Keeping Christmas

One of the Yeoman Farm Children’s favorite stories of all time is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They’ve not only read it multiple times, but also watched nearly every movie version (and can explain the differences between those versions).

At the very end of the story, we find this wonderful passage:

[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

A question that has been on my mind of late has been What does it mean to “keep Christmas well”? For our family, a big part of “keeping Chrstmas well” has meant appreciating that Christmas is a season rather than a single day — and remembering that that season does not begin until the evening of December 24th, and continues until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 10th this time).

We do everything possible to avoid Christmas music and celebrations during the four weeks of Advent, and I am grateful to Mrs Yeoman Farmer for insisting on this tradition. Although our trip to adopt Yeoman Farm Baby complicated things somewhat this year, we have a number of traditions to emphasize Advent as a time of joyful expectation that is different from Christmas. In addition to an Advent Calendar, we keep an Advent wreath on the dining room table. Each evening, when we sit down to eat, we light the candles and sing a stanzia from ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ before saying grace.

We don’t even buy our Christmas tree until a day or two before the big day. (Back in Illinois, I used to wait until December 24th and was always able to get a fairly decent tree for almost nothing, but here in Michigan many places totally sell out — and the remaining vendors don’t cut their prices below twenty bucks.) The last two years, I’ve taken a different kid with me in our 4×4 truck to get a freshly cut tree from a local farm; that in itself has become a wonderful custom of its own.

The tree sits in exile on the front porch until the evening of December 24th. Then, after dinner, we put Christmas music on the stereo, set the tree up in the living room, and decorate it. Now, and only now, has the Christmas season actually begun.

As we were driving someplace this Sunday, MYF and I observed that it was sad that so many people were already taking all their Christmas decorations down. Indeed, I made an interesting observation of my own: scanning the radio dial while driving around town on Saturday (the 26th), I didn’t pick up a single Christmas song. The closest I got was “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” which isn’t really about Christmas. What’s maddening is that this year the radio stations began playing Christmas music during the first week of November. I kid you not — I had to do a very long interstate drive that week, so was scanning the radio dial in many media markets, and it was astonishing how much Christmas music was already being played in so many places. While I’m on this soapbox, I should mention that one station in a nearby town has billboards up proclaiming itself “Jackson’s Christmas Music Station”. Just for fun, I tried listening to that station while driving around today. Want to guess how much Christmas music I heard on Jackson’s Christmas Music Station on this, just the Fifth Day of Christmas? Zero.

So, we’ll keep on keeping Christmas on our own, playing Christmas music at home and celebrating this wonderful season for another couple of weeks — even if the rest of the world has moved on (and is probably already stocking the store shelves for Valentine’s Day). We try to take things especially easy during these eight days that comprise the Octave of Christmas…though I do need to get a move on and butcher a goose this afternoon. That goose (or, rather, gander) is going to be the centerpiece of our New Year’s feast. Yes, it’s a bit Dickensian…but what do you expect, given the YFCs taste in literature?

I hope all of you, my readers, are keeping the season well — no matter what your faith. All of you are in our family’s prayers at this special time of the year.

Christmas

In a world where holiday lights and store displays go up even before Thanksgiving, our family tries to maintain a strong distinction between Advent and Christmas. We don’t play “Christmas” music in our home before December 25th, and all the decorations are strictly limited to Advent images. We don’t even buy a tree, let alone put it up, until very close to Christmas Day.

This was Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s idea, and I’ve grown to really appreciate it. In my family, our tree and decorations typically went up in early December — and came down around New Year’s Day. It’s been wonderful to rediscover the meaning and definition of these different seasons, and to keep our Christmas displays up throughout the entire Christmas season.

This year was no different. Yesterday, Homeschooled Farm Girl and I finally shoveled our 4×4 truck out of its snow-bound prison, fired up the motor, and set out to find our tree. In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to getting last minute trees for free — or for five bucks at the most. Why pay more for something you’re going to throw away anyhow?

Why? Well, this year we got the answer. The local grocery store had no trees, leaving few options. We could drive 10-12 miles either north or south, and try to find something. Or we could follow the signs to a local Christmas tree farm.

