As this posting falls on December 24 it seems virtually impossible to make it a workaday one rather than a seasonal theme. The relationship between work days and Christmas was handled memorably in the early years of colonial America by the governor of Plymouth, William Bradford. His band of Pilgrims being low church and high principled, Bradford records in Of Plymouth Plantation his unwillingness to give laborers the day off:
On the day called Chrismasday, the Govr calmd them out to worke, (as wasal used,) but the most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their conscientes to work on that day. So the Govr tould them that if they made it mater of consciente, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the barr and some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his consciente, that they should play and others worke. If they made the keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.
This oft-quoted passage sometimes is presented as evidence of early New England crabbedness—fanatics who wanted to cancel Christmas!—or of a dogged work ethic. I find respect for Bradford’s approach keen now, in the heart of the “Holiday Season,” when mob-bustle and merchandizing is at the flood. Bradford’s gesture is somewhat in keeping with exhortations to “Keep Christ in Christmas” or that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Either all this to-do is to celebrate the Incarnation or it isn’t. To be sure, conscience compels some to celebrate the Incarnation with sober, house-bound devotion and others with noise and play and revelry. I like the revelry. Still, if the holiday is not a holy day, why is it not a work day? In a New York Times op-ed Molly Worthen broaches the question, noting that since Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years, “Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school.”
As several recent books demonstrate, Americans have added much to traditional customs around Santa Claus and Christmas trees. But the twist we lament when we complain of commercialized Christmas is the amount of work that has been loaded onto it. Admittedly there always is work that comes with preparing for a holiday, a lot of this involving gingerbread or stollen or paska or feasts of seven fishes. Much of this work is worthy, yet the extent of it seems wrong. Consider what has become a common greeting for casual interactions at library or post office or grocery line: “Are you prepared?”
When first greeted this way I had no idea what was being asked. Was the question directed to the state of my soul, was I prepared for judgment or for the Second Coming? Since it has been asked a lot this season, posed alternately “Are you done?” or “Are you ready?” I figured out that it was asking whether I was ready for Christmas. That is, have I bought and wrapped as much stuff as needed? Expenditures aside, the labor of acquiring, sorting, and festooning holiday stuff is gigantic. Among the crowd of elementary-school parents I see, many women have been done since October. Customary by mid-November are self-deprecating mentions of being “way behind.”
Whose children have figured out heart’s desires for Christmas by mid-October? Does shopping in October help to keep the Christ in Christmas in December? Maybe it just extends I-want and to-do lists two months longer. Reader, are you ready? I welcome advice for better answers to that pre-holiday greeting.