Kage Baker and I always observed the full 12 days of Christmas. Partly because it was an old custom, and Kage liked those; partly also to stretch out the season of Yule. After the buildup to Christmas Day, she found it a dreadful let-down to have the whole thing collapse into nothing on the very morning it finally arrived.
Classically, the 12 storied days begin on Christmas, not end there. And they go on until January 6th – variously known as 12th Night, Epiphany, Little Christmas, etc. It’s supposed to be the day that the Magi finally got to the stable – and, it is to be hoped, reinforced the angel’s warning to Joseph and Mary that it was time to clear out of Herod’s ‘hood if they wanted to keep their baby safe.
In modern times, here in the US, Christmas begins the day after Thanksiving and implodes on Christmas Eve. In really devout areas, it seems to begin the day after Halloween … by the time 12th Night rolls around, the stores are displaying Valentines and Easter eggs. We scorned such claim-jumping. Not even Peeps and Cadbury eggs could persuade Kage to abandon the Midwinter festivities before 12th Night.
Kimberly’s family feels much the same. The tree is still up, though it will come down tomorrow. The lights are still strung for the Christmas display, in multi-coloured glory; after tomorrow, we’ll clear off the polychrome and revert to icy white and blue for the duration of January. The seasonal evergreen light over the front door will be changed out for a blue one. Kim and I like to keep a string of lights on the front window year-round, and the colours are changed monthly to reflect the season. What comes after Christmas is frost.
Literally. Even here in Southern California, there are places where frost makes its appearance in the black heart of winter. I live in one of those micro-climates. January is the coldest month down here, and it’s in the last week that we’ve had to begin scraping frost off the cars in the mornings. The lawn recovered nicely from the summer heat, and now we have to worry about frost-kill … but it never lasts long down here.
The Christmas cactus is covered with scarlet flowers twice the length of the hummingbirds that come to raid them; the oxalis is showing its first neon-yellow blooms, the rosemary is covered with pale-blue flowers. Various bulbs are displaying blunt anonymous buds rising through the mulch of dead leaves to surprise us. No, the frost won’t last; but while it’s here, we’ll honour it with the appropriate lights.
This is what Kage and I always did, and it’s a joy to me that Kimberly still does it, too. I like the domestic habit of helping the seasons along their path with ritual lights. It’s one of the great advantages of electricity! Though if I had to do it with candles or oil, I would. I have, not always having lived where current flows … and despite the fact that I have a fibre optic Christmas tree plugged into the UCB port of my computer even as I write this, it’s keeping company with coloured candle cups: just in case the power fails.
Gotta keep the lights lit. That’s something in which Kage’s determination never faltered, whether it was votive candles on top of her view screen or the lamps she lit in the windows for every Quarter Day’s changes. If we want the light to dwell with us, we have to make it sure knows where we live, right?
We still have our 9 foot tree up, which had to be trimmed to 8 feet to fit in the house. It is perfect to have that nice period of time to enjoy the peace of Christmas with no requirements to rush, shop, bake, go to all to the wonderful concerts and pageants and events. Just be, with mangers and stars and tree and lights. Even if the dark outside is howling…
Christmas deserves to last longer. It’s why we cling to the 12 days of.
Our tree is still up, mostly because I can never bring myself to take it down until the fire hazard outweighs the nostalgia factor- which is usually around the end of 12th Night. Then we enter the period of true darkness, although Solstice is past and light is (unless something goes terribly askew) returning. Every year, about this time, I find myself puzzling over Imbolc- the Celtic Year mark (aka: Bridgid) that celebrates, I’m told, the coming of Spring. I am a Celt, bone deep Celtic DNA, from both my Scot and Irish ancestors, but it’s been a long time since my people concerned themselves with the ewe’s lambing cycle. Still, this year I’ve volunteered to act as Priest at our Coven’s Imbolc meeting, and I need to find some meaning in it, beyond “Well, it’s only three months until Beltain. How’s the food supply and firewood holding out?” Any words of wisdom, Mother? Love. Buff.
I can’t vouch for my wisdom, Buff – but I’ve always found Imbolc to be very rich with meaning. My family, too, though almost excessively Celt, is pretty well removed from the flocks’ breeding cycle – although, driving up and down I-5 this past 6 weeks, I can assure you that lambs, kids, calves and foals are appearing everywhere. Things are being born. There is a veritable cuteness storm out there in the fields.
But for me, the main thing about Imbolc is that life is not just promissory by Imbolc – it is visibly ascendant. The days are growing noticeably longer, and the twilight is softer. The hills are green or greening, depending on what grows on them; the trees are showing a mist of leaf buds along the bare boughs. The oxalis is blooming in a variety of unlikely neon colours. Clover is white amid the lengthening grass. Bulbs are beginning – either delightfully arrogant little phalluses popping up everywhere, or actual flowers showing up. The early crocuses, narcissi and snowdrops are in bloom by then.
