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Ode to Christmas
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
President, Avalanche Press

When it comes to holidays, modern Western Christianity just doesn’t get it. Islam and Judaism have kept their multi-day holiday periods, and even invented holidays like Kwanzaa understand how it’s supposed to work. But Christmas, once a 12-day mid-winter celebration, has been allowed to dwindle to just one day (one morning, really) under the twin pressures of industrial employers not wanting to grant any additional leave just before their books close for the year and marketers building their campaigns to culminate in one spectacular orgy of consumerism.

On the religious front, some Roman Catholic thinkers have been coming around. But Christmas has been a secular holiday in the West for quite some time, and the one-day trap seems to have a steady hold on American minds at least. Those who’ve forgotten the other 11 days have abandoned one of the culture’s greatest gifts. This time of year is supposed to be warm and relaxing, a celebration of the turn of the Earth back to the sun and the coming of new life.

Or to put it in practical terms: it’s a whole lot harder for that bitter, spiteful old in-law to ruin 12 days than it is just one.


One partridge, one pear tree. Sap optional.

 

Celebration of December 25th as a feast day long pre-dates Christianity; the Zoroastrian Feast of Mithra marked the sun god's birth from solid rock. Some of the Mithra story's other trappings, like his attendance by shepherds, may have been added after the Christian tale came into wide circulation. Exactly when Christians fixed on the date is hard to tell for sure, with the earliest clear reference dating to 336 A.D. Within a century the Feast of Three Kings (usually called Epiphany in English-speaking countries) had also become a major feast day, with the dozen days in between a period of feasting, reflection and general merriment.

The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God appeared as a separate feast day about 50 years later, celebrated on January 1st in order to make Christmas an octave, or eight-day feast. The Feast of the Holy Family joined the calendar a thousand years later, and was not fixed on December 30th until 1969.

The actual "War on Christmas" — as opposed to the one imagined by today's well-heeled corporatist mouthpieces — grew out of austere 16th- and 17th-century Protestant movements. Eventually Puritan Massachusetts would even levy fines against people who missed work during Christmastide and businesses that closed. Twelve days faded to one, with that one allowed only grudgingly.


Kipferl — so that's what it's called.

 
But there are definitely those who hate Christmas — for the commercialization, for the massive stress associated by family gatherings, and most of all for its arrival just as the calendar year winds down. Workers face extreme pressure to make year-end targets, while at the same time the fourth quarter has become the most common time of year for layoffs thanks to those same targets. A couple of years ago the game industry's largest employer scrooged over 100 staffers on Christmas Eve. Firing people just in time for Christmas remains a tradition in this industry, and in many others as well.

Stretching Christmas over a dozen days may seem at first glance a recipe for prolonging the agony. Yet for small children, the results are wonderful. There is no Christmas overload. They get a single present each day, look at it, play with it, and enjoy it. They don't become hyper and start crying for no reason. And on a game industry salary, one comes to appreciate those lowered expectations. A lot. Each day has its own joy, and its own traditional feast in the evening: the old foods like turkey and goose, treats like kipferl and stollen, drinks like Glühwein. Yes, you have to fend off the in-laws sniping about "it's not really Christmas," but we all know they'd snipe at something anyway so there's no point in listening (sort of like gamers on message boards).

Christmas lasts 12 days: plenty of time for feasting and enjoyment, to play some of these games that we all love and enjoy the company of good friends. Merry Christmas every one.