Category Archives: Christmas

Oranges, or Your February Book of Days

Welcome to February. Here is your printable Convivio Book of Days calendar for the month, and we begin straightaway this February First with the celebration of Imbolc and St. Brigid’s Day, both of them signs of spring, for even in the dead of winter, we find ourselves here in the Northern Hemisphere just about forty days past the Midwinter solstice. It is a cross quarter day: in the wheel of the year, the cross quarter days mark the midpoints between solstices and equinoxes, and so yes: not only are we about forty days past the Midwinter solstice, but we are also forty days, more or less, away from the vernal equinox. Slowly, light has been increasing, and it will continue to do so all the way to the Midsummer solstice in June. It is the constant rearrange of this old earth, and Brigid is our bridge from winter to spring. She bids us welcome, though the steps be tentative, for the bridge may yet be icy and treacherous. So be it. We take that step, for there is no other choice. Our planet, on its course around the sun, dictates our path.

And tonight, St. Brigid’s Day becomes Candlemas Eve, and this is an important night if you have been following along on our Slow Christmas journey. If you have, you’d have used the Advent season to prepare for Christmas, and you would have certainly celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany. And if you, like us, still have the Christmas tree and garland in your home, tonight is the night it should be removed. You may do what you wish, of course, but Robert Herrick, our old reliable 17th century Book of Days poet, reminds us of the consequences of not removing these last vestiges of Christmas greenery tonight 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.

I, for one, need no goblins running amuck in my home, so here, we pay heed to Mr. Herrick’s advice. Aside from the goblins, though, leaving Christmas greenery up beyond this date comes with the risk of setting us out of step with the tides of the year. You might replace the garland and the tree with new greenery, for this is the day to fashion a St. Brigid’s cross, which looks a bit like a four-spoked wheel, of rushes or reeds. All signs now point toward spring, toward increasing light, toward rebirth.

Even the Church acknowledges this: Candlemas on the Second of February (tomorrow) 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. And there it is 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. And while the First of February is the night that all remaining Yuletide greenery is removed from the home, tradition would have us keep nativity scenes up through Candlemas, the Second of February. And at sunset on Candlemas, we’ll go through the house, through every room, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. 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 Simeon and Anna, the elders in the temple, so as for me, I say it is.

And so tonight we will thank our Christmas tree and garland for their presence with us all through Christmas, and then quietly carry them out the back door and into a quiet corner of the backyard, returning to nature what is hers. We’ll store these things there, and they will become part of the habitat that is our yard, a bit of fir and cedar amongst the bamboo and the palms and grasses… and then when December comes around again, on the longest night, we will use what is left of the tree as fuel for our Midwinter solstice fire as we welcome down the stars and welcome back the light. I love this bit of ceremony. For us, it connects one Christmas to the next, as it sends Father Christmas off each year with respect and dignity.

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Our cover star for this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar is an 1889 painting that is officially untitled, but known also as “Oranges in Tissue with Vase.” It’s orange harvest season here in Florida. The painting, which is oil on canvas, is by Alberta Binford McCloskey, and comes to us via Wikimedia Commons.


Plunder the Tree! It’s St. Knut’s Day

In Sweden, the Christmas season began last month with Sankta Lucia’s Day on the 13th of December, and now, one month later, on this 13th of January, comes St. Knut’s Day: it is the day there when Christmas ends. And it ends with a plundering: All the cookies and candies that decorated the tree get eaten up! The Swedes like to dance around their Christmas trees with simple arm-linked rounds and skips, and this, too, will happen today, as it did on Christmas Eve… and then, finally, the tree is taken down (and sometimes tossed out the window).

I love things like this… and this, no doubt, is because I am a follower of rules. I stop at every stop sign I encounter on the road, I do every single push-up and jumping jack I’m told to do by my trainer, I do not cut corners. In Sweden, we know: Christmas begins now! (Sankta Lucia says so.) Christmas now is done! (Sankt Knut says so.) Organized rules! How grand is that?

