Christmas Traditions: The Twelve Days

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Every time I hear this carol it makes me smile, for more than one reason. It brings back my days as a preschool teacher, when the class knew few of the lyrics other than “five gold rings”, which they would sing out at the top of their lungs at the appropriate time every stanza. It also reminds me of my son, who when little loved to sing “a partridge apitch a pear tree. “

But here in America, Christmas really last only 2 days, so what’s this about 12?

Of course it has its roots in the Christmas story itself, when the three Magi took a journey of twelve days to find and visit the baby Jesus. This idea seems to have come to life in medieval Europe, where celebrations started on Christmas Eve and continued till the eve of Epiphany, the 5th of January. Epiphany itself, January 6th, is the day commemorating the arrival of the Magi. The Yule log was kept burning throughout this interval, and it was a bad omen if extinguished or allowed to go out. One of Shakespeare’s comedies is called Twelfth Night, which was a festive occasion involving serious revelry and elaborate disguises, frequently with men dressing as women and vice versa. A special cake baked with a bean inside was served, with the bean finder honored as King of Queen of the day and served by all, including his/her betters. Another manifestation was the choosing of  a Lord of Misrule to direct all the mayhem and hilarity.

What about the gifts in the carol? Who needs all those musicians and animals anyway? It is thought by some that the gifts are actually all from God, the”true Love” of the song, but this cannot be proved by existing evidence. But it’s interesting to think about it this way.

partridge = Jesus Christ

2 turtledoves = the Old and New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope and charity

4 calling birds = the four gospels

5 gold rings = the first 5 books of the Old Testament

6 geese alaying = the 6 days of creation

7 swans aswimming = the 7 sacraments

8 maids amilking = the 8 beatitudes

9 ladies dancing = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 lords aleaping = the 10 Commandments

11 pipers piping = the 11 faithful apostles

12 drummers drumming = the 12 tenets of the Apostle’s Creed.

Horrors: The Man in the Moss, by Phil Rickman

The Man in the MossBridelow Black

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Things are about to change in the ancient village of Bridelow, in western England. Folks here are Christian, but have always adhered to their Celtic roots, and the Mother holds as much power here as the Christ. First, the brewery, producer of Bridelow Black, the famous local bitter, is sold, throwing most of the locals out of work. Then the Anglican priest, who well understands the need to coexist in this place, falls ill, and is replaced by a born again preacher who views Bridelow as an evil, pagan, abomination of a place. The final blow connects when an ancient bog body is discovered in the Moss, the huge peat bog through which the village is accessed. Revered wise woman, Ma Wagstaff, knows something’s afoot, and the signals are not beneficent. Little does she realize…..

There are many interesting and colorful characters in Man, just as there are in all of Rickman’s work. The three central ones are Moira Cairns, a folk singer, Matt Castle, the Celtic musician who gave Moira her start, and Mungo Macbeth (really!), an American film maker in search of his roots. They will all play crucial roles in a diabolical plot planned by Bridelow’s “bad boy”, exiled years ago but dying to return.

Rickman’s strengths lie in his ability to conjure a sense of time, place, and psyche. His shadings and subtleties are dense and evocative, his characters real and true, whether good or evil. The Man in the Moss is categorized as horror, but it is much, much more.

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Paranormal Fiction: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffeneffer

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Audrey Niffenegger follows up the success of The Time Traveller’s Wife with another excursion into the paranormal, with a compelling tale about a identical twins, Valentina and Julia, and their inheritance of their Aunt Elspeth’s London estate on the borders of Highgate Cemetery. Elspeth is also a twin, estranged sister to the girls’ own mother. In the two flats above and below the girls live two men, Martin, who suffers from severe OCD, and Robert, who is distraught at the loss of Elspeth, his lover. As time passes, the girls each become involved with one of those men. They also discover the presence of a spirit in their new home.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a tour de force, a unique novel about relationships that tells much of the story from the point of view of the ghost. Most of the action takes place either in the apartment building or in the neighboring, highly atmospheric graveyard. Each of the important characters is emotionally disabled, and each fears the loss of the person they most love. As they interact amongst themselves, their strengths and weaknesses become increasingly apparent. The creepiness level rises very slowly, and while the first revelation is less than shocking, the second is a stunner. This is a novel that invites the reader to seriously ponder the choices that are made, along with their repercussions. Even without the paranormal aspects, this book would be powerful.

With Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger joins the ranks of such skilled genre icons as Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin.

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How Lorenzo Dow raised the devil

Quoted from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Phillips

Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was travelling in the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home and she could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her and she reluctantly let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude partition with many cracks in it.

