Category Archives: The Gift Bearers

20 + C + M + B + 21


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. 



The Legend of La Befana

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.


Sacred Candlelight

Such a sacred act, lighting a candle. That concentrated energy in the spark of the wooden match striking the flint, a small explosion of illumination, lighting the wick that burns the tallow. Like many things of wonder, it is an act that is potentially dangerous, and yet, kept in control, a thing of extreme beauty. So many of our sacred nights here at our home are illuminated by candlelight. (Perhaps they all are sacred: for months now, since this time of isolation began, Seth has been lighting candles at the dinner table each night.)

As I write this today, it is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and in the overnight hours as this day becomes the next, Sankta Lucia will arrive, too, with a wreath of candles upon her head, illuminating the dark cold night, this night that “walks with heavy steps.” I can picture all of the glass Guadalupe candles that are so ubiquitous in shops here in Lake Worth––from Botanica shops to the grocery store aisles––illuminated, too. Some folks are lighting Chanukah candles, and on the Advent wreath this Sunday, we illuminate two purples candles and the rose candle, too, for it is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Advent where we add a measure of joy to our time of reflection. It is difficult to contain the joy that we know is coming with Christmas, and so the colors for this next week of Advent take on the joyful color of rosy pink, rather than somber purple.

And so here we are, practically midway through December already. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th of December is sacred to all the countries of Latin America, but most especially to Mexico. 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. And it was on 12th of December in that year that the iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that we know so well miraculously appeared inside Juan Diego’s cloak: 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 covered with roses, all in bloom. 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.

The 13th, a Sunday this year, brings 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). Lucia is sacred to both countries; she was born and lived and died in Sicily, but––perhaps because the nights are so dark in Sweden in December––she was long ago taken up there and celebrated. Lucia = Light, and light is a precious commodity to come by near the Arctic Circle around this time of the approaching Midwinter Solstice.

In Italy, children will wake up in the morning to find tiny presents tied to their shoelaces, as long as they’ve 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. In Sweden, typically there are processions on this night in celebration of Sankta Lucia: in churches, in schools, in city streets, on national television. Each features a Lucia, donning a wreath of glowing candles upon her head, with scores of her attendants: boys and girls dressed all 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. In homes, too, Lucia will come in the early morning darkness, wreath glowing upon her head, delivering strong coffee and saffron scented buns, lussekatter, to all in the household.

It is a time that gets jumbled up in our home (and perhaps many other places, too) with things both Italian and Swedish. Even the music for this night is jumbled, for the song that is sung throughout Sweden this night (click here to listen) 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:

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.

On Sunday morning, my sister will make her Santa Lucia wreath––a sweet yeast bread, braided and round, a never ending circle like the circle of days, dotted with candied cherries and illuminated with four red candles. Another simple yet delicious treat we have but once each year, and we’ll enjoy it tonight with coffee after dinner. This is our Santa Lucia way.

All of us here––my mom, my sister, Seth and me––we wish you light and peace on these sacred illuminated midwinter nights.

Image: My sister Marietta’s Santa Lucia Bread. I wish we could pour you some coffee and cut a slice for you!


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