Category Archives: Yule

Plunder the Tree! It’s St. Knut’s Day

In Sweden, the Christmas season began last month with Sankta Lucia’s Day on the 13th of December, and now, one month later, on this 13th of January, comes St. Knut’s Day: it is the day there when Christmas ends. And it ends with a plundering: All the cookies and candies that decorated the tree get eaten up! The Swedes like to dance around their Christmas trees with simple arm-linked rounds and skips, and this, too, will happen today, as it did on Christmas Eve… and then, finally, the tree is taken down (and sometimes tossed out the window).

I love things like this… and this, no doubt, is because I am a follower of rules. I stop at every stop sign I encounter on the road, I do every single push-up and jumping jack I’m told to do by my trainer, I do not cut corners. In Sweden, we know: Christmas begins now! (Sankta Lucia says so.) Christmas now is done! (Sankt Knut says so.) Organized rules! How grand is that?

Here in the States, we have no clear rules for these things. There was a time not all that long ago––in my grandparents’ day, when my mom was a kid––when folks got their Christmas trees on or near Christmas Eve and it was considered bad luck to remove Christmas decorations before Epiphany. But no one cares about luck these days and the rules have all been tossed out the window (along with the tree, perhaps). And though outwardly I am not a terribly organized person––my boss stepped into my office doorway earlier this week and, with widened eyes, said, “Whoa, I thought my office was messy”)––I do, in fact, love order. As Björk sings in one of her songs (a song called “Hunter”): I thought I could organize freedom. How Scandinavian of me. I like knowing the rules and that’s probably my incentive in writing this Book of Days. I like knowing what’s expected of me each day.

And so while we here in the States never know, once Christmas Day has passed, when we might see a Christmas tree tossed curbside, it seems that in Sweden everyone knows that the tree comes down on St. Knut’s Day, for it, apparently, has always been thus. And how wonderful, too, that it’s done in a celebratory way: plundering the tree, smashing the gingerbread houses, gobbling up every last cookie and cake, and dancing rounds ’round the tree to songs with lines like Tjugondag Knut dansas julen ut och då plundras och kasseras granen!: “The 20th of Knut dances Christmas away and then the tree is plundered and thrown away!”

So we are, according to the Swedes, at the 20th Day of Christmas. Just enough days to count on all our fingers and toes. And certainly now a bit of clarity from this rule-follower is in order: Several weeks ago I told you there are two ways of counting the Twelve Days of Christmas and that the version I like best holds six days in the old year and six days in the new. I stand by that system, for I love the symmetry as Christmastide spans the ages. It is mostly churches that count the days differently, with the First Day of Christmas being Christmas Day (giving us seven days in the old year and five in the new)… and this is how the Swedes reckon things, too. For Sinkt Knut’s Day is widely known as Tjugondag and that word Tjugondag means “twentieth day.”

Aside from the plundering and the dancing, there are some regions of Sweden where folks would open their doors to all the neighbors in an effort to rid the home of all leftover Christmas treats… and once that was accomplished, the woman of the house would, armed with her broom but all in good fun, run through the house, sweeping under sofas, tables, and chairs, and then shooing all the guests out with blows of her broom, shouting, “Out Knut! Now Christmas is over!”

Here’s another end-to-Christmas song for dancing ’round the tree and smashing the gingerbread houses on this Tjugondag; it’s called “Nu är Glada Julen Slut, Slut, Slut”:

Snart är glada julen slut, slut, slut.
Julegranen bäres ut, ut, ut.
Men till nästa år igen
kommer han vår gamle vän,
ty det har han lovat.

Or, in English:

Soon merry Christmas is over, over, over.
The Christmas tree is carried out, out, out.
But until next year again
comes he our old friend,
for he has promised.

