Category Archives: The Gift Bearers

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.

 

The Night is Vast

The night walks with heavy steps around farm and cottage.
Around the earth, forsaken by the sun, shadows are lowering.
Then into our dark house she treads with lighted candles,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

The night is vast and mute. Now here reverberate
in all silent rooms a rustle as of wings.
See, on our threshold stands––whiteclad, lights in her hair––
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

“The darkness will soon take flight from the valleys of earth.”
Thus she a wonderful word to us speaks.
The day shall again, reborn, rise from a rosy sky,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

It is St. Lucy’s Day: the Feast of Santa Lucia, a celebration that gets jumbled up between things Italian and Swedish for Lucia is sacred to both Italy and Sweden. Even the song that is sung throughout Sweden this night is Italian in origin, an old Neapolitan melody, transformed and rewritten for a place where, at this darkest time of the year, the night is vast.

There are processions tonight throughout Sweden celebrating Sankta Lucia: in churches, in schools, in city streets, on national television. Each will feature a Lucia, donning a wreath of glowing candles upon her head, with scores of her attendants: boys and girls dressed in white, each bearing a candle, and then the Star Boys, each carrying stars on poles and donning tall white conical caps. It is one of the most beautiful sights of these ever-darkening nights on the approach to the solstice.

Our local Sankta Lucia festival was in November: quite early, but that’s when the church hall was available, so that’s when the SWEA ladies––the Swedish Womens Education Association––held their celebration. We were there with a pop up shop of advent calendars and candles and artisan goods from Sweden. All day long, the women spoke to me in sentences that began in English and evolved to Swedish before they ended. I did not understand much. But I did understand Tack (Thank you) and glögg and lussekatter.

In Italy, lucky children awoke this morning to find tiny presents tied to their shoelaces. That’s if they left hay and carrots in their shoes before they went to bed, for Santa Lucia’s donkey. Santa Lucia follows St. Nicholas as the next of the Midwinter gift bearers. Lucia calls down the light at this dark time of year perhaps more strongly than any other saint or gift bearer. Her very name in Italian, Lucia, is rooted in the word luce, which translates to light. She is a patron saint of the blind and the visually challenged, and also of writers like me, and scholars, teachers, and librarians.

Seth’s great aunt was named Lucy. Her father, an immigrant to Maine from Italy, lost his sight in an accident on the railway where he worked. This was in the early 1900s. Aunt Lucy was born soon after the accident, so naturally, her parents named her for her father’s new protector. “But I was no saint,” she would confide to us.

We will think of Aunt Lucy and we will have our coffee and lussekatter and we will have the Santa Lucia song in our heads and on our lips all day and all night, in Swedish and in Italian. All of these things bearing light––luce––to the Midwinter darkness.

COME SEE US!
“Yule” love what we have at each of these markets! They’re the last of our local pop up shops before the holidays.

Undiscovered: An Inclusive Arts Festival
Saturday December 14 from 10 AM to 4 PM (but we have to pack up by 3!)
at Palm Beach Habilitation Center
4522 South Congress Avenue in Lake Worth
We’re so excited to take part in this inaugural arts fair at the Hab Center, which does such wonderful work helping folks with disabilities become more independent through training and employment. There are art projects that EVERYONE can participate in, and there’s a pop up market; we’ll be there with lots of great artisan goods from our catalog.

Holiday Night Market
Saturday December 14 from 4 to 8 PM
at Social House
512 Lucerne Avenue in Downtown Lake Worth
It’s always a special night at Social House. We’ll be showing our Christmas artisan goods and Shaker teas (and my mom’s famous candy wreaths). One of our favorite markets at one of our favorite places!

Midwinter Makers Marketplace
Sunday December 15 from 10 AM to 4 PM
at Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road in Boca Raton
It’s full swing yuletide and we’ll be showing our handmade artisan Christmas ornaments and decorations from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico and our full line of Shaker herbs & teas and more (like my mom’s famous candy wreaths). Plus there’s live music almost all day: Ella Herrera from 10 to 1 and Rio Peterson from 1 to 4. Look for the blue & white MAKERS MARKETPLACE signs on FAU campus roads.

Revelry Sip & Shop
Sunday December 15 from 1 to 6 PM
at Revelry Lake Worth
17 South J Street in Downtown Lake Worth
Find us in the courtyard with our handmade Christmas artisan goods and Shaker herbal teas and more. They’re serving bottomless mimosas!

 

Roses, Light, the Midst of Advent

And now we are midway through Advent, well into December, closer and closer to the Midwinter Solstice and all the holy days of light that revolve around it: Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa. In Latin America, it is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sacred to all the countries of Latin America, but most especially to Mexico. Her day comes on the 12th of December. The 13th will bring St. Lucy’s Day: the Feast of Santa Lucia in Italy (where Lucia is pronounced loo-chee-a) and Sankta Lucia in Sweden (where the C is soft: loo-see-a). So much beauty in these two days and nights.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is important to us in this house for perhaps an odd reason: she is, in her way, responsible for what Convivio Bookworks has become. This has to do with the very first December that Seth and I spent in our little old house in Lake Worth, in this town that has such a large Mexican and Mayan population. We were at the table, eating dinner that 12th of December in 2000, when suddenly we heard fireworks exploding overhead. I knew what day it was, and there was, I decided, only one explanation: there was a festival going on downtown celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe! We dropped everything and didn’t even bother to clean up or finish dinner but instead hopped into the truck and headed downtown for the festivities. We drove to Bryant Park on the lagoon, but it was silent, and so were the grounds of Sacred Heart Church, as was the plaza off the City Hall Annex and none of the downtown streets were blocked off, either, for this wonderful festival that we had concocted in our own minds.

