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February 25, 2023

Today is Christmas. Please enjoy the day all the way to the end. Tomorrow is another day. Is there anything quite as over as Christmas when it is over?

As gifts are torn open, colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles. Finally, the dried trees are discarded along city streets where they wait like fallen soldiers to be collected by the body wagon. Even artificial trees are stored in plastic containers the size of coffins. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.

Christmas is over!

In the week following Christmas, we may become preoccupied with returning and exchanging gifts, cleaning house, and paying bills. No wonder the days after Christmas mark a mood swing. The season to be jolly often dissolves into a time of exhaustion and despair.

The post-Christmas season can also be a time of blessed relief. For those who enjoy gardening, the mail carrier brings not only bills and tax forms, but also seed and plant catalogs.

The days between Christmas and the New Year give us time for reflection on the year past and anticipation of the year ahead. Opening a new calendar can be an opportunity to plan and organize by marking birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and other special occasions. Stretching nonstop into the foreseeable future are bowl games for avid football fans.

December 26 is Boxing Day. It is primarily observed throughout the United Kingdom and former Commonwealth countries. In Ireland, it is called St. Stephen’s Day. In the English tradition, the day is a time to offer presents to the people upon whose service we depend all year, those who deliver our newspaper and our mail, bag and carry groceries for us, clean our offices, and service our automobiles, just to name a few.

The traditional twelve days of Christmas begin on December 26, Boxing Day, and end on Epiphany, January 6. These twelve days after Christmas provide an opportunity to extend the holidays. 

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is based on this gift-giving season. If we assume a partridge in a pear tree is given only on the first day and each of the other gifts are given only once, the monetary value in dollars at this writing would be about $45,523.27. This total represents a 10.5% increase over 2021 costs.

However, the song implies that the gifts given each day are repeated on each of the remaining eleven days. By January 6, the recipient would have twelve partridges and twelve pear trees. By the twelfth day, the beloved would have received 376 gifts, including 184 birds.

The cumulative cost of the gifts is calculated annually by the economists at PNC (Pittsburgh National Corporation) Wealth Management. It is an amusing and easily understandable explanation of how the country’s economy is faring.

Instead of sticking to the usual items like food, gasoline, and electricity that make up the federal Consumer Price Index, PNC tracks the cost of the carol’s more whimsical list to explain how prices affect the economy.

This year, the price of the six geese, seven swans, and other fowl rose because of increases in the cost of bird feed. The swans are usually the highest ticket item on the list. Each adult trumpeter swan is $1875. This year the tab for the swans is exceeded only by the ten lords-a-leaping.

The five golden rings in the song’s verses also run significantly more than a year ago. The price of gold rings spiked 40% in 2022, the highest increase of any item on the list. So is the wage scale for leaping lords, dancing ladies, pipers, and drummers. By far, the cheapest items on the list are the milkmaids, with PNC using the $7.25 federal minimum wage as the cost of their hire. However, other human-based gifts are well over $10,000.

For Christmas 2022, the bill of all items on the list with all of their multiplications would be a grand total of $194,951.59

The full list of items, with the percentage increase from 2021, is below:

  1. Partridge in a pear tree: $280.18 (+25.8%)
  2. Two turtle doves: $600 (+33.3%)
  3. Three French hens: $318.75 (+25%)
  4. Four calling birds: $599.96 (0.0%)
  5. Five gold rings: $1,245 (+39.1%)
  6. Six geese-a-laying: $720 (+9.1%)
  7. Seven swans-a-swimming: $13,124.93 (+0.0%)
  8. Eight maids-a-milking: $58 (0.0%)
  9. Nine ladies dancing: $8,308.12 (+10%)
  10. Ten lords-a-leaping: $13,980 (+24.2%)
  11. Eleven pipers piping: $3,021.40 (+2.6%)
  12. Twelve drummers drumming: $3,266.93 (+2.6%)

Before you actually make this your shopping list for your true love, consider for a moment how your beloved will keep, feed, and clean up after all of those birds. I am reminded of an old cowboy song, “O give me a home where the buffalo roam.” Really? The bison I have seen can make a pretty big mess. I don’t want them in my home!

Some Christians believe that the song was a catechism in disguise, used by English Catholic parents to teach their children during the time of Puritan rule in Britain. 

• The partridge in a pear tree represents the one true God.

• The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments.

• The three French hens symbolize the Trinity.

• The four calling birds are the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

• Five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah.

