According to pop-culture lore when Lucy Van Pelt told Charlie Brown, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” to “get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink!” she wrecked the aluminum tree industry. Of the many memorable moments in that classic Christmas special, that skewering of flashy Christmas consumerism is a favorite.
But blows landed against the commercialization of Christmas have been few. Lonely holdouts like Nordstrom might not decorate with Christmas sparkle until after Thanksgiving, but most malls start decking the halls before Halloween. Even lean times don’t stop the commercial impulse as John Maynard Keynes domination of macro economics has entrenched the idea of spending to feed the economy. “If you want a recovery, buy toys, mountains of toys/If you want a sound recovery, buy toys.” (That’s not a direct Keynes quote, but a line to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” from Econ Stories brilliant holiday music spoof Deck the Halls with Macro Follies.)
Christmas consumerism annoyed me before I had children. But after a few years of relentless “I want…” lasting for weeks then capped off by excitement withdrawal on December 26th, my annoyance bloomed. I started looking for a new way to do Christmas.
I didn’t need a new way, though. I only needed to uncover some old ways. I finally found a solution in the oldest of institutions, the Church—not in doctrine but in the calendar.
I grew up Baptist and so didn’t have much knowledge of the liturgical calendar. I thought “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was a silly song like “Frosty the Snowman.” But I became Episcopalian when I got married and soon we spent five years living in London where Anglicanism is often more cultural than religious. I discovered that there actually were 12 days of Christmas. Or in other words, there was no need for the one day explosion of toys followed by nothing.
In fact, while the pop culture calendar for the Christmas season schedules weeks of consumer anticipation for a one day binge, the liturgical calendar schedules weeks of reflection about what we’ve been given followed by days of celebration. For Americans, Thanksgiving falls three days before the Church’s reflection period and so the entire end of the year flows from a day of giving thanks, to a period of giving to others, to a celebration that includes the promise of the a new year.
Whether one follows religious teaching or not, the liturgical calendar makes good sense.
I’ve been doing this “modern” Christmas schedule for a few years. I have seen a vast improvement in my kids’ attitudes each year. So in the giving spirit of the season, I present How to Plan a Modern Christmas That is Not Dominated by The Mall.
Advent, Beyond the Chocolate Countdown to Santa Calendars
Advent spans the four Sundays before Christmas Day. For Christians, it is a time to reflect upon the coming of Christ and to prepare to celebrate God’s gift to us. In culture, it is when our children get bombarded by gift-getting anticipation. Christian or not, however, it is rather easy to use Advent’s call for reflection to shift the focus from “What I want” Santa list-making to a period of giving to and thinking of others.
Instead of an Advent calendar full of chocolates and little surprises, I make an Advent calendar of service. Before anyone objects that December is too busy, that the gravitational pull of culture is too strong to possibly add another task—I cheat. I turn things we already do into Advent tasks by calling attention to the service to others and preparation to party aspects of the tasks.
I put little scrolls and occasional symbolic trinkets in our little door cubby calendar for each of the day’s tasks. In our calendar, some tasks require nothing more than dinner conversation, like making shopping lists for our Adopt an Angels or choosing our charity of the year. Another day’s task sends us shopping for our adopted angels. The next is wrapping those gifts. One day is a simple “Take a flower to your teacher.”
For Christians, or anyone seeking a little more substance for older children, adding a few lessons about the Jesse Tree, the original family tree tracing Jesus’s lineage from Jesse, father of King David, turns Advent into Biblical history month. In a few years, once the children master the history, Advent could move to architectural and artistic studies of massive stained glass masterpieces.
I posted our list for this year as an example, but the essential trick is to arrange Advent around what your family already does by adding a festive touch, maybe something as simple as coco with peppermint sticks while wrapping, and naming how the task serves others.
For kids, this simple change in focus shifts December from weeks of anticipation about what everyone is going to get them to what they can do for others. And with the exception of a little advance scheduling and printing out and rolling little slips of paper, it doesn’t change the adults’ To Do list a bit.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, Not Just A Silly Song About a Bunch of Birds
For many Christmas Day is the only day of Christmas. After weeks of buildup, the kids tear into their gifts, gorge on sweets, and then crash into boredom. The rhythm of school holidays, with Christmas up front and days of anticipation withdrawal to fill, only exacerbates the problem.
