Monthly Archives: December 2018

Six Days in the Old Year

And so you have hopefully gathered your chestnuts, your wine and mulling spices, your music… all these good things to take you through the Christmas season. During the day on Wednesday, Seth and I wrote the cards we made and sent them off; our Yuletide greetings never arrive before Christmas (at least not yet) but they do arrive before Twelfth Night. If you’d like one, too, Seth and I would be happy to send you one if you send one our way. You’ll find our mailing address on the Contact Us page of our website. Later in the night, we had our St. Stephen’s Day soup and that was pretty wonderful, a simple and delicious tortellini and chicken soup, which is just what we needed after the feasting of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We served it up with shaved parmesan and prosecco and ate it by the candlelight gleam of the four red candles that have taken the place of the rose candle and the three purple candles in the ring that was our Advent wreath, while the blustery wind blew through the open windows in the dark Lake Worth night. As it drew to a close, we roasted chestnuts and made mulled wine and with it, we watched the film version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It was, all in all, a pretty wonderful First Day of Christmas.

As promised, here is information you can use for the remaining Days of Christmas that run the course of 2018. With six days of Christmas in the old year and six in the new, Christmastide is a season that stands outside ordinary time, and so we encourage you to keep these days and keep them well.

December 27
St. John’s Day

On St. John’s Day we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles and the only one who did not die a martyr’s death for his beliefs. Attempts on his life were made, though. The most famous attempt was poisoning through wine, but St. John drank the poisoned wine and still it had no effect on him. And so it is customary on this Second Day of Christmas 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. It’s a fine night to enjoy mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

December 28
Holy Innocents’ Day, Childremas

Today we remember the poor children slaughtered by order of King Herod, the insecure leader of Judea who felt threatened upon hearing the news of the saviour’s birth. As such, it is traditionally thought of as the most unlucky day of the year. A more positive approach to the day is to honor children and 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. 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.

December 29
The Feast of Fools

On this Fourth Day of Christmas, the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed. It is the Feast of Fools. You might put the children in charge of things. Let them decide what the day’s activities are, let them decide what’s for dinner. Allow yourself to be a little foolish for the day. There’s no harm in that. The Feast of Fools traditions descend directly from the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia that inform most of our Christmas traditions. They come out of chaos and entropy: the chaos of the old year dying, unraveling at the seams. A new year is about to be born. As the year goes, so have gone other things through this Yuletide: the sun must die at the solstice to rise again, the son born at Christmas must die to rise again at Easter. The story is an ancient one, told over and over again, in many guises. The story never grows old, and it is the story even of our Convivio Book of Days: it is the wheel of the year, turning always, renewing always.

December 30
Bring in the Boar

On this Fifth Day of Christmas, tradition for an old English Christmas would have us focus on feasting. In particular, we would “bring in the boar.” It is a fine day to sing the old carol known as the “Boar’s Head Carol.”

December 31
New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay, First Footing

It’s the close of the old year, the welcoming of the new. It is a time of complete chaos, when you really think about it, and the symbolism of the New Year is potent magic. New Year’s Eve, which comes tonight, is perhaps the most common night of the year for symbolic foods and rituals. Visit the grocery stores here in Lake Worth and the first thing you’ll see upon entering are black eyed peas and fresh collard greens, and not too far from them, champagne and grapes. Champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve has become rather universal. The peas and greens are traditional New Year foods here in the South. As for the grapes, well, one old Italian tradition in my family is to eat twelve grapes at midnight, which we rarely do. And on my dad’s side, Grandma Cutrone used to make sure everyone had a spoonful of lentils at the stroke of midnight. In fact, the humble earthy lentil, cooked in various savory dishes, is very big throughout Italy for Capo d’Anno, the New Year. Lentils symbolize riches (think of each lentil as a coin, and you’d have quite a stash in each bowl). “Out with the old” is also very big in Italy for New Year’s Eve, and Italians traditionally make a clean sweep of things at midnight, opening the windows and tossing old useless possessions out onto the streets, no matter from what height (and with great gusto, no less). It can be a dangerous night for a walk about! The act is rich in symbolism, though: this is a night to shed what is unwanted, to dispel bad energy, to clear the way for good things to come.