And good old Father Christmas does promise just this. I love the directness of Swedish Christmas songs. The most famous of them is the song that’s in the image at the top of this post: “Nu är det Jul Igen”. But that’s for the start of Christmas, at Christmas Eve, when folks first dance around the tree. It’s a centuries-old nonsense song whose lyric translates to, Now it is Christmas again and it will be Christmas until Easter. No! That isn’t true, for in between comes Lent. And so it does. Lent will come, Easter will come, Midsommar will come and the sun will never set, and then it will be harvest time and it will grow dark and Sankta Lucia will come and then it will be Christmas again.

Our image for today is from a print I purchased two Christmases ago at our local Swedish Julmarknad, or Christmas Market, which comes each November or December (depending on the year) at the First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton, Florida. Convivio Bookworks has a pop-up shop at the Julmarknad each year. It’s always a delightful afternoon!

Did you know we sell some truly delightful Scandinavian specialty foods at our shop? Just last weekend, my sister made homemade riskrem, the wonderful traditional Norwegian rice pudding. To make it, she cooked our Scandinavian Porridge Rice in milk, then added freshly whipped cream, and served it with our Wild Swedish Lingonberries and Vanilla Powdered Sugar. I added cinnamon and cardamom to the leftover riskrem with some additional vanilla powdered sugar and it was truly sublime. Oh, I wish I had more right now! Our Löfbergs Coffee from Sweden is also so good. It’s our favorite coffee in this house. I like the medium roast, but there is also a dark roast. Each bag contains over a pound of ground coffee.


Bid Christmas Sport Good Night

January 7

Even as the Twelve Days of Christmas end, Christmas, in its way, lingers: The season has such a grand presence that even what follows is informed by it or comes about as a result of it. And so it goes with today, the Seventh of January, when we celebrate St. Distaff’s Day, which is the first of two Back to Work holidays that come about after the Twelve Days. This one is for the women. The next Back to Work holiday is for the men. It’s called Plough Monday, and it comes on the Monday after Epiphany, which this year is on the Eighth, but, depending on the day of the week on which Epiphany falls, could be up to six days later than St. Distaff’s Day. This suggests to me that it was the men who made the rules here. Be that as it may, it is Robert Herrick, our wonderfully convivial 17th century British poet, who gives us our best description of the day (and some very good advice in the first two lines):

Saint Distaff’s Day, or the Morrow after Twelfth Day
by Robert Herrick, 1648

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on St. Distaff’s Day:
From the Plough soone free your team;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a-spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Let the maides bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

Women have always had a lot of domestic tasks to handle, but during the Twelve Days of Christmas, one of those tasks would be paused: the spinning of fiber to make cloth. And if she had a spinning wheel in her home, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve each year, when greenery from nature would be brought in to decorate the home, one of the key items to be decorated was the spinning wheel: greenery would be wound through all the spokes and over the wheel and it would be beautiful of course but also, as a result, unusable. Which was the whole point. No work was to be done for the Twelve Days of Christmas––though we can be sure that the women had plenty of other work to do during the holiday. And on this day each year, January 7, the day following Epiphany, it was back to the spinning for the women, and it was St. Distaff who led the way.

Oh but wait! This saint is no saint at all. Saints were real people like you and me before they were named saints, but St. Distaff is fictional. 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; 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 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.

And so the women returned to their spinning each Seventh of January, this “morrow after Twelfth Day.” 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 (that’s the “bewash the men” part)… for sure, St. Distaff’s Day lent a bit of excitement to the sport of returning to ordinary time. Meanwhile, the men had customs of their own to attend to, preparing for their day.

First Monday after Epiphany, which this year will be Monday January 8

The men got a moveable date for their traditional Back to Work day. The men’s work focused on the farm, and on this Plough Monday it would be not at all unusual to see a gaggle of men parading through the village with a finely decorated plough. The men themselves would be finely decorated, too, in all manner of foolish costumes, hearkening the Feast of Fools aspect of the Twelve Days of Christmas that have just passed. One man will be dressed as the Bessy, an old woman, and there she is again: the personification of the old hag of winter, the goddess in her crone stage. There would be mysterious old dances and a good deal of noise in the banging of drums and the blowing of horns, and perhaps the performance of an old mummers play, and, certainly, there would be a collection box passed around to help pay for the sport (as well as a few rounds at the tavern). There would be a ceremonial ploughing of the ground, too, very often through the dirt road that ran through the center of town. Those who were too stingy to contribute risked having the path from the road to their door ploughed, as well. Best, then, to contribute a few pennies to the men’s sport.

