Category Archives: The Gift Bearers

Santa Lucia, Lussekatter, and Star Boys

And now it is St. Lucy’s Day, sacred to Italy and to Sweden. Santa Lucia in Italian, pronounced loo-chee-a; Sankta Lucia in Swedish, with a soft C, loo-see-a. Seth went and got us four lussekatter, traditional Sankta Lucia buns flavored with saffron, from the Swedish bakery in Lantana for our breakfast in the morning. It is nice going to bed knowing that a special treat awaits you at the breakfast table.

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. Her night, in Sweden, is illuminated with candles. There are great processions in the towns and churches; each has its Lucia and scores of attendants and cone-capped star boys, all of them dressed in white, all of them holding candles, all of them singing the traditional Neapolitan song “Santa Lucia,” but in Swedish. It is one of the most beautiful sights you will see, one of the most beautiful songs you will hear.

In Sweden in the darkness of morning breakfast might be brought to you in your room by the Lucia––usually the eldest daughter of the household. Her gift is lussekatter and hot coffee, and she makes her appearance in each room, donning a wreath of glowing candles upon her head. In Italy, the gifts are different. Children will leave hay and carrots in their shoes for Santa Lucia’s donkey, and in return, Santa Lucia will tie little presents to their shoelaces.

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. Aunt Lucy was born soon after and named for the patron saint of vision and of the blind. “But I was no saint,” she would confide to us.

But 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, all of these things bringing light––luce––to the Midwinter darkness.

 

Image: One of four lussekattor we’ll be eating in the morning!

 

Put Out Your Shoes: It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve

Tomorrow, December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, and tonight, in the overnight hours, St. Nicholas will travel about on his donkey. Wise children will leave carrots and sweet hay in their shoes when they go to bed. When they wake up in the morning, they may find that St. Nicholas has taken the carrots and hay for his donkey, and left fruits and nuts and candies in their shoes in exchange, and maybe some small presents, as well. It’s a sweet and old Advent tradition, part of the countdown to Christmas. And with it, we meet the first of the Midwinter gift bearers. St. Nicholas leads a procession of gift bearers that continue on through Advent and Christmas with others like the Christkindl, Santa Lucia, Father Christmas and Père Noël and Babbo Natale and Santa Claus, los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season when it ends with Epiphany on the 6th of January.

That’s a lot of gifts. But these gift bearers harken back to a time when oranges and hazelnuts and marzipan were wonderful wintertime gifts. (Some of us still feel this way; living in a small old house with small old closets, Seth and I really appreciate gifts that are simple and edible.) These gift bearers also are quite regional. As for St. Nicholas, although he was from Turkey and he is a patron saint of so many cities and countries, on this night, St. Nicholas’ Eve, he is known best in Northern Europe, in places like Germany and the Netherlands.

Nicholas in his humanity was a Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He became known far and wide for his acts of generosity… not the least of which was his hiding bags of coins in the shoes of poor girls who were without dowries. His gift bearer legend grew out of this human kindness. But this Midwinter gift bearer travels not just with his donkey, but also with a dark companion known by various names: Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, and Pelznickel are some of them. But he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. Perhaps this dark companion comes out of that same humanity of Nicholas’, for we all have our dark side, and maybe the Krampus is Nicholas’ dark side, manifested.

To be sure, St. Nicholas and his companion will be parading in cities throughout Northern Europe tonight. I learn so much from reader comments to the blog and here are two that were posted in the past about St. Nicholas’ Eve: Kelly O’Brien wrote, “I live in Germany & just experienced my first Krampus fest in the Austrian Tyrol region over Thanksgiving. It was terrifying! Not only do modern-day Krampus tout chains and whips, but parade through the village with torches and lots of other fiery devices. The costumes & masks were creepy beautiful, apparently a source of local craftsmanship pride. Do you think this is where ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ comes from?”

