Category Archives: Midwinter

Almost Christmas

So much hustle and hubbub for so long––weeks, months––and then Christmas Eve comes and with it, a wash of calm. It is the calm of reality: what is not yet done is probably not going to get done, and there is a certain beauty to that. We accept our humanity and the fact that we are not perfect and we understand that all is well, no matter what is done or not done. Once again, it is Christmas.

Beyond Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the twelve days of the year that complete Christmastide. They are days that stand traditionally outside ordinary time; six days in the old year, six days in the new. Here in this house, we know these as days filled with music and warmth, days when we can make our Christmas greetings and send them out to the world, days when we can bake once-a-year treats, days when we can read books and watch Christmas movies, days that evolve into nights when we can celebrate with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts and visit with family and friends. They are days that help me appreciate all we have, days when we count our blessings, and know that they are abundant.

The books I’ll be reading are most likely going to be old and most likely about Christmas. There is a long tradition of the Christmas ghost story––think of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol and all the spirits that appear in that tale. My mom and sister confided in Seth and me just tonight, in slow, hushed voices, that our great niece Joy––my sister’s little 3-year old granddaughter and my mom’s great-granddaughter––was in my old room at my family’s home with her mom just the other day and quietly announced to her mom that, “Oh, there’s Pop.” Pop, her name for my dad, her buddy. She loved him something crazy and if she can see him looking after her, well, who are we to discredit what she sees? Kids seem to be better connected to possibilities than adults. The ancient Celts thought of all these spokes in the wheel of the year––Midwinter the one we’re at now––as times when the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world was more easily crossed.

I like to think of myself as open to these things, and so the story did not surprise me, but rather made me smile. I’ve felt Dad’s presence myself, and if he’s watching over me, certainly he’s watching over his little great-granddaughter, too. And certainly at Christmastime. It is part of the magic of this night and of this season. The nights are at their longest and darkest. The lights we illuminate, candles and electric bulbs alike, pierce the darkness, call down the light. The music and foods, carried down through the centuries, connect us to the past and the future. The stories, especially that of the child born in a barn amongst the animals on a cold winter’s night, are bridges, as well. We gather those we love and pull them close, as close as we can. We laugh, we cry, we sing, we pray. We bask in the glowing radiance of the light piercing the powerful darkness. If we allow the spirit to carry us, nothing, when we get right down to it, feels like these days feel. I’ll be with you, if I can muster the energy each day (and I think I can), through all Twelve Days of Christmas, writing about each of them. “You’ll be visited by three spirits,” Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge, but I guess in my version of the story, you’ll be visited by twelve. I pray you’ll make me welcome, much like Father Christmas himself, who comes each year, welcome or welcome not. But for now, to all of you: A very merry Christmas.

The advent candles are almost burnt down. On Sunday morning, we light three purple candles and one rose. By evening, though, it will already be Christmas Eve. And our daily advent candle, burning for a few hours each night, is ready soon to announce Christmas’ arrival.

 

Darkest Night, Deepest Joy

Ask a child to draw our spherical planet on a piece of paper or on a chalkboard and most likely what they’ll draw is a circle. How perfect is the circle? No beginning, no end. The shape that best describes our seasonal round. The seasons, a result of our planet’s tilt on its axis. Scientific evidence suggests that some four and a half billion years ago an object the size of Mars collided with our planet. This incredible, explosive impact resulted in a huge chunk of the Earth spinning off into space, becoming the satellite we call the Moon. The collision also knocked our planet dramatically off kilter, causing the Earth to orbit the sun on a slant. It is that slant––about 23.5 degrees––that creates our seasons.

And at this particular juncture tomorrow on the 21st of December––the Midwinter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere––the North Pole is tilted the farthest from the sun as it will get. It is our hemisphere’s longest night. The South Pole is tilted the closest to the sun as it will get, creating for the Southern Hemisphere the longest day. There, it is the Midsummer Solstice.

The precise moment of this event this year is at 11:28 AM Eastern Standard Time on December 21. If you are one who watches the travels of the sun in the sky, it will appear for a few days like the sun is standing still, getting no lower or higher, and this is the source of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” In reality, things are slowly shifting. Already tomorrow the days in our Northern Hemisphere will begin to increase in length proportionately with their decrease in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the constant sway back and forth, the constant exchange between hemispheres… the explanation behind our seasonal round that helps us count our days and years and gives us grounding as humans on Planet Earth.

The changing seasons, subtle as the change is here in Lake Worth, have fascinated me since I can remember. This great mechanical clockwork fascinates me, too. And so on the 21st in our particular spot on this amazing spinning planet––26.6168º North, 80.0684º West––Seth and I will light a fire to mark the solstice night. Seth will build the fire in the copper fire bowl in the back yard, fueled by the remnants of our Christmas tree from last year, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, shedding needles, drying, and still for all the world smelling like Christmas, even through spring and summer and fall, and it is good, it is right to have this reminder of Old Father Christmas in our lives all the year long. We will sit at the fire that he provides under the starry night sky and toast him with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. In this small way we pull down the celestial mechanics of our planet and bring it directly to our tiny dot in this universe, and into our hearts, too: the old Yuletide illuminating and welcoming the new, connecting us with the past as we continue to forge that circle, no beginning, no end. With it, we know that Christmas is surely almost here. And so we welcome Yule.

Image: The particular beauty of the science of the Winter Solstice, depicted in a chart created by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz. It is the Illumination of Earth by Sun on the Day of Winter Solstice on Northern Hemisphere [CC 2005 via Wikimedia Commons]. By the time the Earth progresses another six months on its annual journey around the sun, the sun will be illuminating the North Pole and the South will be experiencing darkness; that will be Midsummer Solstice in the North. Back and forth again and again… the subtle daily shift, the constant rearrange.

