Watching the World as It Passes

The day after Christmas has a long history in the western world as a day of strangely battle-weary living for many. All of the wildness and extravagance people can conjure has been devoted to getting to and through the 25th of December, and little thought or energy or resources remain for anything that follows, least of all the day immediately on the heels of the Christmas holiday. That’s okay. Everyone has his or her way of celebrating, or avoiding what they see as the excesses of others’ celebrations, no matter what the holiday and Christmas, with its western prevalence and pervasiveness culturally, has expanded into something astonishingly complicated even for those who have no connection to the origins of Christmas at all.

I have experienced Christmas in a multitude of ways myself. I grew up in the Christmas tradition of church and family, gift-giving and observance intermingling and filling all of the days around the date, but as an adult no longer living in my parents’ home, and especially as the spouse of a professional musician, I have spent many subsequent Christmastides attending concerts and services not in the same place and with the same people, some of the occasions entirely secular and some fastidiously and formally religious, and often have felt myself simultaneously immersed and somewhat removed–an observer of this strange phenomenon that is Christmas in the modern world.

What I feel now also changes and flickers like a candle flame. Part of me is moved and absorbed to the degree that I hardly notice my immersion, and part remains surprised, mortified, mystified and/or delighted at the lengths, depths and heights to which people go in pursuit of their own understanding and expectations of the holidays. As I grow older I am also more aware of the plethora of significant events and holidays meaningful in so many other religions, cultures and personal realms, and these often change my view of the practices related to Christmas in and around my life, too. Even the most hermit-like must be so affected in this day and age, it seems, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. If we live in the context of all of this, we should certainly be conscious of how these differences and nuances and variations inform and even influence our experiences in this life.

All of that aside, one of the least spiritually driven aspects of the winter’s holidays that gives me a certain amount of real pleasure is knowing that on the 26th of December a fairly large percentage of people in the western world are frantically rushing around in the pursuit of shopping exchanges and returns, after-Christmas sale bargains and last-minute, end of the year party preparations, and another portion of the population is collapsed in utter exhaustion from the foregoing revelry–and I am in that most enviable state of being and doing neither of those. Preferring as I do a quieter, less frenetic and far less shopping-oriented way of celebrating important occasions in my life, I find the rebound from them equally reduced in intensity and stress. That, to me, is the gift that does keep on giving.

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As you were! You feel free to go about your business and do your celebrating as you like, and I’ll happily wait right here for you in my royal lassitude. Happy holidays to all!

Hurray, Hurray, It’s Boxing Day!

photoChristmas was a genuinely Big Deal in my family’s household when I was a mere stripling. Not only were there the churchly obligations and celebrations inherent in a pastor’s (that would be Dad’s) profession but there was being in a Norwegian-American extended family quite fond of eating, partying and jamming into one or another of the aunts’-and-uncles’ homes, all thirty or forty of us, to mark the occasion with the annual family gathering of the season. There was the feasting, of course, with mountainous platters of lovingly baked Hardanger and potato lefse*, meatballs, and all of that tasty stuff, not to mention all of the traditional cookies–rosettes, fattigman, sandbakelser, krumkaker and the like–enough to get kids and adults alike surfeited with sugar for the rest of the week. There were the much-anticipated visits from Julenissen, who in a stunning development was a dead ringer for Gramps at his jolliest and arrived bearing a big burlap sack full of surprises stuffed into other surprises, and all secreted in a multitude of newspaper-mummified little packets that had to be carefully unrolled, unwrapped, unfolded and unwrinkled from the mass in the sack, one by one, to reveal anything from a single nut in its shell to a dime-store toy to a larger gift earmarked, one for each specific kid among Granny and Gramps’s–ahem, I mean Julenissen’s–much-loved passel of holiday-hyper children.

At home, Christmas Eve was the biggest day of the season, thanks to the Norsk roots on both sides of the family, and always included the midnight candlelight service but also usually had its own bit of household festivities, not least of them the opening of the gifts; only the Santa stockings were reserved for that “lesser” festival of Christmas Day morning. Perhaps the most distinctive Christmas Days were in the years when we would have some of the family, often from Dad’s side, at our house since they weren’t always at the big gathering of Mom’s much more extensive family. Then, if Dad’s relatives were with us on Christmas Day we might well do another post-Norway-inspired deed, moving the Christmas tree into the middle of the living room and circling it slowly, hands joined, while singing a couple of old Norwegian Christmas carols. Lest you get the wrong idea here, we were so far from the von Trapp family as to mostly stumble around in our circle, forgetting half of the songs that we only half understood anyway (the pantomime bits that went with the songs were the best part, for all that), and on two occasions our beloved great-Auntie Ingeborg tipped the tree right over. But of course it was entirely worth it to get through that ritual to reach the package-unwrapping mania that followed, so we dutifully did our attempted tree ‘song and dance’ without too much impatient grumbling. After all, the tree might get tipsy yet again if Auntie was with us, one hoped.

Christmas Day, if it risked being anticlimactic after the big splashes of family visiting and diet-busting and gift-giving on and before Christmas Eve, wasn’t without its own attractions. First and foremost, it was a day when we were allowed to recover somewhat quietly from all of the foregoing extravagances, always rather oversized and glamorous in our eyes because of the time spent with our crowd of cousins and the general extremity of differentness from the rest of the year. Not that we slept in, I imagine, because despite the family focus on Christmas Eve we young twerps certainly didn’t object to getting a morning surprise from the depths of those stockings we’d hung up by the fireplace, along with the expected in-shell nuts, coins and orange, the latter best enjoyed by rolling the fruit against a hard surface to release its juices, cutting a small square opening in the side of the orb and stuffing a sugar cube in the hole through which to suck sweetened orange juice. After the hurried discovery of the stocking-stuffers we could concentrate on Christmas breakfast; the best and most traditional of the offerings on that morning would be a big pot of Julegrøt, a sweet milky risotto-like rice dish best enjoyed with plenty of melted butter and cinnamon and sugar, with a blanched whole almond buried somewhere in the pot to provide the lucky recipient with a particularly excellent year to come.

All of this tells you that I came from family traditions with no special recognition of the Feast of Stephen, let alone a clue to the existence of the great traditions of Boxing Day. When I first heard that name I might be forgiven for having thought it was a reference to the fisticuffs that followed less congenial families’ stressful Christmas Eve and Day events, and later for thinking it a reference to the pugnacious behavior of those returning and exchanging imperfect or disappointing Christmas gifts to a thousand thousand overworked retailers. It was both a pleasant surprise and a relief to discover that while both of those aspects were undoubtedly real in some unfortunate lives, Boxing Day was happily celebrated in many more households than those where it was feared.

This year’s Boxing Day at our house will be spent in rejoicing at the chance for a peaceful recovery from the unusually busy return this fall to a combined university-plus-church choral season of ‘all choirs all the time’ for my conductor husband, as we’ve been happily immersed in that good craziness now since September. So I think it’s time to introduce yet another optional definition for the day’s name, perhaps, something along the lines of a ‘Day for willingly Boxing ourselves into the house incommunicado and attempting to reverse the effects of all the wild busyness and cheerful excess that has gone before’. With that, I bid you all Peace!

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See the Blazing Yule Before Us! Or just past, or a year away . . . or, well, see the coziness and great pleasure of holidays well spent!

* Tomorrow: a recipe for Mama’s Justifiably Famous Potato Lefse