Monthly Archives: December 2023

Misrule for Yule: The New Year

Here are thoughts gathered for the next few of these Twelve Days of Christmas. And with this chapter, I shall bid you peace, and then I shall be gone until the new year is a full day old. ‘Til then, Wassail!

December 29: The Feast of Fools

Six days in the old year, six days in the new: these are the Twelve Days of Christmas in the counting version we use here. And at this point, chaos begins to ensue. The old year is dying, unraveling before our eyes, disintegrating into chaos and entropy, like a spent star, collapsing in on itself before exploding into a supernova. And just as the matter that shoots violently into space from that supernova eventually comes together to form new stars and planets, so out of the chaos of the dying year a new year will be born. It happens each and every year. Another of those old, old stories on the wheel.

We are not fond of chaos, and yet here we are, just a few days before the new year, and the central theme of this Fourth Day of Christmas is one that in its early history covered the full Twelve Days. It is the Feast of Fools, where the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed. The joker and the jester are in charge; the king and queen serve them. The practice was most prevalent in medieval Europe, and is a direct descendant of the Roman midwinter feast of Saturnalia, which is the source of so many of our Christmas traditions today.

And lest you think the misrule was just the stuff of homes and taverns, you may be surprised to learn that it even infiltrated places of worship. The Feast of Fools is known in Latin as Asinaria Festa, Feast of the Ass. It was a lowly ass upon which Mary rode into Bethlehem, and an ox and an ass, according to another lovely old carol, were there when the child was born in a stable that first Christmas night… and it was an ass that took top billing at some church services during the Twelve Days of Christmas in medieval times. The rules were bent even here, and during these Twelve Days of Christmas, donkeys and other animals were sometimes allowed in churches. There are even records of masses said during this time in which the normal response of “amen” was replaced with the entire congregation braying in unison.

So. Practical ways to incorporate the Feast of Fools today? If you have kids, how about putting them in charge of the day? Let them decide what’s for supper, and when it’s time to go to bed. Work? Why bother? Chaos is everywhere now; there’s no point in working. Maybe you should read (or watch) Alice in Wonderland instead––Lewis Carroll would have loved a day like this. The Lord of Misrule is in charge of the day. Just go with it. There are 364 normal days ahead.

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 tend do it here with great fanfare. It’s a special night here at Convivio Bookworks if only because it was the Boar’s Head Carol that bestowed upon us our convivial name. This carol dates back to the 15th century. It’s a macaronic carol, meaning it combines common English with haughtier Latin, and the earliest known printing of the Boar’s Head Carol happens to be from a book published by the British printer Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. The book is called Christmasse Carolles. I happened to choose Wynkyn de Worde as the subject for my research in a History of the Book class I took as part of my book arts training at the University of Alabama… long before the idea of calling our press Convivio Bookworks took hold. For all these reasons, the Boar’s Head Carol is important to us here and this is the day we choose to honor it.

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.

December 31: New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay, First Footing

It’s the close of the old year, the welcoming of the new. New Year’s Eve, which comes tonight, is perhaps the most common night of the year for symbolic foods and rituals. Visit the grocery stores here in Lake Worth and the first thing you’ll see upon entering are black eyed peas and fresh collard greens, and not too far from them, champagne and grapes. Champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve has become rather universal. The peas and greens are traditional New Year foods here in the South. As for the grapes, well, one old Italian tradition in my family is to eat twelve grapes at midnight for twelve months of luck; we used to do this, but I don’t push it anymore. On my dad’s side, Grandma Cutrone used to make sure everyone had a spoonful of lentils at the stroke of midnight. In fact, the humble earthy lentil, cooked in various savory dishes, is very big throughout Italy for Capo d’Anno, the New Year. Lentils symbolize riches (think of each lentil as a coin, and you’d have quite a stash in each bowl). “Out with the old” is also very big in Italy for New Year’s Eve, and Italians traditionally make a clean sweep of things at midnight, opening the windows and tossing old useless possessions out onto the streets, no matter from what height (and with great gusto, no less). It can be a dangerous night for a walk about! The act is rich in symbolism, though: this is a night to shed what is unwanted, to dispel bad energy, to clear the way for good things to come.