There is another old tradition in the Netherlands for this First Monday after Epiphany, little known, but important to those in the print trade (and to us here at Convivio Bookworks, for we are, at heart, a print shop): It is Copperman’s Day, a traditional Dutch printer’s holiday in which the printshop apprentices would be given the day off so they could work on a project of their own. The small prints that were a result of the day were typically sold for a copper apiece. I’ve been a printshop apprentice many times in my life: before, during, and after grad school, while I was earning my MFA in the Book Arts from the University of Alabama, I would go to Maine each summer to apprentice with various printshops there: once with David Wolfe at Wolfe Editions in Portland, and twice with Brother Arnold Hadd at the Shaker Press at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester… which began our long friendships with both wonderful guys, but especially with the Shakers, who by now are like a second family to us.

I make a Copperman’s Day print most years… but, as with everything else here at Convivio Bookworks, I tend to be a little slow about it, and though I’ll begin on Copperman’s Day, or maybe even on St. Distaff’s Day, it will be pretty amazing if I finish by the time Copperman’s Day is done. When this year’s print is done, though, I will let you know here on the blog, and perhaps even show you some progress on our Instagram page (@conviviobookworks). Meanwhile, CLICK HERE to see all of our previous Copperman’s Day prints. Just like St. Distaff’s Day and Plough Monday, you’ll find our Copperman’s Day prints are also informed by a lingering Christmas spirit. This year’s will be no different.

And so: Back to work, back to the workaday world. In this house we are holding on to our Christmas greenery and music all through January, until Candlemas, as is our custom… but even with these trappings of Christmastime still in the house, we are back to earning a living again, and earning our daily bread, and back to regular routines.


Today’s two images, like bookends on this chapter, are taken from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days, published in Edinburgh, 1869. The top one illustrates their chapter on St. Distaff’s Day; the bottom one, Plough Monday. You may click on each to make the images larger.

Twelfth Night & Epiphany

This night of January 5, which is our Eleventh Day of Christmas, brings Twelfth Night, and the celebrations of Twelfth Night roll into Epiphany and the Twelfth Day of Christmas… and thus our Twelve Day carol ends.

January 5: Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Twelfth Night, earlier in history, was once a really big deal. In England, it was, for a long time, a celebration rivaling that of Christmas Day. But one thing to understand about the history of Christmas, especially in Britain, is that it has always had one foot in the church and one foot in the tavern, and, truth be told, the foot in the tavern was probably heavier than the one in the church. Christmas and all its Twelve Days was a rowdy, boisterous time; it’s no wonder the Puritans despised it so. Even nearly two centuries after Puritan rule, Queen Victoria, who loved Christmas and whose husband, Prince Albert, is credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain, was not fond of the boisterous qualities of the holiday, and she had Twelfth Night stricken from the calendar during her reign. She disapproved of its rowdiness and thought her subjects would be better off without Twelfth Night. Her disapproval had a major impact on the celebration and it practically died out. And here we are today, the poorer for this. Especially here in the States, where we tend to just let Christmas unceremoniously fade away.

Ever the champion of the underdog, I am here in my role as a Christmas Traditionalist to champion Twelfth Night, too, for it can be a very useful holiday (no matter what Old Queen Victoria thought of it). If you are inclined toward feelings of melancholy or disappointment after Christmas Day has passed, these Twelve Days––and especially Twelfth Night and Epiphany, which provide a proper send-off to the season––are just what’s needed to help get you through that. For all we talk about maintaining links to the past, perhaps it is this, more than anything, that offers the best reason behind keeping an obscure old holiday like Twelfth Night in our contemporary world. Twelfth Night helps us feel more rounded, more complete. This is the value of Twelfth Night.

