Thursday, December 24, 2015

Real Meaning of the 12 Days of Christmas: Recollections & Rant

            Merchants have turned the 12 days of Christmas on their head, with popular culture -- movies and ads – depicting the 12 days preceding the holiday as the most important times to express consideration and get busy with that shopping.  Traditionally, The 12 days of Christmas follow the birth of the child Jesus. It took the Three Wise Men – shadowy figures from East of Palestine – that long to reach Bethlehem after the star appeared to guide them on the so-called Holy Night.

            This night was fixed at December 24, to co-opt the pagan rituals. In early times of winter celebration, feasting in the lord’s castle or the village continued until Jan. 5, the Feast of Epiphany or Little Christmas as it was called in the ethnic community where I was raised. On this night, the myth holds, the Wise Men reached Bethlehem to complete the cycle of rejoicing following the birth of the new king. 

            12 Nights of Socializing

 In my father’s extended family, and my mother’s smaller local family, there was much visiting in the evenings during the 12 nights of Christmas. The men returned from work, generally factory or crafts jobs; the family had dinner. Then the children were bundled into snowsuits, and we set off in the dark, chill night on icy streets. Or relatives might ring the bell about the time we finishing cleaning up after supper.

            In that case, we children were expected to allow ourselves to be hugged, answer questions civilly, open any gifts in the presence of the givers and say “thank you” as sincerely as we could manage as kids, no matter what our personal opinions might be. Then we might go to our rooms, which were not equipped with televisions.  A television was a space-consuming piece of furniture and the focus of the living room. Even radio was not available until my teens, when cheap Japanese transistors came into widespread, affordable use.

       The Social Protocols     

Certain visits were obligatory. Visits to grandparents and/or get-togethers with siblings occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Less close connections were attended to during the week. Nieces and nephews were expected to visit their aunts and uncles, bringing the children to meet the great-aunts and –uncles. Godparents had to be visited, or the godparent might visit the child’s home. There didn’t seem to be a pecking order on that. In general, it was expected that families with young children and older people were less mobile, so they would be visited. In general, younger people visiting older ones showed respect.

            Conversation often centered on family. Conversations included keeping track of marriages and – rare in those times, divorces, as well as births, illnesses, children’s education and antics, and gossip about mutual acquaintances. In addition to information sharing, one conversational ploy was known as fishing.  Direct questions about many things were rude. If one suspected that a woman had died her hair to cover the gray, or someone’s child was getting into trouble, one might volunteer some information that would anticipate a similar self-disclosure from the other person. If I wanted to know if cousin Holly’s child was failing in school, I might volunteer that one of my children was struggling with math or English or some such. Inquiry could be deflected by focusing solely on the inquisitor’s situation: “I am sorry to hear it.”

             Circles of Friends in the Seventies

 As a young woman, there was a lot of visiting among friends during the holiday season. This was accompanied with capacious quantities of wine, weed, and great food. A few businesses even gave a paid break week for the days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. The feeling was that not a whole lot of work would be done anyway. Many business places were looser about hours, especially if business was a bit off.  In the newspaper business, for example, Christmas was often a famine period. This was before our nation celebrated national holidays with shootings, and before celebrity gossip and local police blotter stuff was elevated to the status of news worth anyone’s time. Congress and most state legislatures are on break, and once upon a time in the United States, political coverage constituted a good part of what was considered news.  A phenomenon such as the Kardashians was not even a gleam in the cameras’ eyes.

            Now however, the 12 days of Christmas have fallen on hard times. What was once a joyful period of carousing during the darkest nights of the year has become an excuse for employers to model themselves on Scrooge and fire employees who prefer to spend time with family on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas or Hanukkah, or Passover or Eid, or Diwali, or whatever occasion might be of sacred importance to that worker.

            The 12 days of Christmas, a time for opening one’s heart to an ever widening sphere of people with food, conversation, and drink, is simply a marketing ploy. And it's too bad that advertising analysis co-opts ancient cultural roots, simultaneously pretending to honor them while subverting the social and cultural practices toward a calculus of endless consumerism.