Category Archives: Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

My Aunt Mary, who was my dad’s older sister and who beamed love and light into the world wherever she walked, was also famous for often saying the words, “I feel so bad,” words that prefaced any number of things she felt badly about, even things completely out of her control. I feel so bad your car needs new tires. I feel so bad you’ve got a stomach bug. I feel so bad you didn’t have time to make Christmas cookies––here, I’ve made some for you.

I’ve been thinking about Aunt Mary because it is Christmas, when I think of all who have come and gone and left their mark on my world, but also because I feel so bad for not giving you this year a proper chapter on this Book of Days blog for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I was tired, I was a bit overwhelmed, and then Christmas Eve came, and that was beautiful, and then things went awry and here we are at the Second Day of Christmas now and my family has yet to have Christmas Dinner or open presents or any of the other things we typically do on Christmas Day. Mom landed in the ER that morning, and my sister and I spent Christmas Day on various park benches and picnic tables outside the ER. Breakfast that day wasn’t until about 3 in the afternoon, found at a local, rather shady Dunkin’ Donuts. The coffee was good but the egg sandwiches tasted faintly of Pinesol. Mom finally got to a room on Christmas Night, and my sister was able to visit her, but now the hospital is on lockdown again so no more visitors are allowed. The best news is that Mom is feeling better and she is much improved and we hope she’ll be home again in a few days. When she is home again, we will gather for a proper Christmas dinner and presents and Christmas Day, belated. Mom’s cousin in Milano, Romeo, tells us that in Italy, “Si dice che il Natale si festeggia quando uno vuole”––They say that Christmas is celebrated when one wants. We are taking the Italian approach this year. The important thing is Mom is fine and well and will be home soon. Who could ask for a better Christmas Day than that?

Meantime, let me give you the most basic of guidance for the traditions of these Twelve Days of Christmas that began yesterday with St. Stephan’s Day. I mentioned in my previous post that there are two ways of calculating these Twelve Days. The approach we follow is the one that places six days in the old year and six in the new. It is probably one day off from most church-oriented calculations, but I would argue it is a more traditional and older approach. If you’d like to follow along on this journey, we bid you most welcome. By all means, celebrate Christmas when you want. My joy is simply that you join us in marking the days and celebrating, in whatever way that means to you.

Here then, is my Convivio Quick Guide to the Twelve Days: Christmas Day, December 25, is a day outside ordinary time. It stands alone in its holiness, a holyday/holiday if ever there was one. December 26 brings the First Day of Christmas: it is St. Stephen’s Day, and Boxing Day. We typically make soup for St. Stephen’s Day, a pause for lighter fare after the rich feasts of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (I am making my St. Stephen’s Day soup for tonight’s supper, a bit late again). 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: 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). The Second Day of Christmas, December 27, is St. John’s Day, and it is typically celebrated with wine. St. John the Evangelist was the only one of Christ’s disciples who did not meet a violent end for his beliefs. Several attempts were made on his life, though, the most famous of which involved poisoned wine, which had no effect on the man. And so his day is a good one for one of the loveliest drinks of the Yuletide season, mulled wine. Here’s our recipe:

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 pot and set it on the stove over medium heat. Add about a teaspoon of mulling spices for each serving (we sell some wonderful mulling spices at the Convivio Bookworks website that are from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine… they call it Mulled Cider Mix but it’s just as good in wine). 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).

The Third Day of Christmas on December 28 brings Childremas, or Holy Innocents’ Day. It marks a dark day in history but I prefer to mark it with celebrating children and the children we once were. Play with kids, read children’s books. In Spain and Latin America, it’s a day for practical jokes. December 29 brings the Fourth Day of Christmas and the Feast of Fools, so make it as goofy a day as you’d like. My favorite thing to do this day? Watch Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: it’s brilliant! 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 do it with great fanfare. 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. The Seventh Day of Christmas brings New Year’s Day, and it is traditional to sing and toast the apple trees. The act is called wassailing and the drink is wassail, as well. Get outside, honor your favorite tree, apple or not, give it a toast. Here’s 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 complex 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.

