Monthly Archives: December 2017

Unless Ye Become As Little Children

THIRD DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Holy Innocents’ Day, Childremas

Pure and simple: Today, this Third Day of Christmas, is all about kids. If you have children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or nieces or nephews, celebrate them today. But don’t forget as well to celebrate the child you once were. That kid is in there somewhere, and so is that sense of wonder, and it is good sometimes to check at the door all the weight we carry of the world and just be a bit like that old self. 

In that same spirit, I’m going to check out slightly tonight and give you for this Third Day of Christmas a reprint of the Convivio Book of Days chapter for the day, one first published on December 28, 2013. I’d write a fresh post, but we are trying to get our winter greetings out in the morning mail, and, well… there is only so much I can do in a day (or a late night). I will mention one thing that I’ve learnt about Childremas since last Christmas: The day was viewed with such great superstition that it was considered unlucky even to put on a new suit on the Third Day of Christmas, or to clip your fingernails, or to flat out begin any project at all. It is the day we remember the innocents slaughtered by order of King Herod after he heard of the Christ child’s birth. Not everything about the Christmas story is good; the story of the Holy Innocents is one that is truly disturbing. Our lesson, perhaps? Never underestimate the threat of an insecure, self-centered man in a position of power.

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The 28th of December has long been considered the unluckiest day of the year. It is the Third Day of Christmas, Holy Innocents’ Day, and it gets its name from the slaughter of the children of Judea at the order of King Herod after the birth of Jesus, who feared losing his earthly throne to the child. Commencing any undertaking on the 28th of December was to be avoided, especially a marriage or a business venture, for anything begun on this day, it was thought, would certainly fail to prosper.

Be that as it may, the Third Day of Christmas has always been focused on children, and it is a good day to honor not only the children in your life, but also the children we once were: to reconnect with a time when we were more willing to suspend disbelief, more willing to be fully immersed in things, as children are wont to be. The child you were has certainly informed the adult you’ve become, so there is a thread that resonates across the years. This, we feel, is something worth nurturing.

One of the oldest midwinter traditions in the Church is the election of a Boy Bishop each St. Nicholas’s Day on the Sixth of December. He would be chosen from the choirboys, and he would rule until Childremas, this Third Day of Christmas. The office was serious business. The Boy Bishop wore full vestments and mitre, and he would perform all the duties of a bishop, save for celebrating mass, although he did often deliver the sermons. The actual bishop would, in some places, have to follow the orders of the Boy Bishop. These traditions tap into the ideas of the Feast of Fools, as well, where the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed (which blends into the customs for the Fourth Day of Christmas, tomorrow), and perhaps relates to the words of the Magnificat: God has put down the mighty from their throne and has exalted the humble and the meek.

In medieval times, the Boy Bishop could be found in most every cathedral in France, Britain and Germany during the Yuletide season. The custom was treated with such seriousness that if he should die while in office, the Boy Bishop received the same burial honors as a real bishop. The 1869 Chambers Brothers’ Book of Days gives mention to one unfortunate Boy Bishop who did come to his end while in office, telling us that a monument to his memory may be found on the north side of the nave at Salisbury Cathedral.

In Spain and Latin America, the Third Day of Christmas is a day for practical jokes, the victims of which being called inocentes, although sometimes it is the prankster that gets that name in a plea for forgiveness. No matter how you spend the day, the theme, it seems, is universal: celebrating and honoring children.

Image: A scene from one of the Advent calendars I had as a boy. I saved every one of them. I think traditional German Advent calendars are a sure path back to the language we once spoke as children… and that’s pretty much the reason why we sell them at our website.

 

Salute!

SECOND DAY of CHRISTMAS
St. John’s Day

Today we focus on wine, for today we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles, the only one who did not die a martyr’s death for his beliefs. Not that there were no attempts on his life. In fact, wine is central to St. John’s Day because of the most famous attempt on his life: He was given poison wine to drink, but the poison had no effect on him; nothing at all happened after he drank it.

And so on St. John’s Day, this Second Day of Christmas, it is customary to give gifts of wine, and it is customary to bless our wine. Wine has long been brought to churches on this day, especially in Germany and in Austria, for a blessing by the priest and this blessed St. John’s wine is thought to have healing properties and to taste better than other wines. Some even hold that wine that is not blessed but is stored nearby to blessed St. John’s wine improves in flavor just by being near it.

Both of my grandfathers made wine, though I never had the pleasure of tasting the fruits of their labor. Grandpa Cutrone died long before I was born, and Grandpa DeLuca stopped making wine eventually, as have probably most all the Italian grandfathers. It’s a shame, for I would have loved to make wine with Grandpa and with my dad, who helped him out with the annual project. I was searching just tonight for an old 8mm film of Dad and Grandpa DeLuca at work making wine one autumn, but the film clip turned out to be just a few seconds long and quite dark and in it, Dad was hammering something while Grandpa was showing off a barrel hoop to the camera. Not long after that, though, came a short segment of my dad’s family sitting down to Christmas dinner. It’s ravioli, which is still our favorite Christmas dinner, and everyone is toasting with wine, very likely the wine Dad and Grandpa Cutrone made earlier that year. It makes me happy to see this.