• Six geese a-laying refers to the six days of creation.

• Seven swans a-swimming are the seven sacraments.

• Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.

• Nine ladies dancing are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

• Ten lords-a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

• Eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles.

• Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed.

There is no historical evidence that the song was ever used this way. Instead, there is considerable evidence that this explanation is a recent invention. All trivia aside, the twelve days after Christmas can have a deeper meaning.

A young father, a member of the congregation I served in North Carolina, was stricken by leukemia and hospitalized for several weeks just before Christmas. Because Stan’s immune system was compromised, his physician would not permit his two small children to visit their father.

When I visited with Stan on Christmas Day, his disease was in remission. He was looking forward to being discharged from the hospital. “We’re going to have Christmas when I get home,” he said in anticipation.

Stan left the hospital two days later. He and his wife gave each child one present every day for the next week or so. Spreading out the gifts conserved Stan’s energy and enabled the family to extend Christmas into the New Year. Sadly, Stan died later that same year.

 One year, in early December, Stan’s daughter, an adult by then with children of her own, spoke with me. “I remember that Christmas, the last one with my daddy, as the best one ever. Instead of the whole thing suddenly being over as it usually is, Christmas seemed to last and last.”

The twelve days after Christmas need not be a season of despair. In the afterglow of Christmas, joy and peace can accompany us into the New Year and beyond.

My prayer is that it will be so for each of you.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

December Light 1916 is a Christmas novel by Kirk H. Neely.

It is available at all fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week consider making a year-end gift to several of your favorite charities. Please include your place of worship in your generosity. Thank you.


December 17, 2022

Here in mid-December, procrastinators will crowd retail stores, bargain hunters will search for reduced prices, and cyber shoppers will max out their credit cards in one final frenzy. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gifts will be given and received. On December 26, many will exchange their gifts for a more suitable size, style, or color.

Perhaps this is a time to rethink our gift-giving.

The story of the Magi tells of unusual people giving exotic gifts under strange circumstances.  Imagine A baby shower where the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were presented to the mother and child. As odd as these presents may seem, they were actually entirely appropriate.  In gift-giving, it is not only the thought that counts but also the meaning behind the gift. Gold is the gift for a person of royalty; frankincense is incense for a priest; myrrh is an embalming spice for one destined to die.

Well-chosen gifts need not be as extravagant as those of wise men.  One Christmas, our children and I enjoyed building and giving bluebird boxes as presents. The experience of making the nesting boxes, delivering the gifts, and knowing we were improving the environment brought triple satisfaction. Another year, I cut out breadboards. Clare added a loaf of homemade bread. One year, when our budget was especially tight, we made hand-cut paper snowflakes for family and friends. These simple gifts can be more meaningful than purchased items.

On Christmas Eve, Jeff and his extended family gathered in the living room of his grandmother’s home. The family had grown so large that they had decided to draw names instead of giving gifts to everyone. 

Aunt Ethel decided she didn’t want to draw names. A wealthy spinster, she could afford to give everybody a gift! She took delight in selecting and wrapping gifts. Her decorated presents were works of art.

When Jeff received the elongated, flat box decorated with a Styrofoam snowman, he thought that he knew what Aunt Ethel had given him. In early December, she had phoned to ask Jeff what he preferred. He carefully opened the box, keeping the cleverly crafted snowman intact. He was horrified! Aunt Ethel’s present was perhaps the ugliest necktie he had ever seen. It looked something like a bag of Purina Dog Chow. The pattern of large red and white checks.

Jeff’s face revealed his shock and disappointment. He lifted the tie from the tissue paper and looked into the empty box to be sure he hadn’t missed something. 

Aunt Ethel asked brusquely, “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.” 

Then she added, “It’s exactly what you said you wanted.”

Jeff responded, “Aunt Ethel when you asked me if I preferred a large check or a small check, I didn’t know you were talking about a necktie.”

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a purchased gift that we did not need or want. Homemade gifts are always a delight to receive.

In our home, we enjoy treasures that have been given to us in Christmases past. Cross-stitched pieces, knitted afghans, wooden serving trays, crocheted dishcloths, homemade aprons, paintings, and hand-thrown pottery are pleasant reminders of friends and family who have taken the time to make a gift.

One smart dad I know gave each family member a paper Christmas ornament. The ornaments were hung inconspicuously on the tree. On Christmas morning, as presents were opened, the family wondered why there were no gifts from Dad. After all of the other gifts had been unwrapped, the dad presented the paper ornaments to his family.

