Back before the days of Christmas movies and cheap electric light strings, the holiday itself began to be celebrated -- surprisingly enough -- at ...
wait for it...
Of course, preparations had to begin significantly in advance, especially in large households that expected to do a great deal of entertaining, or (in the old world) where the manor dispensed a goodly amount of seasonal largess. A good Christmas pudding needs to ripen, after all! In small, less affluent households where the gifts would have been hand-made, in secrecy, i'm sure the preparations were begun well before the time when they were needed.
But the celebration itself wasn't the excessively-long lead up to a climax and abrupt drop-off it is today. Pity.... Nowadays we have a frenzied period of getting ready, of baking and confecting, of shopping and decorating, wrapping, packing, mailing, entertaining and being entertained (or not -- at office parties for example!). Christmas morning comes and the biggest event is quickly over -- present-opening! The only major happenings left, Christmas Dinner and maybe a church service, tend to be an anticlimax to most. Then it's over! I was shocked the first time I saw a denuded tree, sporting the depressing remains of a few bits of tinsel, lying sadly on the curb on the day after Christmas, but it's too common now to impress me. In our family, we used to take the tree down on New Year's Day, but traditionally I believe it was considered unlucky to remove decorations till Epiphany.
No wonder so many people are refusing to observe Christmas anymore! It's a stress-generator, a huge waste of money, and a cheesy flaunting of materialism, the way it's usually "celebrated." There is no sitting back and enjoying the good trappings of the season -- there's always something more one is obliged to do, until it's over, and then it's OVER. I HATE "modern Christmas."
However, I LOVE the old Yuletide, the Christianized solstice holidays, whose faint echoes we can still perceive behind all the cartoon-character ornaments, cheap chocolate candy, and artificial versions of traditional winter greenery. I love Christmas cookies (low-carb these days, of course), mincemeat, hot Tom&Jerry, eggnog, my version of "party mix," and -- a sacred tradition which is NEVER low-carbified -- my grandmother's recipe for "English Toffee" (actually, it's what the cookbooks call Nut Crunch, like a Heath bar on steroids).
I love my recording of medieval Christmas music, savored while sipping one of my seasonal drinks (or just a nice glass of wine), with that pine and bayberry scent wafting in the drafty air -- my 118-year-old house has its original single-pane windows, a "gravity" furnace and no working fireplaces, but its original, authentic Victorian details only add to the ambiance! I love the look of the tinsel-garland and colored lights wound around the bannisters of the front staircase. I love the candlelight flickering from the sconces up the back stairs. I even love the vintage music which Sirius radio plays, as I work in the kitchen. I love the sights and smells and sounds of the season, as they come filtered into my home.
Now it's the end of the traditional holiday season, and while everyone else in this country seems to be focused on football, i'm intent on wringing the last drops of Yuletide atmosphere. Here in St. Louis, we're "enjoying" the same winter storm that's freezing and blanketing in snow so much of the country. Somewhere around a foot of snow has collected in the yard, and it's still falling thickly. Tomorrow, the 6th of January, i'll be putting away the limited amount of decoration I put up before we drove to Houston to be with our grandchildren for Christmas. But till then -- and maybe even after, i'll be relishing my idea of what a winter holiday ought to be ... eggnog in hand, and with my thousand-year-old carols playing in the background.