The time between Christmas and New Year has always seemed weird to me, ever since I became an adult. As a child, you don’t notice the weirdness so much, because school Christmas holidays typically span the entire time from before Christmas Eve to after New Year’s Day. It’s all holiday time.
Conditioned by these years of school, it comes as a rude shock to the system that your employer wants you back at work between the two holidays, especially here in America where Boxing Day (26th December) is not a thing. When Christmas Day falls toward the beginning of the week, you might well only get the day itself off and be expected to put in the rest of the week working; Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, everything.
In the Mediæval period, our modern Christmas Day was only the first day of a 12-day holiday period. The most important day, certainly, but only one day – the day when most of the religious part of the Christmas celebration was done and got out of the way so that the community could relax and celebrate without needing to be on their best behaviour.
Spiritually, too, a time to reflect on the meaning of the Christmas event without being distracted by the preparations. With Christmas beginning on Christmas Day and lasting for a full twelve days culminating on the 5th January, there’s plenty of time to fully digest the spiritual implications of the birth of Christ, and in addition, there are a whole cluster of Christian feast days scattered through the period: St Stephen the first martyr on 26th December, St John the Evangelist on 27th December, Holy Innocents Day on 28th, commemorating Herod’s wicked slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem after he realised the Magi had tricked him, the Feast of the Circumcision on 1st January, right up to the eve of Epiphany on 5th January.
In the modern secular age, all of the little feasts have been more or less forgotten, unless you happen to go to a very traditional church. The holidays have been reduced to two: Christmas, which is the holiday for children with Santa and flying reindeer and presents, and New Year, which is the holiday for grown-ups with parties and excessive drinking.
In addition, all of the attention is on the run-up to the holiday. After Christmas Day you won’t hear I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day or Feliz Navidad on the radio again for another year, thank goodness. We’ve done that now. Time to move on to the next thing. All of the stores are already taking down the red and green Christmas decorations and replacing them with pink and red hearts for Valentine’s Day, telling us that they’ve already milked us for all they can get out of us over Christmas and it’s time for us to be spending our money on the next big retail holiday.
And in our rush to move on, we might just miss something.
Undistracted by preparations, we have a chance to focus on meaning. We squander it at our peril.