Category Archives: Midwinter

Dispel the Night, and the 12 Days of Christmas

One late December morning years ago, over coffee at Minnie’s Diner, Minnie confided to me that she really dislikes when the Fourth Sunday of Advent comes right before Christmas, as it did then and as it does this year. Minnie’s never ready for Christmas, but on those years when the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls days and days before Christmas Day, she feels she’s got more time to prepare. She doesn’t, of course; it just feels like she does. But I can understand this, and I find myself feeling the same way the older I get.

I also find that I love preparing for things like Christmas, and this is what Advent is all about: making our homes as fair as we are able, making our hearts ready for Christmas, bringing more light to the world even as the natural world grows darker. We are just two days past the solstice of Midwinter. Daylight already is increasing, but it will be late March before day and night are balanced again. And so tonight, in the midst of our darkest nights, we get to light all four candles in the circular ring of our Advent wreath. In some traditions, the candles are blue and white, but in ours, the candles are three purple and one rose. Purple, the liturgical color of penitence, and rose, of joy. Each candle has its meaning. The First Sunday’s purple candle is for faith, the Second Sunday’s purple candle, which is lit with the first, is for hope. The rose candle was added last Sunday, which is known as Gaudete Sunday, and it is meant to be more celebratory. And on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light all four candles, the lighting of the third purple candle for peace. With it, our circle is complete and the room filled with the light of all four candles: Faith and hope and joy and peace. The four candles dispel the night, and their illumination means that Christmas is fast approaching. Hopefully, we have made ourselves ready to appreciate its presence.

And despite Minnie’s protests, Christmas Eve will come tomorrow with the setting sun and then Christmas Day and then, the rest of Christmastide. Each year now for oh, many years, I’ve been writing a daily post for this Book of Days, one for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas that begin on the 26th. We’re going to take a slightly different approach this year, if that’s ok with you. There’s a lot going on here… Christmas cards to make, Christmas cookies to bake, and we’re trying to finish up building Seth’s pottery studio before the year is done. It’s good to have goals. Our house is also a stop on the Lake Worth Cottage Tour this January, and to see it right now you would not believe we would have been asked. There are about a dozen projects in mid-stream that need completing: one more door to be stripped of old paint, sanded and varnished; one more doorframe that needs to be painted. It’s right behind Seth’s seat at the table. He sits there at breakfast and dinner and I sit across from him and he never sees the doorframe that needs painting, but me, I do. I’ve been looking at it for three years now. It just never gets finished. And this is how most of our home projects go. We take them to the point where they are about 98.5% completed, and then move on to something else. Agreeing to take part in the cottage tour was, for me, a chance to finish these things off. But now the pressure’s on, of course, for the tour is just four weeks away… and so you know now what a lot of our Yuletide will be like.

So here’s my compromise to you: I will write about all these upcoming Twelve Days of Christmas––and what lies beyond, for it continues, in some traditions, all the way to Candlemas at the start of February. But instead of a daily post, you’ll get maybe three posts. Think of it in a Dickensian way: You’ll be visited by three spirits. They won’t all come on Christmas Eve, like in A Christmas Carol, but they’ll come in their proper time along our journey through the Twelve Days. And hopefully they, too, will dispel the night. Indeed, by the time Christmas concludes at Candlemas, the natural world will be halfway between solstice and equinox, and daylight will be dramatically increased. Take a step away from commercial Christmas to experience Christmas in this manner, and it becomes infinitely more beautiful. For now, though, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent that brings in the Christmas season, know that I’ll be thinking of you as I’m sanding and painting and doing whatever it is that needs doing all these Yuletide days to come, but I’ll especially be thinking of you when I write. Please accept those three spirits when they come for what they are: my gift to you this Christmastide.

“The End of the First Spirit.” Engraving by John Leech, 1843,  for the original publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge more than he cares to see about himself, and as a result, Scrooge snuffs him out with an extinguisher cap. “The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.”


Obliquity & Antiquity: the Longest Night

And so the shortest day arrives, and with it, the longest night. It is the solstice of Midwinter, this deepest, darkest night, this 21st of December. The vast celestial mechanics of our Earth spinning on its axis, tilted at about 23.5 degrees, as it spins and makes its rotation around the sun: these are the source of our seasons. There’s a name for this tilt: Obliquity. It is what gives us spring and summer, fall and winter, the source of our annual round, our wheel of the year. The beauty of the balance and the gift of change––even for those of us who like things to stay the same––is almost impossible for me to fathom sometimes. It is the source of what we do and when we do it and of so many of our connexions to the past, to our ancestors, to antiquity. Without obliquity, this Book of Days and all our daily ceremonies would have little meaning, little connexion to the planet we live on and the stars in our heavens.