Here in the States, we have no clear rules for these things. There was a time not all that long ago––in my grandparents’ day, when my mom was a kid––when folks got their Christmas trees on or near Christmas Eve and it was considered bad luck to remove Christmas decorations before Epiphany. But no one cares about luck these days and the rules have all been tossed out the window (along with the tree, perhaps). And though outwardly I am not a terribly organized person––my boss stepped into my office doorway earlier this week and, with widened eyes, said, “Whoa, I thought my office was messy”)––I do, in fact, love order. As Björk sings in one of her songs (a song called “Hunter”): I thought I could organize freedom. How Scandinavian of me. I like knowing the rules and that’s probably my incentive in writing this Book of Days. I like knowing what’s expected of me each day.

And so while we here in the States never know, once Christmas Day has passed, when we might see a Christmas tree tossed curbside, it seems that in Sweden everyone knows that the tree comes down on St. Knut’s Day, for it, apparently, has always been thus. And how wonderful, too, that it’s done in a celebratory way: plundering the tree, smashing the gingerbread houses, gobbling up every last cookie and cake, and dancing rounds ’round the tree to songs with lines like Tjugondag Knut dansas julen ut och då plundras och kasseras granen!: “The 20th of Knut dances Christmas away and then the tree is plundered and thrown away!”

So we are, according to the Swedes, at the 20th Day of Christmas. Just enough days to count on all our fingers and toes. And certainly now a bit of clarity from this rule-follower is in order: Several weeks ago I told you there are two ways of counting the Twelve Days of Christmas and that the version I like best holds six days in the old year and six days in the new. I stand by that system, for I love the symmetry as Christmastide spans the ages. It is mostly churches that count the days differently, with the First Day of Christmas being Christmas Day (giving us seven days in the old year and five in the new)… and this is how the Swedes reckon things, too. For Sinkt Knut’s Day is widely known as Tjugondag and that word Tjugondag means “twentieth day.”

Aside from the plundering and the dancing, there are some regions of Sweden where folks would open their doors to all the neighbors in an effort to rid the home of all leftover Christmas treats… and once that was accomplished, the woman of the house would, armed with her broom but all in good fun, run through the house, sweeping under sofas, tables, and chairs, and then shooing all the guests out with blows of her broom, shouting, “Out Knut! Now Christmas is over!”

Here’s another end-to-Christmas song for dancing ’round the tree and smashing the gingerbread houses on this Tjugondag; it’s called “Nu är Glada Julen Slut, Slut, Slut”:

Snart är glada julen slut, slut, slut.
Julegranen bäres ut, ut, ut.
Men till nästa år igen
kommer han vår gamle vän,
ty det har han lovat.

Or, in English:

Soon merry Christmas is over, over, over.
The Christmas tree is carried out, out, out.
But until next year again
comes he our old friend,
for he has promised.

And good old Father Christmas does promise just this. I love the directness of Swedish Christmas songs. The most famous of them is the song that’s in the image at the top of this post: “Nu är det Jul Igen”. But that’s for the start of Christmas, at Christmas Eve, when folks first dance around the tree. It’s a centuries-old nonsense song whose lyric translates to, Now it is Christmas again and it will be Christmas until Easter. No! That isn’t true, for in between comes Lent. And so it does. Lent will come, Easter will come, Midsommar will come and the sun will never set, and then it will be harvest time and it will grow dark and Sankta Lucia will come and then it will be Christmas again.

Our image for today is from a print I purchased two Christmases ago at our local Swedish Julmarknad, or Christmas Market, which comes each November or December (depending on the year) at the First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton, Florida. Convivio Bookworks has a pop-up shop at the Julmarknad each year. It’s always a delightful afternoon!

Did you know we sell some truly delightful Scandinavian specialty foods at our shop? Just last weekend, my sister made homemade riskrem, the wonderful traditional Norwegian rice pudding. To make it, she cooked our Scandinavian Porridge Rice in milk, then added freshly whipped cream, and served it with our Wild Swedish Lingonberries and Vanilla Powdered Sugar. I added cinnamon and cardamom to the leftover riskrem with some additional vanilla powdered sugar and it was truly sublime. Oh, I wish I had more right now! Our Löfbergs Coffee from Sweden is also so good. It’s our favorite coffee in this house. I like the medium roast, but there is also a dark roast. Each bag contains over a pound of ground coffee.