My family never did celebrate Twelfth Night when I was younger, but we did mark Epiphany. My mom calls it “Little Christmas.” I do remember one year, when I was a boy, feeling kind of down after Christmas Day had passed, and Mom told me, “It’s ok, we still have Little Christmas ahead.” Our little tabletop tinsel Christmas tree, the one she bought decades ago at Lord & Taylor and which we set up at our house now each year, meant a lot more to me after that. Maybe because the tree is little, just like Mom’s “Little Christmas.”

Years later, after my first internship at the Shaker Press, Brother Arnold Hadd and I exchanged so many letters. In one of those letters, that winter that followed my internship, he wrote about the Shakers’ Christmas celebration. It included things like “shaking the tree” (for presents) and their tradition of a Swedish smörgåsbord (this, a tradition given to them by Brother Ted, whom I never did meet), and yes, Twelfth Night. The traditional English Twelfth Night was a fun filled party with, no doubt, lots of ale and cider and punch, lots of food, and music, dancing, and games. When I picture a Twelfth Night party in my head, it looks a lot like the Christmas Eve party that Old Fezziwig throws for his employees in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If you can manage some sort of gathering, and it needn’t be large, well, I think you’d be better for it. We are gathering with family and friends on Saturday evening this time around, for a special meal––crown roast of pork––and some games (including the old Yankee Swap gift game). No fiddler and caller, alas, but still: a proper send off to Old Father Christmas if ever there was one.

In Italy on this Eve of the Epiphany, la Befana will make her rounds, and in Spain and Latin America, los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, will be doing the same. All of them will be delivering gifts; they are the last of our Midwinter gift bearers. Their stories are intertwined. Epiphany––a celebration older even than Christmas itself––marks the day the Magi arrived after their long journey, following that star, to see the child born in a barn. They arrived with gifts for the child, and so it is no surprise that they are amongst our Midwinter gift bearers. In Italy, though, the legends get a little more interesting, wrapped up as they are with a kindly old witch. There, it is said that the Magi stopped at la Befana’s and asked her for directions and to join them on their journey. They found her sweeping her floor. “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… but the coal these days is candy and sweet and so even that is not such a bad thing to find in your shoes on Epiphany morning.

I have known lots of 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. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, but you know that they would’ve said no to the Magi, too, just like la Befana herself did at that first Christmas. 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 nature 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, another of our stories told again and again since time immemorial.

January 6: Epiphany, Three Kings Day

On this final day of the Christmas season, we come to a celebration that was recognized by the Church even before Christmas itself. It is the day tradition tells us the Magi reached the stable to visit the child after their journey following the star that guided them to Bethlehem. Seeing the child was their epiphany, and that is the name of this day, too: Epiphany. Why was their day honored even before Christmas was? Probably because Epiphany holds the great symbolism that this news of the savior’s birth was for all people. The Magi are not from Judea. They are from distant lands. By journeying for twelve days and paying homage to the child, the Magi show that the message is universal.

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 attendance 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+24. These are the initials of each of the Three Kings (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. I tell you this each and every 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. 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 the doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And with that, these Twelve Days of Christmas are done. La Befana is back to her sweeping, sweeping Christmas away, too, and we return to ordinary time, back to the workaday world. The poet Robert Herrick reminds us that it is fine and good, too, to keep the Christmas greenery in your home for the rest of the month of January, and this is something we will be doing. But the major part of the celebration is done, and with that, Old Father Christmas makes his way again to find his rest, until we conjure him back to our homes once more as the year grows old, like he himself.


Just a couple days left of our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale at our online shop. Through January 6, find automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers, and chocolates and cookies, too. If there are things you wished for that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!


Image:  Such a fair way to send Father Christmas on his way: “Singing Round the Star on Twelfth Night” by Cornelis Troost. Pastel and brush in gouache on paper, 1740. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.