20 + C + M + B + 21


I know, I know: the title of this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days looks more like part of an algebraic equation than the start of a piece about the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It’s actually an inscription, one that we will be writing in chalk on the lintel above our door tonight. It is Epiphany: the day that tradition tells us the Magi arrived at the stable to see the newborn child. It is the part of the Christmas story that expands it to the world beyond Bethlehem, for the Magi came from afar to see this miracle, and brought the news with them back to their lands. Seeing the child was their great epiphany, and in turn, ours.

They are known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, those three wise men, and it is their initials, surrounded by the new year, that make the inscription that we will write above our door. It’s a tradition taught to my family by Father Brice, who would bless chalk and give it out to his congregation at St. Paul’s in Lighthouse Point each Epiphany Mass. I’ve never known anyone else to follow this custom but Father Brice and my family, but two summers ago––when Seth and I traveled to the part of Austria where a half hour drive could find you in Switzerland or Germany or Lichtenstein, depending on which direction you were going––we saw so many doorways inscribed, both indoors and out. The doorway in the photo today is the door to the chapel at Schattenburg, the 13th century castle that looks out over the City of Feldkirch in Austria. I photographed an awful lot of doorways that trip. Surrounded by so many lintel inscriptions, I felt like I was amongst people I understood, and who understood me.

The holiday itself is older even than Christmas, as holy days go. It is one of the earliest celebrations of the Church. In some places, Epiphany rivals Christmas––especially in Latin America, where the Three Kings made their rounds last night, delivering presents, just as they did that first Christmas. They stop on their way through Italy, too, to invite la Befana, the kindly old witch, to join them. As usual, she was far too busy with her housework, which, in my experience, is usually the way things go. (My family is full of Befanas, women and men who get so wrapped up in making sure their houses are as clean and tidy as possible, and I’ve no doubt they would have declined the invitation of the Magi, too.) But that first Christmas, when la Befana told the Magi to carry on without her, she eventually grew remorseful for not joining them… and so she set out to find them. Alas, it was too late. She never found the three kings and she never found the child, and so each Twelfth Night, even to this day, she rides out on her broom in search of them all. As she searches, she leaves presents in the shoes of good children. (Not so good children? They get coal, but even that isn’t so bad, because la Befana’s coal is sweet as candy.)

It is la Befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, too, for another year. Before she does, though, you will find us outside on the porch with a stepladder and a piece of chalk (no longer blessed, for Father Brice is long gone). We do this here at our home, and we’ll do it at the family home, too, when next we are there. All who are gathered will take turns writing the inscription on the lintel above the door: it is, as I said, the initials of the wise men, blanketed on each side by the year, punctuated with crosses: 20+C+M+B+21. 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. There the inscription stays, all the year through if the weather be fine. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds 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 while I promised that you’d be rid of me now, after twelve continuous days of writings, the fact remains that tomorrow brings another Christmas-related holiday: the 7th of January each year brings St. Distaff’s Day, the first of the Back to Work holidays on the heels of the Christmas season. It’s too fascinating to not discuss… so if you have room in your hearts for one more visit from me this week, I will do all I can to be there. And so be it.

I’ll be talking about these things and showing some good books, too, today at 3 PM Eastern on a Jaffe Center for Book Arts webinar called Book Arts 101: Caravan. You have to register to watch the live broadcast on Zoom: click here to register. There will be a simulcast on the Jaffe Center’s Facebook page, too. And on Friday, from 2 to 5 PM Eastern, you’re welcome to join me again as I host the Real Mail Fridays St. Distaff’s Day Social. Come and go as you please; most folks joining in will be writing letters, but sometimes I do other things, like bind books. There is good music and lots of quiet working time in the company of others, and once or twice an hour, we break for a some focused conversation. 



10 thoughts on “20 + C + M + B + 21

  1. Dixie says:

    Your posts have brought much merriment to the holidays for myself and my friends. Each morning my routine used to be: make coffee, make the bed, get dressed, make breakfast. Now “Read John’s Post” has been slipped in right after get dressed. I am glad that we will get another post tomorrow; that will make the after-Christmas transition easier. Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas to you and yours! Now to find a piece of chalk…

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh wow, how nice to read that, Dixie. The years I do these twelve days of posts I begin to feel like big bother to everyone, so it’s nice to know that at least one person looks forward to them. I appreciate that a lot, thank you.

      And don’t forget, you can follow the tradition that keeps Christmas going ’til Candlemas (that’s what we’re doing)!

  2. Carmela Harris says:

    I never knew about the chalk. thanks for the enlightenment. With
    Covid I don’t sweep as much

  3. Cora Bresciano says:

    Once again this year, my children are coming to dinner tonight and we’ll be writing this on the door lintel, thanks to you, John, and learning about this custom a few years ago here in your blog. It has become a lovely tradition for us. Thank you for sharing it again! And Happy New Year!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Wonderful! If you ever get to western Austria and eastern Switzerland, you’ll feel at home, too! Best to you and your family this Epiphany, Cora.

  4. Natalie Kavanagh says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us again this year. It was especially delightful to get a mention in your post yesterday! We still celebrate Old Christmas and Old Buck brought treats to find on the porch tonight for my boys. The celebration is quite small but meaningful to us. Thanks to you we have added many other little celebrations to mark each day of the Christmas season. I share our day with my friends on Facebook and a link to your blog post too. In this way, together, we have brought the old ways of Christmas to my circle of loved ones. I worried that Christmas would be a let down for my 7 year old twins and my 12 year old this year. No parade, no sitting on Santa’s lap, or busy stores, or Christmas parties. But, one of my little guys told me tonight over our warm apple ciders that this was the “Best Christmas Ever!” Our Christmas truly started on Christmas Eve and lasted until tonight. Well done my faraway friend and yes, the Best Christmas Ever!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Natalie, what a wonderful thing to read at the end of a strange strange day. Thank you for reading all these years, and for posting comments, and for giving your kids such a fine Christmas. They’ll remember this always. May they and you look forward always to Best Christmas Ever each year!

  5. James K Wood says:

    We enjoyed a Twelfth Night Cake this evening, made by my own hand, and a fine cake it was, if I do say so myself. I did however fail to hid a bean on the inside.

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh, that sounds good, James. I’m curious: was it a particular recipe for a Twelfth Night cake you made, or was it a cake you might make at any other time of year? I only ask as I’ve not seen a recipe for a Twelfth Night Cake, even though a cake is often mentioned as the center of the festivities. In fact, I do believe a Twelfth Night Cake is being served in the engraving from the Chambers Bros. Book of Days that has illustrated the “Our Story” page on the Convivio Bookworks website since 2003 (http://www.conviviobookworks.com/pages/ourstory.php). We have our Three Kings Cakes, but they are a contemporary recipe and hardly traditional in the grand sense of the word.

      And don’t fret over the bean…. I think not hiding one in the cake simply makes you, by default, King of the Bean again next Twelfth Night! Thank you so much for commenting, and celebrating!

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