It’s an idiom that is so much more than what it appears at first glance or when first heard.
Some may understand this to mean that Christmas is a time for indulgence (since it really is just once a year … but then there’s New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Easter and all those other holidays that come just once a year). It is frequently quoted, or some variation of it is quoted with kind intent, to appease someone’s fear of indulging just a little too much when Christmas goodies, in all their glory, make their festive appearances.
My mother was the Queen of Baked Goodies at Christmastime: cookies—every Christmas cookie my siblings and I could imagine: stained glass, gingerbread, jam jams, thumbprint, oatmeal, haystacks, sugar cookies, macarons, marzipan strawberries with green leaves, and pinwheels; as well as pound cake, gumdrop cake, at least five variations of fudge, both light and dark fruitcake, taffy for pulling … and my favourites—meringues and the buttery shortbread that, thankfully (and to my great delight), did not freeze. And, no, it wasn’t all for our family; my mother shared with friends and neighbours and with those less fortunate, in the true spirit of giving (but not indulging) that this idiom embodies.
There is so much more meaning that is packed into these six words that are strung together like lights on a tree. Together they may light up someone’s holiday, bring some Christmas cheer and even some much-needed hope and peace into lives that are experiencing sadness or even despair.
Together these words speak of a spirit of generosity and goodwill. They speak of comfort and joy. They speak of reconciliation in a time when the world has so much that needs to be reconciled.
Indeed, the phrase bears to mind shepherds tending their sheep when angels appeared suddenly with “tidings of great joy.”
How we need great joy in our lives.
But from whence did this phrase first appear? Well, in 1936, in Max Fleischer’s colour classic, an eight-minute, 17-second animated film, Christmas Comes But Once A Year. The setting? An orphanage with a dozen or so preschool children who, in one scene, appear to be wailing, unconsolably, and all at the same time. The hero? A professor-turned-Santa who repairs broken-down toys and fashions a tree out of green umbrellas. And the message? It is more blessed to give than it is to receive. Truly, after all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Even the babe in the manger came to give in that humble Christmas story where angels appeared first to shepherds who were keeping watch over their sheep, by night, in nearby fields. And the timeless message proclaimed was that of hope and peace, goodwill and joy that was to be for all mankind. “For unto you,” they sang (I imagine them singing) in one accord as they proclaimed the good news of the babe “born this day” and wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a Bethlehem manger.
For this writer, that message is better still than all the Christmas goodies I could imagine.
So, remember that Christmas comes but once a year … and embrace that thought and whatever meaning this humble idiom holds for you.
And in my way of expressing good wishes to you and yours, may this season be filled with peace and joy … and may you even indulge, just a little, in a few festive favourites.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas, dear readers.