Author Archives: John Cutrone

Bursting Forth, or Your January Book of Days

Nine days in, and here, finally, is your Convivio Book of Days calendar for January. I won’t even bother to apologize. Eight days late is just the way I am right now. Cover star: the Christmas cactus we neglect all year long, blooming spectacularly since Christmas. How all those magnificent blooms burst forth from those gangly stems is anyone’s guess, but each year it surprises me, and it always reminds me of the scene in The Homecoming when Mrs. Walton, played by the wonderfully quirky Patricia Neal, descends to the basement for apples and while she’s there, discovers her Christmas cactus blooming, too. It is, I think for everyone, a most surprising gift from nature.

In creating this year’s January calendar, I realize we completely missed talking about St. Distaff’s Day, and that is something I am sorry about. It is the great traditional post-Christmas Back to Work day for the women, who, in ages past, would return on the 7th of January to their spinning, but not without a great deal of mischief and merriment from the men, who still were underfoot in the house. What tripped me up this year was forgetting that St. Distaff’s Day is a fixed date, while the traditional Back to Work day for the men is a moveable day: Plough Monday falls on the Monday after Epiphany, which this year is the 13th. That also is Copperman’s Day, the great Dutch printers’ holiday in which apprentices got the day to themselves to work on their own print projects. Perhaps we will do a Copperman’s Day print this year. It’s been a while.

With Epiphany, Christmas has passed. Most traditions have us take the Christmas decorations down after Epiphany, but if you, like we, are still holding on, here is good news: there are traditions in which Christmas ends only with Candlemas at the start of February. As for us, our tree is still thirsty and drinking water daily, we’ve just polished off some roasted chestnuts and mulled wine, and Christmas music from the Baltimore Consort is in the air as I sit and type this on the couch, next to the glowing tree. I guess we are following the Candlemas tradition.

Your January Book of Days calendar is, as usual, a printable PDF, so you can print it and pin it to a bulletin board or tape it to the fridge. It’s a good companion to this blog, and a daily reminder that we wish you all good things these winter days.


The Sounding Joy

We approach the close of the Twelve Days of Christmas. This Eleventh Day of Christmas has no particular traditions associated with it, but tonight is a different story, for this evening’s setting sun brings Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany. Epiphany marks the arrival of the Magi at the stable. Three wise men, strangers from distant lands. As such, they represent the manifestation of the child to the larger world, the world beyond the village of Bethlehem. They follow that star and repeat the sounding joy to all the world.

In fact, Epiphany is a much older celebration than Christmas. In the early days of the Church, the Nativity and the Epiphany were celebrated together on the 6th day of January. It wasn’t until the Council of Tours, in 567, that the two feasts were formally separated, with Christmas set on the 25th of December. Here in the States, our celebration focuses on Christmas Day, but in other places, this whole season is a time outside ordinary time, concluding only with the passing of Epiphany. And here’s what that might look like: a big feast tonight for Twelfth Night, which might include a big cake and in it, a bean or a whole nut or a trinket. The person who finds it is honored for the night with a suitable title, such as the King or Queen of the Bean. It’s a raucous night of revelry, typically accompanied by a good deal of ale or cider or wine. None of this stuff sat well with the Puritans, so while they ruled England, all of it was banned. Even Christmas itself.

Twelfth Night was never a big deal in our home, either. But Mom, who perhaps shares more of my enthusiasm for obscure holy days, has always called Epiphany, since I can remember, “Little Christmas,” and even as a kid, when I’d get a little sad about the passing of Christmas Day, she would be quick to remind me that we still had Little Christmas ahead of us. This always lifted my spirits. After I did a printing internship at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community and began learning more about Shaker Christmas traditions, what intrigued me most was their celebration of Twelfth Night each year. Each year, I’d ask Brother Arnold more questions, until finally we began having our own Twelfth Night celebrations. Sometimes they are big dinner parties and sometimes they are quiet gatherings. It generally depends on how much energy we have left at the tail end of a hectic Christmastime (and how much rich food we’ve eaten over the course of the Twelve Days). This year will be a quiet one, probably just the four of us: my mom, my sister, and Seth and me, and that feels, this time around, just right.

The highlight of our celebration will come with nightfall: we will gather outside the front door, whether it be cold or warm, with a step stool and a piece of chalk. In years past, the chalk was blessed by Father Brice, the parish priest, but Father Brice is dead and gone these ten or fifteen years now, and I’ve not heard a word about blessed chalk in any church since, no matter how much the building smells of incense and wonder. And so regular old chalk works just as well. Out on the front porch, standing on the step stool, we will each take turns writing the letters and numbers and symbols of an old inscription on the lintel above the door. This year, it will read 20+C+M+B+20. It’s the year (2020) and within the year, punctuated by crosses, come the initials of the Magi. Their names, handed down to us through tradition over the ages, were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

It was that same Father Brice who taught us this tradition, and few and far between are the homes whose inhabitants seem to know it. But this past summer, when Seth and I were in Austria and Germany and Switzerland, I was pleased to see the inscription on doorways throughout the towns where we wandered. For me, on our front porch and on the porch of my family’s home, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next year 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 its 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.

