Category Archives: Advent

Put Out Your Shoes: It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve

Tomorrow, December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, and tonight, in the overnight hours, St. Nicholas will travel about on his donkey. Wise children will leave carrots and sweet hay in their shoes when they go to bed. When they wake up in the morning, they may find that St. Nicholas has taken the carrots and hay for his donkey, and left fruits and nuts and candies in their shoes in exchange, and maybe some small presents, as well. It’s a sweet and old Advent tradition, part of the countdown to Christmas. And with it, we meet the first of the Midwinter gift bearers. St. Nicholas leads a procession of gift bearers that continue on through Advent and Christmas with others like the Christkindl, Santa Lucia, Father Christmas and Père Noël and Babbo Natale and Santa Claus, los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season when it ends with Epiphany on the 6th of January.

That’s a lot of gifts. But these gift bearers harken back to a time when oranges and hazelnuts and marzipan were wonderful wintertime gifts. (Some of us still feel this way; living in a small old house with small old closets, Seth and I really appreciate gifts that are simple and edible.) These gift bearers also are quite regional. As for St. Nicholas, although he was from Turkey and he is a patron saint of so many cities and countries, on this night, St. Nicholas’ Eve, he is known best in Northern Europe, in places like Germany and the Netherlands.

Nicholas in his humanity was a Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He became known far and wide for his acts of generosity… not the least of which was his hiding bags of coins in the shoes of poor girls who were without dowries. His gift bearer legend grew out of this human kindness. But this Midwinter gift bearer travels not just with his donkey, but also with a dark companion known by various names: Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, and Pelznickel are some of them. But he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. Perhaps this dark companion comes out of that same humanity of Nicholas’, for we all have our dark side, and maybe the Krampus is Nicholas’ dark side, manifested.

To be sure, St. Nicholas and his companion will be parading in cities throughout Northern Europe tonight. I learn so much from reader comments to the blog and here are two that were posted in the past about St. Nicholas’ Eve: Kelly O’Brien wrote, “I live in Germany & just experienced my first Krampus fest in the Austrian Tyrol region over Thanksgiving. It was terrifying! Not only do modern-day Krampus tout chains and whips, but parade through the village with torches and lots of other fiery devices. The costumes & masks were creepy beautiful, apparently a source of local craftsmanship pride. Do you think this is where ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ comes from?”

And Tad DuBois wrote, “I live and work in Germany and we went to sleep to howling winds last night and awoke to snow and ice. The neighbor’s kinder were all standing in front of their windows watching the snow fly (and no doubt hoping for school cancelations). At my office this morning St. Nicholas and Krampus have just visited. St. Nicholas dispensed candy canes and Krampus had little bags of something dark, coal or reindeer turds perhaps (actually was dark chocolate molded to resemble bits of coal). To be truthful, the Krampus who visited seemed to be a mash-up of Eye-gore from ‘Young Frankenstein’ and Riff-Raff from ‘Rocky Horror.’ Still a wonderful tradition.”

Kelly and Tad: If you’re reading this year, thank you. The parades and the visits from St. Nicholas and Krampus all sound wonder-full. Here in Lake Worth, in these United States, where these legends never gained much foothold (Krampus only has one human foot, after all), our celebration in this house will be much quieter. At our local Publix, they sell St. Nicholas (or St. Claus) cookies in the bakery that come from Steenstra’s Bakery in Michigan. They come in an orange box wrapped in cellophane. Steenstra’s has been selling St. Claus cookies since 1926. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about the kind bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill).

I’ll probably get us some of those Steenstra’s cookies, and maybe tonight we will make some mulled wine, our first batch as we enter this winter, as the first of the gift bearers enters, too. We’ll leave our shoes by the bed, because we always do (again, small closets). St. Nicholas may not make it all the way here from Northern Europe, but Haden the Convivio shop cat will maybe drop one of the stuffed little toys she hunts in the darkness into one of our shoes. She’ll make those mysterious feline hunting noises she makes each night when we shut the lights. We take mystery where we can find it.

Image: “St. Nicholas Eve” by Richard Brakenburgh. Oil on canvas, 1685 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Taking Things Slowly

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make things just right and perhaps there’s even more of that pressure in these days of Instagram and Facebook, where everything looks so wonderful. Not many people are posting pictures of the messes in their lives, after all. It’s pretty easy to feel a bit inadequate and a bit left behind, too.

I’ve felt this a lot lately. In just the past few days, since Thanksgiving, Instagram and indeed the world all around me has exploded into Christmas lights and trees. And though I love Christmas, I don’t feel at all ready for it. And I’ve even felt a bit this weekend like it’s passing me by. Already.

All right then. Let’s sit back a moment, and take time to pause. One obvious thing that hits me, when I really think about it, is it’s not even December yet. This already makes me feel more at ease. Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas, won’t even begin until next Sunday, the Third of December.

Here at our little old house in Lake Worth, there is still Indian corn hanging on the door and pumpkins on the porch. Next Friday, when December begins, we will open the first window of our Advent calendar, and we will begin burning our daily Advent candle. Over the weekend, Seth will make an Advent wreath and on Sunday, we will light the first candle: purple. The Sunday after, two purple candles. The Sunday after that, two purples and a rose candle. The Sunday after that, which will also be Christmas Eve, all four candles will be lit: three purples and one rose. All this time, we will slowly be shifting toward Christmas: cleaning home and hearth, baking, lighting candles in the windows. By mid December we’ll get our tree and begin illuminating our home, just as the darkest night approaches. It is a slow and gradual process here, marked with doing things with care. It is a process that brings us peace in an otherwise hectic time. We call it the Slow Christmas Movement.