The only New Year’s Eve tradition that seems to be a requirement for my family is the zeppole. These are different from the zeppole we buy for St. Joseph’s Day in March; New Year’s Eve zeppole are a sort of fried doughnut––a yeast dough, much like pizza dough, but enriched with eggs. Mom will make the dough and let it raise and sometimes it will bubble up over the sides of the bowl it’s proofing in and then she’ll spoon the dough into hot oil, stretching the dough as it slides into the fat. The result is a light, fried treat that comes in all sorts of shapes that remind you of all sorts of things as you eat them, whether they be drizzled in honey or dusted in powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. They are so delicious. My dad loved them much more than he liked lentils.

In Scotland, the new year celebration is the biggest part of the Yuletide season. The celebration there is known as Hogmanay, which is believed to to be derived from the French au gui menez, “lead to the mistletoe,” and this suggests a very ancient and pre-Christian derivation of most Hogmanay traditions, for it leads directly back to the Celtic druids and the mistletoe that was sacred to their ceremonies. “First Footing” is an aspect of Hogmanay that feels particularly like a magic spell: The first person to step across the threshold of the front doorway after midnight is the First Footer, and it is hoped that this person would be a red- or dark-haired man carrying whisky or mistletoe or, in some cases, bread, salt and coal. In this case he would kiss all the women and shake the hands of all the men before placing the coal on the fire and the bread and salt on the table and then he’d kiss all the women and shake hands with all the men once more on his way out.

January 1: New Year’s Day

For today, the First Day of the New Year, it is customary to brew a special hot Christmas punch and with it, toast the apple trees in the orchard. The act is called wassailing and the drink is wassail, too, and so is the toast: “Wassail!”…  from the old English Wes Hel, “be of good health.” The response to the toast? “Drink hel!” Be well, drink well. So, get outside, honor your favorite tree, apple or not, give it a toast. Here is 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 interesting 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.

Custom calls for us to share the wassail with those gathered but also to take the steaming punch bowl out to the orchard and toast the apple trees and share some with the oldest or biggest tree in the grove. Some folks pour the wassail on the trunk of the tree, while others dip the lower branches into the wassail bowl, and others may place wassail-soaked toast or cake in the branches of the tree. All of which are invocations of magic meant to encourage a good crop of apples next summer. Traditionally, the wassailing of the apple trees is done at the noon hour, but we believe you’d do best to let tradition inform your ways, but not dictate how your days go. So if your wassail happens to be late at night, there’s no harm in that. Wes Hel! Huzzah and cheers! And a happy new year to us all.


At our online shop, our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale continues and brings you automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers. We are running the sale for the full Twelve Days of Christmas, through the Sixth Day of January. If there are things you wanted that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!



Unless Ye Become As Little Children

We begin on Christmas Eve with angels and starry wonder and songs of peace, and yet, three days into our Christmastide journey, things take a distinctly darker shift. This Third Day of Christmas has, for centuries, been known as Childremas, or Children’s Mass. Our focus today is on children, but this comes out of a memorial of the most disturbing part of the Christmas story.

Holy Innocents’ Day, Childremas

The focus this Third Day of Christmas is on children, so go on: dote on your kids. Equally important, though, I think, is to reconnect this day and every now and again with the children we once were. At Christmas, we get to reconnect to our past and we get to speak, as Garrison Keillor once said, our very first language. Christmas bestows this gift upon us each year, and Childremas does this especially.

Here is the dark side of the story: When Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, learned of the star over Bethlehem and the child that was born there –– a child who would be king –– he grew anxious about his throne. And these are some of the most dangerous people, are they not? Insecure people in positions of power who feel threatened. And so, the story goes, Herod dealt with the threat by ordering the slaughter of all the children of Judea. These children are remembered as the Holy Innocents, and another name for this day is Holy Innocents’ Day. It is traditionally thought of as the most unlucky day of the year. The day, in fact, was viewed with such great superstition in ages past that it was considered unlucky even to wear new clothes on the Third Day of Christmas, or to clip your fingernails, or to undertake any new project. Best to leave it for the following day, when good luck would return.

