Note: this conversation originally took place on the evening of Wednesday, December 21st — the 2016 Winter Solstice.
Janiss: We’re back for another evening of hot cocoa and immortal talk. Say hello, Nancy.
Nancy: (long sigh) Hello.
J: It’s the longest night of the year, and you’ve chosen to spend at least a little of it with me — thank you.
N: Free drinks, yes?
J: I pay for those.
N: Free for me, then. (sips) What topic have you chosen?
J: Christmas, of course.
N: Very appropriate. (gestures at all the decorations and shoppers, then at her themed cup) Continue.
J: (leans forward) Do you celebrate it?
N: (raises an eyebrow)
J: Come on, you can’t tell me you’ve never been swayed by the Christmas spirit. Not once in three centuries?
N: I most often choose to spend it alone not killing anyone.
J: Isn’t that how you spend most nights?
N: (nods) Not all that different from any other time of year.
J: What about people watching?
N: I find it inappropriate to leer at livestock while it roams and grazes. (sips)
J: (fakes a smile) I call bullshit even before you start feeding me a line about lonely years without friends and family.
N: (stares, taken aback) Is it your intent to be cruel?
J: I just want to get you talking. It seems to work better when you’re ticked off.
N: (tight-lipped smile) You’re good at that. This time of year, I find someplace to be for a little while, often in the company of one of my trusted former students —
J: Oh, yeah — your “graduate network.” Is there a lottery, or do you just choose someone at random?
N: I stay close to a select few, listening for clues to see if someone needs assistance or companionship.
J: (surprised) That… actually sounds nice. Do have someone picked out for this year?
N: I do, in fact —
J: It’s not me, is it?
N: Of course not. You’re surrounded by more than your share of donor-admirers.
J: That sounded a bit jealous. (sips)
N: It’s much preferred over you murdering someone every night, because then I’d have to destroy you.
J: And you’d miss me?
N: (shrugs, sips)
J: Cute. I was hoping you could tell me how you’ve seen Christmas change over the years. You know, before being taken over by shops and malls?
N: (smiling) A fair question. The Cherokee have a winter celebration, but it was just prior to the US Civil War before your current idea of Christmas made a firm appearance in the United States. Puritans, for example, resisted Christmas because it isn’t expressly mentioned in the Bible.
J: I thought Santa was older than that.
N: The American Civil War is what actually sold the idea of family celebration and a national idea of Christmas. Have you ever noticed the symbols of the ideal holiday are filled with snow, brick chimneys, and people bundled up from the cold?
J: Of course. Is there a reason?
N: Yes. The North won the war, and among the spoils was defining the appearance and symbols that represented new Christmas — it certainly doesn’t invoke humid plantations.
J: Do tell. (smiling, giddy)
N: (thoughtfully) I can see you’re happy about this…
J: Keep going. What about Christmas trees? Did everyone have one? Those came with the official US Holiday Rules and Regs, right?
N: I believe that was an imported German tradition, but it Americanized quickly. By the late 1800s, shops were producing ready-made decorations so “working” folks needn’t bother making their trimmings at home. Something feels lost when personal things are bought instead of made; I wish they taught creativity they way they used to instead of only art classes and trade schools. (trails off)
J: You’re not daydreaming, are you?
N: (snaps back) I… apologize for that. I suppose I trust you more than I thought — I never do that except when I’m alone.
J: I’ll take that as a compliment.
N: Don’t get used to it.
J: Where’d you go?
N: A few places. (shakes it off) The end of the nineteenth century gave rise to color printing and the first greeting cards — an inexpensive gesture that could also serve as a modest gift — but the tradition of gifting was what made Christmas popular. The right gift from the right shop elevated one’s status in society, if you believed Harper’s. (sly smile)
J: Wait — you’re kidding me. Stores were in on it from the beginning?
N: Yes, but you’re missing the point: it also brought people closer — a nationwide thread of common tradition. Young and old, rich or poor — Christmas was for everyone, but it has always been commercialized. Modern society has just become more efficient at it.
J: What’s Harper’s?
N: “Harper’s Weekly,” as it was called, the “Journal of Civilization.” It started publication at almost the same time Christmas was popularized. Coincidence?
J: Not even a little, I’ll guess?
N: Not only did they champion Santa Claus for the holiday elf, he became —
J: Until Coca-Cola gave him a makeover, right?
J: Wait, what? That’s what my mom always told me… (pouts)
N: Harper’s again. Santa’s current appearance was shaped there in the early 1860s, but the red suit and white trim image you’re used to was very much popularized by the bottling company… also “Harper’s Weekly” stopped publishing in the early 1900s before that.
J: So your one complaint about Christmas is you think gifts should be handmade?
N: No, it’s the idea being lost. (looking distant)
J: But you said it’s always been commercialized.
N: Christmas was a holiday for everyone when it began; it didn’t belong to a particular religious group or excluded ethnic groups. Yes, the idea was monetized, but the effect was a common bond. With so many people these days excluding one another, commercialization isn’t the problem; it’s the only part that’s endured. It’s what everyone blames instead of themselves.
J: Wow, okay. I’m… now I’m sad.
N: You asked. (sips) Did you know they changed the date of Christmas?
J: Right — Christmas should be when Easter is and Easter is when Christmas should be.
N: No. Christmas was celebrated on January 7th instead of December 25th.
J. Huh. My Gramma always insisted we keep the tree up until after that.
N: Your ancestors, the Scots-Irish, started to settle the Allegheny Mountains about a hundred years before that, a little after the time I was born. They were no friends of the Catholics, so back when Pope Gregory adjusted the calendar because leap years hadn’t been properly considered, they saw it as a loss of days and kept Christmas where it was. December 25 on the Julian calendar falls on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
J: January 7th was kept in protest?
N: Your pioneers felt thirteen days were being stolen from them.
J: Not to mention being an unlucky number.
N: (sips, smiles) Actually, thirteen is considered a lucky number in most cultures — the moon cycles thirteen time in a year, for example. The number seven, however —
J: I’m going to stop you right there.
N: I reckoned you might.
Take your power seriously. Keep each other safe.