“My wife already has the radio in the car tuned to Christmas music,” my neighbor told me last weekend. As I later drove to my Mom’s house, I saw a home with a large lighted Christmas tree prominently displayed in the large picture window. I long ago got used to retailers putting up Christmas displays even before Halloween, but, come on people, give it a rest!
I like the Christmas season. I might even say that I love it. I’m no Grinch. But too much familiarity breeds contempt.
The U.S. approach to Christmas is quite different than what I saw in Norway back in the 1980s. Christmas in the U.S. is all about the buildup, the anticipation, the journey to the glorious event of Christmas Day. Holiday parties, church socials, school choir concerts, decorations, holiday oriented performances, parades, and the like all get rolling around Thanksgiving and continue through New Year Day.
Then suddenly it’s all over. As soon as the New Year Day observance passes, it’s like we flip a massive switch and turn it all off. We go back to school and work, hardly giving a thought to the Christmas season until the following November. (Except for the Christmas lights that some people don’t bother to take down until July.)
When I was in Norway, there wasn’t much of a buildup to Christmas. I didn’t hear Christmas music or see much in the way of Christmas displays until December 23, which they affectionately referred to as “Little Christmas Eve.” Even then, it was kind of muted. Some people had Christmas trees in their homes before that, but not many.
People would go to work and school on Christmas Eve. There would be some holiday cheer going on. Then they would go home and get ready to celebrate. Many families donned nicer clothes and had a special dinner.
Then the parents would go into the living room or family room, set up the Christmas tree, and put out the gifts. In general, the decorations were fairly simple. It didn’t take long to set it all up. The children would then enter the room. Christmas carols were sung and the gifts were opened.
Christmas Day was usually more of a relaxed affair. But December 26 was also a national holiday. Pretty much everything was closed on December 25 and 26. Mass transit ran on a very reduced schedule, but even fast food joints were closed down. Only essential things like police and fire agencies ran as usual.
Most holiday oriented church, school, and social events occurred after December 26. The celebrations tended to die down sometime after the middle of January.
I’m not suggesting that the Norwegian method of celebrating Christmas is superior to the American method. It’s just different. I must admit, however, that the approach seems much more laid back. It lacks much of the pressure that is common in the American approach to the holidays.
That makes me wonder how necessary anxiety and stress is to the American observance of Christmas. It seems like it has become an integral part of the season. Many people wear it like a red badge of courage. Nothing I say or do is likely to change the culture of holiday stress. So I wonder why anyone would want to extend the strain to two months instead of limiting it to two or three weeks.
One of the things that engenders fondness for the Christmas season is the season’s temporary nature. Stretching the season dulls sensitivity to its special nature, making it more mundane, more common, less exceptional. It can decrease rather than increase enjoyment of Christmas.
Our family’s policy is to put up our Christmas decorations over the first weekend in December and to take them down sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year. That allows us to enjoy the season about as long as we want to without the decorations gathering too much dust. We think our décor is plenty elaborate, but it is quite simple compared to many in our neighborhood.
While enjoying Christmas, it might be good to ponder some of our holiday traditions. Here’s comedian Jim Gaffigan’s take on this.