Category Archives: Yule

Faith & Hope & Sweet Release

TWELFTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Epiphany

I have always, since I can remember, been fascinated with the foil that is wrapped around chocolates. The process is always the same: I unwrap the chocolate, pop it in my mouth, and while I’m eating it, I take the foil wrapping and smooth it out with my fingertips against the table or any smooth surface I happen to be near. I like watching the foil transform from crinkled to smooth. Sometimes I save the smoothed-out foils. Sometimes I use them in projects, like the cover for the Christmas mixtape I recorded for Seth after I first met him, back in December of 1995. I miss mixtapes for many reasons… not the least of which is the artwork I’d get to do on the covers. A star of foil seemed just right for this tape that went to Seth and to a few other select friends I was missing that Christmas over 20 years ago.

The star is central to Christmas and to the journey of the Magi. As such, it is central to Epiphany, the celebration of this Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is traditionally considered the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. And with Epiphany, our Christmas celebration comes to a close. The Magi, those three old men, have traversed the desert, following that star, and they have arrived at the stable to bring gifts to the child. La befana, the kind Italian witch, has made her rounds, too. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. And now, on Epiphany, she resumes her sweeping, and sweeps Christmas away for another year.

Tradition would have us remove all the Christmas greenery today. But if you are not yet ready to part with your tree or other decorations, we can offer you another older tradition to follow, for some would consider Christmas to last until the First of February, which is Candlemas Eve. There is some strong basis for this in the Pagan tradition, as it is on the First of February that Yule gives way to Imbolc in the wheel of the seasonal round: it is a cross-quarter day, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

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 the home 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+17. These are the initials of each of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the 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. All the year through, though Christmas be gone, still the inscription is there to remind 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 so we follow that star. May it always be in our sights and in our hearts and in our dealings with our fellow companions on this old earth. And one last time this year, we say unto you: “Merry Christmas.”

 

I called that 1995 mixtape “Faith & Hope & Sweet Release.” There was so much new and wonderful music that year: “Now it is Christmas Eve” from Garrison Keillor, “By the Fireside” from Turtle Island String Quartet, and an original song for Christmas by Jane Siberry whose lyrics lent the mixtape its title. Our old pick up truck has a cassette player and we still listen to that mixtape each Christmas. It never grows old.

 

Brightest and Best

Some folks open their advent calendar windows in the morning, but we are more of a nighttime household; we like to hold the open window up to a light source in the darkness in order to illuminate the scene within. And tonight, in these wee small hours of Christmas Eve becoming Christmas Day, now that all the company has left, my mom and dad, my sister, my nephews, their wives and their kids… it is again just Seth and me and Haden the cat, here next to me atop a basket beside the Christmas tree. We opened tonight’s advent calendar window––the last of them, now that Christmas is here. The scene is lovely, as is the night.

This time each Christmas Eve, these moments when most of the folks around me are tucked into bed, are each year some of my favorite. Wishes abound this time of year for peace and for joy… and these are the moments when they seem most tangible. It is quiet and the darkness is, as Dylan Thomas wrote, close and holy. The lights we use to illuminate the midwinter night pierce the darkness with warmth. It may have been a month or more of madness leading up to this moment, but now that Christmas is here, there is not much left to do but enjoy its presence.

The nights now are their darkest but our hearts are open and our celebrations all focus on bringing light to that darkness. Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, all involve candles, all call down the light, all invite us to be a light ourselves, a light in the darkness. And this I wish for you: that you be a light, that you encourage that light in others. Pure and simple.

If I have it in me, and I think I do, I’ll be writing again this year about each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Just as there is more than one way of reckoning time, there is, as well, more than one way of reckoning these Twelve Days. We subscribe to the notion that Christmas is a season outside ordinary time beginning with Christmas Eve, blossoming into Christmas Day, which then moves into the Twelve Days of Christmas, half of which are in the old year, half in the new. Christmas is just beginning. Sit a spell with us, here in this close and holy darkness, and enjoy it. Merry Christmas.

 

Darkest Night

And once again the solstice is upon us: winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. We here in Lake Worth are in the Northern, where the nights have been growing longer and longer since our summer solstice in June. Each day a bit more daylight has been shaved off our allotment, and sent to the opposite hemisphere. The great mechanical balance of this, all its immensity: so beautiful, so constant. I am reassured always by this. No matter what is going on in our lives––all our triumphs and our hardships, too––no matter what we do to each other, or how we disrespect this planet we live upon, still it rocks back and forth, still this motion continues. This shifting of the Earth in its cosmic rocking chair is what creates our seasons. It goes on with or without us, as it has since it began and will until it ends.

Here in the North it is the start of winter by the almanac. By traditional reckoning of time, though, winter began with Halloween and with the Days of the Dead and we find ourselves now at the height of winter, it’s midpoint: This is old Midwinter. This is why, in so many churches and in so many homes this time of year, we sing a beautiful old song called “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

The moment of solstice, for those of you who like precision, is 5:44 AM on December 21 here in Lake Worth, which is Eastern Standard Time. The Eastern Time Zone is pretty large, though, and there are ways of determining the solstice moment––of “sun standing still”––with even greater precision should you wish it. In this house, we take a more roundabout approach. Plus 5:44 in the morning is an admittedly odd time of day to celebrate anything. So we will save our celebration for the night of the 21st, with a ceremony small and simple. We’ve been saving last year’s Christmas tree in a corner of the yard all year. It’s been there since we brought it out after Twelfth Night last year, after the Christmastide festivities came to a close. It’s been drying since then, as the days grew longer through spring and summer, and still as the days grew shorter again through fall and the start of winter. Every now and again throughout this past year, we would be blessed with a whiff of pine, a reminder of Christmas, as we passed by or worked near the old tree. That scent an instant portal to memory. On solstice night, we will use wood from that tree to fuel our midwinter fire. For us, it will be in the copper fire bowl outside in the back yard.

Perhaps you, too, have been following our ways and saving your old Christmas tree each year for this purpose. I like to sit there by the fire and imagine our sparks and woodsmoke rising into the air to meet yours, carrying all our wishes and blessings. But maybe you don’t have your old tree, or perhaps you live in a place where a fire is just not possible. Or maybe you simply don’t have it in you to build a fire. It’s okay. My suggestion always is to simply light a candle to mark the night and to take in its blessings. Light it for just a few minutes and then put it out, if you wish. And if you can’t do that, even if you illuminate a lightbulb somewhere and do it in a spirit of connexion with the mechanical clockwork of our immense planet, that, too, is a wonderful thing. Part of the Convivio approach is to not fret over things but to find ceremony where we can. This is what we mean by “the ceremony of a day,” and what better time to put that into practice than this, the shortest day, the longest, darkest night?

 

Image: “Earth at Night.” Released by NASA December 5, 2012, this photo was assembled from multiple shots taken by the Suomi NPP satellite during April and October 2012. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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