The Second of January brings the Eighth Day of Christmas, which is St. Macarius’s Day. Macarius was a dour old chap but in his younger days he operated a confectionary in Alexandria. Between that and the fact that his name is so close to two different delicious confections, it is a day some call St. Macaroon’s Day. It is known as a day to enjoy sweets. We celebrate St. Genevieve on the Third of January, the Ninth Day of Christmas. She is a patron saint of Paris, founder there in 475 of Saint-Denys de la Chapelle, which stands today as part of the Basilica of St. Denis. Another of the saints we celebrate this dark time of year that is associated with light, Genevieve’s was a light that never went out. It is said that even as the devil would attempt to interrupt her prayers by blowing out her candle, Genevieve had the power to relight it without use of flint nor fire. She just willed it to happen. Talk about a light bearer. This Ninth Day is one to celebrate with candles and is a very good day for Francophiles to be in their element. Perhaps your evening meal should be French. The Tenth Day of Christmas on January 4 has little going on, traditionally speaking. I think of it as a good day for reflection, and for preparation for Twelfth Night, which comes on the evening of January 5, the Eleventh Day of Christmas. This is traditionally a cracking good party, a proper send off for Yule and old Father Christmas. In the overnight hours, la Befana, one of the last of the midwinter gift bearers, will make her way through Italy on a broom bringing small presents to good children and delicious sweet coal to naughty ones––so it’s hard to choose which is better. We Italians like to keep things ambiguous. In Spain and Latin America, los Tres Reyes will be delivering presents. The stories of la Befana and los Tres Reyes are intertwined… the three kings stopped at la Befana’s on their way to visit the Christ child and invited her along, but she, like most Italian women I know, had far too much to do, so she declined their invitation, and then later had misgivings about that decision. Still to this day she searches for the child each Epiphany Eve.

January 6 brings Epiphany and the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This is traditionally seen as the day the Magi arrived at the stable to see the child and to bring gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Our tradition in this house is one we witnessed remnants of far and wide on our travels a few years back in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany: We gather together outside our front door, and all who are gathered take turns writing the elements of an inscription in chalk on the lintel above the door. The inscription is comprised of the initials of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), blanketed on each side by the year, punctuated with crosses: this time around then, it will be 20+C+M+B+22. 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. With this, we find ourselves on the other side of the balanced bridge that brought us from one year to the next through the portal of Christmas.

May these Twelve Days bring only joy your way. I bid you this, and I bid you peace. Merry Christmas.

Image: Twelve Days of Christmas. Unknown artist, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas. All the preparations, all the frenzy, and suddenly it just appears, like the first star that glimmers after sunset on a cold night, or a just-born baby entering the world. The child and the star, part of our Christmases since the very first one, before Christmas was even called Christmas. Like the solstice story and the celestial mechanics of our universe, it is another story of which we never tire. We hear it year after year, and it means something different to us each time. And if the setting is right––a dark church, incense, a heartfelt song––the story sends us into the recesses of memory, into the arms of people long gone. The story brings us to tears, or at the very least, a moment of wistfulness. For there are the characters in the story that we hear––the Magi, the shepherds, the angels––but there are the characters we each add to the story, too, not the least of which is the child we once were. And at Christmas, we get to go back and reacquaint our old self with the more recent model. With any luck, the two recognize each other, and hopefully, even like each other.

Christmas Eve brings Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Depending on how you calculate such things––and there are two approaches––the Twelve Days begin on Christmas Day itself or on St. Stephen’s Day, the 26th of December. 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 my hunch is that the system they used set the First Day of Christmas at St. Stephen’s Day. Christmas Day itself has long been seen as a day outside ordinary time. For those of us who follow the model of St. Stephen’s Day being the First Day of Christmas, Christmas Day is seen as a distinct 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.

