Monthly Archives: December 2020

Ushering in the New

Oh yes… to all you have said.
Tears streaming down my face… missing so much and so many.

Thank you to you and Seth from our very grateful hearts.
Was this the year to teach us how achingly we love?

–– Carl and Kathleen Maugeri

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: 2020 has been a helluva year. When I wrote my Christmas Eve Dispatch from Lake Worth at the start of the Christmas season, I didn’t realize it would resonate with quite so many people. But it did, because we are all feeling a bit weary, and our collective hearts are heavy. The response that moved me the most came from longtime Convivio Book of Days readers Carl and Kathleen Maugeri. I asked if I could reprint their message. They said sure. It’s that line about 2020 teaching us how achingly we love that punched me in the gut, just as much as Judy Garland singing “We’ll have to muddle through somehow” did when I heard those words last week before Christmas. Perhaps a year that teaches us things like this can’t be all bad. Be that as it may, tonight, we bid good bye to it, and hope for brighter days in the year we next enter.

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 for twelve months of luck; we used to do this, but I don’t push it anymore. 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 New Year’s Eve tradition that seems to be a requirement for my family is the zeppole. These are different from the zeppole we buy for St. Joseph’s Day in March; New Year’s Eve zeppole are a sort of 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.

In Scotland, 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 the 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. This year, with social distancing, the First Footer will have to skip the kisses and handshakes. Lots of folks like to open all the windows and doors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, too; this, to cast out the old year and usher in the new. All that ventilation will serve us well this year, too.

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, and the message will include our recipe for a hearty wassail. Plan ahead now by gathering the following: about 2 pints of beer or ale (a large bottle), a half pint each of pineapple and orange juices, an apple and a lemon, and mulling spices. Our wassail will provide you with a good way to welcome the year and will have you shouting, “Cheers and wassail, huzzah and good will to all! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! May it be a good year for us all!”


Image: “An Old Woman at a Window, Emptying a Chamber Pot” by an anonymous artist, after Frans van Mieris the Elder. Painting, circa 1700–1724. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. The combination of an open window and the emptying of a chamber pot feels appropriate as we proceed from this particular old year to the new.



A Cause for Caroling


Bring in the Boar

Soon after I began making letterpress printed limited edition books in 1994, I named my press Red Wagon Press (after the Jane Siberry song “The Life is the Red Wagon”) and that was good, but it turned out there were other Red Wagon Presses out there. All of them were making things I didn’t want you thinking I had made, and by the early oughts Seth and I were on the lookout for a new press name. We tried a few on for size (you could very well have been reading the Factory Bookworks Book of Days), but ultimately it was Convivio Bookworks that won out and that we have kept with these 17 years now. It seemed a good fit in 2003, and still does now, for the name suggests celebration and festivity and an honoring of heritage: all things that we have come to love and try to honor in our work and in our small Lake Worth home.

The Convivio name comes directly from an ancient Christmas carol called “The Boar’s Head Carol”. Do you know it? It is a Macaronic carol, meaning it contains both Latin and another language, in this case English.

The Boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bays and rosemary
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio! 
[So many as are at the feast!]

The Boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all the land
When thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico! [Serve with a song!]

Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino! [The Boar’s head I bring, giving praises to God!]

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of bliss,
Which on this day to be served is.
In Reginensi atrio! [In the Queen’s Hall!]

Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino!

It is a carol connected directly to Queen’s College, Oxford. As the story goes, a young student of the university many centuries ago was out in the surrounding woods when he was charged by a wild boar. The student saved himself with the only weapon he had upon him: a dusty old volume of Aristotle, which he shoved down the throat of the charging beast and so brains, in this case, won out over braun. The victorious student then brought the boar’s head back to the college and had it for dinner, to much fanfare… and so the tradition goes. The tradition persists despite wild boar being virtually extinct from Britain since at least the 12th century (long before the story takes place).

