was easy and natural to extend this recognition into a full celebration when I became Orthodox.
Before having children, I did this by hosting a Christmas party some time between December 26 and December 30. I also turned to the latest technology – CDs at the time – to bring me festive holiday music (both secular and religious) long after the radio stations had forgotten all about Christmas. As our family grew, the way we celebrated evolved. While I wanted my daughters to enjoy the season and getting presents, it was important to me that they also realize the significance of the feast.
For the last eight years, it has been our tradition to put up a few decorations, in particular one small, funky Christmas tree and our stockings, just before the feast of St. Nicholas. On the eve of his feast, the stockings are filled with a few gifts to make it a little easier to get through the Nativity Fast. These include things like religious books, fruit, dark chocolate, 3 golden dollars (representing the 3 bags of gold), and perhaps random little things from the dollar section of Target that the kids have been bugging me for.
When we get to Christmas, we needn’t worry about Santa Claus. At least that was always my goal. My kids, of course, learned about the jolly man in red, and they asked to visit him at the mall. So, this has always been a rather imprecise aspect to our Christmas celebration. Anyway, here’s what we do. After the girls go to bed, I put out one large present – at times they’ve assumed it was from Santa, other times it was just from us to honor Christ’s birth. I also wrap twelve smaller gifts. Each day from Christmas day to Theophany, they unwrap one of these presents. On Theophany, they get one more large gift or big outing to celebrate the feast. As they get older, I plan to reduce the gifts by one in observance of the strict fast on the Eve of Theophany.
Of course Christmas isn’t all about presents, so upon waking Christmas morning, the girls may play with their exposed present, but the wrapped one must wait until we return from Liturgy. We attend church for whatever services are available, and we continue to light our advent wreath, to which is added a white pillar candle at Christmas, at meal times.
I also try to have crafts or meaningful activities to do on some of the days. While some ideas can be found online, I have also found Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas: A Family Devotional in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition by Amanda Eve Wigglesworth to be a useful tool. For each day from Christmas through Theophany, she provides a background to the feast or saint that we remember that day. She also offers an activity or craft project to do for the day. Using the famous Christmas carol, she explains the religious symbolism associated with each day. For example, two turtle doves should remind us of the Old and New Covenants. The books covers activities from December 25 through January 6 but counts the 12 days starting on December 26. I have always counted them from Christmas day. Both ways of counting are common, so as I use the book I keep this in mind and stick with my own reckoning (it is certainly flexible enough for this). And given that many of us have other engagements that may prevent doing all of the activities straight through anyway, it is quite likely that while one would do all of the readings, schedules might necessitate picking and choosing a few activity ideas to do in a given year.
As we draw closer to the Birth of our Savior, let us not despair that we can’t partake of the feasting the rest of the world is enjoying right now. Rather let us continue our preparations and make plans for many days of feasting when the rest of the world has forgotten.