Category Archives: Yule

Sage Advice

Busy weekend ahead! For those of us who want a goblin-free home (and let’s face it, who doesn’t these days?), it is time to remove all remnants of yuletide greenery. This is sage household advice that comes to us from the 17th century British poet, Robert Herrick. Herrick included a poem, “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve,” in his book Hesperides. Here’s an excerpt:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

This advice was nothing new in Herrick’s day; Herrick was simply recording an old custom, one that is as good as any to follow. So if you, like us, still have a Christmas tree in your living room… well, tradition would suggest it’s time to let it go. For us, it’s been a fine Christmas season with that tree. We got it just before Christmas and didn’t get around to decorating it until Christmas night, and so it’s been no trouble at all keeping it all this time. Haden the Shop Cat loves sleeping in her kitty tower beside the tree, and chances are quite good––if we are to judge by her habits––that although the tower will remain there, once the tree is gone, she will stop sleeping in it. Cats, too, seem to have their yuletide traditions. And so on Saturday night, which is Candlemas Eve, we will pack away the ornaments for another year, and the lights, and we will bring the tree out to the garden, where it will rest for all the months to come. All through spring, summer, and fall, we will steal occasional whiffs of Christmas from it as it dries. And come next Midwinter Solstice night, we will use it as fuel for our outdoor fire to illuminate the darkest night of the year.

Ah, but already the nights grow shorter, less dark. It’s been just about six weeks since the solstice of December, and daylight in the Northern Hemisphere has been increasing a little day by day, and now we come to February and a cross quarter day in the round of the year: February 1 brings St. Brigid’s Day, and the old, mostly forgotten holiday known as Imbolc. It is the first step we take on the bridge from winter to spring, and how fitting her name, then: Brigid, as bridge. It is traditional, for her day, to fashion St. Brigid’s crosses out of rushes or straw and to leave an oat cake and butter on a window sill in your home; this, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and to bestow blessings on all who live there. She is the bridge from winter to spring but more immediately from Christmas to Candlemas, which comes on the 2nd of February. The Christmas decorations will be packed away and the greenery returned to nature, and as the sun sets on Candlemas day, it is traditional to go through the house, illuminating every lamp, even for just a little while. In many parts of Europe, crepes will be served for dinner. In Mexico, it’ll be tamales with hot chocolate, heavily infused with cinnamon.

Here in the States, perhaps the best known marker of these important days that bridge winter to spring is the groundhog who comes up from his burrow every Second of February. Candlemas is a traditional weather marker (If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day / The half of the winter’s not yet away) and this is what survived for us, of all things. Me, I prefer the tamales and the hot chocolate and the lighting of lamps. With Candlemas, we are now forty days past Christmas. This takes us back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, wise and all seeing, who recognized the child as the light of the world. This is the narrative basis for Candlemas, for the blessing of candles this day, and the connexion between the story and the celestial events that bring us closer to spring. And so here is my favorite music for Candlemas: It’s an old hymn called “Jesus, the Light of the World,” recorded by one of my favorite ensembles, the Boston Camerata. It’s from their album An American Christmas. I think of it as more a Candlemas song than a Christmas song, and it’s a fine song to sing or hum as you light all those lamps in the house and a fine album to play as the last vestiges of Christmas are stored away for yet another year. And with that, the bridge we stepped upon at the start of Christmas is behind us, as we step upon the bridge that lies ahead of us, the one Brigid lays before us, toward spring.

Image: A quickly made print, printed on the Vandercook press today, from handset metal types. More sage advice.

 

Deepest Joy

And now, the longest night arrives. With each passing day, since the Midsummer Solstice of June, we have been shaving a bit of daylight off our daily tally. By September’s equinox, day and night were balanced. Darkness continued to overtake light. On the 21st of December, though, our planet’s Northern Hemisphere will experience its longest night, and at 11:19 PM, Eastern Standard Time, its solstice moment, when things begin shifting again the other way. It is the constant rearrange, the back and forth of vast celestial mechanics, all based on the scientific fact that the Earth spins on its axis at a tilt of about 23.5 degrees. As we orbit the sun, that 23.5 degree tilt means that at this time of the year, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun as we spin, while the Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. Give things six months and we will find ourselves in the opposite situation, as the Northern Hemisphere will be tilted toward the sun. But that is summer, and this is not; this is winter. It begins by the almanac with the solstice, though traditionalists will view this point as midwinter, which is why many of us will stand in dark churches come Christmas Eve and sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” as tears well in our eyes. We are tapping into those old ways when we sing that song on these long dark nights, and still the circle proceeds: it is the round of the year, with no beginning and no end.

The solstice is linked inextricably with all the celebrations of light that revolve around it: Advent, Sankta Lucia, Yule, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Epiphany. We call down the light in each of them, to burn bright in the darkness. Light, a symbol of hope, of warmth, of kindness, of the passing of generations. Light is the central theme of Hanukkah, which begins with the setting sun this year on the 22nd, the day after the solstice. In ancient Jerusalem, during the defeat of oppressors by the Maccabbees, a small flask of oil, enough to keep the lamp of the Temple illuminated for a day, kept the lamp illuminated for eight days and nights. That miracle is commemorated each year during the eight nights of Hanukkah; each night, an additional candle is lit on the menorah. This year, that First Night of Hanukkah is met with the Fourth Sunday of Advent: we’ll be lighting all the candles of the advent ring: three purple candles and one rose candle, completing the circle of light, for Christmas is now just a few days away.

