One of the downsides of starting Christmas so soon is that it finishes too soon. Obviously, if the season starts commercially just after Halloween, and the Christmas lights go on at the beginning of November, and the party season gets going in early December, you’re over the celebrations by St Stephen’s, or Boxing Day, with one last hurrah on New Year’s Eve. As an uncle of mine used to say dolefully, after tea on Christmas Day: “That’s Christmas over for another year.” Wrong, obviously. Christmas goes on for Twelve Days, Christmas Eve to Epiphany, a feast we do not keep by putting the bald Christmas trees out.
In fact, I’d say myself that we shouldn’t give up on Christmas until Candlemas, February 2. That was the way the Church’s calendar intended it: the Christmas season extended right through the second most dispiriting month of the year, right into the most depressing one. January without Christmas can be a downbeat month, but if we think of it as a modified extension of the Christmas season, it has an altogether different character.
There couldn’t be a worse time for the New Year, New You thing of giving up starchy carbs; this is exactly the time we should be eating them, having our friends round. It’s still the time for filling your house with candles and greenery, and entertaining. Candlemas Eve, not Epiphany, used to be the time when people took down their sprays of greenery, holly and ivy. As Robert Herrick put it in his poem for the Eve: “Down with the Rosemary and Bayes, down with the Mistletoe; Instead of Holly now up-raise the greener Box, for show…” And so on, with all the green stuff of Christmas being replaced with their springtime equivalents, to celebrate Whitsun or Easter.
In other words, the notion of decorations coming down on January 1st or the 6th, is wildly premature – a Victorian innovation. Nick Groom, in his admirable book, The Seasons, put it perceptively:
It was in the interests of 19th-century commercial society to get everyone back to work promptly. Today decorations can go up alarmingly early… but they also come down much earlier too. The season of Christmastide has, in other words, shifted forward as if it now expresses an impatient and premature desire for gratification. The result is that there are two cold months of winter following Christmas. It is a bleak time and there is little cheer and spring seems far away, which perhaps accounts for the rising popularity of Valentine’s Day.
So what I’m proposing is radical in the sense of a return to our roots. Keep the party going right through January. Don’t give up on the celebratory spirit for an entire month. And definitely don’t stop the Christmas parties until they culminate in an explosion of festivity with the Epiphany.
As far as I’m concerned, there are two celebratory days bookending the Christmas season: one, at the start of Advent, the feast of St Nicholas, when, like the Dutch do, I put something small in the children’s shoes the night before. Indeed, I’ve got around the entire problem of Santa Claus by insisting that he’s really St Nicholas – as indeed the famous poem that invented the modern Santa, The Night Before Christmas, makes clear – and so is a bona fide historical figure. If you don’t have to invent him, you don’t have to uninvent him (though you still have to get around the chimney problem.)
The other is Twelfth Night, the vigil of the Epiphany, which is a time for grown-ups to play party games, in the spirit of the season. Incidentally, Bulgarians still do, as Catholics once did on the Epiphany, celebrate the Baptism of Christ then – an interesting combination of feasts.
But what I’m going to try to do from now on is celebrate Candlemas properly too, and obviously I’m thinking candles. If we’re styling the feast, it’ll be as a festival of light for the Purification of the Virgin.
There’s something counter-cultural about all this. If secular society has appropriated Advent for premature Christmas celebrations – well, we can take back January by keeping up a mildly celebratory mood. And if we decline to start our fasting and abstinence regime on New Year’s Day, bang in the middle of the Twelve Days – well, it leaves us free to take it up for Lent, when the weather’s better. There can, after all, be little worse than Dry January, the month when secular abstainers give up drink, even though drink is probably exactly what you need.
In short, the way to strike against the secularisation of the calendar is to have more fun … all the way to Candlemas.
This article first appeared in the December 23 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here