Monthly Archives: January 2018

On Respect

I don’t discuss politics much on the blog, but I like to think it’s pretty obvious where I stand, which is with kindness and inclusiveness and respect to people of all cultures and beliefs. In this country we are forced on a regular basis these days to examine our conscience on these matters. Perhaps this is part of what is necessary as we grow as a nation. But while there are the broader, abstract ideals that would have us treat others with respect and kindness…  do we do this at the most local level? Do we treat the ones we love with respect and kindness? Are we patient with our family in our requests and in our answers to simple questions? Are we helpful, doing things for them without being asked? Do we respect the life decisions other family members make? These, too, are tough questions as we examine our own actions in regard to respect.

It’s been a little while since I’ve done this, but years ago I began sending an occasional donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. They, in turn, would send me return address labels imprinted with my name and address and a message: Teach Tolerance. I rarely used the labels, because the message kind of irked me. If I did use them, I would cross out the word Tolerance and write in the word Respect. Tolerance, it seems to me, falls short in the goal of accepting others; Respect feels more like we’re actually making progress in understanding each other.

Anyway, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2018 in the United States of America, these are the things first and foremost on my mind, as I strive to be the best version of myself that I can. If I am open and treat others as I hope they would treat me, I think that’s a good foundation.

 

Image: A photograph by Ralph David Abernathy of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for the Right to Vote; it was taken on the last day as marchers left the campus of the City of St. Jude for the State Capitol. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. The Voting Rights Act, designed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote, was signed into law later that year, just a month past my first birthday. It astounds me sometimes that this most basic of civil rights was secured only in my lifetime, and that my grandparents probably knew people whose parents had been slaves or who had been born into slavery themselves. Perhaps it is no wonder that we still have so much work to do to overcome this past and to reach a place where respect for all people is common.

 

Back to the Workaday World

I know, and I’m sorry: You thought you were rid of me after all those Book of Days posts for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I thought you were, too, but then late last night I remembered about the Back-to-Work holidays that follow Yuletide. There are two of them, plus another day especially for printers. It would seem that our ancestors had a lot more fun getting back to work after the Christmas festivities, much more than we do, for getting back to the workaday world came not without a little celebration. We might do well with some of that, too.

St. Distaff’s Day
January 7
The day after Epiphany sent the women back to their spinning and the day became known as St. Distaff’s Day. It’s a bit odd in that there is no saint named Distaff. Rather, the day is named after a traditional tool for spinning wool or flax into thread. Prior to the spinning wheel, it was the distaff and spindle that facilitated this work. The distaff is a tool traditionally associated with women and with women’s work, and to be sure, spinning was so associated with women’s work that the word spinster, which is happily not much used these days, once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children. Any woman who spun thread (and that would have been most women in earlier times) would have known the distaff well.

St. Distaff’s Day was a day for mischief: yes, the women were trying to get back to their spinning, but the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was a mischievous one, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time.

Plough Monday
January 8
While the women always returned to their spinning on the Seventh of January, the men’s Back to Work day was a moveable one, falling on the Monday after Epiphany. This year, that happens to be the Eighth of January. There is a ceremonial ploughing of the ground on Plough Monday, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to their sport.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess. And spring is not that far away in this world of spiraling circular tradition: Come February 2, we are halfway between Midwinter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a day marked by the holidays Candlemas, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day. It is a day seen in the traditional reckoning of time as spring’s first stirrings, even if winter still holds a strong grip. The sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

Copperman’s Day
January 8
The Monday after Epiphany is of special importance to printers like me, for it is also Copperman’s Day, an old Dutch printers’ holiday. The printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own and show off the skills they’d learnt from the master printers. Copperman’s Day prints were typically small keepsakes sold for a copper apiece.

Seth Thompson and I have been printing Copperman’s Day prints from handset metal and wood types here at our Lake Worth print shop since 2014. I already informed my boss at work that I’d be taking Monday off to print this year’s. What will it be? Ah, well, that is a secret for now. I’ll reveal that perhaps in the next Convivio Book of Days post, which, lucky for you and for me both, will not be tomorrow. We all get a much needed break from my yammering.  I’ll sign off now, and leave you with the poem “Saint Distaff’s Day, or the morrow after Twelfth Day” by Robert Herrick. It’s from his 1648 book Hesperides. It’s much better than anything I’ll ever write, and it goes like this:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a-spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

 

Image: “A Young Woman Holding a Distaff Before a Lit Candle” by Adam de Coster. Oil on canvas, circa early 1600s [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

20+C+M+B+18

TWELFTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Epiphany

On this final day of the Christmas season, we come to a celebration that was recognized by the Church even before Christmas itself. It is the day tradition tells us the Magi reached the stable to visit the child after their journey following the star that guided them to Bethlehem. Seeing the child was their epiphany, and that is the name of this holyday/holiday, too: Epiphany.

In our home, we close the celebration of Christmas on Epiphany night with a simple ceremony at the front door, outside on the front porch. We will gather up all who are in attendance and we will each take turns writing with chalk on the lintel above the front door the numbers and letters and symbols of a traditional inscription. This year, it will read as follows: 20+C+M+B+18. These are the initials of each of the Three Kings (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. For me, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next to write the inscription again. Depending on the weather, the inscription may be there above the door for a month or it may be there all the year through. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds us of Christmas’s presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through that doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And with that, these Twelve Days of Christmas are done. La Befana is back to her sweeping, sweeping Christmas away, too, and we return to ordinary time, back to the workaday world. Here’s a poem to help make that shift. It’s a song, actually, one I think of as a Christmas song, though there is nothing about it that specifically says it is… and so maybe it’s perfect for Epiphany and our subsequent return to ordinary time. And so I will leave you with that, ending our 12 day series with something to carry you off, off across the desert land.

 

C A R A V A N
by Jane Siberry

O it was a snowy night
The caravan traveling across the desert land
The stars were hanging heavy
In the absence of light
And you were there and I
And something in our hearts
Told us to keep on moving
Because there was something about that star
That Star…

How far is the nearest place to kneel?
How far is the nearest throne?
How far can you go with only a dream?
With only a hope?
You take the vision and you hold it steady
Right ahead of you
Across the ranges across the plains
The desert land the gaze of strangers
That is how… Hold It Steady

There was always someone who would
Take the children and keep them entertained
There was always someone who would
Lay down their work to play the children’s games
There was always someone
Who would know how things worked
They’d say… There. Where? Over there.

And now as we sit on the steps
At the side of the square
There are three wise men sitting in their chairs
If anyone wants to know
Which way any of us should go
They will hold they will contain
They will cup the refrain
Hold It Steady – Take The Vision
Hold It Steady
Right ahead of you right between the eyes. THAT is how.

O it was a snowy night and our caravan
Moved along through this yet unholy land
You were there and I was there
Two desert boys – we did not understand
We only knew that something grand
Was happening – that Star – that night.

 

Thank you, Jane Siberry, for allowing me to publish “Caravan” for you here today. You can hear the song––the version from her 1995 record “Maria”––here… but it was also on her 1997 live album “Child,” and that’s the version from which the lyrics above are taken. Image: A Christmas Creche made of cardboard and foil by artisans in Poland, a gift to us from our friend Walter Chruscinski.

 

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