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What Happened to the Other 11 Days?

I've been tempted to quit my 20-year tradition of using Secret History to look at Christmas in Knoxville 100 years ago, for one reason: as we sail into the 20th century, Christmases 100 years ago are getting too familiar, too predictable, too much like today. I don't want to make it just an exercise in nostalgia.

However, there's one aspect about Christmas 100 years ago that's still very different from today. A century ago, the holiday didn't end on December 25. It kept going. Things didn't close mid-day on the 24th. In fact, Dec. 25th was often a busy day, especially in the theaters. For live performance and drama, Christmas Day may have been the single busiest day of the year. Every vaudeville theater in town was open, and they often staged extra shows that day.

And after the 25th--on the 26th, 27th- 28th, 29th--that's when the Christmas celebration happened. Christmas parties, Christmas teas, Christmas dances, Christmas shows. Sometimes even past New Year's, as late as Jan. 2 or 3. There hadn't been as much time for relaxed socializing before Dec. 25th, because everybody was out shopping, or working extra hard to earn the holiday off. And after the 25th, the tree was still up, the wreath was still out, and it was a 12-day holiday, after all. At least it still was, back then, in Knoxville a century ago.

People often assume Christmas was less "commercialized" back then. It may have been even more commercialized. Even then, stores began advertising for Christmas gifts in November, and people shopped like hell for weeks, sometimes keeping stores open until midnight. But once the presents were open, that was the time to relax and enjoy Christmas. Which, again, lasted several days. If it didn't, it wouldn't have seemed worth the trouble.

With a few exceptions, we don't do that much anymore. We pitch our trees out on the afternoon of the 25th. We go to movies, and sometimes a party or two, and wee flock to the stores to make returns. We watch a lot of TV. But there's not much public--few live shows, hardly any live drama at all, no official public events. In Knoxville, for decades, the second through 12th Days of Christmas have been dark, dull, and usually damp.

Generally, it seems as if holiday office parties, Christmas events of various sorts peak sometime around Dec. 11. A few years ago, I complained that there was nothing public going on in Knoxville after Dec. 15. But maybe it's changing back to the ancient ways, just a little.

Clarence Brown Theatre, which used to shut down their always-imaginative performances of A Christmas Carol before exams, has recently been keeping the holiday tradition going much later. Their last show this year was on Dec. 23, just yesterday. It seems heartening, considering the action takes place on Dec. 24-25.

And in recent years, we've got the public skating rink on Market Square, and First Night to look forward to.

So have Merry Christmas. From now until Jan. 6, 2013.

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