Yesterday, for the First Day of Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day, we enjoyed roasted chestnuts and mulled wine. Today, we do the same. It will most likely be just Seth and me raising our glasses to each other tonight, but no matter if it’s just the two of us or a table full of people, still we say the same: Salute! And at this Christmastide, we’ll add, as well, Merry Christmas, Buon Natale.

Image: That’s Grandpa Cutrone, the grandpa I never knew, raising his glass to us at Christmas, probably 1949 or 1950. It’s a still from the video below. The little girl in the movie is my cousin Cammie. Grandma is there, as is Aunt Mary and Uncle Phil, and Uncle Frank. My mom is in white; so is my dad; he’s the one who winks at the camera. That’s just the way he was.

 

 

Enter Christmastide

FIRST DAY of CHRISTMAS:
St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Day of the Wren

Ok. First of all, congratulations: You’ve made it through the mad rush of Christmas. Christmas Eve came and ushered in Christmas Day and now, on the other side of all that hubbub, comes Christmastide. Twelve days of the year, filled with good cheer, as the old midwinter carol goes, the one I love so much, the one called “In Praise of Christmas” (which is known also as “All Hail to the Days” or “Drive the Cold Winter Away”). We should start first off with a disclaimer: There is more than one way to count these Twelve Days of Christmas, which should not surprise you, for as traditions grow, the approach to those traditions grow in different ways for different peoples. The approach we like best in this house, though, is the tradition that has the Twelve Days beginning only once Christmas Day itself has passed. Mainly we love the logic of it. Counting the Twelve Days this way gives us six days in the old year, six days in the new… and our ancestors loved this kind of magic that comes with numerical balance––in this case a balanced bridge that leads us out of one year and into a new one. And so, being the sort of person who likes to be open to magic, to the “alchemy of the everyday,” as Jane Siberry calls it, this is the logic that we follow here, as well.

And here we enter the time when we in this home get to baking cookies, for instance, and reading Christmas books and watching Christmas movies. Christmas music plays through our home. All the things we had no time for in the mad rush toward Christmas, now are open to us, and we take the time to enjoy them. I have a few recommendations about these days:

  1. Stock up on chestnuts. We’ll be roasting them almost nightly here. To roast, cut a small cross in the flat part of each nut, put the nuts in the freezer for 10 minutes, then roast in a 325ºF oven for about 40 minutes or so. We like when the roasting results in a little dark roasty spot on each nut. Peel and eat! We generally figure on five or six chestnuts per person.
  2. Stock up on mulling spices for mulled wine and mulled cider. We sell some pretty wonderful mulling spices from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers. We can get them to you in a couple of days thanks to US Priority Mail. Spend $50 and your order ships free; otherwise, it’s a flat rate shipping fee of $8.50.
  3. Find you some good music for these days. We recommend any of the Christmas music by the Boston Camerata, by Jane Siberry, by Gaelynn Lea, by the Christmas Revels. Much of the Christmas music we listen to in this house is music that you could imagine listening to any time of year (although we don’t). It’s got a different, timeless quality than the stuff you are exposed to in other places. Trust me.
  4. Most importantly, follow what’s in your heart. Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas puts you in a distinctly different place than most of the world around you. You’ll have to endure seeing Christmas trees discarded on roadsides and seeing social media postings from folks boasting about how they got all the Christmas stuff put away, sometimes even before New Year’s. Avoid the corporate retail world as much as possible; they began Christmas for us months ago, and now that it is here, they’ve pulled the plug on it and are most likely moving on toward Valentine’s Day, even as I type this. Let them do what they want… although you may pick up some Christmastide bargains now!

On this First Day of Christmas, we come to Boxing Day, celebrated in England and the Commonwealth countries. Servants typically had to work on Christmas Day, but the First Day of Christmas was their day to spend with their families. Their employers would send them home with boxes of gifts for themselves and for the families they were heading home to. Perhaps more important, though, it is St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and so the Church assigned this first day of Christmas to him. In Italy, Santo Stefano’s Day is a big deal. Christmas Day is for family, but Santo Stefano’s Day is a day to bundle up and go out to visit friends and to visit nativity scenes. It is a day for roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (as is tomorrow, St. John’s Day: the Second Day of Christmas). My Aunt Anne and my mom say that my grandmother, Assunta, typically made soup for supper on this First Day of Christmas, when we remember Santo Stefano. The soup was a nice break from the rich fare of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Over in Ireland, it is the Day of the Wren. It is the wren that is traditionally thought to have brought bad luck upon the imprisoned Stephen, who was making his escape when a wren alerted the sleeping guards to the situation. His capture lead to his execution and martyrdom. Wrens were traditionally hunted on this First Day of Christmas, then paraded around town.

If Christmas Day left you feeling a bit down––perhaps it was far from perfect, perhaps you were missing someone, perhaps there was family tension… whatever the reason: if Christmas Day felt not right, St. Stephen’s Day, this First Day of Christmas, offers a chance to make things right, or at least a little better. It’s a chance that continues throughout this Christmastide, and that’s not a bad thing at all, is it?

Noel. My nephew John made us this wooden sign––one of many decorations we’ll get to enjoy this Christmastide.

 

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