Category Archives: Yule

Round the Star

ELEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Twelfth Night used to be a really big deal, a celebration rivaling that of Christmas Day. Ever the champion of the underdog, I am here today to champion Twelfth Night, too. If you are inclined to 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 feeling kind of down after Christmas Day had passed, and she 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, I think) and their tradition of a Swedish smörgåsbord (this, a tradition handed them by Brother Ted, who I never did meet), and yes, Twelfth Night. There is some confusion about when Twelfth Night actually falls, but I trust the Shakers on this. They celebrate on the evening of the this day, the Eleventh Day of Christmas. I think the confusion comes out of the way we reckon our days now as opposed to the way our ancestors reckoned theirs. Traditionally, the start of a new day begins at sundown. This is why so many evenings before holidays are so important. Think of Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows) or Christmas Eve. There is a scene in The Bishop’s Wife where Cary Grant’s character convinces Mildred, the bishop’s secretary, to leave work and let him take care of typing the bishop’s sermon. “It’s almost Christmas Eve,” he tells Mildred. “You must have shopping to do.” It’s the afternoon of the 24th when he tells her this. Even then, just 70 years ago when this film was made, there was a general understanding that Christmas Eve began once the sun went down and that was the ushering in of Christmas. As for Twelfth Night, the Shakers believe (as do I) that Twelfth Night ushers in the Twelfth Day of Christmas. As such, it begins with the setting sun on the 5th of January. Twelfth Night has, as well, another name: Eve of the Epiphany.

So 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 party that Old Fezziwig throws for his employees in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is, alas, not much celebrated here in the States. Inspired by our Shaker friends, though, we’ve hosted a few Twelfth Night dinners in the past. That, I think, is a good start.

In Italy, la Befana will make her rounds tonight, and in 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 the 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 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.

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, the story told again and again.

Closer to home, it’s not been the happiest Christmas for us, after losing my dad in February. I’d say all of us in my family are all doing well, but we are all aware, too, that Dad is missing and there have been a few days this season where I’ve been plain sad and melancholy. There is another tradition for Twelfth Night, in which the Yuletide decorations are taken down. This, too, makes me a little melancholy. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a bit in love with Christmas. There is much about our celebration these days that is grating and irksome, but Seth and I, we do a very good job of keeping these things at bay, leaving to the best of our abilities only what is pure and essential. And so Christmas is in this little home a truly extraordinary time––a time outside ordinary time––and it does make us sad to see it go. Many years, and this may very well be one of them, we follow another, even older tradition: the idea that Christmas and Yuletide run all the way to Candlemas Eve, the First of February. This is an idea that is more aligned with the planet’s natural rhythm, for with Candlemas we reach the next cross-quarter day after the Midwinter Solstice. With it, the earth shifts toward spring for winter is then beginning to wane: astronomically, we’ll be, at that point, halfway between the solstice and the spring equinox. Our ancestors enjoyed their Yuletide greenery all the way to Candlemas but not beyond… keeping it in the house any later than the First of February was an invitation for bad luck.

If you are celebrating Twelfth Night, or if you have memories of celebrating in days past, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below. I hope you are. It is our chance to send Old Father Christmas on his way in style. He deserves as much as that, no?

 

Image: Christmas pyramids from Germany’s Erzgebirge region can be quite elaborate, but ours is a simple one, featuring three carolers, one of them holding a traditional caroling star. Singing round the star was a common Twelfth Night practice though Northern Europe centuries ago. I hope it still is.

 

Almost Christmas

So much hustle and hubbub for so long––weeks, months––and then Christmas Eve comes and with it, a wash of calm. It is the calm of reality: what is not yet done is probably not going to get done, and there is a certain beauty to that. We accept our humanity and the fact that we are not perfect and we understand that all is well, no matter what is done or not done. Once again, it is Christmas.

Beyond Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the twelve days of the year that complete Christmastide. They are days that stand traditionally outside ordinary time; six days in the old year, six days in the new. Here in this house, we know these as days filled with music and warmth, days when we can make our Christmas greetings and send them out to the world, days when we can bake once-a-year treats, days when we can read books and watch Christmas movies, days that evolve into nights when we can celebrate with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts and visit with family and friends. They are days that help me appreciate all we have, days when we count our blessings, and know that they are abundant.

