A Traditional Christmas -- Not

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. - History is serious business in this picturesque town that once served as the doorway to the wilds beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Civic leaders constantly call their town "Historic Jonesborough" and note its birth in 1779. This time of year, they strive to turn their brick sidewalks, street lamps, churches, shops and inns into a living Victorian postcard. This year's theme is the "Twelve Days of Christmas" and the calendar is packed with exhibits, concerts, dinners and storytelling events.

But the actual 12-day Christian festival called Christmas - which begins Dec. 25th - is totally empty on the calendar. The second day of Christmas is Dec. 26th, and it's empty. The third day of Christmas is Dec. 27th, and it's empty. And so forth and so on until the Jan. 6th Feast of the Epiphany, and that's empty, too.

Don't mutter "Bah! Humbug!" Even Ebenezer Scrooge was granted a vision of the entire season - from the holy rites of Christmas Day to the parties of the Twelfth Night.

"Oh, we're just using the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' as a kind of umbrella theme for all kinds of activities that everybody wanted to do at Christmas," said Steve Nelson, in the town's tourism office. "We kind of kicked things around for a while and that's what we came up with. We're just using the images of the song. We know that all of this isn't historically accurate."

So while the publicity proclaims that this is a "traditional," "Victorian" Christmas, it really isn't, said Nelson, who has been a church choir director for 41 years and understands the details of the Christian calendar. But the month of December is simply too packed to worry about all of that.

Of course, the irony is that the actual days of the Christmas season are wide open. No one would have trouble fitting in concerts, parties, sales and services between Dec. 26th and Jan. 5th.

"Sure, you could go ahead and do your parties then, but everyone would think that you've lost your blooming mind," noted Linda Measner, a hostess at the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center. "If you went caroling after Christmas Day, people might throw things at you."

Everyone knows that the cultural tide called "The Holidays" begins soon after Labor Day and has swamped the World Series, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Dec. 6 feast day of St. Nicholas. The main casualty has been the reverent four-week Christian season known as Advent, which leads up to Christmas. After Dec. 25th, America slides into a season of bowl games and the National Football League playoffs.

It's a corporate thing. As the old saying goes: America's economy is powered by two giants - Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.

Nelson noted that Jonesborough is managing to hold a community-wide service of Bible lessons and carols, a traditional rite in which the 12-day season begins with the glow of candlelight late on Christmas Eve. Of course, the community's service of lessons and carols will have to be on Dec. 17th.

"We just had to get done what we could get done," he said. "Most of our churches have even moved their Christmas cantatas up to Dec. 21st this year. I think the important thing is that the whole community is involved."

Meanwhile, down on East Main Street, the owner of the Old Towne Christmas Shoppe sat surrounded by hand-made decorations and twinkling lights. For most people, this season has turned into an obstacle course of commercial and cultural obligations that has little or nothing to do with faith and family, said Joanna Anderson. It's getting to the point that many people don't even mind admitting it.

"I really wish there was some way we could get people to go back to the old ways. I know that everybody is supposed to say that, but I really, really believe it," she said. "Things are out of control. People wouldn't want to spend 12 days lingering over Christmas and having a good time or thinking about what it means. Everybody has to rush off and do a bunch of other stuff."