The following article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.
To maximize your Christmas cheer, the Crisis editors and writers put their heads together to produce this guide to the twelve days of Christmas. According to Fr. George W. Rutler, the neglect of the octave of Christmas — the eight-day extension designated by the Church to highlight the feast of Christ’s birth — and the evaporation of Advent are the clearest examples of the secularization of Christmas. Traditionally, cultures have celebrated the twelve days of Christmas, from December 25 until the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, usually held on January 6, or a Sunday near it.
The problem is, as Fr. Rutler explains, everything about Christmas disappears the day after December 25. The celebration of the twelve days has been lost in a culture that pulls out Christmas paraphernalia before the Thanksgiving turkey is gobbled and spends Advent rushing around from department store to holiday party. The real season of Christmas begins with the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and ends with the day of the Magi’s visit. Over the centuries, this period of time has been celebrated by gift-giving, feasting, caroling, plays and concerts, social gatherings, open houses, and charity to the poor. Perhaps the following suggestions will give you some ideas of how to continue your celebration through to the feast of the Epiphany.
No matter where you are, the season begins with the eve of Christ’s birth. For many, it’s a night filled with anticipation and excitement, as well as many traditions. B.F. Smith recalls her family’s yearly Christmas Eve ritual of reading the beautiful Metropolitan Museum of New York’s version of The Christmas Story. “We’d gather around and each of us would read aloud from the text. It’s something my husband’s family did when he was young, so we adopted it,” Smith says. Deal Hudson’s family prefers a group reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. “It’s always fun to see who can get through the list of Welsh presents without making a mistake in pronunciation,” he says.
Robert Royal doesn’t allow the tree in his home to be decorated until Christmas Eve, a preference Smith kept from her childhood practices, too, though now with the children grown, traditions have been adjusted. The Royals decorate the tree together throughout the day, to carols and classical music, and then bring the presents down and have dinner together. “Besides the recollection of Christ’s birth, my favorite part is the anticipation…. There is a rhythm and a sequence to the evening that I love,” he says.
Jody Bottum’s family serves up a special Christmas Eve meal Scandinavia frug sup, a dried fruit soup, along with a baked wheel of brie and a cooked ham. Anne Husted Burleigh’s family often resurrects an old Julia Child favorite, marinated pork roast. But while Evelyn Birge Vitz’s family may be enjoying homemade eggnog Bottum believes Christmas Eve deserves “a lot of champagne.”
This night marks the high point for Michael Uhlmann’s holiday, midnight Mass. “Time stops if you take it seriously,” he says. “It sets the tone in a curiously useful way…. You come home pleasantly tired and properly cued, and Christmas starts on a softer note.”
Christmas Day: Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
Handling Christmas morning and the opening of packages is the subject of debate in many of the households I polled. The conflicting traditions of husband and wife are usually integrated into a usable form with the arrival of children. Kim Daniels’children are very young — six, four, and two — so gifts are opened early before a big breakfast and midmorning Mass.
This day is marked with memorable, though varied, culinary traditions. The Burleigh family always make a corn pudding, numerous pies, and a persimmon pudding. ”They must be wild persimmons to get the flavor,” Burleigh says. Daniels’s mother cooks the traditional turkey dinner complete with trimmings. Royal’s wife, who is Ukrainian, dishes up old favorites like kielbasa and special breads, but the children often request a favorite in their father‘s tradition for Christmas dinner: spaghetti a la carbonara.
The simplest and, in some ways, most dramatic Christmas custom for Michael Novak is the breaking of the oblatki (blessed bread). In this Slovakian tradition, the bread is broken by the father of the family and then passed around the table from one member to another. “It is an informal reminder of the Eucharist, showing how all are members of one bread, one body, first in the family, and then throughout the world,” Novak says.
Feast of St. Stephen
The day after Christmas, the Church honors the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. In Poland and other Slavic countries, special breads are baked in the form of horseshoes, since Stephen has long been considered the patron of horses. In some places, St. Stephen’s Day is still celebrated with a theatrical performance called a Christmas pantomime. This is also Boxing Day, a civic holiday in Britain, Canada, and the commonwealth nations. Its origins date back to mid-19th-century England when boxes were filled with gifts and money for servants and tradesmen, and the poor went door-to-door to have their boxes filled with treats. Parents also gave their children small gifts.
An important gift-giving tradition in the Vitz family is the picking of a “Christ-child.” Every week from the beginning of Advent through to the Epiphany, each family member chooses someone else and gives him a present. “The gift is meant to be something inventive and creative, and the gift-giver is to be kept secret until the end of the week,” Vitz relates.
