It’s time for a return to the forgotten tradition of ‘Long Christmas’

Rite and Reason: January should be a time for geniality, cheerfulness and gentle gluttony, not shivering abstinence made worse by a rigorous fitness regime

Baby, it’s cold outside. So, why are we even thinking of going on the wagon for the most dispiriting element of the contemporary calendar, Dry January? Or, come to that, giving up meat and dairy for Veganuary? And if you’re thinking of eschewing starchy carbs as part of some fun New Year, New You diet, you are mad.

Look out there. It’s the bleakest time of the year. It’s a time for gathering round the fire, or the contemporary equivalent, and having the friends round for a drink or tea and cake. It’s a time for eating and drinking and being sociable. What if January were, instead of one long post-festive season, with nothing between now and Valentine’s Day to look forward to, an extension of Christmas?

What if the fun didn’t stop on New Year’s Day, but instead continued right through to February? What if you could keep the fairy lights up for an entire month – or, if you’re old fashioned, the holly and the ivy? Well, funnily enough, that’s exactly what should be happening. Welcome to that very old institution… Long Christmas.

Most people know, courtesy of the carol, that Christmas goes on for 12 days to honour the birth of Christ, starting on Christmas Eve. Indeed in Ireland, the Epiphany was the Little Christmas, or Women’s Christmas, a day when the women went out socialising after cooking for a crowd over the festivities, and the men minded the house. (If ever there were a tradition that needed reviving, that is it.) And that sustained 12 days of entertaining and going to church was possible because, previously, the fun didn’t really start until Christmas Eve.


Liturgically and practically, the Christmas season didn’t stop at the Epiphany, though that was the culmination of the immediate feast – and it’s still the high point in places like Spain. The season once went on, and still does in terms of the church calendar, until February 2nd, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, 40 days after Christ’s birth, and, as luck would have it, in Ireland, St Bridget’s day – another women’s celebration.

On Candlemas, candles were blessed and carried in procession, at least until the Reformation; it was a kind of festival of light. That’s something else that the church could rediscover to ward off the darkness and cold of the night.

If you try thinking about January in terms of Long Christmas, it has a genuinely different aspect. There aren’t presents, but it becomes a time for geniality and cheerfulness and gentle gluttony, not shivering abstinence compounded by a rigorous fitness regime. And historically, it was a time for enjoying the plenty of the year, if you could afford it.

Gunter’s Oracle

As one gastronomic guide to the year, Gunter’s Oracle (1830), observed: “January is perhaps of all the months of the year the most favourable to the enjoyments of the table… And now it is that a householder must either give good and frequent dinners, or permit himself to be thrown without the pale of society… When the appetite is both excellent and discriminating, the dinner must be abundant and admirable – anything short of these qualities… in January is a moral assassination.”

Well, quite. There’s a time for everything, and this is the time for keeping out the cold in good company. Long Christmas should be sociable, and heaven knows, there’s not much to do in the garden.

There is, of course, a season of the year for abstinence, for giving things up and having less of them, possibly a plant-based diet. That’s Lent, which this year is really early… right at the end of February. But by then, we’ll have started to see the stirrings of spring; the weather getting a little warmer, the days a little longer, and it’s a more propitious time for fasting. If we want to give up drink or meat, there are 40 days to do it before Easter, by which time we’ll be ready for our chocolate rabbits and lamb dinners.

The strange thing about the contemporary calendar is that it gets things the wrong way round. We’re feasting when we should be fasting, before Christmas, and fasting when we should be feasting, in January. We used to do things differently.

As social historian Nick Groom, points out, it was Victorian businessmen who decided that Christmas should finish on Twelfth Night, to get everyone back to work. There’s a legacy of that Scrooge mindset in the grim insistence that Epiphany is when the decorations come down.

But we can do things differently if we think of Christmas winding down gently from January 6th to February 2nd, not coming to an abrupt end. Let’s go with the season, not against it. This isn’t the time to finish the party… but to keep it going, just less extravagantly. It’s cold out there.

Melanie McDonagh is an Irish journalist working in London.