Solstice of Midwinter

Our Northern Hemisphere nights have grown increasingly longer each night since the Solstice of Midsummer in June, six months ago. Back then the days were long and night was swift and fleeting, barely long enough for a midsummer night’s dream to take hold and manifest. But balance is key to this old earth and now, the opposite is true. I have a new friend in Anchorage who told me, at the beginning of December, that the sun there was rising around 9 in the morning and setting around 3 in the afternoon. She showed me the landscape outside her window: snow, everywhere. It was beautiful. Since then, the nights have grown even longer, and the sun has sunk even closer to the horizon, and it is even snowier, as snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.

This is the bleak midwinter Christina Rossetti wrote about in her song, which still we sing each Christmas in dark, candlelit churches. Bleak in some ways, so achingly beautiful in others. And come Tuesday, we reach the moment when the sun sinks as far south as it will on the horizon. It will appear, to those who watch these things closely, to stand still for a few days as the sinking ceases and reverses course, and there you have a rough translation of the word solstice: sun stand still. In the grand celestial mechanics of the event, though, the sun is a constant; it is our planet, tilted as it is on its axis at about 23.5 degrees, that causes the sun to appear to track lower each day on the approach to solstice. As we spend our year revolving around the sun, the pole that is tilted toward the sun experiences spring and summer, the pole that is tilted away experiences autumn and winter. It is that simple, yet that sublime. Nothing stays the same, and yet nothing really changes. That is the paradox of our round of the year, and that is the paradox of a tilted axis, too. It is sublime, and divine, and it is the beauty of physics and science. How wonderful (how completely filled with wonder) is that?

The solstice moment this time around is Tuesday December 21 at 10:59 AM here in Lake Worth, which is Eastern Standard Time. If you care to mark the moment, calculate from there. To be sure, there are subtle variations of time within each time zone, but I am more of a roundabout kind of guy and prefer to take a roundabout approach. A simple pause at 10:59 AM Eastern is, I feel, a suitable acknowledgment. And then later, under cover of night, Seth and I will build a fire in the copper fire bowl in the backyard. The fire will be fueled by what is left of last year’s Christmas tree. It’s been sitting in a corner of the yard, beneath the mango tree all this year, drying and seasoning, smelling for all the world sometimes like Christmas, which is not so unwelcome in the heat of July as you happen to brush up against it. It’s served as a shelter, a place for small birds to light upon and rest for a moment, and now, its branches bare of fir needles, it will illuminate our longest, darkest night and bring warmth to body and soul, accompanied by some strong Christmas ale or a cup of mulled wine, and our hearty toast: Wassail! Be of good cheer! Welcome Yule!

Out of these darkest nights come some of our deepest joys: all of the celebrations of Midwinter that have come to pass and that are on the horizon. The feasts of St. Nicholas, of Santa Lucia, and of Our Lady of Guadalupe; the eight nights of Chanukah; the ever increasing light of Advent, and still ahead, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas that follow. These are days and nights of adding our light to the sum of light, of understanding that joy comes out of our countering what is dark with light. When I speak of celebrating a Slow Christmas, this is what I’m really talking about: taking things slow and taking it all in. Being present to the inevitably increasing darkness, acknowledging the need within to combat it with more and more light before we dive headlong into joy. No matter if your celebration is a religious or secular one, the joy of Christmas is a bit meaningless without this. Are you ready for the story to begin again?

Well then. Here we go: It is the same story that never grows old, as this old earth heaves and sighs and spins on its axis, its own beautiful mystery. It matters not so much who or what set it all in motion; it just is, and we acknowledge this, we take it as a blessing, we send the warmth and love in our hearts out upon its vast rotation and all the people and animals and trees that live upon it, and out unto all the mysterious celestial mechanics that create our existence. For this moment, the troubles of our small planet get to feel insignificant, as we tune into the vastness of all that is and ever was and still will be.

Image: “Midwinter Moonlight” by Régis François Gignoux. Oil on canvas, circa mid 19th century [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


The Night Walks with Heavy Steps

It’s late at night on the 12th (actually it is past midnight, so it is the 13th) and in these same overnight hours will arrive the next of the Midwinter gift bearers: Santa Lucia. She will come to homes mainly in Sweden and in Italy. In Italy, where children have left out their shoes and a bit of hay for her donkey, Santa Lucia will tie little presents to their shoelaces. In Sweden, where the nights this time of year are long and dark indeed, the Lucia will be one of the girls of the household, delivering saffron buns and hot coffee to the sleeping occupants, while donning a wreath of candles on her head. Or she will appear publicly in a procession, her gaggle of star boys and girls dressed in white accompanying her. Santa Lucia brings another magical night to this time of dark midwinter.

Though it be late, there is a gift I wish to bring you, as well, though I am no Santa Lucia. A star boy, maybe, at best. It’s a gift I’ve given on other Santa Lucia Days, but it is so beautiful, and subscribers Carl & Kathleen Maugeri loved it so much when I first shared it with you, I wanted to offer it again, for Carl & Kathleen and for all of you, too. It is a song called Santa Lucia, an old Neapolitan melody, but it is in Swedish, for Lucia is sacred to both Italy and to Sweden, two countries that in many ways could not be more different. I love this melding of cultures and celebration. In Italian, Lucia is pronounced with a “ch” (loo-chee-a) while in Swedish, the C is soft (loo-see-a), and the Swedes add a K to the Santa: Sankta Lucia. The song you’re listening to, if you’re listening to it (and I hope you are) is from one of those processions in Sweden: the young Star Girls dressed in white and young Star Boys, also dressed in white, carrying stars on tall poles. “White,” Jane Siberry says, “the color of truth.” Somewhere amongst them is the Lucia, wearing a wreath of lit candles upon her head. Such a beautiful song and such a beautiful sight. Eight days yet to the solstice, darkness continues to build. We welcome light where we can find it. In this case, it comes with such beauty… like the song itself:

The night walks with heavy steps around farm and cottage.
Around the earth, forsaken by the sun, shadows are lowering.
Then into our dark house she treads with lighted candles,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

The night is vast and mute. Now here reverberate
in all silent rooms a rustle as of wings.
See, on our threshold stands––whiteclad, lights in her hair––
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

“The darkness will soon take flight from the valleys of earth.”
Thus she a wonderful word to us speaks.
The day shall again, reborn, rise from a rosy sky,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.