Aside from the Queen’s College story and our old Boar’s Head Carol, there are other associations between the boar and these darkest nights of midwinter. To the Celts, the boar was sacred, a gift from the Otherworld, ferocious, feared, respected, and the provider of the great feasts of midwinter. And in the Scandinavian countries, Frey, the sun god, rode across the sky on a boar with golden bristles that shone like rays of the sun.

And so on this day, we are to bring in a great feast: the theme of Yuletide through the ages. Back in more celebratory times, folks would not work at all through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Nowadays, however, most of us return to work soon after Christmas Day. My recommendation? Whatever feast you can conjure for tonight is a good one. It need not be elaborate. But whatever you’re serving, do it with fanfare and celebration and you will be honoring the spirit of this Fifth Day of Christmas. (Here’s a delightfully nerdy suggestion: sing “The Boar’s Head Carol” as you bring your supper to table, but change out the words to reflect what’s on the menu. I’ve done this before with special meals (The crown roast in hand bare I / Bedecked with bays and rosemary), but it works with all sorts of menu items (The mac and cheese in hand bare I / Bedecked with bays and rosemary). It’s Christmastime; go on, be festive.)

Here’s something else you might enjoy: One of our readers, Melissa Wibom in Sunnyvale, California, sent me a few years back a link to a BBC Radio 4 program about Christmas carols. Seth and I listened then, and in the process got hooked. It’s extremely entertaining and informative, but alas, no longer available on the BBC website. So last year, we got the 2 CD set of the full series. Seth and I are not a “Here Comes Santa Claus” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” kind of people. Songs like that are all well and good, but they’re not very complex and they don’t have staying power through a full Yuletide season. When we speak about Christmas lasting Twelve Days in this house, our house is filled with the kind of music you’ll hear in this program, which is now available as an audiobook, too. It’s called A Cause for Caroling; it is researched, written, and read by Jeremy Summerly, with lots of great music throughout. You will hear old old carols you may never have heard before, or carols that have some resonance of memory for you, songs you know in your bones and heart if not in your ear.

So go, feast and be merry. Listen and enjoy. You, too, will shout with the likes of Seth and me and all those through the ages hailing this dark and mysterious midwinter time: “Welcome, Yule!”


Image: “Sentimental Ballad” by Grant Wood, 1940, oil on masonite, 24 x 50 inches, New Britain Museum of American Art. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. As the image may suggest, there’s always someone who doesn’t like Christmas carols. We, however, do. The image also follows something you’ll learn listening to the BBC program: Christmas carols are, by and large, things that came out of pubs, not churches… which may explain why Christmas was banned in Puritan England. Music of the people, earthbound hymns. Cheers!



Misrule for Yule


The Feast of Fools

Six days in the old year, six days in the new: these are the Twelve Days of Christmas. And at this point, chaos begins to ensue. The old year is dying, unraveling before our eyes, disintegrating into chaos and entropy, like a spent star, collapsing in on itself, becoming an exploding supernova. And just as the matter that shoots violently into space from that supernova eventually comes together to form new stars and planets, out of the chaos of the dying year a new year will be born.

We are not fond of chaos, and yet here we are, just a few days before the new year, and the central theme of this Fourth Day of Christmas is one that in its early history covered the full Twelve Days. It is the Feast of Fools, where the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed. The joker and the jester are in charge; the king and queen serve them. The practice was most prevalent in medieval Europe, and is a direct descendant of the Roman midwinter feast of Saturnalia, which is the source of so many of our Christmas traditions today.

So. Practical ways to incorporate the Feast of Fools today? If you have kids, how about putting them in charge of the day? Let them decide what’s for supper, and when it’s time to go to bed. Work? Why bother? Chaos is everywhere now; there’s no point in working. Maybe you should read (or watch) Alice in Wonderland instead––Lewis Carroll would have loved a day like this. The Lord of Misrule is in charge of the day. Just go with it. There are 364 normal days ahead.