Customs: But Once a Year

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And when all the tinsel and touting are swept away, what they want, after all, is the pleasure of giving, a tradition and a need that is older than Christendom. Pagans celebrated the winter solstice with bonfires to strengthen the sun in its course, exchanged wreaths and candles and crowded their streets in noisy processions. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia (Dec. 19-25) by giving presents to the poor and in return received garlands, tapers or grains of frankincense. On the Kalends of January (Jan. 1-3), Roman men gave one another "honeyed things" to ensure a year of sweetness, lamps to symbolize light and warmth, and money, gold or silver objects as talismans of wealth.

Though the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Infant Jesus, the early church for centuries forbade or at least discouraged gift giving at Christmas; the Puritans, for example, banned both religious and secular Christmas celebrations as pagan in inspiration. Even today the seasonal exchange of gifts in many lands is made on Twelfth Night (when the Magi reached Bethlehem) or on New Year's Day. Still the early symbols—the pre-Christian gift giving, the evergreen as a mark of enduring life—became stubborn concomitants of the Christmas observance.

Soft Words & Statues. From these beginnings, Christmas in the new world has become something more than a religious celebration of a single day. For children it is the beginning of a gift-wrapped tradition, to be opened and savored every year for as long as the years go on, mellowing in the mind—an ineffable memory of warm-lighted places, soft words, laughter, and the mantle of family life.

In the old days of smaller towns and more frugal ways, Christmas was a simpler and a quieter time. In Indiana everyone cut his own tree in the woods and decorated it with strings of popcorn, gingerbread men, chains of red and green paper, and small colored candles (it was a worrisome thing for Father, who planted himself in a nearby chair with a bucket of water at hand). On Christmas Eve the whole town went to church to see the tableaux of the Nativity performed by the Sunday School children, draped in tablecloths, piano covers and nightgowns. Next morning came the presents (usually clothing); some, such as heavy coats and shoes, were store-bought, but a lot—scarves, gloves, caps and dresses—were homemade. And for the children there were dolls, jumping jacks, blocks, marbles, checkers, Hans Christian Andersen.

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