Category Archives: Christmas

The Bridge to Spring

It happens to be snowing like mad across the northeastern United States as I sit and write this. Be that as it may, with the arrival of February, we take our first step onto the bridge that leads us from winter to spring. This first day of the month brings St. Brigid’s Day: Brigid, the bridge. She bids us welcome upon the next spoke in the wheel of the year, and there is a lot to talk about today: past, present, and future. Are you ready? Ok, then. Here we go:

We’ll begin with what is passing: If you––like Seth and me in this house––have been delighting in Christmas all this month, now comes the time to put Yuletide behind us and to shift our perspective toward spring. Forty days have passed since the Midwinter solstice and we are now halfway from there to the vernal equinox in March. As such, St. Brigid brings us a new cross quarter day, for Yuletide ends and Imbolc begins. With this shift of the wheel, tradition would have us remove all vestiges of Christmas greenery by Candlemas Eve, which comes with tonight’s setting sun. While the major festivities and revelry of Christmas traditionally ended with Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas), the spirit of the season remained and lingered and kept folks company for all these forty wintry days. But it was considered bad luck to keep these Yuletide things about the house any longer than Candlemas Eve. Our old reliable 17th century Book of Days poet Robert Herrick describes the significance of this night in his poem “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve”:

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.

And so our tree will be brought outside this first night of February, as will the wreath that’s been hanging on the door. We return to nature what is hers. We’ll keep the tree in a quiet corner of the yard––easy to do here, since our yard is a bit of forest––and all the year long it will remind of us of Christmas whenever we by chance brush against it and get a whiff of its balsam fragrance. And when the nights grow long again next December, it will fuel our solstice fire, connecting one Christmas to the next. Ah, but that is the future, and for now, if Christmas is what we are leaving behind, let’s focus next on the present.

ST. BRIGID’S DAY, IMBOLC
There are four cross quarter days in the year; each is marked by accompanying holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter; life was descending below the earth. But today, as February begins, the wheel of the year shifts and we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marking the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure, but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February.

St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of February. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives. For St. Brigid’s Day, it is traditional to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds (pictured below), as well as to leave an oat cake and butter on a windowsill in your home. This, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and bless all who live there. Brigid is typically depicted holding her cross of rushes in one hand and an illuminated lamp in the other––bridging, again, the themes of light in the darkness of midwinter with the green of approaching spring.

CANDLEMAS, GROUNDHOG DAY
Once the sun sets on St. Brigid’s Day, we enter into Candlemas Eve. This is the night that all remaining Yuletide greenery is removed from the home (as Robert Herrick’s poem suggests), but it is traditional to keep nativity scenes up through Candlemas, the next day. I know many of you are reading and wondering how we could possibly still have Christmas in the house, but keep in mind that in this house our decorating did not begin in earnest until the days just before Christmas. We gave the Advent season its proper space and time and have done the same with Christmas. Keeping Christmas in the house longer than this, though, is not advised. Anyone who was the least bit superstitious would fear that doing so would invite bad luck into the home. Why take that chance?

For us, there is always a measure of mixed emotion over this cleaning up of Christmas. (My Uncle Joe used to explain “mixed emotions” to me as “watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand new Eldorado”––but he was only joking; he loved his mother-in-law, my grandma Assunta.) It is nice to have a clean slate after all that Yuletide abundance and extravagance… but Seth and I are a bit in love with Christmas, and so it is sad each year to see it go. To make things less somber, we’ll have some Christmas music playing (again, keep in mind we’re generally not listening to Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland but to older carols, like this one) and perhaps a bottle of St. Bernardus Christmas Ale open and flowing.

With Christmas removed (and ill luck kept at bay), we’ll shift perspective on the Second of February to Candlemas, a beautiful celebration in its own rite, and the second step on the bridge to spring that Brigid lays before us. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. 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, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” This is the basis for the blessing of candles on this day, and the day’s lovely name, which is even more beautiful in other languages: la Candelaria in Spanish, la Chandeleur in French. In France, the traditional evening meal for la Chandeleur is crêpes. In Mexico, la Candelaria is a night for tamales and hot chocolate, while the procession and celebration in Puno, Peru, is typically so big, it rivals that of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Candlemas celebrations this year certainly will be quiet and centered on home, which is ok by us. Yes, spring is coming as we find ourselves forty days past midwinter, but the darkness of those darkest nights still closely lingers, and the light of Candlemas remains a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. And my favorite song for the day is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Is it a carol for Candlemas? Who knows. Certainly the words echo those of Simon the Elder in the temple, so for me, I say it is.

Most famously, perhaps, Candlemas is known as an old weather marker. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. The tradition of Candlemas as weather marker is particular strong in Germany. And while Candlemas itself is not celebrated with any great gusto here in the States, this remnant of tradition remains in our yearly observation on the Second of February of Groundhog Day, in which the observations of an old groundhog in Pennsylvania (where many Germans settled) determine how much longer winter will last. Did old Candlemas weather lore influence the traditions that revolve around Punxsutawney Phil? Of this we can be pretty certain.

