By Abigail Woolley
In recent years, I’ve been on a mission to celebrate all 12 days of Christmas. There’s something very appealing about having endured real anticipation during Advent and then making good on it with dedicated revelry. I won’t say I’ve mastered how it’s to be done (it can be a little tricky to get everyone else on board when they’re Christmassed out by the end of Advent), but I’ve made some strides. It has been great fun to save the lights and tree until the last week of Advent and then decorate cookies and drop in on friends with plates of goodies after Christmas Day. I’ve brought treats for my students and sung carols in class if school is back in session before Epiphany. I’ve even hosted a Twelfth Night party, complete with pin the tail on [Mary and Joseph’s] donkey and a game of snapdragon. Twelfth Night wassailing (caroling) is my next ambition.
Harvey Cox’s Feast of Fools gets at why I think there’s something worthwhile in my quest to celebrate Christmastide with more gusto. Cox argues that the medieval Feast of Fools (celebrated on the Feast of the Circumcision, Jan. 1) tapped into two cultural components that are sadly impoverished in our time: festivity and fantasy. Festivity is “the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration” and fantasy is “the faculty for envisioning radically alternative life situations.” These days, our attempts at celebration ring rather hollow:
On New Year’s Eve we bring out the champagne and hurl paper streamers. But under the surface of Dionysiac carousing we feel something is missing. The next day we often wonder why we bothered. … Christmas is now largely a family reunion, Easter a spring style show, and on Thanksgiving there is no one to thank.
For Cox, what we lose when we stop throwing ourselves into celebrations is our imagination — the sense that we are participating in an epic, and the possibility of envisioning social change. I think it goes even further than this: lackluster festivities indicate atrophy in the spiritual muscles we need to worship.
Let me explain. The communities I’ve known that are really good at partying robustly — with dancing, singing, storytelling, toasting and roasting — tend to be a little bit nerdy. I’m thinking of a theater company I belonged to in college (full of traditions and ceremonies), a small private school where I used to teach (where student celebrations include line dances and Virginia reels), and an ecumenical Christian education institute (where the St. Patrick’s Day feast features tributes to the saint and an Irish band).
I use nerdy, though I dislike the word, because it always seems to connote people’s willingness to be fully immersed in something. People may say I’m a nerd apologetically, to bracket off a space for themselves to care passionately about something, when they know full well that it might look silly from the outside. But if they stop thinking like an outsider, with the coolness of self-conscious detachment, they have the opportunity to be swept up by something that reaches to the heights of human experience. It puts them in touch with a kind of richness that makes life worth living.
Worship is made of this willingness to make fools of ourselves. It calls us to be taken up into something grand, to enter imaginatively into God’s kingdom (not all of which we can see) and God’s story (most of whose plot points we have to take on faith). It doesn’t allow us to be cool and distant. We won’t see the face of God if we are preoccupied with our own dignity; we can’t fall at God’s feet if we are worried about keeping it together.
Remember the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who picked up his skirts and ran to his son, and then threw a feast for him? It is not unlike the dramatic chase scene or the grand gesture near the end of every romantic comedy that finally brings the couple together. Some act of humble abandon witnesses to the power of someone’s love and paves the way for reconciliation.
This afternoon (Jan. 5) is my wedding, and I expect there will be a great deal of solemnity and a great deal of silliness. We have planned very little that is cool and detached. The organ and sacred choral music will probably be too pompous for some people, and the English country dancing (which we will try to oblige everyone to join) will probably be too embarrassing for many.
I am not sorry at all, though, because I think the occasion of a wedding provides an opportunity for Christians to practice celebration the way it really ought to be done. It is an opportunity for festivity and fantasy that is not outsourced to large film production companies — it can’t be outsourced, since the stars of the show are two ordinary people, and the drama centers on a sacrament. A community comes together around something it shares (the couple) dignifying something sacred in ordinary life (God’s gifts of marriage and family). We particularly wanted children to be there, not only to make the occasion a true community celebration including the families of our friends, but also to make sure we remember that celebration ought to bring out the childlike parts of ourselves.
Since it is the 12th day of Christmas, we will serve wassail and keep up the mistletoe and garlands for one last day. There won’t be snapdragon (the game involves setting brandy on fire) or King Cake (what if someone swallowed the bean?), but the kids will at least be making crowns in honor of Epiphany. I hope some pranks will be pulled (another traditional Twelfth Night observance). Mostly, I hope it is a witness to the fullness of the life God made and the humility of the Christ who deigned to live it with us. And through laughing and celebrating, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to both the serious and the silly, I hope we all become better lovers and worshipers of God.