January 6, 2007
Last night was a chapter out of fairyland; a sojourn into a vanished realm that exists only in stories and songs—and in the very lively imagination of crazy people like Philip and me. 😉 I’m sitting here in my den this January afternoon with a pot of fragrant Winter Garden tea and an even more fragrant clementine, my Advent wreath lighted for the last time against the deepening sunset outside and a Mozart quintet on the record player, trying to convince myself that this sweet Christmas holiday was more than a dream. And no part of it seemed more dream-like than the Twelfth Night Revel we held here last night…
I don’t think I’ve ever been so blue about the holidays drawing to close as I was this year. Every moment was so precious that I literally watched them pass with a sigh and even a few tears. And when Philip went back to work on Tuesday and I was confronted with a quiet house and a mountain of laundry and a good-sized hill of dead greenery, it was all I could not to crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my head. It’s the price I pay for all my Christmas sentiment, I am well aware, and worth all its sweet pain. But something had to be done. And to my melancholy mind there appeared but one option: we had to throw a party.
So we invited our friends to a Twelfth Night Revel. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for ages, but with it falling on Friday this year—coupled with the desperate need I had for festivity—it seemed the very moment in time for such a frolic. So Philip got the bonfire ready and put out the chairs in a wide arc around it, and I decorated our big copper lanterns with wired-on greenery and doled out food assignments with each RSVP. I set up tables for the pots of chili and the platters of cornbread and the bowls of salad that were coming and spread them with branches of pine and big, ferny sprigs of cedar, interjected by tall glass hurricanes with white tapers. The front hall was cleared for dancing, and the chandelier was woven with a wreath of ivy and strung with bright crepe paper, red and green, that extended in winding ribbons to the four corners of the room. I made an enormous pan of Mexican cornbread and a pot of my favorite ‘White Christmas chili’ and took the remaining cookies I had made out of the freezer.
And all through the preparations the day of the party I listened to the thunder rumble and watched the rain falling outside—a veritable monsoon—and fielded phone calls from anxious friends.
“Are we still on for tonight?”
“Who would have thought we’d have such weather in January?”
“Well, we could always eat in the house…”
I laughed and soothed and projected the weather as best I could. But not, I confess, with an untroubled heart. It just seemed like our whole beautiful holiday would end on a flat note if our bonfire was rained out. Not to mention the fact that I had no back-up plan for seating the hungry hordes that would soon be descending upon us. And so I prayed roughly a dozen or so of those desperate little pleading requests: “Oh, Lord! I know that there are a million-and-one other things tremendously more important in the scheme of the world than whether it rains on our party or not—but oh, please, please let it clear up!”
There was nothing else to be done but continue with the preparations and hope for the best. The forecast was quite dour; the heavy-laden clouds that kept rolling in from the west were too disheartening to look at. It poured on Philip all the way home from the office. But at five-thirty a miracle occurred. I don’t hesitate in the least to call it a miracle, albeit a small one, for in it I heard the Lord say ‘I love you’ just as clearly as if it had been an audible voice. (And is it not those little personal miracles that show us—perhaps best of all—His great and lovely tenderness?) A glint of gold appeared in the west, piercing the leaden mantle with arrows of light. In a matter of moments the whole sky was suffused with a glory of saffron and apricot, crowning the tops of the trees in splendor and brimming the pasture below with a light-filled mist. I dropped my dishcloth and stood out the window, perfectly transfixed. My heart was filled with praise, for not only had God allowed the weather to clear up, He had done it in the most beautiful way imaginable. Every drop on every branch was a living gem, sparkling and flashing as if for joy. Birdsongs sweetened the already vernal air and Philip and I wandered about in the yard, laughing at how gorgeous it suddenly all was. I thought of the words to a song we’ve sung much this Christmas, All hayle to the days:
December is seene appareled in greene, and January fresh as May
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song to drive the cold winter away.
As twilight fell the world only became more glamorous: the mist rolled up along the terraces in the pasture and crept over the lawn, and stars winked out in the velvet overhead.