ST. BLAISE’S DAY
Finally, to close out this luminous chapter, the Third of February will bring St. Blaise’s Day, and the traditions for St. Blaise’s Day, it would seem, come directly out of having all those candles about on Candlemas. For ailments of the throat, we pray to St. Blaise… and on his feast day, it is not uncommon to go to church to have the priest bless your throat by holding two candles, crossed into an X shape, with your throat in the crook of the candles, as he says a blessing over your head. It’s one of those mystical ceremonies that seems almost over the top even to us Catholics.

He is fondly remembered in my family, for St. Blaise was the name of the church my grandparents attended, up the hill from their home in Brooklyn. My Aunt Anne and Uncle Joe (the one who told the joke about the Eldorado and his mother-in-law) were married there, and so were my own parents. Folks with high aspirations, Mom says, went to the big cathedral up the road, but the simpler folks went to St. Blaise. It was a small church that served a small community made up mostly of Italian immigrants and their families. In England and Scotland, it was once customary to light bonfires on the eve of St. Blaise, which would be the night of Candlemas, and perhaps there is some connection to be made between Blaise and blaze. It is a day also important to wool carders (a matter having to do with St. Blaise’s martyrdom), as well as to spinners and dyers.

StBlaise

What is most apparent across these few days and nights upon the bridge that delivers us from winter to spring is the importance of light, be it in candle or bonfire or in song or even in those crêpes, whose golden round shape call to mind the image of the shining sun. Hide not your light, then. Be a light to the world. And rest assured that spring is on its way.

YOUR FEBRUARY BOOK of DAYS CALENDAR
This month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar awaits! It’s our monthly gift to you, a PDF document printable on standard US Letter size paper. You’ll find the calendar a fine companion to this blog; click here to get it. Enjoy!

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Images, from top: “Le Jeune Chanteur” by Trophime Bigot, who is known also as the Candlelight Master (oil on canvas, 1650 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons); a St. Brigid’s Cross fashioned from reeds; my mom and dad with some of their wedding party on their wedding day, May 29, 1949, outside St. Blaise Church in Brooklyn. Their flower girl was my cousin Cammie, who plays la Befana for the family each Epiphany. We all see each other every Sunday for a Cousins’ Zoom gathering, a new tradition we began at the start of quarantine last March.

 

Back to the Workaday World

Distaff

With the Twelve Days of Christmas now officially past, we enter again into the workaday world. Nowadays, we tend to get back to work right after Christmas. If we are lucky, maybe we’ll be off ’til New Year’s Day. There was a time when lots of folks would be off from the major part of their labors for all of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And once they went back to work once Christmas had passed, it was done with a bit of fun and ceremony. In England, for the women, it was traditionally the 7th of January; for the men, it was the Monday following Epiphany. These two days are known as St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday. We’ll begin with the women and a famous poem about the day by Robert Herrick, one of our favorite convivial British poets from the 17th century. He sets the tone right from the start, with, I think, some very good advice given in those first two lines:

Saint Distaff’s Day, or the Morrow after Twelfth Day
by Robert Herrick, 1648

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a-spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

It may very well be St. Distaff’s Day––when I first came across a mention of it in 1992 or so––that is responsible for my fascination with traditional customs and old ways. It was the first two lines of the poem I knew back then, and I was so happy to run into this tradition that allowed me to hang on to some semblance of Christmas for yet another day. I’ve learnt a lot more about St. Distaff’s Day since. So, let’s explain it… and Plough Monday, as well (along with this year’s dates).

ST. DISTAFF’S DAY
January 7
The English have a long history of creating saints’ days for saints that never existed at all. St. Monday was the name given to the long weekends sometimes taken by shoemakers, and St. Tibb was often used as a metaphor for never, as in, “Hey, I lent you a shilling last week; when will I get my money back?” “Worry not, I’ll be sure to have it back to you by St. Tibb’s Day.” Which is all well and good until the lender realizes that there is no St. Tibb’s Day. Neither St. Tibb nor St. Monday ever existed; nor did St. Distaff. The distaff, however, was a central tool to what was considered in those days “Women’s Work”: the spinning of wool or flax to make fiber for weaving into cloth. The distaff and spindle were the tools that preceded the spinning wheel, and rare it would have been to find a woman who knew not how to use them. We get the word spinster from this, which was once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children.

And so the women returned to their spinning each 7th of January, this “morrow after Twelfth Day.” Meanwhile, the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was one of mischief, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January (that’s the “bewash the men” part)… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the sport of returning to ordinary time. Meanwhile, the men had customs of their own to attend to, preparing for their day.