If things feel far too fast for you, too, we invite you to join us. It also means celebrating Christmas for its full Twelve Days beginning only after Christmas Day itself has passed. This is not for everyone, for it will put you in a place decidedly outside the dominant commercial Christmas culture. But it will bring you, I think, as it brings us, a Christmas season (and an Advent season, too) that feels calmer, less rushed, more peaceful, and if Christmas is about peace on earth, goodwill toward all… then maybe this––tapping into the ancient traditions of the holiday––is where it begins.

I don’t often encourage you to buy things, but the Convivio Book of Days Catalog places a big focus on Advent. We sell the traditional glittery German Advent calendars I remember from my childhood, and we sell daily Advent candles that are made by hand in England. We’re also running a special this year on the traditional purple and rose candles for Advent, and the metal ring to burn them in. The link above will take you to our homepage, where you can shop Advent and Christmas and all of our lines. Oh hey! Spend $50 or more and we’ll pay the shipping on domestic orders (there’s a flat shipping fee of $8.50 if you spend less than $50). We ship US Priority Mail, so you should have your order in plenty of time for the start of Advent if you order in the next couple of days. If you’re ordering for a destination outside the US, you’ll be charged a $30 shipping charge, but we’ll calculate your actual shipping charge and we won’t charge your card until we contact you with that information to let you know what it will be (N.B.: usually it’s considerably less).

I’ll leave you with one last thing today, a musical gift. I talk a lot about Jane Siberry and her indirect influence on my writing, my creative endeavors, even my approach to work and my daily life. My introduction to her was on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” late on a Sunday night in 1987, with the video for a song called “Ingrid and the Footman.” I bought the record. The song that really sealed the deal for me, though, in terms of Ms. Siberry’s genius, was at the end of the record: a song that ran over 11 minutes long called “The Bird in the Gravel.” I think of this song every late autumn, just about this time. Jane made a short film for the song back then, one of her first adventures into the medium. A song that’s 11 minutes long forces you to take it slow. Between that, and the barren trees, and the quality of the sunlight… well, I don’t know if Jane Siberry made this film in late November, but it feels like it to me. If you have 11 minutes to spare, and I hope you do, “The Bird in the Gravel” is my gift, through Jane, to you today.

Wishing you peace.
John

 

Today’s image is a still from “The Bird in the Gravel” by Jane Siberry, 1987.

Darkest Night

And once again the solstice is upon us: winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. We here in Lake Worth are in the Northern, where the nights have been growing longer and longer since our summer solstice in June. Each day a bit more daylight has been shaved off our allotment, and sent to the opposite hemisphere. The great mechanical balance of this, all its immensity: so beautiful, so constant. I am reassured always by this. No matter what is going on in our lives––all our triumphs and our hardships, too––no matter what we do to each other, or how we disrespect this planet we live upon, still it rocks back and forth, still this motion continues. This shifting of the Earth in its cosmic rocking chair is what creates our seasons. It goes on with or without us, as it has since it began and will until it ends.

Here in the North it is the start of winter by the almanac. By traditional reckoning of time, though, winter began with Halloween and with the Days of the Dead and we find ourselves now at the height of winter, it’s midpoint: This is old Midwinter. This is why, in so many churches and in so many homes this time of year, we sing a beautiful old song called “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

The moment of solstice, for those of you who like precision, is 5:44 AM on December 21 here in Lake Worth, which is Eastern Standard Time. The Eastern Time Zone is pretty large, though, and there are ways of determining the solstice moment––of “sun standing still”––with even greater precision should you wish it. In this house, we take a more roundabout approach. Plus 5:44 in the morning is an admittedly odd time of day to celebrate anything. So we will save our celebration for the night of the 21st, with a ceremony small and simple. We’ve been saving last year’s Christmas tree in a corner of the yard all year. It’s been there since we brought it out after Twelfth Night last year, after the Christmastide festivities came to a close. It’s been drying since then, as the days grew longer through spring and summer, and still as the days grew shorter again through fall and the start of winter. Every now and again throughout this past year, we would be blessed with a whiff of pine, a reminder of Christmas, as we passed by or worked near the old tree. That scent an instant portal to memory. On solstice night, we will use wood from that tree to fuel our midwinter fire. For us, it will be in the copper fire bowl outside in the back yard.

Perhaps you, too, have been following our ways and saving your old Christmas tree each year for this purpose. I like to sit there by the fire and imagine our sparks and woodsmoke rising into the air to meet yours, carrying all our wishes and blessings. But maybe you don’t have your old tree, or perhaps you live in a place where a fire is just not possible. Or maybe you simply don’t have it in you to build a fire. It’s okay. My suggestion always is to simply light a candle to mark the night and to take in its blessings. Light it for just a few minutes and then put it out, if you wish. And if you can’t do that, even if you illuminate a lightbulb somewhere and do it in a spirit of connexion with the mechanical clockwork of our immense planet, that, too, is a wonderful thing. Part of the Convivio approach is to not fret over things but to find ceremony where we can. This is what we mean by “the ceremony of a day,” and what better time to put that into practice than this, the shortest day, the longest, darkest night?

 

Image: “Earth at Night.” Released by NASA December 5, 2012, this photo was assembled from multiple shots taken by the Suomi NPP satellite during April and October 2012. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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