The Return of Light: Candlemas

Once again, the season has brought us round to Candlemas– an ancient tradition still observed in a handful of places.  One of those places is Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, which I called home for a brief but beautiful few years.  I’m re-posting this short post from 2017, so  I might share the tradition with you and wish you a thousand candles to light your way and warm your heart through this winter week.

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox.  Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.

And the religious calendar turns also.  There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered.  The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only,  and a  processional service takes place in the evening.

Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006.  Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony).  Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.”  We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.

But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave!  We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short.  To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and flickering along the walls  (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to process through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.

This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida.  It is no bleak mid-winter day outside.  The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures.  But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.

Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like.  I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers.  I’ll be there.  Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.



Twelfth Night

Tonight marks Twelfth Night– the eve of Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas.  It’s considered very bad form, and bad luck, to keep Christmas decorations up any longer than this.

This, I think, is a plot hatched by type A neatniks to push type B malingerers into a tidy-up already.  Not a bad ploy;  I get it.  However,  this time last year, I decided to keep my tree up another week or two, until my corner of Germany got some snow.  When the snow finally made its appearance, I snuggled under a blanket with a book and some hot chocolate while the tree lights twinkled.  No bad luck in that.

This year, I’m baffled by what to do.  Family and friends to my north are expecting freezing weather and snow storms in two days. IMG_20160714_063514  I feel like I should leave my tree up as a sign of solidarity– I can read by its twinkling lights, turn on a fan, and pretend that I’m looking out my window at a foot of snow.  But I’ll be looking at this:

Good stuff, but not a winter wonderland.

Or I could be industrious and take it all down and give up on winter ever coming to Florida.  (I’d be tidy and efficient, but kind of a quitter too.  It’s a quandry.)

In the States, we don’t pay much attention to the “12 days” of Christmas.  (Christmas day until Epiphany, January 6th.)  It’s more of an Old World concept.  But it lends more structure, and a  greater sense of traditional festival, to the holiday than our modern sprawl (which is more like the 12 weeks of Christmas, starting before–or at, if we are very lucky– Halloween).

Twelfth Night offers a chance to wallow in Christmas traditions for one more night– to eat heartily (and include a King’s Cake on the table) and drink wassail.  It’s also the night when you finally allow the yule log to die out– that log that you started burning on Christmas Day and kept going until now.  The yule log is said to bring luck for the coming year, and, if you’ve kept a fire burning around the clock for the last 12 days and  buche001 your house is still standing, then I’d say you’re pretty lucky!  We didn’t do that at my house.  We did, however, bake a yule log (a buche de Noel) and gobble up every crumb.  Hopefully that imparts luck and not just extra pounds.

From our experiences in Germany, it’s obvious that Twelfth Night doesn’t just mark an ending of a season– it is also the beginning of the carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras.   We’ve seen this in Bavaria and the Black Forest, where Christmas season seems to be dipped at both ends with a dollop of menace.  On the front end of Christmas, Krampus came for bad children around December 6th (Nikolaustag), and now at the holiday’s closing bell,  masked demons parade in the streets as the carnival season gets underway.

Down the hill we went into snowy Triberg.
Down the hill we went into snowy Triberg.

Two years ago, in  January, we took a trip to the Black Forest.  We spent the night in Triberg, and the snow was falling fast and starting to accumulate.  We tucked the kids and dogs into the hotel in the early evening and told them we’d go find a restaurant in town and  bring dinner back to them.

When we got down the hill and into town, we turned toward a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day, and ran headlong into a merry band of demons parading the streets.  But, you know, these things happen in the Black Forest.  We laughed, but didn’t think much of it until the next day when we were talking to Oliver Zinapold in his Triberg woodworking and clock shop.  We talked cuckoo clocks at great length, and even bought a lovely clock from him, and before we left we spotted a devil’s mask up on the wall.  I asked about it.

“Oh, it’s a good thing you came today,” he said.  “Tomorrow, I close up shop and go to Switzerland for a few days to be in the Carnival.”  He showed us his hand carved mask, and pulled out a sketch book of other masks (and clock faces) he’d made.  And suddenly the merry band of devils we’d seen in Triberg made perfect sense.

So, don’t mourn the passing of Christmas time at Twelfth Night .  . . just realize that thirteenth night marks the beginning of another lively season.  And more than a little mischief.


I’ll leave you with a short video of Oliver Zinapold’s workshop– Oli’s Schnitzstube.   The video is in German, but if you are drinking your Twelfth Night wassail, I expect you’ll understand every word of it.  And even if you don’t, it’s worth seeing the lovely clocks and (an added treat) one of his devil masks can be seen hanging on the wall at about 22 seconds into the video.


Jolly Old St. Nicholas

I’ve been thinking a lot about our friend St. Nick lately.

DSC_0116 - Copy

About his many incarnations; about his naughty and nice list; about the fact that some of his incarnations belong on naughty lists themselves; and about the actual man that inspired this mythical being with modern day rock star status. Really . . . just what kind of mortal could inspire so many, and such enduring, legends?

Who was Saint Nick?  Nikolaus* of Myra (present day Turkey) was a Greek bishop during the 4th century.  Many miracles are attributed to him, but his most enduring legacy is probably his generosity.  As legend has it, he sought to relieve poverty through the giving of secret gifts.  Most notably, there is a story that he sought to ease the plight of three young girls.  Their father could not afford to pay a dowry, so they were doomed to a life of poverty and, quite probably, prostitution in order to survive.  Nikolaus secretly tossed three purses of gold coins through the window of their home (this, obviously, before his chimney shenanigans in later centuries).  One version even posits extra detail–some of the gold fell into a stocking that was hanging up to dry in the house.

