Category Archives: Twelve Days of Christmas

Sweets & Quiet Preparation: The Eighth thru Tenth Days of Christmas

Happy New Year, everyone. Two days into 2024, and we are now firmly into the second half of our Christmas journey of twelve days (six days in the old year, six in the new). Once we pass New Year’s Day, the ceremonious aspects of the Twelve Days begin to wind down. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the abundance of celebration that comes with the first seven days… I think by this, the Eighth Day, people need a little normalcy. In our house, it is usually back to work at this point. The Twelve Days of Christmas is very much a tradition that comes out of medieval times. In the contemporary day, employers tend to frown upon twelve days without work. (I think even the rehabilitated Ebenezer Scrooge that we meet in the closing chapters of A Christmas Carol would bristle at the idea of giving his clerk Bob Cratchit twelve whole days leave from the office.) And while it is back to work for most of us, these are still nights that find us in this house tending toward reading books and watching old Christmas movies. But though the Twelve Days of Christmas are winding down, Old Father Christmas is not one to exit each year quietly; he traditionally goes out with a big boisterous celebration, and this celebration is known as Twelfth Night, followed the next day by the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany. These quiet days and nights between New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night are good ones to begin preparations for this grand finale.

January 2: St. Macarius’s Day

And so the Second of January brings the Eighth Day of Christmas, which is St. Macarius’s Day. Macarius was a dour old chap in his old age, an ascetic hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert, surviving on raw vegetables and, on only the most special days, a bit of bread dipped in olive oil. (I can picture my grandmother, holding up her thumb pressed against her index and middle fingers, begging him to just mangia something more than carrots.) But before he became such a stick in the mud, Macarius, in his younger days, operated a confectionary in Alexandria. It is Macarius the Confectioner we remember most these days, and this is why he is a patron saint of cooks, confectioners, and pastry chefs. And for certain his is not the easiest name to pronounce; for this reason he has also been known over the ages as St. Macaroon (perhaps St. Macaron in France?)––fitting enough for a confectioner, I’d say. Anyway, his feast day, falling as it does within the extraordinary time of the Twelve Days of Christmas, has become a day to enjoy sweets (as if you’ve not been doing that already for the first Seven Days of Christmas).

January 3: St. Genevieve’s Day

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, each night, 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. And while there are no particular customs (that I am aware of, anyway) associated with this Ninth Day of Christmas, there are plenty of us who love the food and culture of France. I think today, St. Genevieve’s Day, is a fine day to enjoy those things fully and to wish those we meet joyeux noël et bonne année!

January 4: St. Titus’s and St. Gregory’s Day

This Tenth Day of Christmas brings the Feast Day of St. Titus and St. Gregory, and it’s also St. Rigobert’s Day and St. Ramon’s Day. Titus was a disciple of St. Paul in the first century, and Gregory was a bishop in the sixth century. Rigobert had a trying time of it as an early Archbishop of Reims––political matters mostly––and he is held up as a model of patience. He kept a goose as a pet; in my experience, that’s something that would take some patience, too. Ramon is particularly difficult to know; he was a bishop and he appears in the Chambers Bros. Book of Days on January 4 for the year 1869, but I have found no mention of him since in more contemporary sources.

With no particular customs associated with the Tenth Day of Christmas, I take it as good day to prepare for the celebrations to come in the next couple of days: Twelfth Night and Epiphany. To that end, I’m going to include today the recipe I give you most years on the blog ahead of Epiphany: our recipe for Three Kings Cakes, steeped in the ancient flavors of that old desert land where the Christmas story first unfolded. With Twelfth Night and Epiphany, our focus shifts outward––toward the Magi who traveled to see the child and outer yet, to the star they followed on their journey. Stars make us think of larger things: far distances, light, the galaxy and the universe beyond. Christmas itself is close to the heart, but Epiphany brings the story to a wider audience: we follow that star, and as the universe expands, so, too, do our hearts at Epiphany.

Twelfth Night, which comes on the evening of January 5, the Eleventh Day of Christmas, 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.

Here at home, we bring out illuminated paper star lanterns come Twelfth Night and we make Christmas sweets that, no matter how much we try to bake earlier, never seem to get made until the last few days of the Christmas season. Maybe it is a subconscious decision, for these baked goods feel older, more influenced by ancient flavors, flavors old and familiar to the Magi: Baklava flavored with honey and walnuts, and our friend Paula’s Kourambiedes cookies, each studded with a clove, and our Three Kings Cakes, flavored with honey, rose water, currants, and dates––flavors of the desert, of our ancient past, of that very first Christmas. The cakes are a contemporary riff on old flavors, but the Baklava and the Kourambiedes have a much longer history, the stuff of time immemorial. It’s easy to imagine that our friend St. Macarius, the fourth century confectioner that we discussed earlier and celebrated on the Eighth Day of Christmas, was making these very same things in his shop in Old Alexandria.

So, while there are no particular customs for this Tenth Day of Christmas, mine has become the making of these delicious Three Kings Cakes, so they are ready for Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and perhaps this is the best custom of the day. The recipe yields three cakes, cakes you will prepare in three loaf pans. You will end up with one cake for each of the Magi, who have traditionally been called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, though no one knows who they were really. As the story goes, it took the Magi all this time to travel through the desert, from Christmas Night to Epiphany, and seeing the child lying in the straw was their great epiphany. Rose water is the main flavoring, mysterious and familiar all the same in the way that only ancient flavors can be. We happen to sell a wonderful rose water made at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine; it is perfect for these cakes.

This recipe began with Jeff Smith, and while he certainly was a problematic figure, I’ve altered the recipe over the years to make it more my own. Most recently, I’ve cut down a bit on the currants, but added in some chopped dates. Again, more of the flavors of that desert land. I do think yule love these cakes! (Sorry, I get a big kick out of that. You can rest easy now that that’s probably the last time I’ll get to use yule that way this Christmastime.)


T H R E E   K I N G S   C A K E S
makes three cakes

For the Batter
1 cup butter or shortening
generous 3/4 cup sugar or monk fruit
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2  cups currants
1 cup chopped dates (pits removed, of course)
3 cups applesauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 cups flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream together the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Beat smooth before adding the remaining ingredients. Grease 3 loaf pans (about 8″ x 4″ x 3″ or so) and divide the batter amongst the pans. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick poked into the center of each cake comes out dry. Let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack.

For the Syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons rose water

Once the cakes are baked, combine the syrup ingredients, except for the rose water, in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar dissolves, add the rose water. Remove the cinnamon stick and the cloves and then pour the hot syrup over the cakes in their pans, divided equally amongst the three cakes. The syrup will soak into the cakes. Allow to cool completely before unmolding from the pans. Serving the three cakes on three platters makes for a nice presentation on Epiphany Day or on Twelfth Night.


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!

Image: “The Three Magi,” an illustration from the reproductions of Herrad of Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum by Christian Moritz Engelhardt, 1818. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. The original book, known in English as The Garden of Delights, was made by Herrad of Landsberg, a 12th century nun and abbess of Hohenburg Abbey. The original perished in the burning of the Library of Strasbourg in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, but luckily we do have Engelhardt’s 19th century reproductions.

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.