Today, Daniels’s husband might be enjoying one of his favorite Christmas gifts: a Yorkshire pudding made by his mother-in-law. Not wishing to scandalize anyone, Fr. Rutler mentioned a treat he enjoys in the midst of his busy Christmas duties: “It’s the only Christmas recipe you need–two parts gin, one part vermouth, and an olive.”
Feast of St. John the Apostle
Legend holds that the Emperor Domitian once attempted to murder St. John by offering him poisoned wine. When the saint took the cup and blessed it, however, the poison slithered away in the form of a snake. This story has given way to a tradition of passing a cup of wine at the table. When the wine is poured and the cup is blessed, each member around the table drinks and passes the cup to another, saying “I drink to you in the love of St. John.”
In the same spirit of camaraderie and joy, Hudson says he has to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” very loudly at Christmas and will often withhold drinks from his houseguests until they sing along. For Bottum, however, “The Christmas feeling is invariably precipitated by a different carol each year, for example, last year it was Once in Royal David’s City.” Smith loves renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Vitz prefers Christmas carols “where you can actually hear the words and get the meaning of Christmas.”
Terry Teachout admits that the movies Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and A Charlie Brown Christmas still put a lump in his throat. “Don’t ask why,” he says. “I suppose it’s mainly nostalgia, but I suspect there’s a bit more to it than that.”
Feast of the Holy Innocents
It has long been customary to serve some kind of “baby food” on this day, such as hot cereal with sugar and cinnamon, in commemoration of the children King Herod put to death. The Vitz family are “serious food people” and their children, now mostly grown, esteem some unconventional holiday dishes such as apple crisp.
Robert Reilly and Teachout’s list of slightly unusual holiday traditions include a cinematic favorite John Ford’s Three Godfathers, a Christmas parable starring John Wayne. “Who better to celebrate Christmas with than the Duke?” Teachout poses. Royal’s children have taken to watching the first two parts of The Godfather movies. “They find them filled with various themes of what it means to be family,” Royal explains. “Of course, I’m from a large Italian family, so that’s part of it.” Burleigh and family often watch Hoosiers when they get together “because it contains so many Indiana themes.”
If these suggestions don’t conjure up sentiments of the sublime, perhaps a performance of the Nutcracker Ballet or A Christmas Carol will fill two of Smith’s highly recommended nights out over the holiday. For homebodies, pulling out an old childhood “classic” like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a Daniels family favorite, may keep the season burning bright. Numerous households still enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, though Bottum “doesn’t consider it Christmassy.”
Literary tastes vary among contributors and staff, but all agree that Christmas affords the occasion to bring out old faithfuls and more obscure pleasures. The Bottum family reads aloud Lillian Smith’s book of short stories, Memories of a Large Christmas, and they enjoy “How Santa Claus Found the Poor House” an “incredibly sappy” piece found in St. Nicholas Magazine. Another favorite is Christmas Every Day, by William Dean Howells.
When Smith’s girls were young, they loved to read the Tasha Tudor books, especially one called Becky’s Christmas. “The Laura Ingalls Wilder books were also popular,” Smith says. “Many of them contained Christmas scenes and evoked themes of the season.”
In pursuit of personal enjoyment, Royal dusts off Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the prophetic poem which foreshadows the coming of Christ. He also recommends beautiful sections in Romano Guardini’s The Lord. As a family, the Royals read together the events of Christ’s birth from the gospel stories. Vitz indulges in her own Christmas pleasure listening to Gregorian chant.
Although Burleigh admits to “every Christmas being wonderful. I can’t pick a favorite,” there are a few memorable Christmas stories among the surveyed. Smith recalls the Christmas she spent alone, before she was married, and how the “beautifully decorated church and family morning Mass filled me completely.” Fr. Rutler considers a favorite Christmas to be the one he spent in Tunisia, his first as a priest. Celebrating midnight Mass at a cathedral, with a scattered group of foreign diplomats and businessmen, a French nun played an old Bing Crosby tune on the gramophone. “She thought it was sacred music,” he says.
Reminiscent of Christmas for Reilly is Hodie Christus Natus Est by Vaughn Williams; Gabriel Pierné’s Les Enfants Bethlehem, a wonderful Christmas oratorio; and Pablo Casals’s El Pessebre, just released in July 2000. Burleigh enjoys Bach at Christmas, and lots of it, but Rutler only listens to Handel. “All else is commentary,” he says.