Our tradition each Midwinter Solstice night is to light a backyard fire in the copper fire bowl. We dispel the night, as the advent hymns tell us. The fuel for our fire is the remnant of last year’s Christmas tree, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, near the mango tree, 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 the solstice and we welcome Yule. And we welcome all the celebrations of light around it.

 

St. Distaff & the Ploughboys & the Coppermen (& Copperwomen, too)

There was a time when folks would be off from the major part of their labors for all of the Twelve Days of Christmas. When they went back to work once Christmas had passed, it was not without some fun and ceremony. For the women, it was traditionally the 7th of January; for the men, it was whichever Monday happened to follow Epiphany. Every now and then, both would fall on the same day, as is the case this year… and so we step out of the Christmas season today and back into ordinary time with two traditional English holidays known as St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday. It also happens to be an important day for printers like me: Copperman’s Day; more on that later. First, St. Distaff and the Ploughboys (which I’m going to add to my list of good potential band names).

ST. DISTAFF’S DAY
January 7
The English have a long history of creating saints’ days for saints that never existed at all. St. Monday was the name given to the long weekends sometimes taken by shoemakers, and St. Tibb was often used as a metaphor for never, as in, “Hey, I lent you a shilling last week; when will I get my money back?” “Worry not, I’ll be sure to have it back to you by St. Tibb’s Day.” Which is all well and good until the lender realizes that there is no St. Tibb’s Day. Neither St. Tibb nor St. Monday ever existed, and nor did St. Distaff. The distaff, however, was a central tool to what was considered in those days “Women’s Work”: the spinning of wool or flax to make fiber for weaving into cloth. The distaff and spindle were the tools that preceded the spinning wheel, and rare it would have been to find a woman who knew not how to use them. We get the word spinster from this, which was once was a recognized legal term in England to describe an unmarried woman, and the terms spear side and distaff side were also legal terms to distinguish the inheritances of male from female children. It was on St. Distaff’s Day, the 7th of January, that women traditionally returned to their spinning. Meanwhile, the men were still underfoot in the house. Their job on St. Distaff’s Day was one of mischief, with the goal usually being to set fire to the flax the women were spinning. The women were wise to this custom, though, and typically kept several buckets of water nearby. Very often, it was the men who got the worst of it: to have a bucket of water dumped on you in the cold of January… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the idea of returning to ordinary time. On years like this one, however, when both St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday fall on the same day, the men had customs of their own to attend to.

PLOUGH MONDAY
First Monday after Epiphany
The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. It’s a holiday that is noted as far back as 15th century pre-Reformation England as a religious festival in which money would be raised for the parish. Plough lights would be illuminated in the churches as a way of blessing the local farmers and their fields and crops. The parish was often the home of a community plough, as well, for farmers who could not afford their own. When the Church of England broke away from Rome, this was one of many practices that were deemed “popish” and left behind, but by the late 1700s, Plough Monday began seeing a revival, and a distinct shift from its origins. In its newer incarnation, there was a lot more ale involved. There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be blessed and finely decorated, the men would parade in costume, there would be music and mummers and plays and a great hoopla of noise and all kinds of good sport. There would be a collection taken up door to door to pay for the tavern bill that came after; those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to their sport.

As for the men’s costumes, the sillier, the better, and for sure there is a bit of the Feast of Fools, which we saw during the Twelve Days of Christmas, that comes into play on Plough Monday. It is traditional for one man in each Plough Monday gathering to dress as the Bessy, an old woman who we can link firmly to pagan goddess celebrations: she is the personification of the hag, the old woman of winter who, in the seasonal round of the year, will transform come spring into the virginal young goddess. And spring is not that far away in this world of spiraling circular tradition: Come February 2, we are halfway between Midwinter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a day marked by the holidays Candlemas, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day. It is a day seen in the traditional reckoning of time as spring’s first stirrings, even if winter still holds a strong grip. Though it still be cold, the sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, this same Monday after Epiphany was an important day in the printing trade. It was known as Copperman’s Day.

COPPERMAN’S DAY
First Monday after Epiphany
The young Dutch printshop apprentices would be given the day off on this First Monday after Epiphany so they could work on a project of their own and show off the skills they’d learnt from the master printers. Copperman’s Day prints were typically small keepsakes sold for a copper apiece.

Seth Thompson and I have been printing Copperman’s Day prints from handset metal and wood types here at our Lake Worth print shop since 2014. Our first three were inspired by a Christmas Eve letter written by Fra Giovanni Giocando in 1513. In his letter, Fra Giovanni implores us to “take joy, take peace, take heaven.” The following year’s print featured an old toast, “Wes Hel,” inspired by Christmastide. That was the year my father had suddenly taken ill, and Wes Hel, the source of the later Wassail, means “Good Health.” We never did get around to announcing last year’s print, and it suddenly seems a bit late at this late hour as I write this to add it to the online catalog. As for this year’s print, what will it be? Ah, well, we’ll leave both last year’s and this year’s as secrets for now, secrets that I’ll reveal perhaps in the next Convivio Book of Days post, or certainly soon after.

All of the images in today’s chapter, including those below, are taken from a small paperbound chapbook titled St. Distaff’s Day, printed letterpress by Elizabeth Mann and Margaret Evans of the Froben Press in 1938. The lovely illustrations are all by Janet Doe; the one that opens this chapter is of a distaff. I love the illustration of Mann and Evans at the handpress, with all the skirts and aprons. I’m often printing in just a pair of shorts. Times have changed.