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Category: tradition

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.

img_8844and 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.


breakfast, interrupted

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.

being e. bunn

when i signed up for this being-a-mama thing, there are many points i failed to adequately ponder.

(we’ll not dive, not today anyway, into some of those matters that i might wisely have run through the almighty thinker, that mass of cells between my ears, that might better have equipped me for this madre job. we’ll leave that for a less auspicious day. this, after all, is countdown week for judy garland belting song of easter bonnet and said parade.)

certainly, in days b.c. (before child, that would be), i never grasped the charm, the pure delight, of packing joy, delivering it, complete with jelly beans, in a straw-braided basket. the easter basket, of course.

the santa thing, i might have given thought. you know, some winter’s afternoon, as a pouty post-believing child, flung (with requisite drama) upon my bed, legs cocked at the knees and crossed, kicking foot up in the air. thinking: when i grow, i’m going to be one heck of a santa. i’ll not forget the china teaset, the one with tiny painted flowers.

but easter? who spent much time considering the occupational upside of mr. e. bunn, esq.?

the basket, while i do recall a spectacular sponge paint set when i was 5, was, in the house where i grew up, more pure sugar rush, ten grubby little hands racing to the pink-and-purple plastic baskets, inhaling beans, then dashing off to rest of resurrected morning.

i failed to grasp the paschal possibility.

i would say i rather stumbled into the rabbit hole, into the unexpected magic of tiptoeing through the night, leaving trail of cut-out bunny feets, and hiding the basket of just-hatched tenderness in a place that, come morning, little feets would have to find.

there is something, something far beyond charming, about slipping inside these make-believe, oversized, dispatchers of joy, be it the one with wiggly tail or the chap with jiggly belly.

there is something that almost takes your breath away when you realize, poof, you’re all grown up, and you now are the one who, with your brush of many hues, shades and colors the someday stories, the memories, of what it was to grow up in the house where you preside.

it’s up to you, you realize, you who tucks tenderness in a basket, to tenderize the hearts of those who traipse through the land where children romp. at least in your house.

but, indeed, i have discovered, and now, myself, i practically jiggle with the wonder that it brings, that nowadays i get to pack the baskets for those little sparkling eyes, the ones that, certainly, will be up and out from under covers, rubbing, shouting some early-morning merriment, as they stumble down the stairs and round the bend, ultra-sonic easter radar leading them without wrong turn straight to where the sugar, in several forms, awaits.

before we get too far on that sugar thought, let me toss this sad disclaimer, admit this thing that might make you sigh a sigh; say, phew, thank heaven i wasn’t born to that ol’ mama. here’s the sorry truth: i don’t do unending sugar at easter. it’s not about sugar in this house.

it’s about something far, far sweeter.

and that, i think, is why i love it so.

i have a someone, a sandra sweetpea, who taught me how to do easter. instructed me in easter basket 101. like many things she taught me, she hasn’t a clue, really, how deep the lessons she imparted. there was no hand-out. no quiz, or chapter review.

instead there was a little shop, a shop called sweetpea, a shop of natural toys and classic books, a shop where imagination unlocked the door and set the stories spinning. sandra was the shopkeeper. and if you studied the way she gathered things, the tender, earth-spun beauty she gathered in her shop, in baskets, on antique bookshelves, tucked in woodland scenes that you swore the fairies might have visited, then you learned a thing or ten about quietly offering a whole other sort of being a child.

being a child–or a mama or a papa or a someone with child heart–who listens to the rhythms of the season, who understands the gift in playing richly with simple child’s toys, who breathes in the magic of a beautifully spun storybook.

it was like a refuge and a respite from the worldly, that little shop on southport in chicago. i’d pull back the door, a bell would tinkle, and then, surely, sandra would appear from behind a curtain, all sparkling eye and wisdom. quietly, without words sometimes, she’d lead me by the hand to something full of beauty. she would laugh her marvelous grown-up-little-girl laugh, and i would see the magic. then she might spend a minute telling me about the marvelous soul who tromped the woods, carved the elfin house, spun the wool, dyed the cloth from flower petals or vegetable scrapings. i would stand there, spell-bound.

my children’s toy chests were never stuffed. but they were rich in things–an elf’s tree house, rows of books, simple blocks–that will last forever.

and so it was sandra who taught me easter baskets, too. to go to sweetpea for easter, my pilgrimage each holy week, was to come home with a finger-sized bunny so sweet i’d want to carry him to bed with me (or feed him itsy-bitsy carrots). a book or two, the pages splashed with springtime colors. some little pack of seeds, forget-me-not, or carrot. just enough to whisper, the earth is waking up from winter’s slumber. all life is new, rejoice.