 

Finding Our Way

This is for everyone who has experienced loss this past year, or ever, for that matter. I’m right there with you. I lost my dad in February. Nothing is ever the same once someone we love is gone. Things do get better eventually, but they are forever different. And this is just part of living, we know this. Knowing it, however, makes it no easier. Especially now, when we come to a juncture of the year that can be very difficult for anyone who is missing someone. And so this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is for you, and for me, and for everyone who has felt this particular loss.

My dad is wrapped inextricably through my Christmas memories. He is part of the memories of Christmases I have from even before I was on this earth, for the stories come down through the ages. Dad was the one who, in recent years, spent hours trying to get light sets to work again once half the set had gone out, and he would re-wire some so that they had odd plugs spliced to them with electrical tape: green wires, brown plugs, black electrical tape… an “Angelo Cutrone Special.” They worked, but I’d cringe sometimes as I plugged them in, half expecting to get a shock or to have the plug explode once it made contact with the outlet. They never did. He usually knew what he was doing.

When I was little, it was Dad who decorated the house and front yard for Christmas. In the late 1960s, this involved a large electric candle, which, to the me that was 4-years old, seemed to tower twice my size, and it may very well have. It illuminated through and through and at the metal base, in script, it said Seasons Greetings and Dad would set it in place near where the driveway met the slate-covered walkway to the front door. There were illuminated choir boys, too, and multicolor lights––the kind with the big screw in ceramic bulbs, strung along the roofline attached to the stainless steel gutters that Dad would occasionally buff and polish. By 1970 or so, Dad quit the illuminated figures and the ceramic lights and from that point on it was a fresh balsam wreath wrapped in multicolor Italian fairy lights on the front door, another wrapped in red lights on the big front window of my sister’s room, and a strand or two of white lights thrown into the canopy of the crab apple tree. He’d just toss them up there. Where they landed, they landed.

Before I was born, though, there was a record player connected to outdoor speakers and Dad would play Christmas music for the neighbors, whether they wanted to hear it or not. He rotated through four or five records that we still have and still play each Christmas: Johnny Mathis’ Christmas album, an album featuring a child’s choir from England backed up by a Big Band era sounding orchestra, Christmas carols on piano by Roger Williams, and an album of all your Christmas favorites played entirely by an orchestra of bells. The Hartmans, an older couple up the road, did not care for the music, but they were friendly about it all the same. Dad would always complain that he should’ve put the lights up the week before it had gotten so cold. But he never did; he’d always be out there on the coldest day of December. Christmas was not to be rushed, after all. Sometimes there was snow. Once he pulled me up the sidewalk while I sat on my sled. I think it’s the only time I used it. For the rest of my childhood, the sled hung on the wall in the garage. We were not an outdoor people, my family.

I think of all these things––even of the Hartmans, who had moved to Vero Beach before I was born––and I think of my dad as I do my own decorating outside in the balmy Lake Worth night, just as I think of Dad every single time I go to my family’s home to mow the lawn since his passing. I sit on the rider mower as he used to and I think of Dad, as I mow with care, trying to keep straight lines like he would, and I think of him as I sweep the sidewalk, sweeping up the grass clippings just as he taught me: Corn broom along the edge, push broom down the middle.

This simple task of mowing the lawn can make me a bit emotional sometimes, and Christmas just heightens this. Earlier this month Seth and I received the new Christmas Revels recording for 2017, Tutta Bella: A Venetian Christmas Revels. For years I’ve watched the Revels create Christmas programs set in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, and Spain, and wished that someday there would be a Revels set in Italy. This year I got my wish. But when the CD arrived, I read the list of songs and was disappointed to find my favorite Italian Christmas carol, “Tu Scende Dalle Stelle,” was not part of the program. The disc arrived in early December, too soon in our book to listen to Christmas music (we’re just beginning to listen to Advent music at that point). But on Sunday morning, just yesterday, I finally added the new CD to the player. The first couple of songs played and they were good, a bit of horn fanfare… and then the third song began with a familiar haunting melody. It was my song, given a different name, “Quanno Nascette Ninno.” My heart leapt and then tears welled up in my eyes. I thought of my grandmother, who did not sing but who did sing that song. The pipers would come down from the mountains, she told me, each Christmas Eve, into her village in Italy. They would play this song. I thought of Grandma, and Grandpa, and Dad, too, and I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. Certainly some combination of sadness and joy. And this, too, is life.

Mom has agreed to a Christmas tree this year and so we put up the tree at the family homestead a week ago. But she wants no decorations outside and a very pared down celebration of Christmas in general, out of respect for Dad’s passing. Christmas, especially, brings up so many emotions for those of us who have experienced loss, and it feels a bit inauthentic, perhaps, to celebrate. But it is right as well to celebrate and continue what those who have passed taught us, if for no other reason than to keep them present in our days. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to approach these things. What I know is I am so happy that Mom chose to keep a tree this year. That tree will be even more central and more important than ever when we gather round it, and so will the creche, the nativity scene, reminding us of the child (and the child we all once were) and the story we’ve heard a thousand times, the story that never grows old. We’ll hear it again, and again: the child come down from the stars… and in that light, we gather up our memories and we take joy, take peace, take heaven. And so if you, too, are in this same strange place this Christmastime: it’s ok. We are right where we need to be, you and me both. And we’ll all be there for each other.

 

Film: Dad shoveling snow in Brooklyn, New York, 1952 or 1953.

 

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