It is a long and winding road from the life of the actual man to the variety of legends that we find today–and it is a great variety–but they all contain the kernel of his truth. turkish st nick kilim There’s not much I can add to that truth–I’m no scholar on saints or on Nikolaus.   I can, however, tell you that he is still remembered in Turkey as a great man.  He is also embraced, to some small extent, in his modern Western guise–albeit largely for profit and the selling of kilims.  There is a town in the eastern Mediterranean region of Turkey (I wish I could remember the name, but it’s been 16 years since I was there!) where we watched women weaving Santa Kilims.   We bought a number of them, for ourselves and for our family.  We still hang turk st nick kilim at loomours proudly each Christmas season. . . but we spray it with Lysol each year. (Sorry Santa, but I think you were woven with some raw wool, and you do carry a distinct old world smell that requires a little airing out. I don’t really mind–the way I see it, you bring a little of the Bethlehem stable into my house with you, and that keeps me focused for the season.)

About that variety of legends–I don’t think that we feel it much in the States.  Our Santa is a homogenous and modern being–jolly and round, always in the same red and white costume,  and, yes, generous to a fault (is there such a thing?).  The menace of his judgment (his naughty and nice list) seems hardly menace at all–unless you’ve been outrageously naughty.  It happens.  Still, with late season penance, it all turns out well.   Seems straight forward.

Victorian St Nick and Krampus
Victorian St Nick and Krampus

But it seems less simple in Middle Europe.  Here, the judgment is real and the  punishers are frightening.  Easy salvation?  That’s for American weenies.  Here, you’d best practice good German diligence and industriousness, and even then the day will come when you have to stare down a devil for your Nikolaustag (St. Nikolaus Day) chocolate.  Yes, a devil.  Where goes Nikolaus, so goes his dark counterpart (with many faces and names, depending on the region of Europe).  Good and evil, naughty and nice–they take it seriously in Germany.

I won’t go into great detail here about St. Nick’s draconian counterparts, as I’ve written a lot about them in the post Saints and Devils, Fire and Snow .  However, I will add a few insights from a conversation I had recently with a Bavarian woman.  I met her on December 5th– Nikolaustag Eve (“boot night” in Germany, when children put out   boots for Nikolaus to leave candy in . . . but sometimes get visits from the grim sidekick instead or get ashes and coal if they have been bad).   She told me

Friend or foe, funny or frightening?
Friend or foe, funny or frightening?

that the children around Rothenburg ob der Tauber have traditionally not celebrated on December 6th, but rather on November 11th.  When she was young, that was when Belsnickel (or Pelsnickel) would visit.  Belsnickel was a fur-cloaked character, rather scruffy, who seemed to combine both the surly (Krampus, Ruprecht, etc) and the kind (Nikolaus) into one being. He carried a sack with both treats and switches.   Belsnickel might judge the children and either punish or reward them; he might toss candy around the floor for them, and then paddle their backs with twigs as they scrambled for the candy; or he might be more elfin and be more mischief prone than malice prone.   He might be a lot of things, said my new friend; however, when November 11th came around the children were really quite scared of what would come for them.

I asked this woman, once more, “And he came on November 11th?” “Yes,” came the answer.  That seemed so  early in the season to me.  I looked the date up later and found that November 11th is not only Belsnickel, it’s also Martinstag– that’s Reformation Day, a celebration of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  Ah, yes, this was beginning to make more sense to me.  If you are celebrating the Reformation, why not scare the pants off of the children, and then reward them with goodies?  Spare the rods, spoil the souls of the children.  So very German, this Christmas cocktail: hell fire and brimstone, followed by a chaser of sweets and gingerbread.

Never a dull moment with these old European traditions.  Is it awful that Christmas time boasts its own terrors and devils?  Is it harsh?  Absolutely. . .but, then again, it has some appeal.

Sante Claus The Children's Friend, 1821 William B. Gilley, publisher
Sante Claus
The Children’s Friend, 1821
William B. Gilley, publisher

I could do without Krampus devils giving my kids nightmares, but I do start to think that the American Santa is a bit fluffy.   I don’t mind him being “the love-meister,” if that’s really his focus, but when it’s all about giving out the stuff, and then more stuff– well, the guy needs to stand up for his principles.  Let’s get back to the core of the man: not necessarily a tale of saints and devils who come for your children, but at least the tale of the saint.

Be jolly–yes, please be jolly– but also please be Saint Nicholas.

Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten . . . 


*Nikolaus, Nicholas, Nicolas–so many traditions, so many spellings.

December 6th–Nikolaustag (St. Nikolaus Day)

Father Christmas at Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, England.
Father Christmas at Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, England.

Happy Nikolaustag, aka Boot Night.

December 6th is St. Nicholas Day in Germany.  Children put boots out for St. Nicholas before going to bed on December 5th, and he visits during the night.  If they’ve been good, St. Nick fills the boot with goodies, but if they’ve been bad, they wake up to a bootful of twigs.   Yum.

The traditions in Germany are complicated and St. Nick is often found in the company of a less inviting sidekick–so the presence of a naughtly or nice list and the threat of twigs (or worse) is a bit more sinister than in the U.S.  But more about that in a few days.

For now, just place a boot by the mantel or on the front stoop and see what happens by morning.  If you’ve been good, you’ll wake up to candies or a toy.  If you’ve been bad. . .well, you’ve already had your fun, so what are you complaining about!