Do you leave your lights on until Old Christmas Day?

·3 min read
Do you leave your lights on until Old Christmas Day?

Every Christmas season until Jan. 6, but not one day after, there's a corner of Petty Harbour that gets lit up by the glow of 46,000 lights — and all of them are arranged around Paul Chafe's house.

Chafe has been erecting the display since his children were small, he said.

"We just add to it every year." said Chafe. "Everyone seems to enjoy it."

Chafe has transformed his entire property into a kind of Christmas village, with dozens of decorative animals, several Santas, a huge nativity scene, and of course, tens of thousands of tiny light bulbs. But tonight, as the sun sets on Old Christmas Day, he'll be lighting up the neighbourhood for the last time.

Zach Goudie/CBC
Zach Goudie/CBC

"It is light up and all going until Old Christmas Day, or my wife would kill me," Chafe laughs. "Christmas is not over until Old Christmas Day."

But Chafe wouldn't dream of turning the lights on after Jan. 6. Some say it's bad luck.

"I wouldn't do it," he said. "Some people may, but I would not."

To see more of Paul and Tammy Chafe's spectacular Christmas display, check out the video below.

A secular tradition with religious roots

Recently retired Memorial University folklore professor Philip Hiscock says people like Paul Chafe are following a custom that goes back hundreds of years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It's really a long-standing tradition that people put their decorations up for the entire Christmas season, and then take them down on or immediately after Old Christmas Day." Hiscock said.

Zach Goudie/CBC
Zach Goudie/CBC

The custom arose from people taking a cue from their churches on when to take decorations down.

"Churches were the prime place of decoration for Christmas, years ago," Hiscock said. "And those decorations had symbols which were part of the liturgical explication … and once that season had passed, they're into another set of liturgical stuff, and they don't want to have those symbols around. So they would have been post-haste to move those decorations out."

Zach Goudie/CBC
Zach Goudie/CBC

Hiscock says the idea that it's bad luck to leave decorations up past Jan. 6 comes from the fact that churches would often burn the decorations they took down, an event that became a kind of ritual in itself.

"Thus the domestic decoration was sort of like that, then people thought, I really should be doing this for good religious reasons." he said.

In the Christian tradition of Christmas, Jan. 5 marks the end of one part of the Christmas season (the 12 days of Christmas), and Jan. 6 marks the beginning of another (the Epiphany). But Hiscock says the name "Old Christmas Day" has another explanation: in 1582, much of the world began slowly switching from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar we use today. But the new calendar was slightly shorter than the old one.

Zach Goudie/CBC
Zach Goudie/CBC

"So the Christmas of one year was not fully 365 days after the other," said Hiscock. "So people in their folk memory of Christmas said, 'Well, this isn't really Christmas. Let's wait until Old Christmas Day.' So some of the customs got carried over."

These days, Hiscock says the custom has taken on a more practical tone. By Jan. 6, many people are simply tired of the decorations and see it as a convenient day to pack up Christmas for another year. But Hiscock says letting the lights shine until Old Christmas Day is still a special part of the season for many in this part of the world.

"I think people do see it as a matter of some local pride to keep their lights going," he said.

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