One of the oldest Christmas carols to survive through the ages is one that comes out of the sadness of Childremas: a poignant, touching lullaby called the “Coventry Carol.” (Go ahead: play it while you’re reading.) We don’t know who wrote the song but it appears in manuscripts in England as early as 1534, during the reign of Henry VIII. Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to take his family to Egypt… but none of the other parents of Judea receive this warning. They are left to fend for themselves against Herod’s soldiers, and in this positively haunting carol, the mothers try to protect their children by quieting them, lulling them to sleep. Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child, Bye bye, lully, lullay. That woe is me, poor child, for thee, And ever mourn and may, For thy parting neither say nor sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

One thing is for sure: this is not the sort of song we think of today when we think of Christmas carols. For the Tudors, though, this song speaks to their experience. An awful lot of Tudor children died in infancy. Tudor mothers understood the Coventry Carol. They were no strangers to the pain experienced by the mothers in the Christmas story.

So, how do we best acknowledge this Third Day of Christmas, then? One important thing revolves around that word, acknowledge. Acknowledge, first of all, that this slaughter of the innocents continues to this day, and in this very same geography. These are the ways of men in power and holy innocents get caught in the crossfire.

I know not the solution. Closer to home, closer to our hearts, I think the best approach in remembrance of all those lost that first Christmas is to honor the children in our lives now, and the children we once were, too: to reconnect with a time when we were more willing to suspend disbelief, more willing to be fully immersed in things, as children are wont to be. We leave childhood behind because we have to. But the child you were has certainly informed the adult you’ve become, so there is a thread that resonates across the years. This is something worth nurturing. The happiest, most engaged people I know still retain a measure of the wonder they knew as children.

One of the oldest midwinter traditions in the Church is the election of a Boy Bishop each St. Nicholas’s Day on the Sixth of December. He would be chosen from the choirboys, and he would rule until Childremas, this Third Day of Christmas. The office was serious business. The Boy Bishop wore full vestments and mitre, and he would perform all the duties of a bishop, save for celebrating mass, although he did often deliver the sermons. The actual bishop would, in some places, have to follow the orders of the Boy Bishop. These traditions tap into the ideas of the Feast of Fools, as well, where the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed (which blends into the customs for the Fourth Day of Christmas, tomorrow), and perhaps relates to the words of the Magnificat: God has put down the mighty from their throne and has exalted the humble and the meek.

In medieval times, the Boy Bishop could be found in most every cathedral in France, Britain and Germany during the Yuletide season. The custom was treated with such seriousness that if he should die while in office, the Boy Bishop received the same burial honors as a real bishop. The 1869 Chambers Brothers’ Book of Days gives mention to one unfortunate Boy Bishop who did come to his end while in office, telling us that a monument to his memory may be found on the north side of the nave at Salisbury Cathedral.

In Spain and Latin America, the Third Day of Christmas is a day for practical jokes, the victims of which being called inocentes, although sometimes it is the prankster that gets that name in a plea for forgiveness. No matter how you spend the day, the theme, it seems, is universal: celebrating and honoring children. If it’s the child inside, how do we go about doing that? Keep it simple, I’d say. Are there favorite things you used to do when you were a kid that you just don’t do anymore? What was your favorite book back then, or your favorite movie, or your favorite thing to eat? Today, Childremas, is a good day to go back and give those things another try. Make it a playdate with the child you were. Get yourselves reacquainted, whilst acknowledging the darkness and light that is fully part of this journey we call Christmas.


At our online shop, our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale brings you automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers. We are running the sale for the full Twelve Days of Christmas, through the Sixth Day of January. If there are things you wanted that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!


Image: “Children by the Christmas Tree” by Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth. Oil on canvas, c. early 20th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. 

First Two Days of Christmas

Advent has run its course, Christmas has been made welcome, and now we enter into the Christmas season proper. When we sing the old carol about five golden rings and a partridge in a pear tree and all those other gifts that my true love gave to me, this is what we are singing about: The Twelve Days of Christmas begin now, now that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have passed.

There are two approaches to the calculation of these Twelve Days: One approach has the Twelve Days of Christmas beginning on Christmas Day itself, while the other starts them on St. Stephen’s Day, the 26th of December. In this house, we subscribe to the second approach. Our ancestors, who perhaps were more attuned than we to the passing of the days and to each day’s meaning, loved symmetry in numbers, and the second approach provides exactly that. Christmas Day itself has long been seen as a day outside ordinary time: a most distinct and holy day, followed by a beautiful symmetry that comes along with the passing of the year. In this model, we have six days of Christmas in the old year and six days in the new, creating a balanced bridge at the start and end of each year, a balance that links the other old story –– that of the ever expanding round of the year as this old earth spins on its axis and rotates around the sun –– to the story of the child’s birth at Bethlehem. The links connect Christmas through the years in a lovely balance. More mystery, of the universal sort, heavenly yet here on earth.