Specifically, for me: our citrus trees show both blossom and fruit at Imbolc. The early riser can greet the sun without getting up in the middle of the night. The rain is warmer, wetter; fog rises from the earth where the snow and frost are sublimating into the air like gasped breath. There are thunder storms; there are neap tides. A few frogs begin to boom. Baby foxes show up, rolling like kittens under half-bare bushes. Does come down to eat the new grass and the fresh growth on the roses. The mockingbird comes back to sing in the wintergreen tree outside my bedroom.
At the Winter Solstice, we take it on faith that the darkness will end, life will return, and – as the great Sir Terry Pratchett observes – the oxygen will probably thaw out. But with Imbolc, our faith pays off. Life is here, it did come back, a new year is ours.
*I promise you Spring*, says the Green Man. (Someone told me that.) At Imbolc, the promise is redeemed. Only three months until Beltaine? Yes. But also, three months already heart-deep in the rising heat of Life. It’s not a minor mark at all.
That’s how I see it. Whether or not it’s wisdom, I don’t know. But what it feels like is joy, and champagne bubbles in the blood.
I trust you won’t mind, Mother, if I pass along our exchange, in toto, to my Coven. thank you for your thoughtful response, and a blessed New Year to you! -Buff
No, I don’t mind – I wrote them out for you, kiddo.
You are not alone in keeping the traditional 12 days of Christmas. My family always waited to take things down until Little Christmas. We compromise and put white lights up on our apple tree right after Thanksgiving, but the actual Christmas tree waits until a week or so before Christmas, so we can keep it without it being too much of a fire hazard. That has the benefit, thanks to our cultural impatience, of usually getting the tree on clearance sale. Although this year I thought I’d waited too long – when I went to pick it out on the 20th the display was down to about a dozen trees. The lights will stay on the apple tree until spring (largely because I don’t feel like wading through snow to remove them), but we’ll stop turning them on after Imbolc.
Kathryn – yes, we have white and green lights in our front yard mulberry tree; they’ll come down after Imbolc, too. It’s very comforting, to have a ritual series of lights!
I just got the ornaments down and packed in tissue-wrapped anonymity into their cozy little squares in two big red boxes. The lights are still on the tree, and lighted, because it’s JimDear’s job to take them down. As long as I’ve had a place of my own the tree has gone up the week before. The coming down has been a matter of time, laziness, and remaining sentiment. Now that we’ve given in to an artificial tree, I don’t have the molting factor to consider, but curiously don’t seem to delay as much. Maybe it’s because I know I’m less likely to come away with piney scratches all over my hands and have to get out the vacuum.
A friend of mine once had her douglas fir up till, hmm, April. Right through workshops. The needles got so dry they were almost transparent–the whole tree was very nearly transparent–and still had a few glass balls on it. It was the oddest thing to walk into her living room, even be there for a while, then see it suddenly. But the old legends say all the greens should be out of the house by Imbolc/Candlemas, or the fairies will inhabit them–the kind that sour the milk and knot little girls’ hair and leave the broom in the middle of the floor for the mistress of the house to trip over, leading to hard words all round..Twelfth Night is better. 🙂
Kage Baker was entirely right to want to bypass that anticlimax which can be Christmas Day, if Christmas has begun the day after Thanksgiving. I, too, am a 12th Night person, and while I get everything ready beforehand, I don’t actually start celebrating Christmas till Christmas Eve. Even if I’ve put my tree (s) up a couple of days beforehand, I don’t turn the lights on till Christmas Eve. Then it’s kick back, turn on the Christmas music, pour the Kir Royale, dish up the tourtierres, turn off the regular lights …and let the magic come flooding in. This celebration of artificial light is SO necessary, especially if you live far north, where the daylight truly is fleeting this time of year.
I have started pushing for the 12 days of Christmas to begin on Solstice, instead of Christmas Day. This is because of 3 tidy coincidences:
1. I’ve always wondered about the significance of “5 Golden Rings” in the song. It never quite fit – everything else is some sort of animal. BUT if you start the 12 days on Solstice, then the 5th day of Christmas is — Christmas. That’s a nice reason to call out the special day.
2. The 12th day of christmas falls on New Years Day.
3. It just makes sense to me to start and end the 12 days with dates that carry some personal meaning. When I realized that there are 12 days between Solstice and New Years, I pretty much did a forehead slap “Of Course!” move.
I never really celebrated Christmas in the organized religion tradition, so the idea of Epiphany and the fables behind it are foreign to me. I’m up for starting a new tradition anyways, how about you?
Love & warmth in this coldest season.
I like that, Jonathan. I like that a LOT!