My children had a headmaster who would welcome them back to school after New Year with the words: ‘Happy Christmas.’ They were astounded that such a figure could have got his calendar so muddled, until he explained that the 12 days of Christmas hadn’t run out. ‘It got a bit boring,’ confided my youngest recently. ‘He did it every year.’ Still, point made.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas went on and on: if you were illiterate and, besides, without any adequate form of lighting rooms, what else was there to do, if you were rich enough, except feast? Now, the days after Boxing Day merely seem like a kind of Limbo, in which otherwise busy people find themselves in a state of suspended animation, anxious because they’re not doing anything, fuddled, but not always joyous.
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Limbo was another medieval institution. When the Catholic Church formally embraced it in the 15th century, magnates in Europe found themselves with an urgent need to establish chantries and almshouses, staffed by persons whose sole job it was to say round-the-clock Masses for their souls. It was a good system. The richer you were, the more Masses you needed-and the more you could afford. This was a stimulus to charity. Not so the post-Christmas limbo: a time of penitence, apt to be spent counting bills.