If you feel let down when Christmas Day has passed, join us on our journey and you won’t have any reason to feel this way, and I do hope you’ll join us at your home in celebrating the full season that lasts through Epiphany on the Sixth of January. And if you are a bit in love with Christmas as we are in this household, welcome. Our Christmas tree and other greenery will be illuminated tonight and every night through Epiphany, and most likely we will go even beyond, for traditionally the greenery would come down at Candlemas Eve: the First of February. Keeping it up longer would invite goblins into your home, and no one wants that. But to bring light and cheer through all the dark month of January is, I think, a wonderful thing.

My plan this year for the Twelve Days of Christmas is to write a few Book of Days chapters, grouping together the days of Christmas that seem fittingly grouped, and in this chapter, we’ll discuss the first Two Days of Christmas. Before we begin, I’ve got a worthy suggestion: there are a few farm stand and pantry items you may find handy to stock up on for this season. My recommendations: apples, chestnuts, mulling spices, honey, red wine, fresh cider, and rose water. We can supply your mulling spices and rose water; ours are both made by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and we’ll ship via US Priority Mail to get your domestic order to you in just two or three days.

And now to begin our journey: It begins, of course, with Christmas Day, December 25, a day outside ordinary time. In our model, Christmas Day stands alone in its holiness, a holyday/holiday if ever there was one. But December 26 brings St. Stephen’s Day and the First Day of Christmas:

December 26
St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Day of the Wren, First Day of Kwanzaa

On this First Day of Christmas, Father Christmas brings Boxing Day, celebrated in England and the Commonwealth countries. Servants typically had to work on Christmas Day, but this First Day of Christmas was their day to spend with their families. Their employers would send them home with boxes of gifts for themselves and for the families they were heading home to. Perhaps more important, though, it is St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and so the Church assigned this first day of Christmas to him. In Italy, this Giorno di Santo Stefano is a big deal. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is for family, but St. Stephen’s Day is a day to bundle up and go out to visit friends and to visit nativity scenes. It is a day for roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (as is tomorrow, St. John’s Day: the Second Day of Christmas). My grandmother, Assunta, typically made soup for supper on this First Day of Christmas, when we remember Santo Stefano. The soup was a nice break from the rich fare of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Over in Ireland, it is the Day of the Wren. It is the wren that is traditionally thought to have brought bad luck upon the imprisoned Stephen, who was making his escape when a wren alerted the sleeping guards to the situation. His capture lead to his execution and martyrdom. Wrens were traditionally hunted on this First Day of Christmas, then paraded around town. Nowadays, the wrens paraded around town are effigies, and not real wrens (all is forgiven, wrens!).

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 and a celebration of African-American culture: 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).

December 27
St. John’s Day

On St. John’s Day we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles and the only one who did not die a martyr’s death for his beliefs, although many attempts were made on his life. In the most famous of these, St. John was sentenced to die by ingesting poisoned wine. John drank the wine but the poison had no effect on him. And so it is customary on this Second Day of Christmas to give gifts of wine, as well as to bring bottles of wine to church to be blessed, especially in Germany and Austria. This blessed St. John’s wine is thought to have healing properties and to taste better than other wines. Some even hold that wine that is not blessed but is stored nearby to blessed St. John’s wine improves in flavor just by being near it. It is a fine night (as are most nights during Christmastide) to enjoy mulled wine and roasted chestnuts… and here is our recipe for mulled wine, one of the loveliest drinks of the Yuletide season (indeed, all winter long):

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)

Pour a quantity (enough for as many people as you are serving) of good red wine into a stainless steel or enamel pot and set it on the stove over medium heat. Add about a teaspoon of mulling spices for each serving. 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).

I’ll be back with our next chapter on the Third Day of Christmas: Childremas, or Holy Innocents’ Day… it is a day in the Twelve when the story takes a dark turn, acknowledging the sorrows in life. For now, though: Cheers!

At our online shop, our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale brings you automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers. We are running the sale for the full Twelve Days of Christmas, through the Sixth Day of January. If there are things you wanted that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!


Image: “Provando o Vinho” (“Tasting the Wine”) by an unknown artist working in the English School, Portugal. Oil painting, 19th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.