I had left the house that night all excited for the singing and dancing and for the food but also to run into the street vendor who would be selling the traditional painted tin ornaments from Mexico that I’d been longing for… but of course there was no festival and there were no ornaments. Nothing. The fireworks probably were shot from the street outside the home of one very enthusiastic family. So Seth and I drove back home, disappointed.

But that night, with all its excitement and disappointment, was a seed that eventually bloomed into what we do now, for I decided that if I couldn’t find the traditional painted tin ornaments I wanted locally, I’d go out and find them where they came from. And that maybe other folks would want them, too. And so that Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th of December at the tail end of the last century had a big effect on bringing you the Convivio Book of Days Catalog, where we sell authentic traditional handicrafts pertaining to the seasonal round of the year, which evolved eventually into this blog. And still I am diligently working on the next logical step: a real book called The Convivio Book of Days that you can pull off your bookshelf to confer with when you wish, like an old friend. (Guess what? The book proposal is just about done!) And so if you love this Book of Days, you can thank Our Lady of Guadalupe.

As for Our Lady, as the story goes, in 1531, a fellow named Juan Diego was on a hill near Mexico City and there he saw an apparition of a woman. She asked him to build a church in her honor there on the hill. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language and he recognized her, by the things she told him, as the Virgin Mary.

The iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that we know so well miraculously appeared inside Juan Diego’s cloak on the 12th of December, 1531: on one of his visits to the hill, Mary told Juan Diego to go to the barren top of the hill, but when he got there, he found it not at all barren but awash with blooming roses. He and Mary gathered the roses and she arranged them inside his cloak. And on this, her feast day, Juan Diego opened his cloak before the bishop of Mexico City. When he did, the flowers all fell to the floor, revealing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The bishop took it as a sign. The church was built, and the image from Juan Diego’s cloak, or tilma, hangs still inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Mexico City.

As our story goes, I imagine that next morning after the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe we probably ate lussekatter for breakfast, for while we have a lot of Mexicans and Mayans here in Lake Worth, we also have a lot of Finns, and the bakeries that keep the Finns happy generally make baked goods that relate to their Scandinavian neighbors, too… so when it is near the Feast of Sankta Lucia, they make lussekatter: saffron buns in the shape of an S, made each year for Sankta Lucia’s Day. Where the traditions are held onto tightly, it will be the eldest daughter of the family who comes around to all the bedrooms of the home, dressed in white and a sash of red, a wreath of candles on her head illuminating the predawn darkness. Her gift is coffee and lussekatter. And light: the light emanating from the crown of her head. It pierces the midwinter darkness. Lucia’s story, I feel, deserves more breadth and time… and so please tune in tomorrow to this blog, so I can share with you more of this beautiful night. But do, for sure, get yourself some lussekatter first, should you be lucky enough to be near a Scandinavian bakery.

Image: Handmade glass ornaments made by artisans in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The artisans make the ornaments in three designs and we carry them in our online shop. One set features calaveras, another set features Frida Kahlo images, and this set features images of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

COME SEE US!
Christkindlmarkt last weekend was so much fun! Thanks to all who came by. And now this coming weekend brings our final four pop up shops before Christmas arrives. Local friends: we hope to see you… “Yule” love what we have at each of these markets!

Undiscovered: An Inclusive Arts Festival
Saturday December 14 from 10 AM to 4 PM (but we have to pack up by 3!)
at Palm Beach Habilitation Center
4522 South Congress Avenue in Lake Worth
We’re so excited to take part in this inaugural arts fair at the Hab Center, which does such wonderful work helping folks with disabilities become more independent through training and employment. There are art projects that EVERYONE can participate in, and there’s a pop up market; we’ll be there with lots of great artisan goods from our catalog.

Holiday Night Market
Saturday December 14 from 4 to 8 PM
at Social House
512 Lucerne Avenue in Downtown Lake Worth
It’s always a special night at Social House. We’ll be showing our Christmas artisan goods and Shaker teas (and my mom’s famous candy wreaths). One of our favorite markets at one of our favorite places!

Midwinter Makers Marketplace
Sunday December 15 from 10 AM to 4 PM
at Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road in Boca Raton
It’s full swing yuletide and we’ll be showing our handmade artisan Christmas ornaments and decorations from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico and our full line of Shaker herbs & teas and more (like my mom’s famous candy wreaths). Plus there’s live music almost all day: Ella Herrera from 10 to 1 and Rio Peterson from 1 to 4. Look for the blue & white MAKERS MARKETPLACE signs on FAU campus roads.

Revelry Sip & Shop
Sunday December 15 from 1 to 6 PM
at Revelry Lake Worth
17 South J Street in Downtown Lake Worth
Find us in the courtyard with our handmade Christmas artisan goods and Shaker herbal teas and more. They’re serving bottomless mimosas!