The only tradition that seems to be a requirement for our family are the zeppole. These are different from the zeppole we buy for St. Joseph’s Day in March; New Year’s Eve zeppole are kind of a fried doughnut––a yeast dough, much like pizza dough, but enriched with eggs. Mom will make the dough and let it raise and sometimes it will bubble up over the sides of the bowl it’s proofing in and then she’ll spoon the dough into hot oil, stretching the dough as it slides into the fat. The result is a light, fried treat that comes in all sorts of shapes that remind you of all sorts of things as you eat them, whether they be drizzled in honey or dusted in powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. They are so delicious. My dad loved them much more than he liked lentils.

Hogmanay and First Footing refer to the New Year’s traditions of Scotland, where the new year celebration is the biggest part of the Yuletide season. The celebration there is known as Hogmanay, which is believed to to be derived from the French au gui menez, “lead to the mistletoe,” and this suggests a very ancient and pre-Christian derivation of most Hogmanay traditions, for it leads directly back to the Celtic druids and the mistletoe that was sacred to their ceremonies. First Footing is an aspect of Hogmanay that feels particularly like a magic spell: The first person to step across the threshold of the front doorway after midnight is this First Footer, and it is hoped that this person would be a red- or dark-haired man carrying whisky or mistletoe or, in some cases, bread, salt and coal. In this case he would kiss all the women and shake the hands of all the men before placing the coal on the fire and the bread and salt on the table and then he’d kiss all the women and shake hands with all the men once more on his way out.

And so fast away the old year passes. When next you hear from me, we will be amongst the six days of Christmas that fall in the new year. Until then: cheers and wassail, huzzah and good will to all. Merry Christmas.

Those two kids are our grandniece and grandnephew. They both were pretty excited to open presents, but patient all the same, considering we didn’t get around to opening presents until Christmas Night.


Here Come I, Old Father Christmas

So go the lines from an old Christmas pantomime known as “The Christmas Play of Saint George.” It’s been presented in Cornwall and throughout England since no one knows when––time immemorial––one of those things passed down through the centuries, but when Father Christmas enters the scene, his lines are always the same. Do you know them?

Here come I, Old Father Christmas
Welcome, or welcome not.
I hope Old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.

And so he is here with us again. He arrived on Christmas Eve and stays with us through Christmas Day and brings with him the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow, days that stand outside ordinary time. Half in the old year and half in the new, these are days more magical and celebratory than others, if we give them their due. We will, and I hope you will, too. As I mentioned in my previous post, rather than post each day through Christmastide this year, we’re going to take a different tact. I’m thinking three posts over the course of the season, the first being this one: an introduction, of sorts. Expect the second tomorrow. It will deal with the remaining Days of Christmas in the old year. The third will come around New Year’s Eve or so and will deal with the six Days of Christmas in the new year.

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’ve been exposed to in other places. Trust me. This ain’t no “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Baby.”
  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!

And so here we go again. The 26th of December also brings the First Day of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African culture and unity. Kwanzaa began as an African American holiday in 1966 but now is celebrated throughout the world. Perhaps your First Day of Christmas also includes the First Day of Kwanzaa!

December 26
St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Day of the Wren

On this First Day of Christmas, Father Christmas brings 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. We have twelve fine days to make Christmas all we wished it to be. We wish you peace and glad tidings!

“Old Christmas Riding a Yule Goat” by Robert Seymour. Engraving for The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey, 1836 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Here Father Christmas, crowned in holly, enters bearing a steaming wassail punch and a basket of good things to eat and drink. He brings as well the new year, represented by the toddler in his lap.


