Tag Archives: Christmas

Shine All Around Us by Day and by Night


It’s the Second of February: Groundhog Day in the United States. It’s a day that every school kid knows, which is impressive for a traditional weather marker day, for there are scores of traditional weather marker days throughout the year… but this is the one that has endured. It all centers on one groundhog in a town in Pennsylvania, and it relates to the story of Imbolc that began yesterday, for there begins the underground stirrings of this old Earth, awakening from long dark winter. As the earth awakens, so does Punxsutawney Phil. Should he emerge from his underground burrow this morning to see his shadow, it will mean forty days more of winter. No shadow? An early spring. This relates to centuries-old weather lore for this day, like this:

If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day,
The half of the winter’s not yet away.

Today, at Candlemas, churches will be blessing the candles they will use the year long. But at home there are traditions we can follow that are more akin to the central core of this time of year, with its focus on the coming of spring. Spring comes because the sun is returning––we have reached, in the Northern Hemisphere, the halfway point between the darkness of the winter solstice and the balance of the spring equinox. One of the easiest and most enjoyable customs for Candlemas is this: At sunset, we light every lamp in the house. And hey, I know we’re busy people… so if it’s well after sunset before your whole family is gathered in the house, then so be it, do it then. There is something fun and wacky and maybe even a little decadent about doing this, though, and so we run around the house turning on every light, lighting every candle, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And in this simple act, you’ve connected to a custom that goes back through the ages.

Dinner, if you want to continue following old customs, might be crepes, which is a European tradition. In Mexico, tamales and hot chocolate are customary. (Hot chocolate with dinner? That’s pretty decadent, too.) The point is, no matter what, to celebrate the fact that light is returning, for it is: once we pass that point of equinox in March, daylight will begin taking over night once again.

Candlemas begins as the day that Mary went to the temple for the rite of purification, which is a Jewish custom: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. And so here we are, forty days past Christmas. Tonight is the night to take down the Christmas decorations, should you still have them up. And so we pack up what is left, save it for next midwinter, and we return the Christmas greenery to nature, returning the gifts we borrowed for the Yuletide season. Leaving things longer than tonight invites bad luck (and also puts us out of step with the seasonal round of the year).

But we rarely leave one holiday completely as we jump to the next; usually they are connected, like steps along a footbridge. Yesterday St. Brigid bridged us from winter to spring, and so today with Candlemas we find ourselves at the opposite side of a bridge that began with Christmas. Mary went to the temple carrying her infant son forty days after his birth and it was there at the temple that she met the elders Anna and Simeon. The elders, wise and all-seeing, recognized the child immediately as the light of the world. This is the story 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.

As for Punxsutawney Phil, this morning he did not see his shadow. Spring will come early, they say.


Image: “Alte Frau mit Knaben bei Kerzenlicht” (Old Woman with Boys by Candlelight), attributed to Johann Georg Trautmann. Oil on wood, 17th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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“Welcome Back, my Dear Friend. Welcome Back the Sun.”


Perhaps you heard the National Public Radio story not long ago about Ittoqqortoormiit, a small town in Greenland, experiencing its first sunrise in 58 days. That was on January 20th and daylight there that day, after 58 days of continuous darkness, lasted for 1 hour, 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Here we are today at the First of February, and already daylight in Ittoqqortoormiit has increased to nearly 4 hours and 35 minutes. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in 12 days, but this is life at the Arctic Circle: a bit more extreme than the temperate world. What is tremendously apparent in Ittoqqortoormiit these days is that winter is waning: spring is on its way.

Most of us do not live in the Arctic Circle, however, and as we head further south toward the equator, the shift in hours of daylight and the shift toward spring is less apparent and less dramatic. But rest assured it is happening. The Earth continues to shift in its seat and the wheel of the year remains in constant motion. Today, the First of February, we reach another spoke in that wheel: we are now about halfway between the Midwinter Solstice of December and the Spring Equinox of March, and tonight brings Imbolc, a holiday of the Celtic calendar.

The red letter days that mark this time are varied and fascinating. There is Candlemas tomorrow, and also Groundhog Day. Of the two, most Americans are at least familiar with the latter, while Candlemas is one that many have never heard of. There is an old, old tradition that has Christmastime ending at Candlemas, and for those who follow these old ways, Candlemas is the day that the Christmas greenery must come down. To have the Yuletide decorations up longer than Candlemas is to risk bringing bad luck upon the home.