With some of these great classics playing in the background, entertaining family and friends is easy with a delicious and potent recipe from Vitz’s 1985 cookbook, A Continual Feast, published by Ignatius Press. It’s a Polish punch, served in honor of St. Sylvester, whose feast day is tomorrow. Juice and grate the rinds of two oranges and two lemons. Combine about one cup of sugar, four cups of white wine, and two cups of light rum in a large pan. Add the strained juices and heat (do not boil). Yields enough for 16, but be sure to serve it hot.
New Year’s Eve — The Feast of the Holy Family
In some places, St. Sylvester — the first pope after Christianity became tolerated under Constantine is still honored with special traditions, but the day before New Year’s is now usually devoted to celebrating the Holy Family. The joy of being with family while celebrating the coming of Christ at Christmas is unanimously the most exalted aspect of the season. Fr. James V. Schall recalls Chesterton’s words: “Finally on Christmas Eve,” Chesterton said, “we should shut our doors to the world and bring our family inside and simply be with each other, with the tree, the presents, the creche. This is the feast of the Holy Family, the family. It is indeed a time for others but only after it is an exclusive time with those nearest to us.’”
For Teachout, who always joins his family in southeast Missouri, Christmas is inextricably bound up with the idea of home. “I want nothing to change, nothing at all,” he says, remembering the “terrible psychic jolt inadvertantly administered by my mother the year she bought a new set of figures for our nativity scene.” Fortunately, a relieved Teachout explains, she would never tamper with time-honored Christmas recipes. “There is always fudge…dark and crumbly and buttery, rich enough to throw a health-food fascist into cardiac arrest from the smell alone…. I eat enough to know I’m home.”
A favorite Christmas memory of Smith’s is the year she held her first child, sitting under the Christmas tree, staring at the manger scene of the Holy Family. Daniels reads The Nativity to her children, a book illustrated by Juan Wijngaard with text from Scripture, published by Candlewick Press. Hudson recalls catching an old Ralph Richardson film, The Holly and the Ivy (1953), late one night years ago on cable, which fiercely depicts the family dynamics that often crop up at Christmas time. It’s not to be missed but has yet to appear on video.
New Year’s Day — Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
On the last day of the octave of Christmas, just over halfway through the twelve days of Christmas, the Blessed Mother is revered and honored. Along with resolutions for the year ahead, and thanksgiving for another year passed, it is a day for feasting and merriment.
Music plays a large role in Uhlmann’s Christmas celebrations. He plays the Messiah throughout the season and recommends Robert Shaw‘s Chorale singing A Festival of Carols (RCA). Teachout, another Shaw fan, savors Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols (Telarc), a “handsomely sung digital remake of Shaw’s classic a cappella arrangements of all the best-loved seasonal songs.” But Uhlmann urges connoisseurs and musically impaired alike to “run, not walk ”to the nearest music store to pick up Rachmaninov’s liturgical music, especially Vespers (Shaw conducting on Telarc). “It is the most exquisite liturgical music ever written, and it washes over you in great waves,” he says.
Vitz’s recipe for mulled cider may be an appropriate complement to this special feast. She says it’s a splendid drink for a caroling party. “It is festive but nonalcoholic, so singers with parched throats can drink all they like and still keep their minds on the beautiful words they are singing.” Combine two quarts of cider, the peel of one orange or lemon, eight to ten cloves, and cinnamon in a saucepan. Add sugar to taste. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about ten minutes. Yields enough for eight carollers a-singing.
Although Smith, who’s been living for years near San Francisco, “only wants to see snow on calendars,” both Royal and Fr. Schall consider snow to be part of Christmas. Royal remembers “big snowy Christmases” in New England growing up, where sledding and skiing were favorite seasonal pastimes. In recent years, Fr. Schall has mostly spent Christmas in California with his brother’s large family who lives near the ocean. “We always take a walk on the beach near Santa Cruz on Christmas morning…but I don’t think I ever take that walk…without recalling our days in Iowa when Christmas was snow and cold and bundling up”he says. “Christmas meant snow to me. Coldness and snow give us that added incentive to stay inside with those we love.”
Among his indoor holiday practices, Bottum watches The Trouble With Angels, starring Haley Mills, a great seasonal classic for him, while Hudson says The Christmas Story, with Darren McGavin, deserved classic status from the day it was released; no one can forget the Christmas dinner at the Chinese restaurant with the duck being served head and all. Teachout loves Meet Me in St. Louis, where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; this, for him, is “the most poignant of all seasonal entries in the Great American Songbook.”
