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THE DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS

December 26, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the place of worship of your choice. As a retired pastor, I can assure you that a year-end gift to a congregation of faith will be appreciated by those who encourage and serve others. Please be generous.

Is there anything as over as Christmas when it is over? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles until they are discarded along city streets, waiting 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 days are shorter. There is less sunshine. The psychiatric community even has a name for the malaise – Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

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 New Year’s Day give us time for reflection on the year past and 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 into the foreseeable future, even with the pandemic, bowl games abound 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 twelve days of Christmas include 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 season of giving gifts to loved ones.  If we assume a partridge in a pear tree is given only on the first day and each of the other gifts is given only once, the monetary value in dollars for most years would be in excess of $39,000.

However, the song implies that each day’s gifts are repeated on each of the remaining eleven days. By January 6, the recipient would have a total of 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 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 Christmas carol’s more improbable list to explain how prices affect the economy.

The cost of buying your true love all the gifts from “The 12 Days of Christmas” decreased this year primarily due to the global pandemic’s economic impact.

The combined cost for the dozen gifts featured in the final verse of the famed Christmas carol is $16,168, considerably less than in recent years. Last year’s price tag was $38,994.

This year, the prices of the six geese, seven swans, and other fowl rose because the country’s fires and floods drove up the price of bird feed. The swans are almost always the highest ticket item on the list. Adult trumpeter swans cost nearly $2000 each.

The five golden rings named in the song’s verses also cost significantly more than in years past. But in 2020, the bottom dropped out of the wage scale for leaping lords, dancing ladies, pipers, and drummers.

Here is the breakdown of the cost of the items on the list.

  • One partridge in a pear tree: $210
  • Two turtle doves: $450
  • Three French hens: $210
  • Four calling birds: $600
  • Five gold rings: $945
  • Six geese-a-laying: $570
  • Seven swans-a-swimming: $13,125
  • Eight maids-a-milking: $58

As COVID-19 has caused the curtain to drop on most live performances, the last four items on the list are excluded from this year’s total cost. Advocates for the arts are not out of options for the performance lover on their guest list, as virtual performances provide a pandemic-proof alternative.  

  • Nine ladies dancing: $0
  • Ten lords-a-leaping: $0

This year maybe we should adopt a child’s take on this item as Ten lords-a-leaking.

  • Eleven pipers piping: $0
  • Twelve drummers drumming: $0

For Christmas 2020, the total price of all items on the list with all of their multiplications would be $105,561.80.

Before making this your shopping list for your true love, consider for a moment where your beloved will keep, feed, and clean up after all of those birds.

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

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

• The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testament.

• The three French hens symbolize the Trinity.

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

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

• Six geese a-laying refer 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 in this way. Rather 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 to return home! 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.

May it be so for each of you.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE BELLS OF CHRISTMAS

December 19, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the Children’s Advocacy Center, 100 Washington Place, Spartanburg, South Carolina,  29302, (864) 515-9922.

In any other year,  hardy souls across the Upstate would have ventured out in the chilly days of December to do Christmas shopping. These folks would have been greeted by the familiar sound of bells ringing. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign is a seasonal tradition each year. Willing volunteers would be on the job ringing with gusto to help celebrate Advent and to collect money for the needy in our community. I know members of the Rotary Club have offered to take a turn ringing the bells, but not in 2020.

This is the season for bells. Inside stores and shopping malls, the strains of a Christmas song welcomed eager customers to the cathedral of capitalism. “Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?” Never mind if the temperature outside was in the sixties.

            Several years ago, I wrote a Christmas story entitled “A Bell for Victoria.” The tale was set in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The bells of St. James Episcopal Church played a key. The church is one of a few in the Carolinas to feature change ringing.

The tower of St. James houses eight bells arranged according to the progression of a musical scale. They are rung by a team of eight with a tower captain calling signals much like a football quarterback.  Each member of the team rings one bell by pulling a rope attached to it, high in the tower above.

Change ringing derives its name from the varying patterns in which the bells are sounded.  The number of sequences possible for eight bells, like those at St. James, is 40,320. The art of ringing these changes originated in English churches several hundred years ago.

English handbells are much more common as a form of church music usually played by a handbell choir. Members may ring up to four finely-crafted bells, two in each hand. In a church I formerly served, our handbell choir was named Clarion Sounds. They practiced every week. The sound that handbells create in a worship service is divine. The precision with which the ensemble works as a group is fascinating.

Bells are often associated with weddings. Whether rung as a carillon in a tower, or on brass handbells, or simulated on an organ, the chiming of the hour may precede the entry of the bride. At the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, the joyful pealing of bells may announce the new union.

On the occasion of their fiftieth-anniversary celebration, a couple told me that “Silver Bells” was their favorite Christmas song. They had included the song in their Christmas wedding ceremony.

Bells may also be used at funerals. The tolling of a single stationary bell rung by a heavy striker produces a stately sound. Sometimes large bells are tolled slowly during funeral processions.

Death may come at any season. A Christmas funeral can be particularly difficult. When a widow planned the funeral for her husband, she requested that the organist play “Jingle Bells” as the casket was taken from the sanctuary. The musician looked surprised, but the bereaved woman explained that the song was her husband’s favorite. At the service, the organist did her best to make the music sound solemn.

After the funeral, the organist said, “I hope the music pleased you.”

“Everything was fine,” said the widow, “but that last song was not the one I wanted.”

“But you said you wanted ‘Jingle Bells.’”

“Did I say that? I meant, ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells.’”

Some of our best-loved Christmas songs include bells as a part of the cheerful lyrics. But Christmas is not necessarily a season to be jolly. Many people have experienced deep sorrow at this season.

