epiphany’s eve: the midnight whispers
legends enchant me. stories passed from generation to generation. stories passed from village to village, hearth to hearth. legends are the stuff of story and wisdom. one part enticement and charm, along with a dollop of take-away.
and so i found myself enchanted when i tumbled upon a legend i’d not heard before. it popped from the pages of strega nona’s gift, a storybook my faraway forever best friend mailed me this week.
as i learned while turning the pages, the month of december is one filled with feasts, all of which insist on stirrings in the kitchen. it begins with st. nick (dec. 6), flows to santa lucia (dec. 13), then it’s Christmas eve’s feast of the seven fishes (dec. 24), followed swiftly by the midnight feast of Christmas (dec. 25), and new year’s eve’s feast of san silvestro (dec. 31) when red underwear, for unknown reasons, is required (note to self: go shopping).
it seems those italians do not stop: they roll the feasting straight into january, which is where this story picks up. according to strega nona, my new guide to january feasting, the eve of epifiana — that’s epiphany, from the greek, “to appear” — once again finds everyone cooking. but this time it’s for the beasts and birds, the wee scamperers and the lumbering furry fellows.
“there was a legend that at midnight on the eve of epiphany all the animals could speak to each other. it was because the ox and the donkey kept the baby Jesus warm with their breath in the manger.
“so the villagers wanted to give their animals a feast…”
and that’s all the prompt i needed. (although if you read along, you find the motivation is merely to squelch the chance of midnight gossip among the animals, lest they peg you as a stingy old cheapskate who feeds them not. which i’d say squeezes some of the charm out of the equation.)
for years now, my annual feast for the birds is a ritual of the longest night, the winter solstice. i make suet cakes, string cranberries, heap a mound of seed into the feeders. as darkness blankets the hours, i make certain my flocks are fed, and fed amply.
so now i’ve another excuse. and in honor of the ox and the donkey who bowed down, who warmed the newborn babe with their breath (as exquisite a furnace as i’ve ever imagined), i baked more cakes, melted more suet, stirred in plump raisins and nuts and seeds. i tossed with abandon last night, the eve of today’s epiphany. i filled the old bird bath that now serves as my trough. scattered cakes and crumbs near the french doors, so i could peek at the merriment come morning.
and sure enough. not long after dawn, as i wandered out to refill the terra cotta saucer that serves as my birds’ winter bath, there before me was one big fat mama raccoon, holding a cake in both of her nimble long-fingered fists.
she glanced up but didn’t flinch. she seemed not to mind that i was trespassing quite near to her breakfast. nor that i was offering a warm drink besides. (alas, she didn’t mutter a single word, nothing close to a thanks for the chow; so much for the midnight whispers. although she might insist i’d missed the chatter by a good six hours.)
and now i’ve a new excuse for spoiling my herds and my flocks (i like to think of them in masses, as it makes me feel like the shepherd i long to be). there is something deeply comforting in imagining that i’m the guardian of my critters, in hoping they can depend on me to keep their bellies full.
it’s a simple notion indeed. but it charms me to no end, and satisfies the tug to be God’s caretaker of all creatures, great and small and in between. in a world that sometimes leaves me gasping for breath, making a feast for my wild things is balm. especially on a morning when it’s 15 below. and the ‘coon at my door comes knocking.
what are the feasts that prompt you to stir in the kitchen? and is epiphany, the feast of the three kings, or wise fellows, among the ones that stir you?
sometimes it’s called little christmas, and for me it’s a quiet pause, the last inhale of merriment, before we return to so-called “ordinary time.” may your epiphany be filled with quiet and wonder, and a bright star in your night sky.
one last legend, in short form: the italians also celebrate epiphany with the story of befana, a soot-splattered old woman, sometimes called “the christmas witch.” in the version i love best, a few days before baby Jesus was born, the wise men stopped to ask befana for directions to the manger where Mary and Joseph and the newborn babe would be found. she hadn’t a clue, but offered the travelers a room for the night. come morning, the trio invited her to come along, to meet the Christ child. she declined, saying she had too much housework (therein lies the learning that one oughtn’t be waylaid by mopping; you never know what you’ll miss). once the kings had gone on their way, the old lady had a change of heart. covered in soot, cloaked in a deep-black shawl, carrying her broomstick, she set out in search for baby Jesus. to this day, the story goes, she’s still searching. and as she travels from house to house, on epiphany, she leaves behind fruits and sweets for the good children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the ones who are naughty.
merry blessed epiphany.
This post is every kind of wonderful! Your feathered and furry friends are blessed indeed to live near you. The photo of your momma raccoon is a fit with that two word caption: breakfast, interrupted! I’m still chuckling! Hope you do trundle out to find those red jammies. You and red jammies were meant for each other!! ❤️ xoxo
well, red-and-white-striped jammies i DO have (thank you hanna andersson), it’s the (shhhh) red undies i’m missing. and, according to legend, it must be underdrawers for the good luck to be had. maybe that explains things.
i’ve more than an inkling that you, too, make cakes for your critters, all tied up in bows…….
I guess I think of long red underwear, which is what I was imagining here, as jammies!
oh, maybe you’re right! i THOUGHT they meant the other kind of undies. but maybe long johns, which i used to have in red, will do the trick.
