Okay, so the gifts are put away and the wrappings are disposed of, the leftovers have been eaten and the china has returned to the sideboard, the holiday phone calls have been made, the “Year in Review” has been written in the Christmas Memories book, the dates and appointments for 2022 have been entered on the new wall calendar, and the big tin of sugar cookies is all but empty. We are now in that period of interlude between Christmas and New Year’s, and all I’m feeling is the urge for a “long winter’s nap.”
It happens every year, this listless week between one big holiday and the next. Work schedules are amended, normal routines are out of whack, and no one is even sure what day of the week it is. (Sounds like the years we’ve spent in Covid.) This year, if you’re visiting friends you find yourself in someone else’s house with uncertain expectations and even less to do than if you were home; if you’re returning home from those visits, then you’re likely spending this week in a long winter’s nightmare rather than in a long winter’s nap — unless, of course, you’re sleeping in an airport.
Some people call this awkward time period “Betwixtmas” and blame the general ennui on the ever-expanding Christmas Creep of zealous merchandizing that seems to start counting down “shopping days ‘till” earlier and earlier each year. By the time the Big Day actually arrives, we’re all completely spent, both financially and emotionally. This holiday season, what with Americans’ absolutely defiant determination to have a “normal” Christmas, supply chain issues, extreme labor shortages, and ever-mounting Covid threats be damned, the pre-season shopping FOMO (fear of missing out) was worse than anyone ever thought possible. Holiday decorations were on display before Halloween here where I live, and Christmas trees, both real and artificial, were mostly gone by the first week in December.
There are cultural traditions that can help weather the discomfort of this in-between period. For example, the British have Boxing Day on December 26, which has nothing to do with boxing, but which honors a practice begun under Queen Victoria in the 1800s. On Christmas Day, boxes were placed in the churches into which the wealthy could contribute gifts and money to be distributed to the poor the next day. Hence, “boxing day.” These days, Boxing Day is celebrated mostly with sports in the UK — rugby, cricket matches, horse races, and most of all, the sport of fox hunting. Americans’ generosity of toys, gifts, and money to the less- fortunate during the Christmas season, as well as our enthusiasm for celebrating Bowl games and play-offs at this time of year, might be indirect interpretations of the British Boxing Day.
Catholics and Christians everywhere honor the Twelve Days of Christmas leading up to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, also known as the Feast of the Three Kings. Various Christian cultures have different ways of celebrating this feast day, but Spanish cultures honor the Three Kings with a Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Cake. It is round, shaped like a crown, with a small porcelain figure of the Baby Jesus buried inside. Whoever gets this slice of the cake must then provide the next celebration for everyone on Candlemas Day, February 2. No doubt you recognize the direct legacy of this tradition in the famous King Cake associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And then there is Kwanza, which is a distinctly American celebration of African history and heritage held at exactly this time of year, from December 26 to January 1. Created in 1966 in the aftermath of the Watts riots by Black Power figure Maulana Karenga, the seven days of Kwanza honor the seven principles of African heritage. They are invoked with decorations of African art, traditional dress, music and dance, and communal meals, all intended to offer respect and gratitude to ancestors. Although originally envisioned as a cultural rather than a religious occasion, many African-American families today celebrate Kwanza along with Christmas and New Year’s.
Search as I might through all these different traditions, however, I am unable to find an antidote to my current restlessness and latent feelings of dread about the year ahead. If you’ll recall, in early December I was, if not exactly hopeful, at least motivated to resurrect some of our own Christmas traditions and to take responsibility for my own holiday happiness (see “Making A List…” posted Dec.12). I did manage to address every preparation on that list, including touching base with all my far-away friends, mustering my anti-Covid courage to attend Christmas Eve Mass down at the Cathedral, and practicing the piano for my Christmas Day concert (awful though it turned out to be). But the legacy of holiday joy from my Mother has waned more than a bit, and now I’m just tired, and tired of. What a difference three weeks makes, especially during the course of a pandemic.
The Norwegians have a word specifically for the days between Christmas and New Year: Romjul. Literally translated, it means “yule space,” a period of extra time with no expectations, not for anything nor of anyone. That concept suits me well right now and seems to be a reasonable attitude to adopt going forward. After all, who knows what the New Year will bring?
Meanwhile, let me finish this year with an attitude of gratitude by writing some Christmas thank-you notes.