Christmastide! What visions of good cheer and family happiness -- from lighting the Yule log on Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night -- this wonderful word recalls. Don't you agree?
But what is this grumbling growl? Surely it isn't "Bah, Humbug!"
Oh my, 'tis the week before Christmas and all through the city, celebrants are dragging around a heavy-laden spirit to rival poor Jacob Marley's chains.
There's still Christmas shopping to be completed, not to mention card mailing, present wrapping, present sending, tree buying, tree trimming, cookie baking, holiday entertaining, carol singing, organizing the carol singing ...
First, let us pause for a moment to consider this fact: Christmas will arrive on Dec. 25 whether we are ready for it or not.
Keeping this in mind, look again at that "to-do" list. Now trim it down to the essentials. This is so that during these last few days we can turn our energies toward wrapping up the most precious gift we can give our families this holiday: The gift of Christmas Past.
Whether or not you realize it, you are creating childhood holiday memories. When your young ones are grown, these memories become their Christmas Past. The legacy that they will pass on to their children. Now these memories can be cherished, festive moments shared by a happy, loving family: gazing out the window at gently falling snow; the sounds of bells and joyful music; savoring the aromas of mulled cider, roast turkey and gingerbread; sipping hot chocolate while reading a holiday story aloud each night at dusk; wrapping packages before a warm crackling fire; attending a beautiful church service together; delighting in the charming cards that arrive each day bringing greetings across the miles; the thrill of receiving a few special presents, and experiencing the wondrous joy that comes from making others happy by our thoughtful gestures.
Or, your children's Christmas memories can be of their parents racing around, out of breath, out of energy, out of love, and out of patience -- too exhausted trying to do everything. Christmas can come to mean tears, tantrums, frantic hustle and bustle, arguing over money, over relations, over holiday humbug.
It's your choice.
Just how do we go about creating a Christmas worth remembering? One suggestion is a festively wrapped memory-making plan of traditions spread out over the 12 days of the holidays from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night.
There is much to be said for the practical Victorian custom of "keeping Christmas" or spreading it out over an extended period. It is clear folly to rush around madly preparing for Christmas Day, only to cram all the gifts, parties and special treats into 12 very full hours and then expect everyone to enjoy themselves.
Christmas Eve: While this day is usually lost in a flurry of last-minute preparations, in former times Christmas Eve had its own wonderful customs that are well worth reviving for your family's pleasures.
One Christmas Eve custom you might wish to adapt is that of the Yule log. The Yule log, which was the largest log of wood one could find, was decorated with a sprig of holly, placed in the fireplace and lit with much ceremony, where, it was hoped, it would continue to burn throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
No fireplace you say? Then try hauling home a festive Christmas cake in the shape of a Yule log, either a Buche de Noel or an ice-cream roll cake and call it your family's Yule log. It's the spirit of tradition that counts.
Another custom that could be adapted, starting this Christmas Eve, is to withhold four presents from each child's monstrous mountain of gifts. One present the child will receive the day after Christmas (Boxing Day); the other three are to be saved until Jan. 6 (Epiphany).
Dec. 26: Boxing Day -- an official holiday in England. Besides being a day spent recovering from Christmas, this was the day that the alms boxes for the poor were distributed, as well as the day that servants took "boxes" of food and gifts from their employers home to their families. It also is traditional in England to have a holiday fox hunt.
In Mrs. Sharp's house, our children celebrate Boxing Day with a treasure hunt. Mother has hidden presents in specially decorated boxes around the house. No doubt this gift -- usually a game or puzzle -- would have been overlooked in the abundance of Christmas morning, but coming as it does the next day, this custom provides a charming antidote to the post-Christmas doldrums.
Mrs. Sharp's Boxing Day presents are placed in enchanting old-fashioned reproduction Victorian boxes which are presents in themselves. For the little ones, Mrs. Sharp leaves the Boxing Day gift near the fireplace, so that she can exclaim, "Oh, look what must have dropped out of Santa's sack ... " The older children have a more challenging hunt, with written rhymes as clues.
Dec. 27: Fairy-tale ballets, Tiny Tim and singing Christmas trees. The entertainment elves have been busy rounding up a cornucopia of holiday offerings for our families as they do every year. Today would be a delightful day for a holiday entertainment outing (this is a perfect activity for a Father's Day Out) followed by a restaurant luncheon or dinner. But please, no fast-food snack bar visit. This is a once-a-year grown-up extravaganza for the little set and they love to live up to the event.
Dec. 28: Today is Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young children killed by King Herod during his search for the infant Messiah. The Victorians called this period -- through Jan. 6 -- "Little Christmas" and it was the time that juvenile parties were held. With the children home from school this week, today would be a perfect opportunity for the children to invite their friends in for show-and-tell, followed by hot cocoa and Christmas cookies.
New Year's Eve: Although not an occasion normally associated with family and home-centered traditions, one warm and comforting year's-end custom that the family can enjoy together is a "good-riddance" party.
In the late afternoon everyone gathers for a tea party and our family celebration begins, complete with paper hats, horns, streamers and confetti.
Yet before we can welcome in the New Year, we need to put the old year's mistakes, regrets, frustrations, pain, and shortcomings and disappointments behind us. Each family member writes down whatever it is that he or she wishes to forget and places the small slips of paper in a shoe box.
Next, wrap the box with black paper, sealing in the sorrow and bad luck. The box is burned in the fireplace or thrown out with a flourish, so everyone can say "good-riddance" and begin 1988 with a clean slate.
Jan. 6: Twelfth Night, or the Feast of Epiphany, was the day when the Three Kings from the East arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the Christ-child.
Alas, in many modern families, this is the day the Christmas decorations are taken down, but during the Victorian era Twelfth Night was a grand event, concluding the Christmas celebration.
On this night the children are given the three gifts earlier removed from the Christmas tree pile. After dinner, a Twelfth Night cake adorned with figures of the kings (small wooden or plastic ornaments work well) is served. The cake has a silver coin (or foil-wrapped bean) baked into it; whoever finds the coin becomes king or queen of the evening. After being invested with regal dignity and power as well as a gold cardboard crown, the Twelfth Night monarch reigns over the festivities. Party favors include gold-covered chocolate coins and Mrs. Sharp always has some frankincense and myrrh incense burning in remembrance of the first Epiphany.
This is a great family party: The children put on puppet shows, Father performs magic tricks and Mrs. Sharp organizes parlor games. Coming as it does a few days after the children have reluctantly returned to school, celebrating Twelfth Night as a family wraps up a beautiful gift of Christmas '87 memories.
Washington Post Writers Group author Sarah Ban Breathnach is the originator of Mrs. Sharp's Traditions, a column advising families on seasonal pleasures as practiced by the Victorians.