Tucked inside each ornament was a personal note. He gave his son a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, just for the two of them. He gave his daughter a three-day skiing trip, just for the two of them. To his wife, he gave a Caribbean cruise just for the two of them. The smart dad was a contemporary wise man. He not only gave presents to the people he loved, but he also gave the gift of presence, time to be with them.

O. Henry, a master storyteller, was renowned for his surprise endings. One of his best-known stories is the Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi.”

A newly married couple, James and Della Young, were very much in love with each other. Because they were starting out with few resources, they had no extra money to purchase gifts for each other at Christmastime.

Jim wanted to give Della a set of silver combs for her long, beautiful flowing hair. Della wished she could give Jim a gold chain for the fine gold watch he had inherited. As Christmas approached, try though they might, neither Jim nor Della was able to accumulate enough money to purchase a gift for the other. They each came up with a secret plan.

On Christmas Eve, Della had her lovely hair cropped short. She sold her tresses to be used to make wigs for other women. Della purchased a gold chain for Jim’s treasured watch with the money she received.

When Della arrived at her home that night, her husband was, to say the least, quite surprised to see the new hairstyle. Della reached into her purse and took out a small package, which she handed to Jim.  When Jim opened his gift, he was astonished to see the gold watch chain.  When Della encouraged him to attach the chain to his watch, Jim hesitated and then gave his present to Della.

Upon opening her gift, Della was flabbergasted.  Jim’s gift to her was a set of expensive filigreed silver combs. She wondered how her husband could afford such a fine gift. She could have used those silver combs when her hair was long. Then Della realized that Jim had sold his watch to purchase a gift for her. They laughed together at the irony of their Christmas gifts to each other.

The two gifts perfectly represent sacrificial love. Jim and Della received material gifts that were of little value for the moment. But the gift that endured was their love for each other.

The best gifts are selfless, and sometimes enduring gifts come from unexpected sources.

A friend and former pastor had a custom of dropping by the church’s crisis closet from time to time. He often helped by filling grocery bags for those who had come for food. Some of the people in need came on a regular basis.

My colleague told me a story about an encounter he had with one of those repeat visitors, a homeless man who often had multiple needs. Over the years, the church had ministered to this man in various ways, but it was as if the church could never help him quite enough. I doubt if any church could have ever helped him sufficiently.

One Christmas Eve, the church held a worship service that concluded about 9:00 P.M. The pastor had preached the sermon at that service and was the last to leave the church. Just as he was locking the door and removing the key, he looked up and saw this same homeless man walking across the lawn of the church directly toward him.

The pastor knew the man would ask for help again, so he waited. The man walked up the steps to the church, reached out, and shook the pastor’s hand. Then he said, “I just came by to say thank you for the many things you have done for me and to tell you Merry Christmas.”

The pastor was astounded. The man had not made a single request on Christmas Eve. He had simply come by to express appreciation and to wish his friend a Merry Christmas. With that, the man turned, walked back down the steps, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

The gift of gratitude is a special Christmas blessing.

At the heart of the Christian celebration of Christmas is a gift. It is a present, not wrapped in colorful paper with a big bow, but a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That gift is a relationship. It is a present of presence. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus because He is Emmanuel, God with us. For those in the Christian faith, Jesus is the ultimate gift, the gift of God’s presence with us.

This Christmas, consider fretting less about presents and concentrate on giving the gift of presence. It will enrich your Christmas giving.

Clare joins me in wishing you a blessed Christmas.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

December Light 1916 is a Christmas novel by Kirk H. Neely.

It is available at all fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week consider giving the gift of presence to someone who needs to know they are loved. Thank you.


December 11, 2022

A friend recently asked, “What does keeping Christmas mean?”

I learned from internet research that keeping Christmas is an expression in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Though the phrase was undoubtedly used in the Victorian era, the origin goes back at least to medieval times.

Keeping Christmas in the South recognizes important role of food in holiday festivities. The sandy roads, or boulevards, that led to old plantations houses were often lined with pecan trees. Each fall, the nuts were gathered. When families sat together in rocking chairs or on joggling boards on the front porch, cracking and picking pecans was a pastime. Pecans were considered a delicacy and a staple. They were a favorite snack, eaten straight from the shell, or roasted and salted. They also were included in numerous recipes. My mother put pecans in apple salad, sweet potato soufflé, and banana bread. Pecan pie is the dessert of choice for a Southern Christmas.