Bid Christmas Sport Good Night

January 7

Even as the Twelve Days of Christmas end, Christmas, in its way, lingers: The season has such a grand presence that even what follows is informed by it or comes about as a result of it. And so it goes with today, the Seventh of January, when we celebrate St. Distaff’s Day, which is the first of two Back to Work holidays that come about after the Twelve Days. This one is for the women. The next Back to Work holiday is for the men. It’s called Plough Monday, and it comes on the Monday after Epiphany, which this year is on the Eighth, but, depending on the day of the week on which Epiphany falls, could be up to six days later than St. Distaff’s Day. This suggests to me that it was the men who made the rules here. Be that as it may, it is Robert Herrick, our wonderfully convivial 17th century British poet, who gives us our best description of the day (and some very good advice in the 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.

Women have always had a lot of domestic tasks to handle, but during the Twelve Days of Christmas, one of those tasks would be paused: the spinning of fiber to make cloth. And if she had a spinning wheel in her home, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve each year, when greenery from nature would be brought in to decorate the home, one of the key items to be decorated was the spinning wheel: greenery would be wound through all the spokes and over the wheel and it would be beautiful of course but also, as a result, unusable. Which was the whole point. No work was to be done for the Twelve Days of Christmas––though we can be sure that the women had plenty of other work to do during the holiday. And on this day each year, January 7, the day following Epiphany, it was back to the spinning for the women, and it was St. Distaff who led the way.

Oh but wait! This saint is no saint at all. Saints were real people like you and me before they were named saints, but St. Distaff is fictional. 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 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 Seventh 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.

First Monday after Epiphany, which this year will be Monday January 8

The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. The men’s work focused on the farm, and on this Plough Monday it would be not at all unusual to see a gaggle of men parading through the village with a finely decorated plough. The men themselves would be finely decorated, too, in all manner of foolish costumes, hearkening the Feast of Fools aspect of the Twelve Days of Christmas that have just passed. One man will be dressed as the Bessy, an old woman, and there she is again: the personification of the old hag of winter, the goddess in her crone stage. There would be mysterious old dances and a good deal of noise in the banging of drums and the blowing of horns, and perhaps the performance of an old mummers play, and, certainly, there would be a collection box passed around to help pay for the sport (as well as a few rounds at the tavern). There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, too, very often through the dirt road that ran through the center of town. Those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path from the road to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to the men’s sport.

There is another old tradition in the Netherlands for this First Monday after Epiphany, little known, but important to those in the print trade (and to us here at Convivio Bookworks, for we are, at heart, a print shop): It is Copperman’s Day, a traditional Dutch printer’s holiday in which the printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own. The small prints that were a result of the day were typically sold for a copper apiece. I’ve been a printshop apprentice many times in my life: before, during, and after grad school, while I was earning my MFA in the Book Arts from the University of Alabama, I would go to Maine each summer to apprentice with various printshops there: once with David Wolfe at Wolfe Editions in Portland, and twice with Brother Arnold Hadd at the Shaker Press at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester… which began our long friendships with both wonderful guys, but especially with the Shakers, who by now are like a second family to us.

I make a Copperman’s Day print most years… but, as with everything else here at Convivio Bookworks, I tend to be a little slow about it, and though I’ll begin on Copperman’s Day, or maybe even on St. Distaff’s Day, it will be pretty amazing if I finish by the time Copperman’s Day is done. When this year’s print is done, though, I will let you know here on the blog, and perhaps even show you some progress on our Instagram page (@conviviobookworks). Meanwhile, CLICK HERE to see all of our previous Copperman’s Day prints. Just like St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday, you’ll find our Copperman’s Day prints are also informed by a lingering Christmas spirit. This year’s will be no different.

And so: Back to work, back to the workaday world. In this house we are holding on to our Christmas greenery and music all through January, until Candlemas, as is our custom… but even with these trappings of Christmastime still in the house, we are back to earning a living again, and earning our daily bread, and back to regular routines.


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. You may click on each to make the images larger.