MA Student, University of Colorado, Boulder
The other week (about mid-January), I was having coffee at Starbucks with a friend when I noticed that they gave me one of this year’s controversial red holiday cups. (Don’t worry, this isn’t another Starbucks red cup diatribe.) But it initially struck me as odd that I would be drinking coffee out of a holiday cup in mid-January, long after the so-called “holiday season” had passed. Though, there was something kind of nice about getting this red cup—it made me feel like the holidays weren’t quite over. This was a nice change for me because my family, like many people where I’m from in Montgomery, Alabama, tend to take down all of our holiday decorations in the days following Christmas (and certainly before the new year!). I’ve always wondered why there was such a build up to the holiday, only for all of the festive decorations to come down almost immediately after.
Both where I live in Colorado and where I’ve lived in Alabama, there is at least one designated holiday music station on the radio that starts playing holiday tunes the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, and it plays only those until Christmas. But as soon as Christmas is over, i.e., December 26, these radio stations go back to playing their regular music, and in a moment, this month-long holiday build up is over. Christmas is done. Move on. Now, of course, many people may have another day or two off of work (depending on what day of the week Christmas falls), and folks may still be celebrating with friends and family, but all of the social signifiers telling us it’s Christmas, e.g., songs on the radio, store decorations, home Christmas décor, etc., are all put away. Stores have big sales to get rid of their holiday decorations and the excess of goods that weren’t purchased before Christmas.
So why is it that in most parts of the United States there is no dénouement to transition out of the holiday comparable to the build up we see beginning, just following Thanksgiving? Now whether we should start playing holiday music immediately following Thanksgiving is not the issue—though the abrupt change there, too, is also curious. But let’s stick with Christmas… This immediate move away from Christmas that I’ve experienced, strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Apart from the month-long build up, many places, both within the U.S. and North America and certainly other parts of the world, continue to celebrate the holidays well after the passing of December 25th. For people in these places not only continue their celebrations, but also tend to leave their Christmas decorations up until January 6th, or Epiphany. Epiphany, the twelfth day following Christmas, is celebrated in the Christian traditions as the baptism of Jesus and also the revelation of Jesus as God. This holiday is celebrated around the globe in many Christian traditions and considered the culmination of Christmas in ways.
But growing up in the American south, I was never aware of this feast day or continued Christmas celebration. As far as I knew, the holiday was done and the decorations came down. If you were to wander into a store on December 28th, you’d be hard pressed to see the lights and Christmas decorations still hanging up—instead, they’d likely be in the sale section and the store would have signs and decorations up for either New Year’s or Valentine’s Day or they’d have all the foods and decorations one might need for a Super Bowl party.
Perhaps it’s that desire for more of a transition that made me appreciate getting that mid-January leftover red Starbucks cup. After all, I always bug my parents about wanting to keep the Christmas decorations up longer. But what really made me consider this sort of liminal period of the holidays was not just that I got this red cup, but that not two days later when I walked into Target to pick up a couple of things, they already had their Valentine’s decorations, cards, and heart-shaped and –themed items on display.
This has become the standard procedure for many department stores in recent years, it seems. I often joke that I have to go to Target to find out what holiday it is. Now, I don’t mean for this to sound overly cynical, of course, but I do wonder what prompts this immediate transition out of Christmas—is it an economic issue? I’m not sure. But in learning about this feast of Epiphany and differences in holiday celebrations, it strikes me as a question worth exploring more—and not only because I want to keep our decorations up longer. I’m not suggesting that we should be celebrating in a particular way, but seeing the quite drastic differences in the winding down of the holidays certainly prompts me to ask what sort of interests are driving that abrupt change and how those interests shape our varying understandings of holiday celebrations and practices. Until then, enjoy those few lingering red cups while you can.
Andie Alexander is an M.A. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on identity construction, discourses on classification and boundary construction, the practicality of definition, and public/private discourses with regard to issues of social group formation and nationalism in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.