On the first day of Christmas, Mrs. Sharp could give you a partridge in a pear tree. But wouldn't you rather have a festively wrapped plan? Let me assure you, dear readers, the practicality of a plan for family activities spread out from Christmas Eve to 12th Night beats a gift of two turtledoves any day.
Let us begin with Christmas Eve. A day usually lost in a flurry of last-minute preparations, Christmas Eve has its own customs worth reviving for your family's pleasures.
One Christmas Eve custom is that of the Yule Log. The Yule Log, which was the largest log of wood we could find, was decorated with a sprig of holly, placed in the fireplace and lit with much ceremony, where we hoped it would continue to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas.
No fireplace, you say? Then try hauling home a festive Christmas cake in the shape of a Yule Log, (either a Buche de Noel, available at French bakeries, or an ice-cream roll cake from a local ice cream shop) and call it your family's Yule Log. It's the spirit of tradition that counts.
Every family has its own beloved customs for Christmas Day, upon which Mrs. Sharp would not presume to intrude, except to suggest that on Christmas Eve while you're assisting Santa Claus, remove four presents from each child's mountain of gifts. One present the child will receive the day after Christmas (Boxing Day); the other three are to be saved until Jan. 6 (Epiphany).
Dec. 26: The Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is an official holiday in England known as Boxing Day. Besides being a day spent recovering from Christmas, this was the day the alms boxes for the poor were distributed, as well as the day that servants took boxes of food and gifts from their employers home to their families.
In Mrs. Sharp's house, our children celebrate Boxing Day searching for a specially decorated box in which there is a small gift. It would have been overlooked in the abundance of Christmas morning, but coming as it does the next day, after a festive search, this custom provides a charming antidote to post-Christmas doldrums.
Mrs. Sharp's Boxing Day presents are placed in old-fashioned Victorian gift boxes, which are presents in themselves. For the little ones, Mrs. Sharp leaves the Boxing Day gift near the tree, so that she can say, "Oh, look what must have dropped out of Santa's sack. . . ."
Dec. 27: This is a good day to write holiday thank-you notes, which is done as a family project with the presentation of new stationery for each member of the family.
Dec. 28: This day is Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young children killed by King Herod during his search for the infant Messiah. The Victorians called this Little Christmas and it was the time that festive juvenile parties were held. It's a perfect day for the children, home from school this week, to invite their friends in for show-and-tell, hot cocoa and Christmas cookies.
Dec. 30: Each Christmas season offers an abundance of special holiday performances including "A Christmas Carol" and "The Nutcracker Ballet" (presented annually by more than 150 regional American ballet companies), as well as holiday plays, puppet shows, and pantomimes. One day during the holiday break, schedule a special entertainment outing (perfect for a father's day out) followed by a jovial restaurant luncheon or dinner.
Jan. 6: We celebrate the Feast of Epiphany or 12th Night--the day the Three Kings from the East arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ-child.
Alas, now it's the day Christmas decorations are taken down. But for the Victorians, 12th Night was a time for grand family parties. On this night the children are given three gifts from the Magi (the remaining ones you held back at Christmas). After a special family dinner, we have 12th Night cake adorned with figures of the three kings (small wooden ornaments work well) and a silver coin (or foil wrapped bean) baked into it. The child who finds the coin becomes king or queen of the family and is presented with a gold cardboard crown (available at party supply shops or make your own with cardboard and foil wrapping paper). For a store-bought cake, just make a little slit to insert the coin and then cover with icing.
Twelfth Night is a wonderful old-fashioned tradition that Mrs. Sharp is sure your family will enjoy. It will end your holiday season on a high note.