As irreligious as I may profess to be, I can’t imagine a more spiritual day of the year than Christmas Eve. It is very early in the morning but already an undeniable placidity has descended upon the day. The day is pregnant with anticipation yet there is an overwhelming tranquillity. It is an odd mixture of mystical and childish glee. The delight is stoked by the imagery of the season which has hit a feverish pitch. All the decorations which have been assembled days and weeks in advance are directed to this one day in particular. It isn’t Christmas Day but Christmas Eve which stirs the mind to hope and provokes imagination.
Though much is made of last-minute preparations for festivities at this time of year, most of the occupation is treasured and relished. The duties invariably have a gloss of beneficence and sometimes touching altruism. And for those who have already done all that they can or need to do, it is a time of peaceful reflection. The arresting mood of the day invites indulgence and a mandatory reprieve from obligation. Even retail industry counts on being released one way or the other from servitude by noon today when the world begins to shut down its commerce in deference to what is acknowledged as a private social time.
There is no other day of the year when one is so assured to encounter a demonstration of well-wishing as Christmas Eve, whether about the sidewalks, at the stores, in church, at family gatherings or – dare I say it – on the beach where the exuberance of the children and the dogs approaches hysteria! Certainly there persists that simmering nonsense about whether it is appropriate to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” but whatever expression is adopted it is likely to be cheerfully received without impolitic acerbity. Christmas Eve reduces the world’s concerns to more important matters which transcend differences of every stripe.
Though it is not particularly promoted as part of Christmas Eve there is however a strain of pathos which sometimes insinuates the day. This of course is especially so for those who have had the misfortune to lose a loved one at this time of year or have otherwise suffered. But even if the sad events of life are not so proximate the very vaporization of inner thoughts – and the temporary suspension of daily routine – invariably leads one to reminisce and occasionally tearfully. Reuniting one’s soul with these deep-rooted emotions is bound to produce a thoughtful mood.
The ethereal feature of Christmas Eve paradoxically abounds in sensory overload whether the stirring divine music, lachrymose movies, luscious foods, brilliant colours or fragrant spicy smells. No production in aid of celebration is too grand. Though Western tradition focuses upon the liturgy of Christianity the source of the observance harkens to pagan traditions coinciding with the agricultural harvest and the Winter Solstice.
Christmas celebrations in the denominations of Western Christianity have long begun on the night of the 24th, due in part to the Christian liturgical day starting at sunset, a practice inherited from Jewish tradition and based on the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.” Many churches still ring their church bells and hold prayers in the evening; for example, the Nordic Lutheran churches. Since tradition holds that Jesus was born at night (based in Luke 2:6-8), Midnight Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, in commemoration of his birth. The idea of Jesus being born at night is reflected in the fact that Christmas Eve is referred to as Heilige Nacht (Holy Night) in German, Nochebuena (the Good Night) in Spanish and similarly in other expressions of Christmas spirituality, such as the song “Silent Night, Holy Night”.
When attending Osgoode Hall, I lived at Devonshire House, University of Toronto where I was a Don-in-Residence. I recall the annual Wassail held by the Dean in his rooms. All the men and their ladies were invited to attend. The drink provided was a mulled wine. As rambunctious as the students customarily were, they behaved remarkably well on this occasion, often dressed suitably. It was a warm and cheery gathering precedent to the departure of the students to their families for the Christmas holiday. Even if the students had lived in residence previously, the opportunity to return to their family fold for Christmas was always welcomed. It was Christmas Eve which would mark the apex of the reunion.