However you count your days, I am here simply to encourage you to mark them. One of the saddest sights, I think, is to see a Christmas tree tossed to the curbside for trash pick up the day or two after Christmas, and so I tend to stay in the first few days of the season. But I like it at home, anyway. It is where I feel most content. I 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. Advent has ended, Christmas has just begun. 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 January is, I think, a wonderful thing.

I don’t plan on writing a Book of Days chapter for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, as I’ve done other years. It’s been a very busy time, and once I make and send our Christmas cards, I am looking forward to spending some time just being still, and maybe I’ll get to read a book or two or three, and there are a bunch of Christmas movies I’d like to watch. It’s feeling like a good time to hibernate and to eat cookies for breakfast and to stay in my pajamas each day ’til 2. It’s Christmas. I think the kid I used to be would give his stamp of approval.

Merry Christmas to you all.

If you’d like one of those cards Seth & I will be making this coming week, just send us a holiday greeting that includes your return address, no matter where you are, and we promise one in return. You’ll find our mailing address at the Contact Us page of our website. Love and light to you all!




The Bridge to Spring

It happens to be snowing like mad across the northeastern United States as I sit and write this. Be that as it may, with the arrival of February, we take our first step onto the bridge that leads us from winter to spring. This first day of the month brings St. Brigid’s Day: Brigid, the bridge. She bids us welcome upon the next spoke in the wheel of the year, and there is a lot to talk about today: past, present, and future. Are you ready? Ok, then. Here we go:

We’ll begin with what is passing: If you––like Seth and me in this house––have been delighting in Christmas all this month, now comes the time to put Yuletide behind us and to shift our perspective toward spring. Forty days have passed since the Midwinter solstice and we are now halfway from there to the vernal equinox in March. As such, St. Brigid brings us a new cross quarter day, for Yuletide ends and Imbolc begins. With this shift of the wheel, tradition would have us remove all vestiges of Christmas greenery by Candlemas Eve, which comes with tonight’s setting sun. While the major festivities and revelry of Christmas traditionally ended with Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas), the spirit of the season remained and lingered and kept folks company for all these forty wintry days. But it was considered bad luck to keep these Yuletide things about the house any longer than Candlemas Eve. Our old reliable 17th century Book of Days poet Robert Herrick describes the significance of this night in his poem “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve”:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

And so our tree will be brought outside this first night of February, as will the wreath that’s been hanging on the door. We return to nature what is hers. We’ll keep the tree in a quiet corner of the yard––easy to do here, since our yard is a bit of forest––and all the year long it will remind of us of Christmas whenever we by chance brush against it and get a whiff of its balsam fragrance. And when the nights grow long again next December, it will fuel our solstice fire, connecting one Christmas to the next. Ah, but that is the future, and for now, if Christmas is what we are leaving behind, let’s focus next on the present.

There are four cross quarter days in the year; each is marked by accompanying holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter; life was descending below the earth. But today, as February begins, the wheel of the year shifts and we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marking the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure, but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February.

St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of February. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives. For St. Brigid’s Day, it is traditional to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds (pictured below), 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. Brigid is typically depicted holding her cross of rushes in one hand and an illuminated lamp in the other––bridging, again, the themes of light in the darkness of midwinter with the green of approaching spring.

Once the sun sets on St. Brigid’s Day, we enter into Candlemas Eve. This is the night that all remaining Yuletide greenery is removed from the home (as Robert Herrick’s poem suggests), but it is traditional to keep nativity scenes up through Candlemas, the next day. I know many of you are reading and wondering how we could possibly still have Christmas in the house, but keep in mind that in this house our decorating did not begin in earnest until the days just before Christmas. We gave the Advent season its proper space and time and have done the same with Christmas. Keeping Christmas in the house longer than this, though, is not advised. Anyone who was the least bit superstitious would fear that doing so would invite bad luck into the home. Why take that chance?

