Category Archives: Epiphany

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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The Legend of La Befana

ELEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS
Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Say what you will about 2020… an awful year, to be sure, but a lot of good came of it, too. One Sunday in March a few of my cousins gathered together on Zoom for a virtual gathering, just to visit, just so we could all make each other happy. It’s continued every Sunday since, and grown to include cousins I’ve never met in person, from Atlantic to Pacific and across the ocean, too, to Italy. Zoom Fatigue? Not when you’re with this group.

Last Sunday’s Cousins Zoom included my cousin Marietta reading a story about la Befana, the kindly old witch who brings presents to children in Italy on Twelfth Night. Her sister, my cousin Cammie, acted out the parts as Marietta read the story. And there’s Cammie in the photo above, the kerchief on her head signifying that she is la Befana, her broom for sweeping nearby. Each year my cousins in New York and New England gather for their Little Christmas party on or around Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and each year, la Befana makes her appearance, along with the three kings, all played by other cousins of mine. Alas, no Little Christmas party this year, but I finally got to see Cammie acting out her role. It was just beautiful.

La Befana is our signal that we’re coming to the close of Christmastide. With her broom tonight she will sweep away what’s left of our celebration, leaving the Twelfth Day of Christmas tomorrow open for the Magi and the Epiphany, which is a celebration even older than Christmas itself, marking the day those three old men arrived at the stable to worship the child who was born on Christmas Night. The Church celebrated Epiphany years and years before it began celebrating the birth of Christ, and somewhere along the way, in my family, at least, it picked up the nickname “Little Christmas.” Natalie Kavanagh, a Convivio Book of Days reader, wrote some years ago to tell me that where she comes from, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the day is known as Old Christmas.

But tonight, the Eve of the Epiphany, brings Twelfth Night. It is a cause for celebration that unfortunately doesn’t gather much attention here in the States, but what a lovely custom it is. We have been known to host a big dinner party for family and a few friends on Twelfth Night or Epiphany (an event that obviously won’t be happening this year). In some places, Twelfth Night and Epiphany are celebrations that rival Christmas itself. And why shouldn’t it be so? We spend so much time and energy preparing for Christmas. Is it not right and good to send Christmas off with a bit of ceremony? This is the value of Twelfth Night and Epiphany. This is the value of Little Christmas, and of Old Christmas. They are celebrations that provide us with a sense of completion.

But if all this sounds unbearably sad (especially after such a rough year) and if you, like us, are among those who dearly love the season, I can offer some solace, for while Twelfth Night and Epiphany may come and go, there is yet another old tradition that keeps Christmastime––the music, the stories, the festivity and lights––going all the way to the start of February. As Seth and I have grown older together, this has become the tradition that we follow, a custom that has strong ties to old Pagan traditions. The First of February brings Candlemas Eve. As celestial mechanics go, this is the night that winter begins to give way to spring, for we reach the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Yule gives way to Imbolc in the seasonal round of the year. And by Candlemas Eve, the 17th century poet Robert Herrick tells us, all traces of Christmas greenery must be removed from the home (…how many leaves there be / Neglected, there (maids, trust to me) / So many goblins you shall see).

As people more interested in wholeness and balance, these are the ways we follow, fully realizing they are not for everyone. Mind you, a lot of our Christmas decorations will be down before Candlemas Eve. Robert Herrick did not have modern Christmas decorations to contend with; just greenery from the natural world. And by Candlemas Eve here, we are most likely down to just things from nature, too. That night, we will return to nature what is hers.

As for the legend of la Befana… I will save that story for Epiphany, tomorrow, when you will finally have enough of me and all this Yuletide stuff. If I could, I’d have my cousin Marietta tell the story, while my cousin Cammie dramatizes the part. Instead, you’ll just get me, doing the best I can.

 

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.