And Tad DuBois wrote, “I live and work in Germany and we went to sleep to howling winds last night and awoke to snow and ice. The neighbor’s kinder were all standing in front of their windows watching the snow fly (and no doubt hoping for school cancelations). At my office this morning St. Nicholas and Krampus have just visited. St. Nicholas dispensed candy canes and Krampus had little bags of something dark, coal or reindeer turds perhaps (actually was dark chocolate molded to resemble bits of coal). To be truthful, the Krampus who visited seemed to be a mash-up of Eye-gore from ‘Young Frankenstein’ and Riff-Raff from ‘Rocky Horror.’ Still a wonderful tradition.”

Kelly and Tad: If you’re reading this year, thank you. The parades and the visits from St. Nicholas and Krampus all sound wonder-full. Here in Lake Worth, in these United States, where these legends never gained much foothold (Krampus only has one human foot, after all), our celebration in this house will be much quieter. At our local Publix, they sell St. Nicholas (or St. Claus) cookies in the bakery that come from Steenstra’s Bakery in Michigan. They come in an orange box wrapped in cellophane. Steenstra’s has been selling St. Claus cookies since 1926. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about the kind bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill).

I’ll probably get us some of those Steenstra’s cookies, and maybe tonight we will make some mulled wine, our first batch as we enter this winter, as the first of the gift bearers enters, too. We’ll leave our shoes by the bed, because we always do (again, small closets). St. Nicholas may not make it all the way here from Northern Europe, but Haden the Convivio shop cat will maybe drop one of the stuffed little toys she hunts in the darkness into one of our shoes. She’ll make those mysterious feline hunting noises she makes each night when we shut the lights. We take mystery where we can find it.

Image: “St. Nicholas Eve” by Richard Brakenburgh. Oil on canvas, 1685 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Faith & Hope & Sweet Release

TWELFTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Epiphany

I have always, since I can remember, been fascinated with the foil that is wrapped around chocolates. The process is always the same: I unwrap the chocolate, pop it in my mouth, and while I’m eating it, I take the foil wrapping and smooth it out with my fingertips against the table or any smooth surface I happen to be near. I like watching the foil transform from crinkled to smooth. Sometimes I save the smoothed-out foils. Sometimes I use them in projects, like the cover for the Christmas mixtape I recorded for Seth after I first met him, back in December of 1995. I miss mixtapes for many reasons… not the least of which is the artwork I’d get to do on the covers. A star of foil seemed just right for this tape that went to Seth and to a few other select friends I was missing that Christmas over 20 years ago.

The star is central to Christmas and to the journey of the Magi. As such, it is central to Epiphany, the celebration of this Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is traditionally considered the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. And with Epiphany, our Christmas celebration comes to a close. The Magi, those three old men, have traversed the desert, following that star, and they have arrived at the stable to bring gifts to the child. La befana, the kind Italian witch, has made her rounds, too. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. And now, on Epiphany, she resumes her sweeping, and sweeps Christmas away for another year.

Tradition would have us remove all the Christmas greenery today. But if you are not yet ready to part with your tree or other decorations, we can offer you another older tradition to follow, for some would consider Christmas to last until the First of February, which is Candlemas Eve. There is some strong basis for this in the Pagan tradition, as it is on the First of February that Yule gives way to Imbolc in the wheel of the seasonal round: it is a cross-quarter day, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

In our home, we close the celebration of Christmas on Epiphany night with a simple ceremony at the front door, outside on the front porch. We will gather up all who are in the home and we will each take turns writing with chalk on the lintel above the front door the numbers and letters and symbols of a traditional inscription. This year, it will read as follows: 20+C+M+B+17. These are the initials of each of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. For me, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next to write the inscription again. All the year through, though Christmas be gone, still the inscription is there to remind 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 so we follow that star. May it always be in our sights and in our hearts and in our dealings with our fellow companions on this old earth. And one last time this year, we say unto you: “Merry Christmas.”

 

I called that 1995 mixtape “Faith & Hope & Sweet Release.” There was so much new and wonderful music that year: “Now it is Christmas Eve” from Garrison Keillor, “By the Fireside” from Turtle Island String Quartet, and an original song for Christmas by Jane Siberry whose lyrics lent the mixtape its title. Our old pick up truck has a cassette player and we still listen to that mixtape each Christmas. It never grows old.

 

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