Baked or candied, in casseroles, pies, or bread, sweet potatoes were always a part of Christmas dinner. Sweet potatoes were also a staple. During the Great Depression, my grandmother frequently prepared sweet potatoes in three different ways for the same meal.

Southerners enjoy adding seafood to holiday fare. Oyster dressing was always a part of Christmas dinner in Clare’s home. We frequently include shrimp or scallops with our Christmas meal. For some families, crab cakes or she-crab soup is a prelude to the main course.

At the center of the table is a platter with the featured meat. This varies from family to family or from year to year. Favorites are tenderloin, wild goose, or a turkey baked, smoked, or deep-fried in peanut oil. A Christmas ham is traditional for many Southern families. My grandmother soaked a cured ham in apple juice overnight to remove the salt. She rubbed it with an orange, studded it with cloves, and basted it with apple cider.

Side dishes included peas with pearl onions or green beans with almond slivers. Squash casserole, macaroni and cheese casserole, and pickled okra are often added to the feast.

And then there were the sweets! My mother was the queen of celebration. Her coconut cake, lemon squares, and Kentucky Colonel chocolate bourbon balls were enough to draw a crowd. One brother-in-law said that the Kentucky Colonels were sufficient reason to marry into the family.

 Keeping Christmas meant savoring the smells of the season. The aroma of cedar elicits memories of my youth. I recall trudging through fields and woods on our old family farm with my dad, granddad, uncles, brothers, and cousins, searching for the perfect red cedar trees for Christmas. We gathered branches from holly trees, preferably with bright red berries. We shot mistletoe out of the tops of oak trees with a 22-rifle.

Mama preferred natural decorations mixing the collected greenery with citrus fruits to accent her garlands. Oranges studded with cloves gave a holiday fragrance. Lemons, limes, and pineapples were added to the centerpieces. Glossy magnolia leaves gave every decoration a distinctively Southern elegance.

Poinsettias, discovered and named for Greenville native Joel Poinsett, were featured in our home as in many others in Upstate South Carolina. A blaze in the fireplace added the smell of hardwood smoke to the crisp December air.

Our cedar Christmas tree was decorated with ornaments we had made as children and others that had survived years of handling and storage. Some were homemade; others were gifts from friends. Each one had a special meaning.

Our custom has been to keep some small gifts by our front door. If a visitor comes, we can offer a tasty treat. Gifts for family and friends can include homemade pound cake, cookies, or brownies. Jellies and jams, fruit, and nuts are popular Southern gifts. Moravian sugar cake is an all-time favorite. One lady in Winston-Salem made the best pear preserves from the knotty little fruit that grew on a tree in her yard.

All of these traditions are a part of keeping Christmas. But there is more.

Keeping Christmas is about spending time with family and friends. The joy of swapping stories and singing together is a part of a Southern Christmas. A Southern Christmas should include more listening and less hastening.

My mother was adopted. She had one older sister in her new family, whom she called Sister. It was only natural that my seven siblings and I should call this dear woman Aunt Sister. She was a proper Southern lady. Her heritage went back to a plantation in Darlington County. She was the first person I knew who used the expression keeping Christmas.

When my friend raised the question about the phrase, my thoughts went back to Aunt Sister. What did she mean by keeping Christmas?

Keeping Christmas well means to worship in a candlelight service and with acts of kindness. Beyond good food, decorations, gift-giving, and family time, it is important to keep Christmas in our hearts.

It was something Ebenezer Scrooge had to learn in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had become so self-centered that his life focused on material wealth. He refused to light a coal fire, preferring to curse the cold weather in an attempt to save one more shilling. Like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, Ebenezer’s heart was two sizes too small. He saw the world around him as a place of misery. The real problem was within his own soul.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future confronted Scrooge with his own spiritual poverty. Through these revelations, he had the opportunity to change. Much to the astonishment of Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge became a different man. The streets of London were the same. Tiny Tim still had his affliction. The transformation that occurred was in the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Keeping Christmas requires a change of heart.

One Christmas, Aunt Sister, sent me a poem by Henry Van Dyke. Here is a portion of “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you;
  • to ignore what the world owes you and to think about what you owe the world;
  • to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
  • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness?

Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
  • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
  • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and, instead, ask yourself whether you love them enough;
  • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
  • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
  • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kind feelings?

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—

stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—

  • and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem is the image and brightness of eternal love?

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

December Light 1916 is a Christmas novel by Kirk H. Neely

It is available at all fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides for needy families. Thank you.