Here in Lake Worth, we’ve been so busy preparing for the local Christkindlmarkt at the American German Club. It began on Friday with a belated Krampusnacht celebration that segued into the proper Christkindlmarkt weekend. The fact that it was also the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Third Sunday of Advent did not escape me. And now that our last big outdoor market of the season is done, we can in this house shift gears toward Christmas preparations, toward making our house fair as we are able. Tonight, on Santa Lucia’s Night, we will go get our Christmas tree from the tree lot in Downtown West Palm Beach. It will most likely be decorated with lights tonight but little else; the ornaments will be “yet to come.”  But that seems a fitting thing to do on this night that walks with heavy steps.


An amalgamation of Santa Lucia posts from the past is the best I can wrangle for you at this late hour. I hope that’ll do… the wish is just as genuine. Image: An early 20th century Swedish Christmas penny postcard designed by Adèle Söderberg (1880-1915).


St. Nick & the Midwinter Gift Bearers

The nights grow longer and darker on our approach to the solstice of Midwinter, and in these final few weeks of night expanding, the first of the midwinter gift bearers, magical beings that they are, begin their journeys in the lands where they are known and loved. The first of them comes tonight, for tomorrow is St. Nicholas’ Day, and in these overnight hours, on its eve, the old Bishop of Myra makes his way through places like Germany and the Netherlands, Austria and Northern Italy. I’m afraid that by the time most of you read this, it will already be the Sixth of December, St. Nicholas’ Day, and you may be left wondering how your shoes came to be filled with nuts and sweets and other small presents overnight. Well, now you know. (Book of Days subscribers: I apologize for my belatedness; ’tis a busy time of year for your Convivio Bookworks guys.)

This St. Nick is an older version of the jolly fellow we know so well here in the States. The Old World version is not so portly, and he wears the long robes and miter of a bishop, for St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He was known in that distant land for bestowing gifts upon those who most needed them. As a saint, the Dutch sailors implored his protection during storms as they sailed the high seas, and he is a patron saint of Bari, the Italian homeland of my father’s family.

If you awake on the Sixth to find small gifts in your shoes but also scratching your head, wondering what was up with those bad dreams you had, this may have to do with the presence of St. Nicholas’ dark companion. The companion goes by many names, depending on the region––Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, Pelznickel… but he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, horned and furry, with an astonishingly long tongue. St. Nicholas concerns himself with the good children. Krampus deals with the naughty ones. Krampus carries chains or birch switches and oftentimes a sack, in which he gathers up the bad children who deserve nothing more than to be carried away. It’s a bit terrifying, but also good fun––especially in the Krampusnacht parades that feature both St. Nicholas and Krampus.

Our local Krampusnacht will take place a bit belatedly (you may be spotting a pattern, though I have nothing to do with the belated date of this one): the American German Club in suburban Lake Worth will be hosting its inaugural Krampusnacht celebration this Friday from 7 to 11 PM. We’ll be there that night and all the weekend that follows with our largest ever pop-up shop, and you can shop our traditional artisan goods for Christmas and everyday, too (including Millie’s Tea Towels), as the somewhat scary Krampusnacht on Friday night evolves into the lovely Christkindlmarkt Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are required, and I’ve just found out that Christkindlmarkt tickets are already sold out, but Krampusnacht tickets are still be available (click here). The folks at the club are telling us that this Krampusnacht is for the adults, not the kids. Take that to mean whatever you’d like. Krampusnacht and Christkindlmarkt are most likely our last public pop-up events for this Yuletide season before Seth and I, too, shift into resting a bit and making our own house as fair as we are able for Christmastime.

St. Nicholas may be the first of the midwinter gift bearers, but there is a long line of others to come over the course of these long dark nights, all depending on the lands in which you live. He and Krampus will be followed over the next few weeks by the Christkindl in Germany, by Sankta Lucia in Sweden, by Father Christmas and Santa Claus, by los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) in Latin America, and a kind old witch named Befana who travels through Italy sweeping away the remnants of the Christmas season in early January. Ah, but that is far away or long ago, depending on your perspective, and for now, we wish you all good things this St. Nicholas’ Eve. May Krampus keep his distance. Sweet dreams!

For those of you not around here (or who don’t want to be scared by furry goat creatures on Friday night), there’s the Convivio Bookworks Christmas Stock-Up Sale. Spend $75 on anything and everything in our catalog, and save $10 plus get free domestic shipping: a total savings of $19.50. Just use discount code STREETFAIR at checkout. Click here to shop! We always offer free domestic shipping when you spend $60 –– no discount code is required for that. I think you’ll be amazed at all you’ll find that’s new at our website, especially if you haven’t visited in a while! Locals, you can choose Free Local Delivery at checkout no matter how much you spend… I’ll deliver on my vintage Raleigh bicycle in the 33460 zip code.

Image: “Nikolaus und Krampus,” from a vintage penny postcard produced in Austria, circa early 20th century. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. These two seem pretty happy to be pals. Darkness & Light?