How will you your Christmas keep? Feasting, fasting, or asleep? Will you laugh or will you pray? Or will you forget the day?
In "Keeping Christmas," Eleanor Farjeon, an English children's poet, reminds us of some of the day's possibilities. Or perhaps you'll muse about some of our favorite holiday customs, many of which come from England and date back hundreds of years.
Christmas cards, the source of much pleasure -- and aggravation -- originally were elaborately decorated papers expressing English school children's love and holiday sentiments. The students displayed their best penmanship (to impress the parents, as gift-giving time approached, with the diligence of their studies).
When next you hear, "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" or "Ding, dong, merrily on high," picture a circle of medieval English dancers. "Carol" originally meant dance, accompanied by a song, long before the music became associated with religious hymns.
Mistletoe was held sacred by the Celtic Druids and by the Norsemen. Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be purely an English custom. One old tradition required the plucking of one berry for each girl kissed until the sprig was bare or the man ran out of girls.
The evergreen holly and ivy were important life-symbols. In old yuletide songs, the holly was considered the male and the ivy, the female. Whichever was first brought into the house determined which sex would rule the house for the year!
Hanging Christmas stockings evolved from a legend associated with St. Nicholas who went to the aid of a poverty-stricken nobleman whose three daughters were without dowries. The good bishop threw purses of gold into the house and each one fell into a stocking hung near the chimney to dry.
Gift-giving goes back to the winter-solstice custom at early Roman festivals, when gifts were a few twigs from a sacred grove, given for good luck. The practice escalated: presents of food, candles, and small pieces of jewelry have led to today's shopping sprees.
The very first Christmas tree goes unrecorded, but we look to Germany for the start of the tradition of lighting and decorating small evergreens. Sometimes called "sugar trees" because of the edible ornaments (gilded fruits, "sugarplums," and decorated candies and cookies), tree decorations eventually included all kinds of toys and treats. Floor to ceiling trees are uniquely American.
No matter how you keep Christmas, the conclusion of Farjeon's poem seems apt: Whatsoever brings the day,
Do not keep, but give away.