Christmastime also provides Teachout with an annual read of Edwin O’Connor‘s The Edge of Sadness, which takes place on and around Christmas. “It may possibly be the most underrated of postwar American novels, the understated yet immeasurably powerful story of a middle-aged, alcoholic priest who grapples with the mystery of God’s will,” he explains.
Poetry adds to the beauty and majesty of Christmas and Hudson suggests Robert Donat’s exquisite recordings of Christmas poems, which Donat made in full knowledge of his impending death. Originally released on Argo Records, Favorite Poems Read at Home by Robert Donat is also put out on audio by Caedmon. For the poetry lover on your gift list, Hudson also recommends the book O Holy Night! Masterworks of Christian Poetry, edited by Johann M. Moser, and published by Sophia Institute Press (1995).
Uhlmann pulls out many old standards at Christmas. He has about twelve different versions of The Chrismas Story, a book he finds “irresistible”as long as one stays away from the “Disneyfied” versions. When his children were young, he read them Dickens, and he fondly recalls the wonderful characters his children found in classic Christmas hymns, such as “round John virgin.”
Teachout finds special pleasure in three Christmas CDs: Benjamen Britten’s exquisite A Ceremony of Carols is sung “with crystalline perfection” in the recording by Sir David Wilcocks and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (EMI). Teachout knows of “no hipper tribute”to the season than Christmas With the George Shearing Quintet (Telarc). “And there will always be a special place in my heart for Just in Time for Christmas [Middler Music] warmly and affectionately sung by my old friend Nancy LaMott, a small-town girl turned big-city cabaret artist who longed to record what she called ‘a good old-fashioned Christmas album,’ which she managed…before her untimely death,” Teachout explains.
The season of Christmas was made much livelier for Reilly with the viewing of the Christmas musical The Stingiest Man in Town, a television special in the 1950s starring Basil Rathbone. “The soundtrack was released by Columbia and played at every Christmas growing up,” Reilly recalls. Though Royal listens to Ukrainian carols throughout the holiday, he admits it’s just not Christmas until he hears Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song.
One of Burleigh’s much-anticipated holiday events is visiting the Nashville Dominican sisters in Nashville, Tennessee, where her daughter has made her first profession. “They decorate so beautifully there and are so hospitable it has become a favorite part of our Christmas,” she says.
Uhlmann likes to revel in the memory of his annual trek for a tree with his brother and father. Despite his mother’s promptings to get the tree early, his father would inevitably put it off until the 23rd or 24th. “Out we’d go to five different lots, which would ensue a wonderful ordeal by bargain,” Uhlmann recalls. “My dad, having his fun, would exhaust the salesman and, in the end, hand him a $10 tip wishing him a merry Christmas. It was a wonderful ritual, and the way my father, a real character, greeted the season.”
Feast of the Epiphany
The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the visit and adoration of the three Magi. Known as the Feast of Kings, Twelth Night, and the Last Day of Christmas, the feast originated in Egypt during the third century and is, thus, an older celebration than Christmas day itself. There are many traditions surrounding the feast. Vitz recalls her children’s Epiphany pageant from years ago when they would “dress up and process around the house, acting out the visit of the three wise men.” They also enjoyed an Epiphany cake in which a bean was hidden, and the child who received the piece with the bean would be king or queen for the day. “These traditions were so enriching to the texture of family life,” Vitz says.
Like Hudson, Fr. Schall’s Christmas season isn’t complete without gathering around the piano. “My early Christmas memories always included my sister playing the piano once she had learned the art, which she did quite early,” he says. Perfect for the occasion of the Epiphany is Reilly’s recommendation of Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis (sung by Ian Bostridge on Phillips), which uses the meditative text by 17th-century writer Thomas Traherne to illuminate the theme of Christ’s nativity. Appropriately, Bottum might bring on more champagne to toast the King of kings.
Blessings of the Season
Although Bottum contends that a “perfect”Christmas does not exist, it is indeed “a sweet and lovely season” to Uhlmann, one that calls forth “a yearning to be with family and friends, and to renew acquaintanceships”for Burleigh. It’s a season filled with memories and a time to begin anew. With, perhaps, the exception of Fr. Rutler, who sums up his feelings of Christmas with “humbug,” all of us at Crisis wish you, our readers, a blessed and festive Christmas season