By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
President, Avalanche Press
Christmas is just too much fun for one day to hold it all. Western Christianity used to know that. 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 Western 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 get plastered and ruin 12 days than it is just one.
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"
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.
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 few 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. 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 the bitter old men trolling on message boards; actually they're probably the same people).
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.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.