It appears that Irish people tend to overindulge for weeks rather than mere days over the Christmas holidays. “In Ireland, it goes on as a season – it goes on forever,” according to Fergus Shanahan, chair of medicine at University College Cork.
If only. The really awful, ahistorical and irreligious aspect of the contemporary Christmas season is that it starts too early and finishes way, way too soon. Look, back in 567 AD, the Council of Tours decreed that Christmas should go on for 12 whole days, right through to the Epiphany, on January 6th. So, Christians would kick off the celebrations on Christmas Eve – bringing greenery into the home and entertaining – and carry on in a crescendo of festivity right through to the arrival of the Three Kings on the 12th day.
The night before, “Twelfth Night” (counting from Christmas Eve), there would be plays and games – as per William Shakespeare. There’s a distinctive and very agreeable take on the Epiphany in Ireland, of course, as the Little Christmas, or Women’s Christmas, when women take the day off and get waited on. I mean, that is what happens in your household . . . no?
Cold and miserable
What actually happens in the contemporary calendar is that the concept of new year’s resolutions – the new year/new you idea – has somehow come to mean diet and fitness. And so we get the grimmest things on Earth at just the wrong time of the year – starting right in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas. I mean Veganuary. I mean Dry January. These things would be penitential at any time of the year but in January? Look outside. It’s cold and miserable. This is no time to be giving things up. It’s a time for hot whiskey and starchy carbs and a drink round the fire.
I mean Veganuary. I mean Dry January. These things would be penitential at any time of the year but in January?
And this is precisely what the pre-contemporary calendar delivered: long Christmas. Properly speaking, the Christmas season does not end abruptly even on January 6th. That was a Victorian ruse to get the working classes back in harness. The liturgical calendar envisages people returning to work, but a slow decrescendo in the festivities right through to the feast of Candlemas, or the Purification of the Virgin on February 2nd. In other words, the decorations should still be up for the month of January, the greenery should still be in the house – all that holly and ivy – and hospitality and entertaining should still be the default setting.
The alternative, a January that’s bleak and inhospitable, with people going in for fast and abstinence, is psychologically wrong, not just liturgically bizarre. The actual time for fast and abstinence is Lent, which happens in spring, a time for new beginnings, and is preceded by well-established rituals, as in pancakes and carnival (well, in some places) and concludes with the blow-out of lamb and eggs that is Easter. Now that’s more rational.
The actual time for fast and abstinence is Lent, which happens in spring, a time for new beginnings
The historian, Nick Grooms, whose book, The Seasons, documents the traditions of the calendar, is emphatic that “Long Christmas” makes sense.
“After the 12 days, January is a bleak and bitter month with no significant feasts,” he wrote recently. “So our forebears kept up the spirit of Christmas to see them through this cold, dark time. Scientific research has proved that green spaces can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing, and the continued presence of greenery in the house is heartening.
The Irish are quite right to see the Christmas season through for weeks rather than days. Me, I’m eating to excess until Candlemas.