Category Archives: Advent

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.”

 

Darkest Nights, Deepest Joys

The nights have been growing longer since June and in two weeks time, we reach the culmination of that progression of darkness: it will be the Midwinter Solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. By now, in early December, as each day grows shorter and each night longer, it is easy to get lost in the darkness. But our celebrations at this time of year call down the light. Last Sunday, we celebrated with candlelight across traditions: It was the First Night of Hanukkah and the First Sunday of Advent. Wednesday night brought the Eve of St. Nicholas and Thursday, St. Nicholas’ Day. He is the first of our midwinter gift bearers, leaving small, simple presents in the shoes of sleeping children. Next week will come Santa Lucia, who also pierces the darkness with light––in Sweden, at the top of the world near the Arctic Circle, where darkness envelops the greater part of each day this time of year, she is known as Sankta Lucia. Young girls there will wear crowns of lit candles on their heads, as star boys accompany them with light of their own, all of them singing the most haunting song, “Sankta Lucia,” an old Italian melody sung with the distinctly soft S sounds that come with Swedish lyrics.

These are some of our favorite nights of the year, these nights leading up to the magic of Christmas. To help you keep track of each of them, here is our December gift to you: the Convivio Book of Days Calendar for December. It’s a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper, a fine companion to this Book of Days (especially on the days when I don’t have time to write, which has happened a lot lately). As we progress through December, the darkness will increase, but so will our candlelight as we complete the Hanukkah festival and go through our Advent journey toward Christmas, preparing the light of the world. The illumination, the imagery, is powerful magic in dark times. We’re here sharing it with you throughout. These are some of our deepest joys.

COME SEE US!
We’re popping up at two local pop-up markets this week, one in Boca Raton on Friday, and the other on Sunday afternoon right here in Downtown Lake Worth. We’re also working on popping up at the Lake Worth Nutcracker Festival on Saturday December 15… but we keep forgetting to submit our application. Perhaps tomorrow. These, meanwhile, are definitely on the calendar:

REAL MAIL FRIDAYS: Winter Card Writing Social
Friday December 7 from 12 noon to 6 PM
Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University’s Wimberly Library, Boca Raton
We’ll be in the company of a few other local makers with a mini pop-up shop of traditional handmade goods for Christmas made by artisans in Germany’s Ergebirge and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It’s a fun event designed to help you get your holiday cards written and in the mail.

REVELRY LAKE WORTH SIP & SHOP
Sunday December 9 from 1 to 6 PM
Revelry Lake Worth
17 South J Street in Downtown Lake Worth, in the outdoor courtyard.
We’ll be in a tent with our Shaker herbs and teas, wreaths made of candy, and traditional handmade goods for Christmas made by artisans in Germany’s Ergebirge and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

And for our friends who are not so near…
CONVIVIO by MAIL
Our Convivio Book of Days Catalog pages are full of great little holiday presents, from handmade soaps (the gingerbread man is back!) to genuine Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas to traditional Christmas decorations from Germany, Spain, and Mexico… our favorite this year may just be the painted tin nativity that opens like a pop-up book and folds down flat when you’re done with it. FREE SHIPPING for domestic orders when you spend $50… spend less and shipping is just a flat rate fee of $8.50. No coupon code necessary; free shipping happens automatically when you spend $50 or more.

 

I Know I Don’t Possess You (Holiday Blues)

For all we talk here about celebrating the ceremony of a day, I know that for a lot of you, for one reason or another, this time of year is not easy. The holidays are hectic, overstimulating, excessively commercialized, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to make them perfect. Not only that, this time of year can more easily dredge up feelings of loneliness and reminders of loss. I’ve been there; I understand. I was there for a bit just last week. It was a week of worry: my mom had been dealing with an infection (she’s better now), the cat seemed not quite right, either; she wasn’t eating as heartily and wasn’t following her usual routines (she’s better and more her usual self now, too), work was not someplace I cared to be, and on top of all this, it was coming on to Thanksgiving and I was feeling like there wasn’t the time to do all I wanted to do to prepare. And then, at the back of my mind and in the core of my heart, was the reminder that Dad wouldn’t be at the table. Our second Thanksgiving since his passing was not feeling much easier than our first.

But Thanksgiving dinner was nice. Just the four of us: my mom, my sister, and Seth and me. At the table, I remembered Dad (I always do; I sit in his seat now at the head of the table––even though we were just four people that’s where my plate was set) and I remembered Grandpa, whose birthday was very often on Thanksgiving.

After dinner, after pie and coffee and after cleaning up the kitchen, we four settled into the living room. Mom wanted to watch a Doris Day movie but she was soon nodding off in her chair, sleeping off her meal, so she was overruled. My sister wanted to watch a new DVD she had just bought: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I know, I know: Mamma Mia!, the 2008 film version of the Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus musical featuring the music of ABBA, is not the most intellectually stimulating film. If you’ve not yet seen the sequel, well, I have news for you: it’s just as dreadful as the original. But that’s part of what we love about these films. They are pure joy and fun and no one enters into a film like this expecting a life-altering experience.