We chose the latter, even though it meant leaving the truck in 4×4 the entire time. The farm itself was a half-mile down a dirt driveway; we never could have reached it with a different vehicle. Once we arrived, we discovered sticker shock: after so many years of picking up cheap last-minute trees, I was amazed to learn that these trees cost upwards of $40. Or more.

The guy did have one tree that was already cut. It was a bit on the short side, but was well-shapen. And he said he’d let it go for twenty bucks. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for the perfect tree, so I agreed to take the short one.

But more than that, I had a larger reason for buying my tree there: I wanted to get it directly from the farmer, to support his family, and keep the money in our local community. Was $20 more than I was used to spending? Yes. But where was that $20 going? Directly into the pocket of a guy who had spent a lot of time and sweat building a beautiful Christmas tree farm. No middlemen. No brokers. Directly into the farmer’s pocket.

How do you put a pricetag on that? I certainly can’t. That’s why I happily paid the twenty bucks, took the tree home with Homeschooled Farm Girl, and will think about that farmer every time I look at the beautiful tree in our living room.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Ready. At Last.

Finally, all the gifts are wrapped and the tree is up…and we’re about ready to call it a night.

Yes, believe it or not…the tree didn’t go up until late this evening. We didn’t even get the thing until Sunday, and it remained outside until the night of Christmas Eve.

Are we procrastinators? Trying to save a bunch of money by getting one of the trees they desperately give away at the end of the season? Nope. Though I must confess the cost savings are nice, we’re above all simply trying to draw a very bright line distinction between Advent and Christmas. We’re sick of all the stores putting Christmas decorations up on November 1st, and playing Christmas music beginning Thanksgiving weekend, and then taking everything down on December 26th. For years now, we’ve been trying to carve out in our own lives a “space” for Advent and a completely separate “space” for Christmas, without getting the two confused.

During Advent, each night before dinner we light candle(s) on an Advent wreath and sing the first verse of “O Come O Come Emanuel” before saying grace and eating. The kids move Mary and Joseph one step closer to the stable on their special Advent calendar. There are no Christmas decorations or music of any kind; this is a time of preparation, not celebration.

Then, on Christmas Eve, everything switches. The tree goes up, the nativity scene goes up, and the advent wreath/candles/calendar all go back in the box. We decorate the tree, put gifts under it — and then leave all the Christmas decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord in January.

It was Mrs Yeoman Farmer who suggested we begin these traditions, several years ago, and I am grateful that she initiated them. It’s wonderful having a real Advent and a real Christmas, with each one observed in its own special way.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid to be countercultural. It’s a great way to live. Especially at this time of year.

Goodbye to Guineas

Yesterday, with mixed emotions, I butchered both of our remaining Guinea fowl. At one point, we had dozens of the birds; the idea was to employ them for their bug-eating prowess. However, as time went by, we discovered their downsides: Guineas are always half-wild, extremely difficult to catch, and even more difficult to contain. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer grew increasingly irritated with their tendency to fly into her garden and take dust baths in her recently-planted beds. I managed to buy them a reprieve from the chopping block last summer; I’d grown rather fond of them and their antics, and didn’t want to see our farm without them.

But even I have come around now. It’s not so much a matter of seeing Guineas as pests — it’s more a matter of letting go of my attachment to them. And besides, guinea meat is delicious…and we figured it would make a nice treat for Christmas Dinner.

So, Saturday night I plucked both of them off their perches in the barn. One put up quite a fight, and made me chase him all over the building before I could corner him. The other allowed himself to be surprised, and went quietly. They spent their last night in a cardboard box, and then I dispatched them Sunday morning after Mass.

Was it hard to pull the trigger (or knife, as it were) on them? Sure. Butchering chickens and ducks and turkeys isn’t difficult; we have so many of each, they’re more or less anonymous. But with only two guineas, they’re “part of the crew” in a way that no individual hen or duck ever is. And it was tough knowing that with them gone, there would be one less type of critter in our menagerie.

But it’s not like I’m in mourning for them or anything. No way. I’m happily looking forward to Christmas Dinner!