Category Archives: Yule

Tigers, Bridges, Candles, & Groundhogs

First of February and whoa, there’s a lot going on this time around, isn’t there? These first few days of February are all about transitions: from one seasonal perspective to the next, and this year, in China, from one year to the next. Let’s begin there, where it is already tomorrow and where the new moon has brought the Year of the Water Tiger: it is the start of Chinese Lunar New Year. The preparations began last week with a thorough cleaning of the house. This, to wash away all bad things from the previous year. Now that the celebration’s begun, there is feasting with family and with friends and there are dumplings and all sorts of new year foods, many rich in symbolism: round like the year and the sun that shines above.

Here is how Tiger came to be third of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac: When the Jade Emperor announced that the order of the zodiac animals would be determined by a race and by when they each arrived at his palace, it was pretty much a given that Ox would arrive first thanks to his great strength and the stride of his mighty steps. However, Rat, who was one of the smaller animals, asked Ox for a ride, to which Ox obliged, for Ox was strong and also kind. Rat enjoyed the ride, but Rat was a bit of a trickster, and just as Ox was about to enter the palace, Rat jumped off Ox and entered the palace first. This is why Rat is the first of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, and why Ox is second. Tiger, a natural runner, ran a good race, but there was a river to cross as part of the course, and Tiger lost some momentum there and drifted off course a bit. Tiger was the third to arrive at the Jade Emperor’s palace, ahead of the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. But this year is Tiger’s year, and the element associated with Tiger this year is water. The new year celebration kicks off now and runs for sixteen days, through Lantern Festival, when the full moon returns and the celebration concludes.

While Chinese New Year roves the calendar due to its lunar nature, there are some things that the First of February always brings: St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas Eve, and along with these celebrations of the Church, the older earthbound celebration of Imbolc (upon which the church celebrations are built). Candlemas naturally follows on the Second, and along with it, Groundhog Day. St. Blaise’s Day follows on the Third. Here, then, is your Convivio Book of Days guide to the ceremonies of these days, a guide to the week ahead:

ST. BRIGID’S DAY, IMBOLC
There are four cross quarter days in the year; each is marked by accompanying holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter, and like burrowing animals and trees focusing growth on roots, life was descending below the earth. But today, as February begins, the wheel of the year shifts and we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marking the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure (two feet of snow in Boston this past weekend, and even here in Lake Worth, where summer spends winter, we had lows in the 30s), but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February.

St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of February. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of preparation for renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives. For St. Brigid’s Day, it is traditional to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds (pictured below), as well as to leave an oat cake and butter on a windowsill in your home. This, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and bless all who live there. Brigid is typically depicted holding her cross of rushes in one hand and an illuminated lamp in the other––bridging, again, the themes of light in the darkness of midwinter with the green of approaching spring.

CANDLEMAS, GROUNDHOG DAY
Once the sun sets on St. Brigid’s Day, we enter into Candlemas Eve this first night of February. This is the night that all remaining Yuletide greenery is removed from the home, but it is traditional to keep nativity scenes up through Candlemas, the next day. I know many of you are reading and wondering how we could possibly still have Christmas to take down, but keep in mind that in this house our decorating did not begin in earnest until the days just before Christmas. We gave the Advent season its proper space and time and have done the same with Christmas. And now, forty days have passed since the Midwinter solstice and we are now halfway from there to the vernal equinox in March. While the major festivities and revelry of Christmas in years past traditionally ended with Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas), the spirit of the season remained and lingered and kept folks company for all these forty wintry days. But it was considered bad luck even then to keep these Yuletide things about the house any longer than Candlemas Eve. Our old reliable 17th century Book of Days poet Robert Herrick describes the significance of this night in his poem “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve”:

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.

And so our Christmas tree will be brought outside this first night of February, as we return to nature what is hers. We’ll keep the tree in a quiet corner of the yard––easy to do here, since our yard is a bit of forest––and all the year long it will remind of us of Christmas whenever we by chance brush against it and get a whiff of its balsam fragrance. And when the nights grow long again next December, it will fuel our solstice fire, connecting one Christmas to the next. And tonight, a celebratory bottle of St. Bernardus Christmas Ale will help make the occasion less sad, as we see our old friend Christmas off for another year.