After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow heard a man’s drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door, and demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he, returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning, beside the fireplace. Once inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted wife told him about the Rev. Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife’s word for the identity of the houseguest.

“Well, now,” roared the husband, “I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the devil. I think I’d like to see him do it — right here and now.” Before the devil could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. “Rev’rend,” he bellowed, “I want you to raise the devil. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, “Well, if you insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room.” The husband opened the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame. Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow’s major miracles!

Paranormal Fiction: Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

5.0 out of 5 stars No Valentine

An aging rocker with a penchant for the grotesque and for using and discarding women. His only truly warm feelings seem to be saved for his dogs. Dogs, after all, love you no matter what. A young, beautiful groupie, who, like all the others, wants more that Jude can bring himself to give. When he buys the ghost advertised on an online auction, and opens the box it arrives in, everything changes in an instant, and life will never be the same for either of them (or for the dogs!)
Heart Shaped Box is a modern ghost story full of almost believable supernatural threats. Following Jude and Mary Beth as they scour first their intellects, then their instincts, and finally their very souls, trying desperately to evade the deaths that seem inevitable, is a captivating experience. Fast paced, literate, and tailor made for those dark and stormy nights.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1 edition (February 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061147931

Author Joe Hill is the son of another master of the horror genre, Stephen King.

Padre Pio and Me

I just throw out this little story because it’s interesting but may or may not be particularly meaningful.

Time: summer of 2004, about 6 PM

Place: Praiano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast

My husband Tony and I were vacationing in paradise. We’d rented an idyllic little house in a real neighborhood in Praiano – views of the Mediterranean, Positano, and in a prime position to experience everyday life high above the tourist route. We’d decided to go to the festival of the San Luca, at the church that was perched even higher than our house.

Now, on the corner of our street, there was a statue of 20th century holy man, Padre Pio. When we reached his statue, we knew to turn right.

We’d decided to walk up to the piazza of the church to witness the procession, after which there was a festival with music, food and fireworks. It was a beautiful evening, and we set out for the 1/2 mile walk to the piazza. As we reached Pio’s statue, my left foot slid beneath me, and I skidded along the pavement for a few feet with my right foot twisted under me. Tony helped me up, and above the strap of my sandal, the instep of myfoot was torn and bleeding. Ow, ow, ow…..

Determined not to miss the festa, we continued on, Tony walking and me hobbling. We arrived a bit early and found seats on the wall near the church, eventually attending the service, the procession, and the celebration afterwards. My foot continued to ooze, and we joked a bit about a message from Padre Pio, who, of course is believed to have had stigmata on hands and feet.

I still have the scar. And the memory.

“Relics” of John Paul II not for sale

Rome, Sep. 25, 2007 (

Officials of the Rome diocese have scaled back a campaign to distribute relics of the late Pope John Paul II , after a spate of media reports forced Church officials to clarify that the relics were not for sale.

Officials promoting the cause for the beatification of the late Polish Pontiff have offered prayer cards, accompanied by a piece of the Pope’s cassock, to anyone interested. The prayer cards have been available through the official web site of the beatification cause.

During the past week, several Italian newspapers reported– inaccurately– that relics of the late Pope were for sale, and the Rome office was deluged with requests for the prayer cards. But Church officials were alarmed by the stories, and hastened to clarify that the prayer cards were being offered free of charge.

To clear up misconceptions about the offer, the Rome diocese reproduced an interview with Msgr. Marco Frisina, originally published in Totus Tuus, the magazine associated with the cause for beatification of John Paul II. “You can absolutely never buy or sell relics of any type because they are something sacred, they don’t have a price,” Msgr. Frisina said. He added that the sale of relics is a sacrilege.

The prayer cards offered through the internet site of the Rome vicariate are small pieces of a cassock once worn by the late Pope. The site had carried a prominent invitation to visitors to order one of the cards, asking for a voluntary donation to defray the costs. That invitation has now been removed from the site.

The prayer cards– which could be classified as ex indumetis relics, since they were worn by the late Pope– remain available through the same site. But officials emphasize that they are not for sale. An explanatory note on the site explains:

There is no donation being asked for the “relic” itself, rather we ask for donations from those who can give to help cover the costs of postage in responding to the thousands of requests we have received from overseas. However, we will send the holy cards with the ex indumentis to all who request them.

Vatican officials have been troubled by the open sale of relics– real and fake– through the internet. Last year the Vatican brought heavy pressure to bear on vendors around St. Peter’s Square who were offering questionable “relics” of the late Pope John Paul, and successfully persuaded the vendors to stop the sales.