“I feel like we’re in Merry Olde England!” I cried to Philip.
“Or Ireland!” he supplied.
“Or Scotland!” I exulted.
It was certainly all magical enough, and only more so when all our friends began arriving with shouts of ‘Happy New Year!’ and the bonfire began leaping heavenward and the children started running to and fro in the darkness, heaping my withered holly branches and dried pine garlands onto the blaze. When we gathered for the blessing, I couldn’t help subjecting our guests to a brief—and, to me, at least—an undeniably fitting little reading:
Christmas hath made an end,
Which was my dearest friend,
More is the pity!
For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart,
To follow plow and cart
All the year after!
It grieves me to the heart,
From my friend to depart,
More is the pity!
Christmas, I fear ’tis thee
That thus forsaketh me:
Yet for one hour, I see,
Will I be merry.
There certainly was great merry-making around the fire that night. Sparklers for the children and bottle rockets and Roman candles for the boys and men. Old English games like ‘Christmas Candle’ and ‘Snapdragon’ that Philip and I dug out of an old book. Mirth and good cheer as Christmas trees were added to the blaze sending the flames a good forty feet into the air. After seconds and thirds of dinner had been dispensed with, my friend Rachel and I gathered all of the little girls for a special procession of the wassail and the Twelfth Night cake—which had been duly prepared with the traditional bean, pea and clove planted somewhere in its spiced depths, the discovery of which would determine the king, queen and knave, respectively, for the evening. We rehearsed our wassailing song quietly in the shadows of the great walnut tree and lit green sparklers on the cake before making our solemn way across the backyard down to the fire.
Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green!
And here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen!
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy new year!
And God send you a happy new year!
The cake was presented amid a spontaneous burst of applause and was duly sliced and distributed by the girls to the eager guests, each desirous of their status in the hierarchy of the night. My mother’s dear friend, Wendy, was the knave, I plucked the pea from my piece of cake with an air of queenly triumph, and the king obviously swallowed his bean unnoticed and will henceforth go uncrowned. (We’ll just say it was Philip…)
There were Twelfth Night carols and Epiphany songs after that, and the inevitable Twelve Days of Christmas. And we closed on the rousing note of The Gloucestershire Wassail, each time I thought we were done another guest calling out another verse:
“The butler verse!”
“The maid verse!”
“Verse one, again!”
When all but a set’s worth (and those acquainted with Scottish or English country dancing will know what that implies) had taken their leave with many a hopeful word for ‘next year’, Philip and his brother polished off the bottle rockets while my sister-in-law and I looked on from a safe distance and savored the fun we’d already had and the enchantments abroad in earth and sky. A clear golden moon had risen early upon our festivities, out of a vaporous fog that cloaked the trees and made its light a mysterious thing. There was the closeness of the dew and the bewitchery of woodsmoke in the air. We looked up through the moonlit trees overhead and commented on how the drops that still clung to their bare limbs looked like stars all tangled in the branches. But only fitting on a night so fraught with faeirie…
Coffee and wassail and cookies in the house after that for the hearty and hale that had stayed for the dancing. Postie’s Jig and Corn Rigs and Frost and Snow were executed with commendable good spirit, despite—or, perhaps, because of—the fact that for the first time ever we had more gentlemen than ladies and a couple of un-named guys had to cross the set and dance as girls! The candles wavered in their sconces as we romped by and the crepe paper fluttered overhead. And when we were all too tired to dance anymore, we flopped on the floor, the stairs, the remaining seats, and smiled sleepily at one another.
But despite my weariness, when we said goodbye and closed the door for the last time, I turned to Philip with a look of elation. My Christmas was complete; my holiday wrapped up like a present from God in one last lovely memory. We had said a worthy farewell to the dearest season of the year, toasted its memory with our laughter and songs.
And it’s only forty-six more weeks till I can start decking my halls again!
originally published at YLCF, January 2007
and here’s one last little song for good measure… 😉
Happy 12th Night, Dear Ones!