But alas, Old Father Christmas must be on his way to clear the path for what is next, and with Christmas removed (and ill luck kept at bay), we’ll shift perspective on the Second of February to Candlemas, a beautiful celebration in its own rite, and the second step on the bridge to spring that Brigid lays before us. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. 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, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” This is the basis for the blessing of candles on this day, and the day’s lovely name, which is even more beautiful in other languages: la Candelaria in Spanish, la Chandeleur in French. In France, the traditional evening meal for la Chandeleur is crêpes. In Mexico, la Candelaria is a night for tamales and hot chocolate. In Puno, Peru, the Candelaria celebration is typically so big, it rivals that of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. But for most, Candlemas is a quiet celebration, at home. The darkness of the darkest nights of Midwinter closely lingers, but the light of Candlemas is a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. And my favorite song for the day is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Is it a carol for Candlemas? Who knows. Certainly the words echo those of Simeon the Elder in the temple, so for me, I say it is.

Most famously, perhaps, Candlemas is known as an old weather marker. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. The tradition of Candlemas as weather marker is particularly strong in Germany. And while Candlemas itself is not celebrated with any great gusto here in the States, this remnant of tradition remains in our yearly observation on the Second of February of Groundhog Day, in which the observations of an old groundhog in Pennsylvania (where many Germans settled) determine how much longer winter will last. Did old Candlemas weather lore influence the traditions that revolve around Punxsutawney Phil? Of this we can be pretty certain.

ST. BLAISE’S DAY
Finally, to close out this luminous chapter, the Third of February will bring St. Blaise’s Day, and the traditions for St. Blaise’s Day, it would seem, come directly out of having all those candles about on Candlemas. For ailments of the throat, we pray to St. Blaise… and on his feast day, it is not uncommon to go to church to have the priest bless your throat by holding two candles, crossed into an X shape, with your throat in the crook of the candles, as he says a blessing over your head. It’s one of those mystical ceremonies that seems almost over the top even to us Catholics.

St. Blaise is fondly remembered in my family, for St. Blaise was the name of the church my grandparents attended, up the hill from their home in Brooklyn. In England and Scotland, it was once customary to light bonfires on the eve of St. Blaise, which would be the night of Candlemas, and perhaps there is some connection to be made between Blaise and blaze. It is a day also important to wool carders (a matter having to do with St. Blaise’s martyrdom), as well as to spinners and dyers.

What is most apparent across these few days and nights upon the bridge that delivers us from winter to spring is the significance of light, be it in candle or bonfire or in song or even in those crêpes, whose golden round shape call to mind the image of the shining sun. Hide not your light, then. Be a light to the world. And rest assured that spring is on its way.

YOUR FEBRUARY BOOK of DAYS CALENDAR
This month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar awaits! It’s our monthly gift to you, a PDF document printable on standard US Letter size paper. You’ll find the calendar a fine companion to this blog; click here to get it. Enjoy!

SHOP OUR VALENTINE SALE!
Spend $75 across our catalog and take $10 off, plus get free domestic shipping, when you enter discount code LOVEHANDMADE at checkout. That’s a total savings of nearly 20 bucks. Click here to start shopping. We’ve got some wonderful new handmade artisan goods from Mexico (hand embroidered hearts, punched tin, Frida mirrors and crosses), new flour sack tea towels (some hand-embroidered by my mom and screen printed by the folks at Kei & Molly Textiles in New Mexico) and some brand new additions from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers, too (the most intoxicating potpourri, a recipe from 1858), to surprise your sweetheart and delight your darlin’. I think you’ll love what we’ve got in store at conviviobookworks.com… and your purchases translate into real support for real families, small companies, and artisans we know by name.

JOIN US FRIDAY via ZOOM
We gather each and every Friday afternoon (unless unforeseen circumstances pop up) for a virtual social on Zoom called Real Mail Fridays. It’s part of my work at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, and it’s become the most heartwarming thing. You’re welcome to join us, too. 2 to 5 PM Eastern; come and go as you please. This week we’re celebrating the Year of the Tiger with music to calm the emotions (An Dun) and to invigorate the spirit (Sheng Hua). We are a small and loyal group and new folks join in all the time from all over the US, plus Canada, Finland, and most recently, Macedonia. It’s supremely heartwarming. Join us through the link you’ll find here.