In 1843, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a widower, married Frances Appleton. Henry and Fanny settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and eventually had six children. They were a happy family until the Civil War abruptly destroyed their serenity. It violently interrupted the lives of everybody, in the North and in the South.

In the summer of 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the folds of her long dress caught fire. Her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study. Desperately trying to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body, Henry was severely burned on his face, arms, and hands. Fanny, whose burns were much more severe, died the following morning.

Longfellow was despondent after his wife’s death. Enduring Christmas without Fanny, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

In early December 1863, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded. Although Charles would survive, his recovery at that time was uncertain.

Longfellow greeted Christmas with a heavy heart that year. He had lost his wife, his son had nearly died, and the country continued waging war on itself.

The bells that Henry heard ringing that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s personal difficulties and the atrocities of war give the words to the carol a deeper meaning.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought as now this day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The third verse takes on a much darker tone, reflecting Longfellow’s somber mood.

And in despair, I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Even in his grief, the fourth verse of the carol offers a reason for hope.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.


            During Advent, the words to Longfellow’s carol serve as a reminder of one of the most important themes of Christmas. Peace is a gift of grace to the human soul.

Many are familiar with the Hebrew word shalom, translated as peace. A popular understanding of peace is the absence of conflict or war, but it means so much more in Hebrew.  Shalom means to be safe in mind, body, or estate.  It speaks of completeness, fullness, or a type of wholeness that encourages kindness and generosity of spirit.
            This year, some Christmas bells have fallen silent during the pandemic. But that does not mean that peace has been diminished. True peace is a spiritual condition, and nothing in all the world can take that away.

That is reason enough to ring the bells of Christmas.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

TO LIGHT A CANDLE

December 12, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

December 13 is the feast day of Saint Lucia.  The name Lucia means light. The celebration is associated with Scandinavian countries where winter darkness comes early and stays long.  In traditional celebrations, a young woman dressed as Saint Lucia brings light and sweet treats to her family. The girl wears a wreath of lighted candles as a crown.

Our daughter, Betsy, was given such a crown with battery-powered candles by her fairy godmother, a longtime family friend. Wearing her glowing diadem, Betsy enjoyed playing the part of Saint Lucia, usually serving Moravian sugar cake to our family early on the morning of December 13.

We still have the Saint Lucia wreath. The candles no longer work, but our granddaughters take turns wearing the crown. It has become a family tradition.

Candles are a part of spiritual practice in many religions.  Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism regard camphor candles as elements of devotional practice. In other traditions, votive candles are lighted to accompany the prayers of the faithful.  

Several years ago, I taught an upper level religion class at the University of South Carolina Upstate entitled Celtic Religion through the Ages. Our study took us through an examination of ancient Celtic religion, followed by a transition to early Celtic Christianity.

Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has come through two academic disciplines. One is European archaeology. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, circa 800–450 Before the Common Era.

The second discipline is the study of the classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who knew of the Celtic tribes. These early testaments describe the Celts as feared warriors. Men and women fought together. The men often went into battle wearing only blue body paint and a neck ring. They carried a shield and a short sword. Julius Caesar gives a detailed description of these people and their culture. Clearly, he had much respect for them.

Though generally regarded as uncivilized barbarians who practiced pagan religion, the Celts lived in an organized society. The Druids were their religious leaders. They served as priests and prophets, as judges, and as philosophers. Spiritual practices centered on the solar and lunar rhythms of the universe. Summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinox, were observed with important religious rituals sometimes involving human sacrifice.

As the winter solstice approached, the Druids were fearful that the sun’s light was receding from the earth. The diminishing light meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return.

The practice of bringing light into the homes of the Celts became the root of two of our most important religious observances of this season.

The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah almost always coincide. Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families celebrate the holiday by lighting candles in a menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 10 and continues through December 18.

The Gospel of John (10:22) records an interesting event from the life of Jesus. “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This passage indicates that Jesus observed Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king from Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the Temple, and the Torah scrolls were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the “abomination of desecration.”  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to the Jewish faith.

Under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. They entered the Temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing God’s presence in the Temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, eight days were required to consecrate new oil. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper is the servant candle and is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

The scriptures speak of God as “the light in whom there is no darkness.”  For Christians, Christmas celebrations include symbols of that heavenly light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts. He struggled toward a faint light in the distance. It grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family. They offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man, a chair by the fireplace, and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

I have a favorite story that I tell during Advent.

From the time our children were preschoolers, we have displayed a wreath that we purchased in Old Salem on a table in our foyer.  We found the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon lifted a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created of cornhusk doll Nativity figures.

Each Sunday in Advent, we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the appropriate candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. After reading a Scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace, we sang a Christmas carol.

As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures burst into flames!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the burning wreath and started to dash toward the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I stopped in my tracks, turned on my heels, and detoured to the guest bathroom just across the hall. I jerked back the shower curtain, dropped the wreath into the tub, turned on the faucet, and doused the flames with water.

The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned to a crisp. A few were charred but still recognizable.

To this day, we display a wreath with the manger scene of cornhusk figures. Some of them are replacements. Others are scorched survivors of the fire. I have reworked the wreath. The paper Moravian star has been replaced. We still have candles on the wreath, but, for obvious reasons, we never light them.

The cornhusks nativity scene singed in the fire is a reminder of God’s protection for those who suffer. This year the charred figures remind me to pray for those who have been ill with the COVID-19 virus. So many have died. I pray for the grief-stricken who have lost loved ones during this terrible pandemic.

I am reminded to intercede for victims of hate crimes, war and famine, floods and fire. I ask God’s blessing for all who bear the scars of life into the season of light. This is a time to light a candle as an expression of faith and hope.

Whatever your holiday traditions may be, the wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, be careful with those candles!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.