At our house it was often worse than that. We had the first grandchildren on both sides. I started my search for a better Christmas the year that I almost lost one year old twins in the mounds of wrappings while I soothed hysterical three and five year olds who needed to open another gift to spare grandparent feelings when all they wanted to do was play with toys they had already opened.
When I discovered that the 12 days of Christmas were an actual season, I started spreading Christmas out. Just like Advent, I didn’t add much. I just distributed what we already did and added a touch of festive flair.
Christmas takes a little more advance planning than Advent. The calendar is the hardest part. First, I moved some big events, kid parties and Nutcracker shows from Advent to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. That eased the pre-Christmas chaos and made other things, like getting Nutcracker tickets, easier. I also moved a few repeat gift categories, such as new pajamas and fresh art supplies, to a day during Christmas, which prolongs the gift getting and streamlines Christmas morning.
I had a large basket that I decorated it with a felt nativity ornament set that had lost Joseph to our dogs. After we have cleared away the Christmas Day debris, I put this empty basket under the tree. Each morning of Christmas, the children find the day’s gifts in the basket. I keep it simple. I don’t even wrap the items. (Less pre-Christmas wrapping!) The basket under the tree each morning is fun enough.
Our family has always played games over Christmas, so Day 2 I give the kids fresh decks of cards or a new board game. Day 3 is usually Nutcracker tickets and a new nutcracker that my mom gives us every year. I place new PJ’s under the tree the morning of the cousin sleepover. I stick sparkling grape juice in the basket for New Year’s Eve—I keep that one really simple because we have a large New Year’s Eve party. In our 12 days of Christmas that I posted for example, only the kiddie champagne and the Twelfth Night king cake are added gifts. Everything else was already a gift or stocking stuffer.
As the Advent plan avoids Gimmie! attacks, the Christmas plan helps avoid the post Christmas Day doldrums.
The Twelfth Night, The Holiday That Time Forgot
The end of Christmas used to have its own rich traditions. In addition to being the day decorations had to come down—otherwise they had to be left up all year to avoid bad luck—the Twelfth Night was a bit like childhood Opposite Day only with more mischief. It is The Holiday that Time Forgot, which is a shame because it sounds like loads of fun. From King Bean and Queen Pea to Little Christmas, there are many Twelfth Night traditions one could revive.
The Irish Little Christmas tradition caught my attention. It started out as a women’s tea party, the little cake and sandwich kind. The women socialized after leaving the men at home to do the housework and childcare for the day. In the modern era, it has turned into a women’s night out to celebrate the end of the busy Christmas season.
That’s the tradition I stole. For the past two years I’ve gathered about a dozen of my girlfriends at a local pub to toast the end of Christmas. We’ve had a lovely time and highly recommend the practice.
A warning though, we’ve had some confusion about the date. Determining the Twelfth Night of Christmas isn’t as easy as counting. Different Christian traditions count Christmas differently. Some count Christmas Day as day one, while others count the 26th as the first day of Christmas. And in many old calendars, a day began at sundown the night before. So there is much confusion on whether or not Twelfth Night happens on the night of January 5th or 6th.
If you plan any Twelfth Night festivities, you will need to specify the 5th or 6th of January. When trying to revive and modernize a dormant tradition, I advise simplicity. I called Christmas Day day 1 of Christmas, used the modern midnight as the date line, and, therefore, declared the Twelfth Night the evening of the 12th day which is January 5th.
I’ve been doing this Advent and Christmas plan for a few years. I’ve noticed a remarkable difference in my children’s attitudes in December. This past Sunday, the first day of Advent, I entered a room to hear my eldest children explaining charity to the twins. They wanted to know when they “got to choose” their charities for the year. That is our Advent task for December 17. They were disappointed they had to wait that long. Jim and I were thrilled. If we must endure whiny impatience from the children, then I will take “When do I get to do Meals on Wheels?” over “But I want that toy now!” anytime.