 

The Twelve Days of Christmas

My Aunt Mary, who was my dad’s older sister and who beamed love and light into the world wherever she walked, was also famous for often saying the words, “I feel so bad,” words that prefaced any number of things she felt badly about, even things completely out of her control. I feel so bad your car needs new tires. I feel so bad you’ve got a stomach bug. I feel so bad you didn’t have time to make Christmas cookies––here, I’ve made some for you.

I’ve been thinking about Aunt Mary because it is Christmas, when I think of all who have come and gone and left their mark on my world, but also because I feel so bad for not giving you this year a proper chapter on this Book of Days blog for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I was tired, I was a bit overwhelmed, and then Christmas Eve came, and that was beautiful, and then things went awry and here we are at the Second Day of Christmas now and my family has yet to have Christmas Dinner or open presents or any of the other things we typically do on Christmas Day. Mom landed in the ER that morning, and my sister and I spent Christmas Day on various park benches and picnic tables outside the ER. Breakfast that day wasn’t until about 3 in the afternoon, found at a local, rather shady Dunkin’ Donuts. The coffee was good but the egg sandwiches tasted faintly of Pinesol. Mom finally got to a room on Christmas Night, and my sister was able to visit her, but now the hospital is on lockdown again so no more visitors are allowed. The best news is that Mom is feeling better and she is much improved and we hope she’ll be home again in a few days. When she is home again, we will gather for a proper Christmas dinner and presents and Christmas Day, belated. Mom’s cousin in Milano, Romeo, tells us that in Italy, “Si dice che il Natale si festeggia quando uno vuole”––They say that Christmas is celebrated when one wants. We are taking the Italian approach this year. The important thing is Mom is fine and well and will be home soon. Who could ask for a better Christmas Day than that?

Meantime, let me give you the most basic of guidance for the traditions of these Twelve Days of Christmas that began yesterday with St. Stephan’s Day. I mentioned in my previous post that there are two ways of calculating these Twelve Days. The approach we follow is the one that places six days in the old year and six in the new. It is probably one day off from most church-oriented calculations, but I would argue it is a more traditional and older approach. If you’d like to follow along on this journey, we bid you most welcome. By all means, celebrate Christmas when you want. My joy is simply that you join us in marking the days and celebrating, in whatever way that means to you.

Here then, is my Convivio Quick Guide to the Twelve Days: Christmas Day, December 25, is a day outside ordinary time. It stands alone in its holiness, a holyday/holiday if ever there was one. December 26 brings the First Day of Christmas: it is St. Stephen’s Day, and Boxing Day. We typically make soup for St. Stephen’s Day, a pause for lighter fare after the rich feasts of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (I am making my St. Stephen’s Day soup for tonight’s supper, a bit late again). The 26th also brings the start of a newer tradition, the First Day of Kwanzaa, which brings yet more light to the world through candles: each candle and each day, through the First of January, focusing on one of seven principles: first, umoja (unity); then kujichagulia (self-determination); next, ujima (collective work and responsibility); followed by ujamaa (cooperative economics); and then nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and finally imani (faith). The Second Day of Christmas, December 27, is St. John’s Day, and it is typically celebrated with wine. St. John the Evangelist was the only one of Christ’s disciples who did not meet a violent end for his beliefs. Several attempts were made on his life, though, the most famous of which involved poisoned wine, which had no effect on the man. And so his day is a good one for one of the loveliest drinks of the Yuletide season, mulled wine. Here’s our recipe:

M U L L E D   W I N E
A bottle of good red wine
Mulling spices (a blend of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, orange peel)
Sugar

Pour a quantity (enough for as many people as you are serving) of good red wine into a stainless steel pot and set it on the stove over medium heat. Add about a teaspoon of mulling spices for each serving (we sell some wonderful mulling spices at the Convivio Bookworks website that are from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine… they call it Mulled Cider Mix but it’s just as good in wine). Add sugar: start with a teaspoon or two of sugar and add more to taste. We prefer a less-sweet mulled wine, and while you can always add more sugar, you can’t take it away once it’s in. So my recommendation is to add the sugar gradually, tasting as you go. Heat to allow the spicy flavors to infuse the wine, but do not allow to boil. Strain before serving in cups (not glasses).