This is probably a good place to tell you that I was not very popular in high school. ABBA’s popularity back then was a bit like soccer’s: hugely popular throughout the world, but here in the States, not so much. And me, I was quite possibly the only Florida member of the ABBA International Fan Club. I had all their records, I knew all their songs, even the obscure ones. I wore ABBA t-shirts and the ABBA International Fan Club Magazine arrived in my mailbox from Europe four times a year. When I was old enough to drive, while other students at my school were blasting Pink Floyd and Blue Öyster Cult out of their car windows, I was the one playing songs like “Waterloo” and “The Name of the Game.” I was never beaten up at school, but I walked a fine line. Most of the kids at Deerfield Beach High School took the high road and just chose to ignore me.

These days, I feel slightly vindicated. There’s not been a lot of Blue Öyster Cult action in these post-high-school days but thanks to the Mamma Mia movies, almost everyone now recognizes “Dancing Queen” as soon as they hear that first roll of the piano keys, and they even know the words. And when a band like Arcade Fire, critical darlings of the independent music scene, release an album like their most recent one, “Everything Now“–– one that is infused with ABBA-inspired harmonies and keyboards––well… I can feel a bit smug about that for all the unpopularity I endured in high school.

Anyway, back to Thanksgiving and back to the movie. And spoiler alert––in case you’ve not yet seen it: Being the kind of movie it is, dripping with joy and happiness, I was surprised that Meryl Streep’s character, Donna, was killed off somewhere between the original and the sequel. And––again, being the kind of movie that it is––I expected all through the film that she would come back, that her death was all a funny misunderstanding and she would show up at her hotel on Kalokairi again and all would be well. But she doesn’t; not quite. At any rate, here we all were on Thanksgiving night, my mom, my sister, and Seth, and then me, off to the side, in Dad’s chair, watching this movie, filled with all this music that I knew by heart and that I could remember my dad sometimes singing along to (he liked to do the oom-pah-pahs in “Super Trouper”)… well, it all came welling up eventually. The worry over Mom and the cat, the feelings of loss, all those emotions. By the baptism scene in the church, with the song “My Love, My Life,”––one of the few songs for which Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote new lyrics for the movie––well… I was a blubbering mess, though I did my best to contain it. I was not sobbing but I was pushing it close, and anyone could steel a glance away from the movie and at my chair to see that it was rocking back and forth, something I didn’t even realize I was doing with my foot until I stopped it, the rocking apparently my last ditch attempt at keeping it together.

And then I got mad at the movie. You do not watch a movie like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to wreck yourself and get all emotional. I got mad at the song and I got mad at Benny and Björn for killing off Donna (though I’ve since learnt it was Meryl Streep’s idea, and I can’t stay mad at Meryl). And I got mad at myself for letting another movie make me cry.

But sometimes, this is what the holidays do to us, no matter how strong we feel going in. They push us to the edge of the cliff and dangle us there. It may take a silly film or a visit to a dark church or a perhaps a quiet fireside moment, a walk in the brisk air. But you know what? No one expects you to be happy all the time, least of all me. I’ve said it before: an underlying tenet of this Book of Days is that there is always a seat at the table for Death. Loss is a natural part of our lives and it is part of what makes celebrating the ceremony of a day so special. If we had all the time in the world, would we feel the need to celebrate? And in marking our days in our revolutions around the sun, we create lives worth living, traditions worth teaching those who follow us. Some of the recipes we’ll be baking this Christmas go back to time immemorial. Grandma taught them to Mom, and now she teaches us each year, helping us improve our technique. Grandma learned the recipes from her mother, who probably learnt them from her mother, and so on. Some are distinct to their region of Italy, Apulia. And when we make and eat these things today, we remember all these people, this long line of ancestors.

That’s a big reason why it feels so strange when those who come before us up and leave. But also why we should continue what was given to us. We keep them present through simple acts. And when you get right down to it, those are the most loving acts, the ones that keep the channels open across space and time. It’s the same reason why, for many of us at least, it’s good to keep the tissues nearby at movies.

 

Chalk a lot of the emotional 1-2 punch to the power of music, too… perhaps appropriate enough since Thanksgiving this year fell on St. Cecilia’s Day, Cecilia being a patron saint of musicians. I remember in 1982, not long after Grandpa had died, driving Mom to our store and on the car’s cassette player, since it was my car, was ABBA. It was a song called “One of Us,” full of mandolins, just like the songs that Grandpa played. “Oh, Johnny,” said my mom a few minutes in, “this song is making me cry.”

Image: Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Universal Pictures, 2018.