Perfect timing! My friend in the hospital had stale, blest bread, given to her by the priest, which she said had to be scattered to the birds. (Greek Orthodox) And so I did on this holy night! I have always mourned that few Americans celebrate Epiphany or twelfth night anymore. Now you have given me more reason to do so. And BB&Beyond has 50%off of lovely red toile comforter sets….thought of you!
i LOVE that blest bread, Greek Orthodox bread, is the stuff of your epiphany feast! and i love that you were the messenger who ferried it from the hospital to the hordes. bless you for all you do and are…..
Oh, how I love this, bam! I’d always heard the legend as the animals spoke at midnight Christmas morn. A tradition that fell by the wayside was to clean and feed all the pets, in celebration as well as to avoid their bad-mouthing the help (me) as the clock struck 12. In my younger years, the group included 20-some turtles and a 5-foot caiman, Truffle. One Christmas Eve, as I had the glass top off the caiman’s large tank and was lugging in 5-gallon buckets of clean water, the phone rang. The phone lived on the floor in the hall outside the reptile room. Well into the chat, I noticed a long chin, and then a front foot, coming over the top of the big tank. With a shout of “Truffle, DOWN!” and a curt, “Susan, gotta go!” I dashed back to coax Truf back into her tank (she understood verbal cues beautifully). Susan has never forgotten that conversation! I MUST get that book!
And yes, I celebrate Epiphany, keeping tree, manger set and other decorations, and linens up until Jan. 6. The house is always so drab Jan. 7. But as I tuck beloved keepsakes back into their boxes, I whisper that I’ll see them again next Christmas (if the fates allow), and our short time together makes them so much more special to me.
Happy, blessed New Year! ,
oh, my! this is exhibit A of what i love about the chair: we are a crew who counts among us a keeper of 20-some turtles and a caiman named Truffle! a five-foot caiman, mind you! (look that up in your encyclopedias, folks, and think “cousin of alligator” while doing so!). i must admit that i have no real cold-blooded friends in my flock. but your story is magnificent. and i love that in your version of the legend, cleaning as well as feeding was part of the plan.
next year i will remember to tidy up for the birds, the squirrels, the opossums, and the family of fine raccoons.
i love your last sentence with my whole heart.
bless you, bless all the chairs, and they critters who keep us all company. xoxoxo
For the record, so Illinois DNR doesn’t come after me, only 14 turtles, two birds now, no caiman. Not legal to keep crocodilians anymore, and probably a good thing for them. But it was crazy fun way back when.
fear not. we wouldn’t have whispered a word. but always good to keep the DNR off your back. i cannot imagine a more meticulous and loving caretaker of whoever joins your menagerie.
I have had a great interest in Christmas stories and customs for most of my life. I think it started with my Grandmother’s tale of St Nicholas coming to her first grade classroom. If they could answer the catechism questions, they received the gift with their name on it from his sack. I was intrigued by her telling of the story. Grandmom sitting in her rocker, looking back through much time and life, I could almost see the good bishop and his sack and feel the anxiety. And then the joy of the gift – a toy coal stove, just the right size for her doll!
Later, I learned that other countries had customs that were so interesting. Now I have a small collection of books that I delight to review at Christmas. And, quite a collection of cookie and pastry recipes that we have enjoyed through the years!
My family always kept the 12 days of Christmas plus a few more! My Dad’s birthday was the 7th and the decorations were left up till the weekend after his day. That is a tradition I still keep!
I want to tell you about a book I found at the library a few years ago: Revelation of the Magi, the Lost Tale of the Three Wise Men [translated by] Brent Landau. He translated a document he found in the Vatican Library. I found it a fascinating read. You might too.
oh my gracious, i LOVE a great book recommendation, and i am intrigued by one translated from a document found in the vatican library. talk about a sacred vault!
i think i am keeping your family’s tradition, because i still can’t seem to bear stripping the lights off the tree, and taking the sweet thing outside. it’s been such a fine tree this year, bringing much needed woodland and light into the house.
headed to the library tomorrow — once i finally take down the little fat tree…….
There is a wonderful children’s book called the Crippled Lamb which I was reminded of when reading your post. If you haven’t come across it, it’s worth trying to find.
Happy New Year and Peace
oh my goodness, i am struck by the title, and will search it out right away. what a blessing to find you here, dear jane, always a tender spirit, always a beacon of light. i am so touched. blessed new year and new year’s peace to you, too.
Nice post, interesting to read it !
About Three Kings: I invite for my post about that celebration in Spain:
it’s wonderful to know this is celebrated around the world, with everyone bringing a particular magic to the celebration. thank you much for dropping in!
In a post-Christmas sale on the Bas Bleu website (“booksellers by post”), I succumbed to curiosity and bought “Certain Poor Shepherds” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. It’s the moving but unsentimental story of two shepherds–a goat and a herding dog–who follow the sight, and scent, of a strange new star in the east. The story details the adventure, and danger, of herding the flock to the Nativity in Bethlehem and back (because, of course, they would never abandon their charges). In the harsh life of working animals, their encounters with angels are especially touching. This is a book for children, but the author, an expert in animal behavior, has penned a sophisticated and satisfying Christmas story for adults too. I just finished it, and for those who have a Christmas bookshelf, I recommend this addition.
Wow, I love this! Love book review contributions from the chairs, and love that you tracked it down! You know you’ve stirred my curiosities! Thank you snd bless you!