The floor contains the remnants of torn wrappings, boxes, and bows. The stockings hang lifeless from the mantel, empty of all their contents. Leftovers are all that are left of holiday feasting. Wallets are empty and feelings of buyer's remorse begin to descend and suffocate. On the morning after Christmas, thus begins the season of let down.
It's not a surprise really. For many in the West, the entire focus of the Christmas season is on gift-giving, holiday parties, and family gatherings, all of which are fine in and of themselves. But these things often become the centerpiece of the season. Marketers and advertisers ensure that this is so and prime the buying-pump with ads and sales for Christmas shopping long before December. Once November ends, the rush for consumers is on, and multitudinous festivities lead to a near fever pitch.
And then, very suddenly, it is all over.
In an ironic twist of history, Christmas day became the end point, the full-stop of the Christmas season. But in the ancient Christian tradition, Christmas day was only the beginning of the Christmas season. The oft-sung carol The Twelve Days of Christmas was not simply a song sung, but a lived reality of the Christmas celebration.(1) In the traditional celebrations, the somber anticipation of Advent—waiting for God to act—flowed into the celebration of the Incarnation that began on Christmas day and culminated on "twelfth night"—the Feast of Epiphany.
For twelve days following Christmas, Christians celebrated the "Word made flesh" dwelling among them. The ancient feasts that followed Christmas day all focused on the mystery of the Incarnation worked out in the life of the believers. Martyrs, evangelists, and ordinary people living out the call of faith are all celebrated during these twelve days.
Far from being simply an alternative to the way in which Christmas is currently celebrated or an antidote to post-Christmas "let down," understanding the early history and traditions of Christian celebrations can reunite the world with the true focal point of the Christmas season. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory...and of his fullness have we all received, and grace for grace" (John 1:14-16). Far more than giving gifts or holiday feasts, the joy of Christmas is that God came near to us in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation affirms that matter matters as God descends to us and adopts a dwelling made of human flesh. Far from a let down, we have the opportunity to be lifted up and united to God through Jesus Christ.
A simple poem by Madeline Morse captures the calling of the twelve days of Christmas:
Let Christmas not become a thing
Merely of merchant's trafficking,
Of tinsel, bell, and holly wreath
And surface pleasure, but beneath
The childish glamour, let us find
Nourishment for heart and mind.
Let us follow kinder ways
Through our teeming human maze,
And help the age of peace to come.(2)
Living out the mystery of the Incarnation is a daily celebration. The celebration began on Christmas Day.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait, "The Real Twelve Days of Christmas," Christianity Today, August 8, 2008.
(2) Madeline Morse from the compiled readings by Rebecca Currington, Remember the Reason: Focusing on Christ at Christmas (Honor Books: Colorado Springs, CO, 2007), 7.