and so it was the other day that i wandered back to where sandra now presides. the sweden shop, it’s called, but i like to think of it as the swede pea. for it seems she’s transplanted plenty of her magic there. (her sweetpea, sadly, closed.)

the little bunny smiling from above–sandra, who is quite something with thread and needle, made him. stuffed him first with lavender, real lavender, from someone’s garden. then she stitched him up. when you rub his belly, lightly, with just the press of your finger, the lavender wafts. i bought two. one has little button eyes and nose. of course, i bought a book. a book from green tiger press (collectors of breathtaking, knee-buckling illustrations from days past), a book called, “the truth about easter rabbits.” of course, i bought a pack of carrot seeds. and a big fat orange carrot stuffed with all orange jelly beans.

come saturday night, when all is clear (i can’t promise quiet, since my littlest rabbit has made quite a habit of hopping out of bed in recent weeks), i will make like e. bunny himself, and gather my new-life wares. i will tuck simple magic in a basket. i will smile all the while. it is hard not to melt when tucking easter in a basket.

i will make one basket for each boy in this house, and then i will tiptoe to a hiding place. when all is finally still, i will sprinkle pink construction-paper rabbit feet and baby carrots from edge of beds through the hall, down the stairs where the trail will then diverge, one branch south and one southwest. each boy is on his own to find what easter brings.

and i’ll stand off in a corner, softly soaking in the joy. no one told me how sweet it is to play the easter bunny. and that, perhaps, is the sweetest secret ever. one i’ll not stop, ever, believing wholly in.

oh, if only i could, i’d make a lovely basket for every one of you. the house would be so filled, there’d be lavender wafting everywhere. and plenty of old-fashioned carrot bunches, complete with carrot tops, those leafy greens that are, perhaps, the crowning glory of every bam-made easter basket.
do you, or you, or you, find joy in being a big invisible bunny? and do you have any secret things you always search for in a basket of your own making?

over and out

if, in my leafy little town, they give a prize for last one out to the garbage bins, i think i might be a winner. although some around here might call me a loser. a big fat christmas tree loser.

there was a wind change over the weekend. light changed too. suddenly the december in my backyard looked a little dated. it was like i got the itch.

after weeks of not noticing the spruce faded to not-so-spruce faded to brown, suddenly everywhere i looked it was blkkhh, that color that knows no redemption.

there seem to be two overarching developments out my door (notice we now move beyond the passive looking through window of winter, we advance to actual tiptoeing through door into, voila, out-doors, an early exercise of spring): we’ve got squish, and we’ve got browning.

everywhere you walk, a little water wobbles up from underneath the earth. the final days of winter sticking out their tongues. and then there’s the brown. olive brown, the color of the lawn (or what’s left of it). brown brown, the color of the christmas greens long past their expiration date.

okay, so i surrendered. at last i got the message. hey, lady, your christmas trees are overdue. we’ll see if the garbage man lays on a fine.

i find, as i haul my beloved trees, the ones whose branches harbored so many english sparrows through the most blizzardy of days, the ones in which the juncoes played a sprightly peek-a-boo, that i am pure, plain, sad.

i am decidedly not so good at change. not change of any sort. i–once a catholic school girl confined to the same plaid skirt and navy sweater for eight long years–still look down and find myself wearing a variation on a theme day after blessed day. i am a girl not good at shifting gears.

not even when the gear is shifting from one season to the next. or maybe it’s just leaving winter that makes me pine.
i know there will come a day, come a day quite soon perhaps, when the earth is bursting. when every morning i will be drawn from my bed before dawn to go check the progress in the beds. to see if the delphinium has bloomed, to check the hyacinth unfurling. to keep a mama’s eye–if i’m really blessed–on some mama bird and her baby brood, nesting on a low branch, where i can monitor the long, dramatic road from egg to flight.

but that is not now. right now i am grinding gears. finding the loss of winter just a tad bit sad.

it was not for lack of wishing, wishing for one more morning’s waking up to white, to white that shooshes and silences the sound of a world that sometimes needs a blizzard to slow down, that i finally succumbed and swallowed hard as i unscrewed the screws of the ol’ christmas tree stands and slung the sorry branches over my shoulder, down the path, to back where the garbage trucks do their rumble.

i think of all the things i’ll miss about winter: the sweaters pulled tight, and wrapped around; the frost that swoops and swirls on windowpanes; the crackle of the logs, burning, tumbling from the grate, collapsing in a red inferno of wintry glow. the shock of papa cardinal’s scarlet coat against the all-white tableau of snow, snow and more snow.

the sanctuary of being tucked in a cozy farmhouse kitchen looking out at a winter world of which i am in awe. the contemplative nature of the season that draws us all deep into the back of our cave, where i, curled up under a blanket, with a book, with my thoughts, find deep fuel for the year ahead.