But Candlemas and Groundhog Day are tomorrow. Now it is Imbolc––the start of spring by traditional reckoning of time in the Northern Hemisphere––and it is St. Brigid’s Day. Both are sacred to Ireland: Imbolc goes back to the country’s Celtic roots, and St. Brigid’s Day is second in stature in Ireland only to St. Patrick’s Day. At this cross quarter day, this midpoint between solstice and equinox, we are at the very start of springtime. It’s a bit perplexing and yet highly sensible when you sit and ponder it, and perhaps it helps if we think of the spring season and compare it to one lunar cycle. At this halfway point between solstice and equinox, you might think of this start of spring as the time of the new moon, a faint sliver of moon emerging out of the dark of night. Reaching the equinox in March is like the full moon… the height of spring. And as we head past the equinox and toward the next cross quarter day in May (Beltane), with spring drawing to a close and passing away to summer, it is like the waning moon.

All of these things we celebrate these two days are related. Imbolc is the old celebration of the return of spring. With Imbolc, the earth goddess, ever changing, shifts once again from the old crone of winter to the young maiden of spring. The word is derived from the Gaelic oimelc (ewe’s milk) for as the milk begins to flow for newborn lambs at this time of year, so soon will frozen streams and rivers begin to melt and flow, and so soon will green––and warmth––return. The Church early on christianized the goddess and gave the day to St. Brigid (or Brigit, your choice, though Brigid, with its Celtic pronunciation (brigg-id or bree-id) is more proper). Brigid, a bridge from winter to spring. The night of St. Brigid’s Day brings Candlemas Eve. Candlemas is the day of blessing candles in the Church, forty days past Christmas. It is also known as Purification Day, which comes out of an old Jewish tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. And so the story goes that forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary went to the temple to be purified. You might think of it as renewal. Which brings us back again to the renewal of the goddess and Imbolc.

As for Groundhog Day, it is just one of many traditions that come out of Candlemas as a day for forecasting the weather. In our home, Candlemas will be the day we ceremoniously haul out the Christmas tree. We don’t typically leave it up this long, but our tree this year has been so beautiful, and it has been drinking water all this time, and Haden the Convivio Shop Cat has loved sleeping under it and running under its lower branches. The tree has, in its way, been instructing us to follow the old ways and so this year we have. Tomorrow night, though, we will bring it out and set it in its quiet corner of the garden where it will sit and rest until next winter solstice, when it will fuel our fire to once again drive the cold winter away and bring light to the darkness. Therein lies some powerful magic.

But now, light is returning. It is traditional for St. Brigid’s Day to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds, 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. And so we welcome Brigid, and so we welcome spring, and so we welcome back the sun, we welcome back our dear friend.


Image:  Detail from “Polarlichter I,” a chromolithograph of the Northern Lights from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 6th ed., vol. 16, circa 1908. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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Plough Monday & Copperman’s Day

Plough to Oven

Last week, St. Distaff’s Day signaled back to the workaday world for the women, and with the arrival of the Monday after Epiphany we have the official back-to-work-after-Yuletide day for the men: this is Plough Monday. There is a ceremonial ploughing of the ground on this day, which very often, in days of dirt roads, would be in the very road that ran through the village. The ploughs would be 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.

When it comes to the 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. The sun is gaining strength by then, with considerably more daylight on the 2nd of February than there was on the 21st of December.

There is another old tradition in Holland on 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.

We’ve been working at reviving this fine tradition and for the past few years have been creating a Copperman’s Day print. To date, they’ve all been mini-prints, the size of a standard postcard, printed letterpress by hand from historic wood and metal types. Each color a separate print run. It is slow and steady work and it often takes us more than a day to print them. In 2014, we printed our first Copperman’s Day print, which reads Take Joy. Last year’s, the second Copperman’s Day print, reads Take Peace. If these two lines sound familiar to you, you already know what this year’s print will read. All three of our Copperman’s Day prints so far are inspired by a Christmas Revels reading originally penned in 1513 by Fra Giovanni Giocando, who, on Christmas Eve of that year wrote a letter to his friend, the Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi. In 1978, Fra Giovanni’s letter was distilled to its essence for the Christmas Revels performance at the beautiful Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here it is:

I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not,
but there is much that while I cannot give,
you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow.
Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so at this Christmastime,
I greet you, with the prayer that for you,
now and forever,
the day breaks
and the shadows
flee away.

And so we have beseeched you these past two years to take joy, to take peace. And now, we suggest you take heaven. Let our hearts find rest in it today. We’ll be working on this year’s Copperman’s Day print as best we can this day. We’ll let you know when it’s available for purchase. (It will most likely be ready later than today and it will be a bit more than a copper, sorry!)


Image: Detail from “Kronengrasse in Stockach” (Crown Alley in Stockach, which is a town in the district of Konstanz, Germany). It’s a series of tiles on a wall of a building there (the shop of a pretzel baker, I’d guess), photographed by Frank Vincentz in 2011 and used by permission of Creative Commons.


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