Ah but that is on Epiphany. Tonight, on the Eve of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night, the last of the Midwinter gift bearers will make their rounds. In Italy, la Befana, the kindly witch, will be on her broom, and in Latin America, los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, will be traveling by camel. Their stories are intertwined. The Magi arrived at the stable with gifts for the child, and so they continue to bring gifts to children in the lands where they are most loved. In Italy, though, the legends get a little more interesting. It is said that the Magi stopped at la Befana’s cabin to ask for directions. They found her sweeping her floor. While they were there, they asked her to join them on their journey. “No, no,” she told them, “I’m too busy with my housework!” And so the Magi went on their way. But as she swept, la Befana grew remorseful that she had not gone with them, and so she stopped her sweeping, hopped on her broom, and left her home in search of the Magi and the child. But she never found them. Each year on the Eve of the Epiphany, she sets out on her journey again, in search of the child, delivering small presents to good boys and girls, and coal for the not so good ones. And it is la Befana who sweeps away Christmas for another year.

I have known so many Befanas in my day. It comes with the territory when you are of Italian descent. Women and men who clean and clean and clean, and who take great pride in their clean homes. My grandmother’s neighbor Tessie was known to roll the refrigerator away from the wall each and every day just so she could sweep behind it. All that cleanliness is a wonderful thing, of course, but you know each of these people would’ve said no to the Magi, too, just like la Befana herself did at that first Christmas. Would they, too, grow remorseful? Where does she even come from, la Befana? Well, she is an old hag… and so is the earthly goddess at Midwinter in the circular wheel of the year: Born in springtime, fair maiden in summer, mother in autumn, old woman in winter. A cycle repeating with each orbit around the sun, the story told again and again. Come Candlemas, at the start of February, when it is traditional to have every last vestige of Yuletide greenery removed from our homes, she will be reborn as Brigid, bridging us from winter to spring. The story never grows old.

Photo: A door within the chapel at the medieval Schattenburg Castle in Feldkirch, Austria. The castle was built in the 13th century. We saw inscribed doors throughout our travels in this part of Europe. This one didn’t have the date, just the initials, but all the other inscribed doors we saw had dates ranging from 2015 to 2019. Perhaps it just depended on who was living in each dwelling.


All is Bright

And now it is Christmas. It is my favorite part of Christmas as I write this, the deep and dark hours of the night of Christmas Eve, well past midnight, in the close and holy darkness. Our traditional Italian dinner of many fishes is past and so is all the hustle and hubbub: Things that did not get done in time for Christmas’ arrival remain undone and suddenly it doesn’t matter anymore; we’ll just do them as time allows through the Christmas season, or maybe we’ll save them for next Christmas. Despite the darkness, all is bright: the tree, which is illuminated but still not completely decorated, and the wreath on the door, and the lights on the European fan palms outside the door. Tomorrow we can finish decorating the tree.

We have reached the peaceful time of Christmas, this late night. It is the time when all the magic traditionally occurs: the gift bearers who sneak in presents beneath the tree and into empty stockings, the animals who kneel, the wells and rivers that run with wine, the star and the child, all that Christmas means to anyone happens now in this night of calm and bright. The magic sometimes is as simple as memories of Christmases come and gone. I sit here with the lighted tree and remember all the people who have come and gone through my Christmases. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, my dad. I think of the neighbors across the street when I was a boy, Mildred and Paul, who decorated their front door with big multicolor Christmas lights each year: a single strand of lights, the old fashioned kind, the kind with bulbs you screw in, stapled to the doorframe. A magical portal if ever there was one. I last saw Mildred and Paul and their portal of lights 43 years ago, and yet this is what comes to mind as I sit here tonight, and it comes back to me, fresh as if it was yesterday. This is Christmas magic for you.

Remember through these days to come that Christmas has just begun. This magical night ushers in Christmas Day, and though there are two schools of thought on how to calculate the Twelve Days of Christmas, we subscribe to the venerable one that places the first six days of Christmas in the old year and the next six days of Christmas in the new. Our ancestors liked balance and so it seems only right, to us, anyway. Please join us in celebrating Christmas through all these days, to the season’s close on Epiphany, the 6th day of January. If your heart truly loves Christmas, do things in your own time, and know that in many traditions, Christmas is a season that carries on all the way to Candlemas, on the 2nd of February. Do what feels right to you, that’s my recommendation. Even if it seems out of step with the dominant culture. At this house, we will be doing just that.

In years past I’ve written each day for the Twelve Days of Christmas, but I don’t know that that will be the case this year. We’ve a garden fence to build, and raised beds to plant, and still there are the ornaments to place on the tree. I’ll write when I can, I promise, but it won’t be every day. My recommendation? Stock up on red wine and mulling spices and chestnuts, for mulled wine and roasted chestnuts are an important part of Christmas and the twelve nights that follow it. We sell some wonderful mulling spices and we can get them to you in a couple of days in most cases: plenty of time for the celebrations ahead. You can also check out past editions of the Convivio Book of the Days to learn more about what is traditional for each day of Christmas.

For now, though: Merry Christmas.