The Third Day of Christmas on December 28 brings Childremas, or Holy Innocents’ Day. It marks a dark day in history but I prefer to mark it with celebrating children and the children we once were. Play with kids, read children’s books. In Spain and Latin America, it’s a day for practical jokes. December 29 brings the Fourth Day of Christmas and the Feast of Fools, so make it as goofy a day as you’d like. My favorite thing to do this day? Watch Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: it’s brilliant! There are no particular traditions associated with the Fifth Day of Christmas on December 30, but we have long reserved it as one for honoring the old Boar’s Head Carol and for feasting (feasting being a common theme for all the Twelve Days)… and whatever we serve this night, whether it be something elaborate or something simple, we do it with great fanfare. December 31 is of course New Year’s Eve and this is the focus for the Sixth Day of Christmas, as we say farewell to the old year and usher in the new. The Seventh Day of Christmas brings New Year’s Day, and it is traditional to sing and toast the apple trees. The act is called wassailing and the drink is wassail, as well. Get outside, honor your favorite tree, apple or not, give it a toast. Here’s our Wassail recipe:

C O N V I V I O   W A S S A I L
Pour the contents of two large bottles of beer or ale (about 4 pints) into a pot and place it on the stove to heat slowly. Add about a half cup sugar and a healthy dose of mulling spices. (If you don’t have mulling spices on hand, you can use cinnamon sticks and whole cloves… though the mulling spices lend a more complex flavor.) Add a half pint each of orange juice and pineapple juice, as well as the juice of a large lemon. Peel and slice two apples and place the apple slices into the pot, too. Heat the brew but don’t let it boil, then pour the heated wassail into a punchbowl to serve.

The Second of January brings the Eighth Day of Christmas, which is St. Macarius’s Day. Macarius was a dour old chap but in his younger days he operated a confectionary in Alexandria. Between that and the fact that his name is so close to two different delicious confections, it is a day some call St. Macaroon’s Day. It is known as a day to enjoy sweets. We celebrate St. Genevieve on the Third of January, the Ninth Day of Christmas. She is a patron saint of Paris, founder there in 475 of Saint-Denys de la Chapelle, which stands today as part of the Basilica of St. Denis. Another of the saints we celebrate this dark time of year that is associated with light, Genevieve’s was a light that never went out. It is said that even as the devil would attempt to interrupt her prayers by blowing out her candle, Genevieve had the power to relight it without use of flint nor fire. She just willed it to happen. Talk about a light bearer. This Ninth Day is one to celebrate with candles and is a very good day for Francophiles to be in their element. Perhaps your evening meal should be French. The Tenth Day of Christmas on January 4 has little going on, traditionally speaking. I think of it as a good day for reflection, and for preparation for Twelfth Night, which comes on the evening of January 5, the Eleventh Day of Christmas. This is traditionally a cracking good party, a proper send off for Yule and old Father Christmas. In the overnight hours, la Befana, one of the last of the midwinter gift bearers, will make her way through Italy on a broom bringing small presents to good children and delicious sweet coal to naughty ones––so it’s hard to choose which is better. We Italians like to keep things ambiguous. In Spain and Latin America, los Tres Reyes will be delivering presents. The stories of la Befana and los Tres Reyes are intertwined… the three kings stopped at la Befana’s on their way to visit the Christ child and invited her along, but she, like most Italian women I know, had far too much to do, so she declined their invitation, and then later had misgivings about that decision. Still to this day she searches for the child each Epiphany Eve.

January 6 brings Epiphany and the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is traditionally seen as the day the Magi arrived at the stable to see the child and to bring gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Our tradition in this house is one we witnessed remnants of far and wide on our travels a few years back in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany: We gather together outside our front door, and all who are gathered take turns writing the elements of an inscription in chalk on the lintel above the door. The inscription is comprised of the initials of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), blanketed on each side by the year, punctuated with crosses: this time around then, it will be 20+C+M+B+22. 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. With this, we find ourselves on the other side of the balanced bridge that brought us from one year to the next through the portal of Christmas.