The books I’ll be reading are most likely going to be old and most likely about Christmas. There is a long tradition of the Christmas ghost story––think of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol and all the spirits that appear in that tale. My mom and sister confided in Seth and me just tonight, in slow, hushed voices, that our great niece Joy––my sister’s little 3-year old granddaughter and my mom’s great-granddaughter––was in my old room at my family’s home with her mom just the other day and quietly announced to her mom that, “Oh, there’s Pop.” Pop, her name for my dad, her buddy. She loved him something crazy and if she can see him looking after her, well, who are we to discredit what she sees? Kids seem to be better connected to possibilities than adults. The ancient Celts thought of all these spokes in the wheel of the year––Midwinter the one we’re at now––as times when the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world was more easily crossed.

I like to think of myself as open to these things, and so the story did not surprise me, but rather made me smile. I’ve felt Dad’s presence myself, and if he’s watching over me, certainly he’s watching over his little great-granddaughter, too. And certainly at Christmastime. It is part of the magic of this night and of this season. The nights are at their longest and darkest. The lights we illuminate, candles and electric bulbs alike, pierce the darkness, call down the light. The music and foods, carried down through the centuries, connect us to the past and the future. The stories, especially that of the child born in a barn amongst the animals on a cold winter’s night, are bridges, as well. We gather those we love and pull them close, as close as we can. We laugh, we cry, we sing, we pray. We bask in the glowing radiance of the light piercing the powerful darkness. If we allow the spirit to carry us, nothing, when we get right down to it, feels like these days feel. I’ll be with you, if I can muster the energy each day (and I think I can), through all Twelve Days of Christmas, writing about each of them. “You’ll be visited by three spirits,” Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge, but I guess in my version of the story, you’ll be visited by twelve. I pray you’ll make me welcome, much like Father Christmas himself, who comes each year, welcome or welcome not. But for now, to all of you: A very merry Christmas.

The advent candles are almost burnt down. On Sunday morning, we light three purple candles and one rose. By evening, though, it will already be Christmas Eve. And our daily advent candle, burning for a few hours each night, is ready soon to announce Christmas’ arrival.

 

Darkest Night, Deepest Joy

Ask a child to draw our spherical planet on a piece of paper or on a chalkboard and most likely what they’ll draw is a circle. How perfect is the circle? No beginning, no end. The shape that best describes our seasonal round. The seasons, a result of our planet’s tilt on its axis. Scientific evidence suggests that some four and a half billion years ago an object the size of Mars collided with our planet. This incredible, explosive impact resulted in a huge chunk of the Earth spinning off into space, becoming the satellite we call the Moon. The collision also knocked our planet dramatically off kilter, causing the Earth to orbit the sun on a slant. It is that slant––about 23.5 degrees––that creates our seasons.

And at this particular juncture tomorrow on the 21st of December––the Midwinter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere––the North Pole is tilted the farthest from the sun as it will get. It is our hemisphere’s longest night. The South Pole is tilted the closest to the sun as it will get, creating for the Southern Hemisphere the longest day. There, it is the Midsummer Solstice.

The precise moment of this event this year is at 11:28 AM Eastern Standard Time on December 21. If you are one who watches the travels of the sun in the sky, it will appear for a few days like the sun is standing still, getting no lower or higher, and this is the source of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” In reality, things are slowly shifting. Already tomorrow the days in our Northern Hemisphere will begin to increase in length proportionately with their decrease in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the constant sway back and forth, the constant exchange between hemispheres… the explanation behind our seasonal round that helps us count our days and years and gives us grounding as humans on Planet Earth.

The changing seasons, subtle as the change is here in Lake Worth, have fascinated me since I can remember. This great mechanical clockwork fascinates me, too. And so on the 21st in our particular spot on this amazing spinning planet––26.6168º North, 80.0684º West––Seth and I will light a fire to mark the solstice night. Seth will build the fire in the copper fire bowl in the back yard, fueled by the remnants of our Christmas tree from last year, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, 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 Yule.

Image: The particular beauty of the science of the Winter Solstice, depicted in a chart created by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz. It is the Illumination of Earth by Sun on the Day of Winter Solstice on Northern Hemisphere [CC 2005 via Wikimedia Commons]. By the time the Earth progresses another six months on its annual journey around the sun, the sun will be illuminating the North Pole and the South will be experiencing darkness; that will be Midsummer Solstice in the North. Back and forth again and again… the subtle daily shift, the constant rearrange.

 

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