For us, there is always a measure of mixed emotion over this cleaning up of Christmas. (My Uncle Joe used to explain “mixed emotions” to me as “watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand new Eldorado”––but he was only joking; he loved his mother-in-law, my grandma Assunta.) It is nice to have a clean slate after all that Yuletide abundance and extravagance… but Seth and I are a bit in love with Christmas, and so it is sad each year to see it go. To make things less somber, we’ll have some Christmas music playing (again, keep in mind we’re generally not listening to Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland but to older carols, like this one) and perhaps a bottle of St. Bernardus Christmas Ale open and flowing.

With Christmas removed (and ill luck kept at bay), we’ll shift perspective on the Second of February to Candlemas, a beautiful celebration in its own rite, and the second step on the bridge to spring that Brigid lays before us. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” This is the basis for the blessing of candles on this day, and the day’s lovely name, which is even more beautiful in other languages: la Candelaria in Spanish, la Chandeleur in French. In France, the traditional evening meal for la Chandeleur is crêpes. In Mexico, la Candelaria is a night for tamales and hot chocolate, while the procession and celebration in Puno, Peru, is typically so big, it rivals that of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Candlemas celebrations this year certainly will be quiet and centered on home, which is ok by us. Yes, spring is coming as we find ourselves forty days past midwinter, but the darkness of those darkest nights still closely lingers, and the light of Candlemas remains a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. And my favorite song for the day is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Is it a carol for Candlemas? Who knows. Certainly the words echo those of Simon the Elder in the temple, so for me, I say it is.

Most famously, perhaps, Candlemas is known as an old weather marker. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. The tradition of Candlemas as weather marker is particular strong in Germany. And while Candlemas itself is not celebrated with any great gusto here in the States, this remnant of tradition remains in our yearly observation on the Second of February of Groundhog Day, in which the observations of an old groundhog in Pennsylvania (where many Germans settled) determine how much longer winter will last. Did old Candlemas weather lore influence the traditions that revolve around Punxsutawney Phil? Of this we can be pretty certain.

Finally, to close out this luminous chapter, the Third of February will bring St. Blaise’s Day, and the traditions for St. Blaise’s Day, it would seem, come directly out of having all those candles about on Candlemas. For ailments of the throat, we pray to St. Blaise… and on his feast day, it is not uncommon to go to church to have the priest bless your throat by holding two candles, crossed into an X shape, with your throat in the crook of the candles, as he says a blessing over your head. It’s one of those mystical ceremonies that seems almost over the top even to us Catholics.

He is fondly remembered in my family, for St. Blaise was the name of the church my grandparents attended, up the hill from their home in Brooklyn. My Aunt Anne and Uncle Joe (the one who told the joke about the Eldorado and his mother-in-law) were married there, and so were my own parents. Folks with high aspirations, Mom says, went to the big cathedral up the road, but the simpler folks went to St. Blaise. It was a small church that served a small community made up mostly of Italian immigrants and their families. In England and Scotland, it was once customary to light bonfires on the eve of St. Blaise, which would be the night of Candlemas, and perhaps there is some connection to be made between Blaise and blaze. It is a day also important to wool carders (a matter having to do with St. Blaise’s martyrdom), as well as to spinners and dyers.


What is most apparent across these few days and nights upon the bridge that delivers us from winter to spring is the importance of light, be it in candle or bonfire or in song or even in those crêpes, whose golden round shape call to mind the image of the shining sun. Hide not your light, then. Be a light to the world. And rest assured that spring is on its way.

This month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar awaits! It’s our monthly gift to you, a PDF document printable on standard US Letter size paper. You’ll find the calendar a fine companion to this blog; click here to get it. Enjoy!

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Images, from top: “Le Jeune Chanteur” by Trophime Bigot, who is known also as the Candlelight Master (oil on canvas, 1650 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons); a St. Brigid’s Cross fashioned from reeds; my mom and dad with some of their wedding party on their wedding day, May 29, 1949, outside St. Blaise Church in Brooklyn. Their flower girl was my cousin Cammie, who plays la Befana for the family each Epiphany. We all see each other every Sunday for a Cousins’ Zoom gathering, a new tradition we began at the start of quarantine last March.