Dispel the Night, and the 12 Days of Christmas

One late December morning years ago, over coffee at Minnie’s Diner, Minnie confided to me that she really dislikes when the Fourth Sunday of Advent comes right before Christmas, as it did then and as it does this year. Minnie’s never ready for Christmas, but on those years when the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls days and days before Christmas Day, she feels she’s got more time to prepare. She doesn’t, of course; it just feels like she does. But I can understand this, and I find myself feeling the same way the older I get.

I also find that I love preparing for things like Christmas, and this is what Advent is all about: making our homes as fair as we are able, making our hearts ready for Christmas, bringing more light to the world even as the natural world grows darker. We are just two days past the solstice of Midwinter. Daylight already is increasing, but it will be late March before day and night are balanced again. And so tonight, in the midst of our darkest nights, we get to light all four candles in the circular ring of our Advent wreath. In some traditions, the candles are blue and white, but in ours, the candles are three purple and one rose. Purple, the liturgical color of penitence, and rose, of joy. Each candle has its meaning. The First Sunday’s purple candle is for faith, the Second Sunday’s purple candle, which is lit with the first, is for hope. The rose candle was added last Sunday, which is known as Gaudete Sunday, and it is meant to be more celebratory. And on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light all four candles, the lighting of the third purple candle for peace. With it, our circle is complete and the room filled with the light of all four candles: Faith and hope and joy and peace. The four candles dispel the night, and their illumination means that Christmas is fast approaching. Hopefully, we have made ourselves ready to appreciate its presence.

And despite Minnie’s protests, Christmas Eve will come tomorrow with the setting sun and then Christmas Day and then, the rest of Christmastide. Each year now for oh, many years, I’ve been writing a daily post for this Book of Days, one for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas that begin on the 26th. We’re going to take a slightly different approach this year, if that’s ok with you. There’s a lot going on here… Christmas cards to make, Christmas cookies to bake, and we’re trying to finish up building Seth’s pottery studio before the year is done. It’s good to have goals. Our house is also a stop on the Lake Worth Cottage Tour this January, and to see it right now you would not believe we would have been asked. There are about a dozen projects in mid-stream that need completing: one more door to be stripped of old paint, sanded and varnished; one more doorframe that needs to be painted. It’s right behind Seth’s seat at the table. He sits there at breakfast and dinner and I sit across from him and he never sees the doorframe that needs painting, but me, I do. I’ve been looking at it for three years now. It just never gets finished. And this is how most of our home projects go. We take them to the point where they are about 98.5% completed, and then move on to something else. Agreeing to take part in the cottage tour was, for me, a chance to finish these things off. But now the pressure’s on, of course, for the tour is just four weeks away… and so you know now what a lot of our Yuletide will be like.

So here’s my compromise to you: I will write about all these upcoming Twelve Days of Christmas––and what lies beyond, for it continues, in some traditions, all the way to Candlemas at the start of February. But instead of a daily post, you’ll get maybe three posts. Think of it in a Dickensian way: You’ll be visited by three spirits. They won’t all come on Christmas Eve, like in A Christmas Carol, but they’ll come in their proper time along our journey through the Twelve Days. And hopefully they, too, will dispel the night. Indeed, by the time Christmas concludes at Candlemas, the natural world will be halfway between solstice and equinox, and daylight will be dramatically increased. Take a step away from commercial Christmas to experience Christmas in this manner, and it becomes infinitely more beautiful. For now, though, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent that brings in the Christmas season, know that I’ll be thinking of you as I’m sanding and painting and doing whatever it is that needs doing all these Yuletide days to come, but I’ll especially be thinking of you when I write. Please accept those three spirits when they come for what they are: my gift to you this Christmastide.

“The End of the First Spirit.” Engraving by John Leech, 1843,  for the original publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge more than he cares to see about himself, and as a result, Scrooge snuffs him out with an extinguisher cap. “The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.”