PLOUGH MONDAY
First Monday after Epiphany
The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. It’s a holiday that is noted as far back as 15th century pre-Reformation England as a religious festival in which money would be raised for the parish. Plough lights would be illuminated in the churches as a way of blessing the local farmers and their fields and crops. The parish was often the home of a community plough, as well, for farmers who could not afford their own. When the Church of England broke away from Rome, this was one of many practices that were deemed “popish” and left behind, but by the late 1700s, Plough Monday began seeing a revival, with a distinct shift from its origins. In its newer incarnation, there was a lot more ale involved. There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess… which comes only a few weeks from now, for in the traditional reckoning of time, spring will have its first stirrings with St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas at the start of February. It is Brigid that personifies the young maid of spring. Indeed, Brigid is our bridge from winter to spring.

And so back to work, back to the workaday world. In this house we are holding on to our Christmas until Candlemas, as is our custom… but it is back to earning a living again, and earning our daily bread, and back to regular routines.

PloughMonday

Today’s two images, like bookends on this chapter, are taken from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days, published in Edinburgh, 1869. The top one illustrates their chapter on St. Distaff’s Day; the bottom one, Plough Monday.

 

20 + C + M + B + 21

TWELFTH DAY of CHRISTMAS
Epiphany

I know, I know: the title of this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days looks more like part of an algebraic equation than the start of a piece about the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It’s actually an inscription, one that we will be writing in chalk on the lintel above our door tonight. It is Epiphany: the day that tradition tells us the Magi arrived at the stable to see the newborn child. It is the part of the Christmas story that expands it to the world beyond Bethlehem, for the Magi came from afar to see this miracle, and brought the news with them back to their lands. Seeing the child was their great epiphany, and in turn, ours.

They are known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, those three wise men, and it is their initials, surrounded by the new year, that make the inscription that we will write above our door. It’s a tradition taught to my family by Father Brice, who would bless chalk and give it out to his congregation at St. Paul’s in Lighthouse Point each Epiphany Mass. I’ve never known anyone else to follow this custom but Father Brice and my family, but two summers ago––when Seth and I traveled to the part of Austria where a half hour drive could find you in Switzerland or Germany or Lichtenstein, depending on which direction you were going––we saw so many doorways inscribed, both indoors and out. The doorway in the photo today is the door to the chapel at Schattenburg, the 13th century castle that looks out over the City of Feldkirch in Austria. I photographed an awful lot of doorways that trip. Surrounded by so many lintel inscriptions, I felt like I was amongst people I understood, and who understood me.

The holiday itself is older even than Christmas, as holy days go. It is one of the earliest celebrations of the Church. In some places, Epiphany rivals Christmas––especially in Latin America, where the Three Kings made their rounds last night, delivering presents, just as they did that first Christmas. They stop on their way through Italy, too, to invite la Befana, the kindly old witch, to join them. As usual, she was far too busy with her housework, which, in my experience, is usually the way things go. (My family is full of Befanas, women and men who get so wrapped up in making sure their houses are as clean and tidy as possible, and I’ve no doubt they would have declined the invitation of the Magi, too.) But that first Christmas, when la Befana told the Magi to carry on without her, she eventually grew remorseful for not joining them… and so she set out to find them. Alas, it was too late. She never found the three kings and she never found the child, and so each Twelfth Night, even to this day, she rides out on her broom in search of them all. As she searches, she leaves presents in the shoes of good children. (Not so good children? They get coal, but even that isn’t so bad, because la Befana’s coal is sweet as candy.)

It is la Befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, too, for another year. Before she does, though, you will find us outside on the porch with a stepladder and a piece of chalk (no longer blessed, for Father Brice is long gone). We do this here at our home, and we’ll do it at the family home, too, when next we are there. All who are gathered will take turns writing the inscription on the lintel above the door: it is, as I said, the initials of the wise men, blanketed on each side by the year, punctuated with crosses: 20+C+M+B+21. Each year, my silent prayer outside in the cold night air is that no one will be missing when we next gather to do this. There the inscription stays, all the year through if the weather be fine. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds us of Christmas’s 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.

And while I promised that you’d be rid of me now, after twelve continuous days of writings, the fact remains that tomorrow brings another Christmas-related holiday: the 7th of January each year brings St. Distaff’s Day, the first of the Back to Work holidays on the heels of the Christmas season. It’s too fascinating to not discuss… so if you have room in your hearts for one more visit from me this week, I will do all I can to be there. And so be it.

I’ll be talking about these things and showing some good books, too, today at 3 PM Eastern on a Jaffe Center for Book Arts webinar called Book Arts 101: Caravan. You have to register to watch the live broadcast on Zoom: click here to register. There will be a simulcast on the Jaffe Center’s Facebook page, too. And on Friday, from 2 to 5 PM Eastern, you’re welcome to join me again as I host the Real Mail Fridays St. Distaff’s Day Social. Come and go as you please; most folks joining in will be writing letters, but sometimes I do other things, like bind books. There is good music and lots of quiet working time in the company of others, and once or twice an hour, we break for a some focused conversation. 

 

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