i will await the tender shoots pushing through the earth. the first signs of color amid the brown and ooze. i will, i know, be swept up into spring. but right now, i am feeling empty for the branches no longer there to hold my sparrows.

is there, anywhere in the whole wide world, a single other soul who sadly waves goodbye to winter? or at least to the poetry of winter? certainly not to buckling little boots and stuffing little arms into puffy sleeves, certainly not to cars fishtailing down the lane, but to the beauty of the season that demands retreat to the inner recesses of our shivering soul?

if you missed the first go-around about making bird sanctuaries of christmas trees, take a peek back in the archives to christmas tree leftovers….

coronary care

it’s pretty much the essence around here. the reason we’re in business, you might say. it’s what pull up a chair is really all about. saying i love you. in ways that otherwise fly under the radar.

leave the billboards alongside the highway to someone else, please. never mind airplanes dragging propositions through clouds. giant bouquets of long-stemmed fleurs rouge? they’re fine, but no thank you.

i’d rather do whimsy. tuck love under a napkin. spoon it into the batter. sprinkle it onto the pillow. maybe even into a tub that’s all sudsy.

i’d rather make it a game. give it some thought. tickle the brain.

i like love folded in triangles and slid into lunch bags. i like love scrambled in eggs, eggs dabbled pink for the day. i like love cut in red paper hearts, laid out in a trail from the edge of the bed, down the stairs, through the front hall, past the old stove, right up to the heart-laden table, where love leaps onto your lips when you pucker and bite into a fat, juicy berry in winter.

i’m pretty sure i’ve been a child of hearts ever since i could pick up a pencil and scribble. i like nothing so much as a big stack of construction paper, decidedly pink and red, topped off with a pair of squiggly scissors. i cut to my heart’s content. doesn’t matter if it’s february or not. i do hearts twelve months a year. but the hearts of today, they are perhaps the finest of hearts. they have a little more oomph than some of the others. a little more sparkle, you know.

i’ve been pondering this national feast day of hearts. and i’m thinking that we should start counting. count all the ways that there are to spell out i love you to those whom you love with, well, all of your heart. i’ve already started, dropped little love crumbs, just up above.

so here, counting by numbers, a dozen and two ways to spell love, to say love, to pound out a love tune from your very own heart into the heart of the ones who you love…

1.) quick, grab a scissors. cut as many red hearts as you can possibly cut.

2.) make a paper heart trail from the edge of your little one’s bed (or even the bed of your big love) to some undisclosed location, say, maybe the kitchen, where the whole day unfolds.

3.) set the kitchen table with all things red and pink.

4.) go crazy with doilies. they are the accessory of choice for this festival of frills, morning ‘til night.

5.) sprinkle tiny paper hearts—or, heck, even rose petals—all over the bathroom sink. consider more rose petals for the watery bowl of la toilette. i’m not kidding, they’ll go nuts. especially if they’re boys with good aim.

6.) now, dash back to the kitchen. put out a fat bowl of strawberries. or a bowl of fat strawberries. your choice. (by the way, have you noticed that the strawberry is, drum roll, the original red-heart-shaped fruit?)

7.) whip up some scones in little heart pans. or, easy way out, cut toast with little heart cookie cutters.

8.) scramble eggs. add a few drops of red food dye. keep scrambling. get ready to slide onto plate. (lox added to eggs makes eggs even pinker. the pinker, the better today).

9.) open a jar of the yummiest, reddest strawberry jam you can find. (there must be one jammed at the back of the fridge in case you forgot to stock up). insert spoon. try not to lick straight from the jar.

10.) leave love note under the plate (if you’re truly in luck, you’ll have found one of those cheap plastic red heart plates at the grocery store; it’ll come in quite handy today). while you’re at it, a love note tucked somewhere in the salle de bain also works. under the shaving cream. behind the shampoo. who knows, it just might work wonders.

11.) pour sparkling juice of some kind into a long, tall champagne glass. dunk a fat strawberry into the fizz.

12.) fill sugar bowl with red and pink m&ms.

13.) tuck yet another love note into the belly of a mitten. it’ll be found once your love is out in the cold.

14.) cut peanut butter & jelly into heart shape. drop into brown lunch bag, emblazoned with hearts. add requisite love note, pink m&ms, small bag of fat strawberries. silly pink napkin never hurts.

15.) spend the rest of the day figuring out how to top this for dinner and bedtime.

so there you have it. fourteen ways to say i love you, plus one for good luck.

that’s how i’m spelling love at my house today. how will you spell it at yours? it’s your turn, keep counting…

p.s. and, oh, by the way, from my heart to yours, here’s a big puckery smooch.