Tonight, at 5:23 PM Eastern Time, the Earth will reach its semi-annual moment of extreme, and with it, the Northern Hemisphere will experience its longest night, while the Southern Hemisphere will experience its shortest. There, it is summer. Here, it is winter. And while the tilt does not change (I used to think it did), the orientation of our planet’s tilt toward the sun does change. For half the year––half our orbit around the sun––the Northern Hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Today we find ourselves at the midpoint of that half year’s journey. From now on, days will grow longer, until we reach the next midpoint, its opposite, in June, when the Northern Hemisphere will be tilting toward the sun. These midpoints are the solstices: Midwinter and Midsummer.

The celebrations surrounding these events are perhaps the most ancient ones we know, going back long before the time of Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. No one knows for sure when the historical Christ was born, but the church that arose from his legacy early on assigned two important events to the times around the solstices. And while the Church generally does not celebrate births, the birth of St. John the Baptist was assigned to the Midsummer Solstice… and still we celebrate St. John’s Day on the 24th of June. The Midwinter Solstice––the time of our greatest darkness––was given to the birth of his cousin, Jesus Christ. “Jesus, the light of the world,” goes the old Christmas hymn. Potent imagery.

Here’s what we will do to mark the night in our quiet home: From a forgotten corner of our yard, we will gather up last year’s Christmas tree. It’s been there, quiet, since Candlemas Eve last year, at the start of February, for that is the night we typically remove all the last vestiges of Christmas greenery from our home. That part––the removal of Christmas greenery at Candlemas Eve––is an old old tradition, one not widely followed these days. But we like it. It was only two days ago that we brought this year’s Christmas tree into the house… and who knew there was a Christmas tree shortage this year, but apparently there is. The shortage has something to do with the financial crisis of 2008 and how it put many farmers out of business and so not many Christmas trees were planted that year and as it takes ten years for a Christmas tree to mature, well, this year there are quite a lot fewer available. We bought our tree from the tree lot in West Palm Beach, with not many to choose from, and the next night we passed by again and the tent was dark, the lights unplugged, not a tree to be found. My grandparents, who used to get their tree on Christmas Eve, would have been out of luck, and I wonder how many people will have to make do with something other than a Frasier Fir or a Noble or what have you.

Oh, but back to tonight. Tonight we will gather up last year’s tree, which has been drying all these months, and we will use it to fuel the fire Seth will build in the copper fire bowl in the back yard. We will light that fire and tend it and watch the smoke rise into the Solstice Night air to meet the stars and to carry on through the neighborhood. The smoke will carry our wishes for peace and goodwill on this longest night, this darkest night, when we are called on to be a light in the darkness. These darkest nights bring some deepest joys, and this, for us, is one of them. And so we bid you peace and goodwill, too, on this longest night and through the year.


Sankta Lucia

December 13, and the solstice of Midwinter is but a week away. Until then, the nights grow deeper, longer, darker. In the midst of that growing darkness, we welcome today the next of the Midwinter gift bearers: Saint Lucy, the light bearer, patron saint of those with vision problems and of the blind. She was from Sicily and so she is sacred to Italy, where she is known as Santa Lucia (pronounced loo-chee-a). But she is perhaps best known in Sweden, of all places, where she is called Sankta Lucia (pronounced with a soft C, loo-see-a). For many in Sweden, breakfast today was served in the darkness, which is long there near the Arctic Circle, by a Lucia dressed in white, walking through the house with a wreath of lit candles upon her head, delivering coffee and saffron buns, lussekatter, to the drowsy household. She is usually the oldest daughter.

Our neighbor old Mr. Solderholm, when his young granddaughter was visiting one winter, told her about the tradition of the Sankta Lucia. She was cool about it and didn’t seem too impressed by his tales of what Decembers used to be like, but she did surprise him all the same the next morning, at his bedroom door, in the still and holy darkness, bearing a flashlight, a Coca-Cola, and two Pop Tarts on a platter. Afterwards, he had a splitting headache clear through to lunchtime, but he could not stop talking about this fine thing that his granddaughter had done for him. It is a lovely thing to have this gift of light bestowed upon you.

In Sweden, where Mr. Solderholm’s family is from, there are processions throughout the country tonight celebrating Sankta Lucia, in churches, in schools, in city streets, on national television. The Lucia will be wearing a crown of lit candles on her head, just like the Lucias that delivered breakfast this morning. The processions can get quite large, with scores of attendants to the Lucia: boys and girls each bearing a candle, and then the Star Boys, each carrying stars on poles and donning huge white conical caps. Everyone is dressed in white––“White,” Jane Siberry says, “the color of truth.” The sounds of the procession are a symphony of bells and the Neapolitan melody “Santa Lucia,” but with Swedish lyrics, my favorite part being Natten går tunga fjät, which translates to “The night walks with heavy steps.” Such a beautiful image, and such a beautiful song. You can feel it warming the air, you can feel it bearing light in the darkness. That light and its spirit is what we wish you on this night of heavy steps. And––if you happen to have a Swedish bakery nearby––we wish you lussekatter, as well.


Image: “Sankta Lucia Procession in Denmark.” Photograph by Per Palmkvist Knudsen, 2006 [Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons].