Christmas isn’t over — at least not at our house.
True, most of the activity of the season is now past. As usual, we celebrated on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my mother and sisters and their families at the Belfast house, with gifts and once-a-year foods and good wine and lots of singing around the piano. (The amount of singing — and perhaps the enthusiasm behind it — seems to be in direct relation to the flow of wine.) We then traveled south to be with Susan’s family, for more gift-giving and general merriment, returning early this week.
But the season is still far from over.
At home, we’re still playing Christmas music, and will be for a while. Our tree will remain up for several more weeks. And Susan and I have yet to exchange presents with each other. Our tradition is to do that on January 6, Epiphany, the day the wise man presented gifts to baby Jesus.
As with most things we do oddly, I’m the reason.
As a child, I was enthralled — intellectually more than musically — with The Twelve Days of Christmas. Why in the world would we take something as wonderful as Christmas and confine it to a single day?
We had this book at home when I was young that talked about different Christmas customs around the world. I envied the English with their Boxing Day and the Spanish and others who exchanged gifts on the twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany. Why shouldn’t we celebrate longer, as well?
My mother reinforced the notion of an extended Christmas by always keeping the tree up until after Epiphany — a clear and natural decision, given her knowledge of the Christian calendar. Yet doing so put us at odds with everyone else in town, all of whom seemed to be discarding trees curbside by January 2 (or before). I can remember many friends who’d come by our house and be surprised to see a tree still standing after New Year’s Day. (Sometimes I feel I spent much of my youth either explaining the small things the Piottis did differently or hiding them.)
As I got older, my interest in extending the season was driven by the fact that I couldn’t turn my attention to Christmas until December 23 or 24. In college, I often didn’t get home until then. Even when I was lucky enough to get through finals a little earlier, I’d be so exhausted that all I’d do is sleep until Christmas Eve.
This led to the beginning of a tradition that continues to this day: doing all my Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve. (I’ve noticed that many of the patterns I set in college have stayed with me.)
It’s become almost cliché how certain men — males usually described as determined but desperate — will prowl the malls for Christmas gifts on that last shopping day. In some circles, it’s just another opportunity to talk about how men are procrastinators, incapable of planning. Not fair! The scoffers miss the fact that to successfully do things at the last minute requires a high degree of planning, expertly executed. Personally, I’m all about planning.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1988, the year we were married, I proclaimed to Susan that I planned to do all of my Christmas shopping — that year and forevermore — on Christmas Eve in downtown Belfast. My belief was that I could get anything I needed downtown and also that there was no reason to shop before Christmas Eve. Besides, shopping on Christmas Eve is fun. There’s a festive air that is tangible. And shopping then somehow seems less commercial — at least in the modern sense. I feel like a Victorian bustling between shops. It’s all rather Dickensian.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’ve remained true to my word. At least mostly. Although I still shop downtown every Christmas Eve (in a tradition that now involves my children selecting something for Susan), I will confess to an occasional online purchase. Beyond that, with Susan and me now exchanging our gifts on Epiphany (as we’ve done for the last 10 years or so), not everything needs to be purchased by Christmas Eve. And since I don’t need to do it all then and there, I sometimes don’t.
I’m more rigid in other convictions I have about Christmas. And the big one is that I try hard to not let Christmas end when the gifts are opened, be that on Christmas Day or even twelve days later.
This is a personal goal I pursue each year, though, no doubt, I impose outward elements of it on my family every time I play carols in January or mention Christmas long after the holiday is over.
And there is a reason I do so: because I need to.
There are clearly people out there who keep Christmas in their hearts year round and do so naturally. I’m not one of them. I can and do easily revert back to a Scrooge without conscious effort otherwise.
Amid all of the Christmas traditions, amid all those wonderful things we do the same each year, we sometimes forget that this holiday is a remembrance of a great upheaval, a great disruption. Christmas celebrates how, for Christians, the world changed with the birth of Jesus. What stays with me after every listening of Handel’s Messiah are the bass soloist’s words, “And we shall be changed.”
I’m in my fifties, but still spend every Christmas with my four older sisters. Families are funny things. Being together at a sentimental and tradition-filled holiday is a sure way to make me feel like a small boy again. And that means that at times I can become petty and irritable. So there are times during Christmas when I don’t like who I am. This happens every year regardless of how hard I try otherwise. Invariably, some comment or action triggers a reaction in me that I don’t like. I may or may not show how I feel to others, but even when I do exercise self-control, I know how I feel, so it is bothersome nonetheless. Won’t I ever grow up?
But just as I have moments each Christmas when I’m at my worst, there are invariably times when I’m at my best — points in time when I feel deeply happy, thankful, and blessed. And these moments are often accompanied by a sudden sense that the world makes sense, that my own place in it makes sense. It’s my own little epiphany — seeing meaning and connection. It’s a different lesson each year, though with a common theme, one of kindness, compassion, and tolerance.
I fight to keep these feelings with me throughout the year, with mixed success. Still, it’s deeply reassuring that these moments exist, even if fleeting. I want and need to know that I’m capable of being better.
Every year, Christmas changes me — which I think is the whole point. Christmas is not so much about who we are as it is about who we can become.
John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.