Of Rituals, Tradition And The Twelfth Day Of Christmas

I woke up this morning and realized it was the twelfth day of Christmas.

It was early, just past 7:00AM, and everyone was still tucked in their beds on this sunny Sunday morning, peacefully snoozing away. I quietly got up and made a fresh pot of coffee, fetched the Sunday paper and decided today was the day I would take our Christmas tree down.

I’ve always been surprised by how many people can’t get their tree down fast enough come December 26th. And it never seems as though there is much significance to putting away the decorations, but rather a sense of haste to “get it all out of the way so life can get back to normal again.”

What is normal anyway? And why the rush to get there?

I am not an especially religious person, but I grew up with a father and grandfather who were both Lutheran ministers. And though my liberal, non-traditional upbringing with my pastor-father was not filled with scripture readings or echoes of “Praise, Jesus!” throughout the house, we always kept our (real) Christmas tree up throughout the entire twelve days of Christmas. This year, especially, I noticed people on Facebook counting down the twelve days of Christmas beginning on December 14. WTF? Here’s my little lesson on the Christian calendar, folks: Christmas Day is not the twelfth day of Christmas! Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and all those days and weeks leading up to Christmas is a time of waiting and anticipation. It is Advent. (Being a bit of an anticipation junkie myself, I have always loved Advent the best.) When my kids were little and we actually attended a local Lutheran church regularly, I loved that we were not even allowed to sing Christmas carols before December 24! And then, at the magical Christmas Eve candlelight service, as we belted out “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”, what normally would feel so worn-out from hearing it piped into every store and commercial soundtrack, felt fresh and new and full of vibrant energy.

That period of Advent when we didn’t sing Christmas carols in church always felt a bit like a fast. The discipline, the tradition, the adherence to something greater than our commercialized world felt significant. And those first few verses of those carols sung on December 24th tasted like the first bite of delicious, solid food after four weeks of abstinence. It felt meaningful.

So, today, January 5th, is the twelfth day of Christmas. And the tree can come down.

We got our Christmas tree a bit later than normal this year. My college kid son had expressed an interest in going with us to the tree farm to chop down our tree, and since his holiday break began earlier this year, we agreed to wait.

I woke up on our designated tree-chopping day with a 102 degree fever. Ugh.

After swallowing a handful of Tylenol and wrapped up in layers of scarves and gloves and fleece, I climbed into the back of The Mister’s van to make the family trek to Arlington to the Christmas tree farm. True to tradition, our tree–the perfect tree–was waiting for us. It called us to it, as it always does. It was a huge, full, majestic specimen of tree, much larger than we’ve had recently. Its branches sturdy enough to withstand the weight of the hundreds of bear ornaments it would be expected to support. Once home, The Mister commenced with the lights and by that evening, it was ready to begin decorating.

Unfortunately, I was not.

Still feverish and barely able to remain vertical for any length of time, I knew this year had to be different. While I am typically the one to choreograph the hanging of bears and balls, arranging everything just so, this year I had to let go. Surrender. Stay in bed.

Let’s just say it was not a smooth transition. (I’ll save you the gory details.)

The Mister and the kids gamely tackled the task. Later that evening, I peeked in to see our beautiful tree transformed into our magnificent bear tree, with virtually no help from me. It was both reassuring and bittersweet. The following week, as my fever broke and I felt better, I finished the tree with its flourish of ribbon woven throughout its branches. I stood back and paused and took it all in. Gorgeous and stately and sparkly and full of love and tradition, just like always. Go figure…Christmas would be happening after all.

In the peace and quiet of this Sunday morning, as I began to disrobe our tree, I realized how important it was for me to do this, this undressing. I’ve always noticed a contrast in emotion from the giddy excitement of hanging the first ornaments versus taking everything down. Sometimes when I un-decorate, I feel sad. Sometimes a sense of relief. Other times it feels much like any other task or chore. But today, on this twelfth day of Christmas, I was filled with peace. Joy, even. You see, I had missed out on that ritual of unwrapping each bear and hanging it just so. Of remembering where each ornament had come from and from whom. Today, there was no sense of haste or need to put it all away to get back to normal. Today was about carefully tucking everything back into it’s rightful spot, safely, securely and with as much love and reverence as I would have had I took everything out all those weeks back. It was about noticing each bear–the old, tattered ones, the fragile glass ones, the big soft ones that had been seated just so back on the inner branches. It was about noticing the ornaments that aren’t bears–the dinosaurs and baseballs and the random Canadian moose. Recognizing that our tree today, with its growing diversity of ornaments, is now a more brilliant expression of our family. I smiled as I thought of my kids hanging these ornaments without me hovering over them, directing and choreographing. I smiled and laughed at my unwillingness sometimes to let go.

And I thought about ritual.

We don’t attend church regularly anymore, but when we did, what I loved most about it was the importance of ritual and tradition. Of following a calendar and practices and singing hymns that always seemed a bit out of step with our fast-paced, consumeristic world.

Here’s the thing, though: Rituals aren’t sexy. They aren’t necessarily exciting, although I suppose they could be, if you chose carefully. Rituals can be annoying and inconvenient and boring. Like leaving the tree up one or two more days even though the Boy Scouts conveniently offered to pick my discarded tree up from the curb on Saturday. Like getting up and spending thirty minutes on my yoga mat rather than mindlessly checking Facebook updates. Rituals can suck and are hard, but we do them anyway. That’s the point, right?

Rituals ask us to slow down and pay attention. To pay homage to what is important to us. This morning, I was struck by the current lack of ritual in my life. And I wondered how much richer and more centered my life might feel if I were to incorporate more mindful ritual into each day? Things like taking five minutes to meditate, to sit in silence with my breath, first thing in the morning. Of unrolling my yoga mat, not just in the classes I teach, but in my own personal practice and moving my body with my breath just for myself. And the discipline of sitting my butt in the chair and writing. Every day. Maybe it’s fifty words. Maybe it’s 5000. How much is not nearly as important as the simple act of doing it. I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I am a fan of living intentionally. My intention for 2014 is to bring these rituals back into my life on a daily basis. It won’t be easy, this much I know for sure. But hopefully, through these simple acts of mindful discipline, my days will feel richer, more purposeful and less chaotic. Rituals can give us a soft place to fall. A place that feels like home when everything else around us is dark and disconnected.

The past few days when I’ve driven down my street after dark, I’ve noticed our house is the only house still with its Christmas lights on, blazing its red and white lights into the darkness. I’ve noticed my neighbor’s darkened houses and I’m tempted to ask them, “Don’t you know it’s still Christmas?”

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas. Tomorrow is Epiphany. Merry Christmas. May the New Year bring you a meaningful, intentional and brilliant life through whatever rituals you choose.