Category Archives: Christmas

Sage Advice

Busy weekend ahead! For those of us who want a goblin-free home (and let’s face it, who doesn’t these days?), it is time to remove all remnants of yuletide greenery. This is sage household advice that comes to us from the 17th century British poet, Robert Herrick. Herrick included a poem, “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve,” in his book Hesperides. Here’s an excerpt:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

This advice was nothing new in Herrick’s day; Herrick was simply recording an old custom, one that is as good as any to follow. So if you, like us, still have a Christmas tree in your living room… well, tradition would suggest it’s time to let it go. For us, it’s been a fine Christmas season with that tree. We got it just before Christmas and didn’t get around to decorating it until Christmas night, and so it’s been no trouble at all keeping it all this time. Haden the Shop Cat loves sleeping in her kitty tower beside the tree, and chances are quite good––if we are to judge by her habits––that although the tower will remain there, once the tree is gone, she will stop sleeping in it. Cats, too, seem to have their yuletide traditions. And so on Saturday night, which is Candlemas Eve, we will pack away the ornaments for another year, and the lights, and we will bring the tree out to the garden, where it will rest for all the months to come. All through spring, summer, and fall, we will steal occasional whiffs of Christmas from it as it dries. And come next Midwinter Solstice night, we will use it as fuel for our outdoor fire to illuminate the darkest night of the year.

Ah, but already the nights grow shorter, less dark. It’s been just about six weeks since the solstice of December, and daylight in the Northern Hemisphere has been increasing a little day by day, and now we come to February and a cross quarter day in the round of the year: February 1 brings St. Brigid’s Day, and the old, mostly forgotten holiday known as Imbolc. It is the first step we take on the bridge from winter to spring, and how fitting her name, then: Brigid, as bridge. It is traditional, for her day, to fashion St. Brigid’s crosses out of rushes or straw and to leave an oat cake and butter on a window sill in your home; this, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and to bestow blessings on all who live there. She is the bridge from winter to spring but more immediately from Christmas to Candlemas, which comes on the 2nd of February. The Christmas decorations will be packed away and the greenery returned to nature, and as the sun sets on Candlemas day, it is traditional to go through the house, illuminating every lamp, even for just a little while. In many parts of Europe, crepes will be served for dinner. In Mexico, it’ll be tamales with hot chocolate, heavily infused with cinnamon.

Here in the States, perhaps the best known marker of these important days that bridge winter to spring is the groundhog who comes up from his burrow every Second of February. Candlemas is a traditional weather marker (If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day / The half of the winter’s not yet away) and this is what survived for us, of all things. Me, I prefer the tamales and the hot chocolate and the lighting of lamps. With Candlemas, we are now forty days past Christmas. This takes us back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, wise and all seeing, who recognized the child as the light of the world. This is the narrative basis for Candlemas, for the blessing of candles this day, and the connexion between the story and the celestial events that bring us closer to spring. And so here is my favorite music for Candlemas: It’s an old hymn called “Jesus, the Light of the World,” recorded by one of my favorite ensembles, the Boston Camerata. It’s from their album An American Christmas. I think of it as more a Candlemas song than a Christmas song, and it’s a fine song to sing or hum as you light all those lamps in the house and a fine album to play as the last vestiges of Christmas are stored away for yet another year. And with that, the bridge we stepped upon at the start of Christmas is behind us, as we step upon the bridge that lies ahead of us, the one Brigid lays before us, toward spring.

Image: A quickly made print, printed on the Vandercook press today, from handset metal types. More sage advice.


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.