Follow the Star

14521142994558_700It’s the first week of the new year and the holiday decorations are gone. Stores are filled with valentines and spring colors. It’s time to move on to the next phase of our annual celebratory calendar. So much for Christmas traditions. We have better things to do than linger over a long drawn out yuletide. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time to enjoy tidings of the season when the first hints of the big winter holiday return to our local emporiums somewhere around the end of July. For now it’s time to pack away our memories of Christmas 2016 and plan ahead without sentimentality.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time when we were more likely to follow the lead of our European and South American counterparts who extend the holiday revelry through January 6. The full Christmas story as recalled in the Bible included the arrival of the three wisemen (or kings, if you wish) who followed a star in the east to the stable to honor the newborn who would eventually change the world. In the liturgical calendar that event is remembered on the feast of the Epiphany. In many parts of the world the twelve days of Christmas include holidays and celebrations from December 25 until January 6. The traditions and parties will continue in those places long after we North Americans have stored away our holiday boxes in closets and attics. 

When I was growing up my mother always left our Christmas tree in our living room until after January 6. We may have returned to school and work but the warm glow of twinkling lights and the aroma of pine greeted us upon our return home. My brother Michael was born on Three Kings Day so we had a big celebration that included gifts for him and a final opportunity to enjoy the joyfulness of the season. Only after that auspicious occasion did we turn our tree into lumber for the neighborhood fort that the kids always built with recycled firs and pines.

I’m not sure when we changed our ways and became more and more anxious to divest ourselves of the tinsel surrounding Christmas as soon as the sun had set on December 25. Perhaps it is because most women work now rather than keeping the fires burning at home. The pace of our lives is so swift that we need to return to our normal routines without fanfare and we can’t countenance the complications of extraneous accoutrements lingering in our homes for too long. More often than not, most of the things that we associate with Christmas are gone by the end of January 1.

I have a few friends who defer to the traditions of old. They enjoy the trappings of the season well into the middle of January. Their friends and neighbors often view them with a bit of derision and assume that they must be lazy folk rather than traditionalists. In reality they have become rebels of sort in their insistence on following a more leisurely calendar. I have to sadly admit that I left their ranks many years ago because I knew that I would have little time for the luxury of lingering over the holidays once I had to go back to the classroom where I worked. 

I was in Austria at the dawn of 2005. I stayed there until after January 6. I noted how the season remained in full bloom throughout the first week of the new year, climaxing in parades of young children moving from house to house dressed as the wise men. The people marked the occasion with lettering on their doors indicating that the children were welcome to come. They passed out treats and ate special meals. The custom was delightful and made me a bit jealous that we did not have such traditions in my own country.

My husband grew up with a Puerto Rican father who followed the ways of his native land. He remembers receiving a special gift on January 6 that did not come from Santa Claus or his parents but from the Three Kings. He says that the Epiphany was as exciting as December 25 in his home. There were prayers and visits to church to honor the miracle of the savior’s birth.

It has been a very long time since I have kept my Christmas spirit alive past January 1. I am always ready to move on with the rest of my neighbors and friends. I usually want to put the clutter of decorations back into storage and focus on my resolutions which tend toward accomplishments rather than reflections. For whatever reason, however, I have found myself wanting to end the season a bit more slowly this year. I like the idea of returning to the traditions of my youth. I have decided to keep my two Christmas trees looking bright and cheery until at least next week. I plan to honor my brother on January 6, just as I always have but also to spend time contemplating the miracle that happened so long ago in Bethlehem. Like the three kings who brought gifts to the Christ child I want to perform more acts of kindness and sacrifice for my fellow man. 

The very part of the world where Jesus was born and later preached His message of love is a powder keg today. There is much suffering and uncertainty in the Middle East. In our own country Chicago has become a murder capitol with over seven hundred killed in a single year, many of them innocent children. All of us long for answers to the problems that plague mankind. We want to stop the senseless violence but don’t really know how. Perhaps if we were all to slow down just enough to meditate on why we celebrate each year and why we shouldn’t rush the process, we might find our way once again. By remembering the true meaning of the historic events of over two thousand years ago we may find the keys to spreading the true Christmas spirit across the globe. We don’t need to hurry back to normal. Instead we should extend the generosity of the season for as long as we can. Don’t be so hasty to put it all away. Those lights are a symbol of the powerful force of sacrifice and kindness that we should all strive to emulate regardless of our individual beliefs. Be inspired this year to take the time to go out of your way to follow the star that leads to goodness and joy.