May these Twelve Days bring only joy your way. I bid you this, and I bid you peace. Merry Christmas.

Image: Twelve Days of Christmas. Unknown artist, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Tagged

Solstice of Midwinter

Our Northern Hemisphere nights have grown increasingly longer each night since the Solstice of Midsummer in June, six months ago. Back then the days were long and night was swift and fleeting, barely long enough for a midsummer night’s dream to take hold and manifest. But balance is key to this old earth and now, the opposite is true. I have a new friend in Anchorage who told me, at the beginning of December, that the sun there was rising around 9 in the morning and setting around 3 in the afternoon. She showed me the landscape outside her window: snow, everywhere. It was beautiful. Since then, the nights have grown even longer, and the sun has sunk even closer to the horizon, and it is even snowier, as snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.

This is the bleak midwinter Christina Rossetti wrote about in her song, which still we sing each Christmas in dark, candlelit churches. Bleak in some ways, so achingly beautiful in others. And come Tuesday, we reach the moment when the sun sinks as far south as it will on the horizon. It will appear, to those who watch these things closely, to stand still for a few days as the sinking ceases and reverses course, and there you have a rough translation of the word solstice: sun stand still. In the grand celestial mechanics of the event, though, the sun is a constant; it is our planet, tilted as it is on its axis at about 23.5 degrees, that causes the sun to appear to track lower each day on the approach to solstice. As we spend our year revolving around the sun, the pole that is tilted toward the sun experiences spring and summer, the pole that is tilted away experiences autumn and winter. It is that simple, yet that sublime. Nothing stays the same, and yet nothing really changes. That is the paradox of our round of the year, and that is the paradox of a tilted axis, too. It is sublime, and divine, and it is the beauty of physics and science. How wonderful (how completely filled with wonder) is that?

The solstice moment this time around is Tuesday December 21 at 10:59 AM here in Lake Worth, which is Eastern Standard Time. If you care to mark the moment, calculate from there. To be sure, there are subtle variations of time within each time zone, but I am more of a roundabout kind of guy and prefer to take a roundabout approach. A simple pause at 10:59 AM Eastern is, I feel, a suitable acknowledgment. And then later, under cover of night, Seth and I will build a fire in the copper fire bowl in the backyard. The fire will be fueled by what is left of last year’s Christmas tree. It’s been sitting in a corner of the yard, beneath the mango tree all this year, drying and seasoning, smelling for all the world sometimes like Christmas, which is not so unwelcome in the heat of July as you happen to brush up against it. It’s served as a shelter, a place for small birds to light upon and rest for a moment, and now, its branches bare of fir needles, it will illuminate our longest, darkest night and bring warmth to body and soul, accompanied by some strong Christmas ale or a cup of mulled wine, and our hearty toast: Wassail! Be of good cheer! Welcome Yule!

Out of these darkest nights come some of our deepest joys: all of the celebrations of Midwinter that have come to pass and that are on the horizon. The feasts of St. Nicholas, of Santa Lucia, and of Our Lady of Guadalupe; the eight nights of Chanukah; the ever increasing light of Advent, and still ahead, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow. These are days and nights of adding our light to the sum of light, of understanding that joy comes out of our countering what is dark with light. When I speak of celebrating a Slow Christmas, this is what I’m really talking about: taking things slow and taking it all in. Being present to the inevitably increasing darkness, acknowledging the need within to combat it with more and more light before we dive headlong into joy. No matter if your celebration is a religious or secular one, the joy of Christmas is a bit meaningless without this. Are you ready for the story to begin again?

Well then. Here we go: It is the same story that never grows old, as this old earth heaves and sighs and spins on its axis, its own beautiful mystery. It matters not so much who or what set it all in motion; it just is, and we acknowledge this, we take it as a blessing, we send the warmth and love in our hearts out upon its vast rotation and all the people and animals and trees that live upon it, and out unto all the mysterious celestial mechanics that create our existence. For this moment, the troubles of our small planet get to feel insignificant, as we tune into the vastness of all that is and ever was and still will be.

Image: “Midwinter Moonlight” by Régis François Gignoux. Oil on canvas, circa mid 19th century [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.