“We like the dark. Dark for dark business!” –The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
We have some of the jolliest times throughout the darkest days of the year. For us, the merriment starts the day after Thanksgiving, which is when we start playing Christmas music and usually (intend to) put up our tree.
The first week of December is a great time for building gingerbread houses, before we max out on holiday baking and run completely out of energy and creative genius. I haven’t actually hosted a gingerbread-house party yet, but I think it’s a wonderful idea and I intend to start up that holiday tradition for local friends (someday). In the meantime, we’ve loved every time others have invited us over to decorate houses (especially when the hostess assembles the houses beforehand).
We also like to celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, or Sinterklaas, as it’s called in Holland. My grandmother, who was Dutch, came to the US as a young woman, and she brought many traditions from her native country. In Holland, Sinterklaas is (or at least used to be) a big deal. Oma sometimes took me and her other grandchildren to the Dutch Embassy on or around December 6th for a celebration involving stockings, coins, prizes, treats, crafts, and of course St. Nicholas.
On the years when I’m on the ball, our kids set out stockings or shoes on the night of December 5th. If I’m really organized, there will be gold (chocolate) coins in the shoes the next morning. Otherwise, it’s whatever I can scrounge from my purse. (This year, the kids each got a dollar and a penny; our resident Tooth Fairy has held out staunchly against inflation, but I figured the kids could use a bit of Christmas spending money.)
Another Dutch treat is the giving of chocolate letters. For years my grandmother gave all of us grandchildren our initials in chocolate, and I grew up hearing my mom and uncles laughingly recount stories from their childhood, when they would quarrel over who ended up with the largest letter. (In reality, each letter weighs exactly the same.) Now my mom is continuing the tradition by giving chocolate letters to my children. Of course, one doesn’t have to be Dutch to appreciate chocolate!
Now, as to actual presents, I tend to prefer a low-key approach. In fact, I often reference the various Christmases described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House books to express my appreciation for the value of low expectations, and the delight and gratitude that contentment and a lack of commercialism can bestow. “Think of having a whole cup and a penny to yourself!” But I understand that some people like to give and receive on a grander scale, so with gift exchanges we strive to chart a course that brings joy and glee without overwhelming either giver or receiver.
In my family, we opened one present each on Christmas Eve, and then read the Christmas story from Luke before opening the rest of the presents on Christmas Day. I come from a large extended family, so we typically had several days of parties and feasts. In my husband’s family, there is an elaborate schedule of opening stockings first thing on Christmas Day, eating a snack of monkey bread, then opening all the under-the-tree presents, then preparing and eating a hearty brunch (eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, orange juice, etc.) before preparing the feast for Christmas dinner. Certainly there’s no shortage of food surrounding our Christmas revels.
A week later, we’d be ringing in the New Year. When I was growing up, we didn’t typically go out for parties on New Year’s Eve; instead, we read through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Now that I have a family of my own, I’m thinking of reviving that tradition, since we’re obviously not going anywhere or staying out until midnight with young kids in the house. Not everyone will make it through the last stave, but the older ones will appreciate it, and anyway this is how traditions are passed down.
The last day of our festive season is the twelfth day of Christmas, traditionally the day on which the Magi brought their gifts to Jesus. We’ve had great fun hosting Epiphany parties in the past, usually with a white elephant gift exchange, which is a great way to unload any Christmas presents that didn’t quite fit the bill. January 6th falls into a bit of a lull after the holiday whirl of gaiety is mostly over, and it’s nice to have something fun to look forward to as “the days begin to lengthen, and the cold begins to strengthen.” Epiphany is a fitting time to exchange gifts yet again. Oh, and eat chocolate.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images by Rose Focht.