Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth . . .

The tree has been taken down, ornaments stored, wreaths changed out for another year. A few Christmas cookies remain to be eaten, and some lebkuchen, but with the feast of the Epiphany, Christmas has ended for another year (unless you are Orthodox Christian, in which case, Merry Christmas! Or if you follow the tradition that Christmastide lasts until Candlemas and the feast of the Purification.)

January 6th is Twelfth Night. The Three Kings visit in some places, leaving gifts for children. Or perhaps La Befana comes to call, she who was too busy to go with the kings and so trails after them, seeking the Christ Child. It ended the official feasting and parties of Christmas, and the Solemnities of Christmas as well. It was time to return to work and the long nights of winter. The days are growing longer, but also colder in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Winter has a way to go yet.

“Three great wonders fell on this day: a star brought kings where an infant lay/

Water made wine in Galilee, and Christ baptized in Jordan.”

Three feasts fall on January 6, only one of which do I remember noticing as a child. My current place of singing does two – Epiphany and the baptism.


In Hoc Anno Domini

Every year, the Wall Street Journal publishes this editorial in the issue closest to, or on, Christmas Eve. I have a copy, carefully cut out and put away. Christian or no, the warning about other Caesars and the return of darkness still holds.

The opening of the editorial is below:

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

For the rest of the editorial:

The Longest Night of the Year

“Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning/stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring/water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

The very first time I read the novel The Dark is Rising, I memorized the poem that comes from. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Walker, the rook’s feather that fell in through the roof hatch/skylight, the Dark Rider, and hear oh so faintly the aching sound of a tune played on an antique flute as a door between times opens and closes. Set in the Thames Valley in England, the book, and the others in the series by the same name, taps English, Cornish, and Welsh folklore in ways I’d never encountered before. They are urban fantasy before such a genre existed. Although officially classed as YA today, they are so rich that adults read and enjoy them today.

Today is the Winter Solstice. If Sommerwende is a day for parties and savoring the warmth and bounty of summer, the winter turning is a time of dread and fear. Will the sun return? Will there be enough to get through the hard, lean times ahead? The return of the sun was cause for rejoicing and wild celebration, even as people still looked over their shoulders. The weeks around the solstice held power. The veil between the worlds thinned, and the Wild Hunt rode. Ghosts walked, and the price for denying hospitality might be severe indeed. It was the time to bless the fruit trees and share the joy of the season with them (wassailing the orchards). War was supposed to stop, at least in Christendom. Since only fools, the mad, or Teutonic Knights actually wanted to fight during midwinter, the rule was generally upheld.

I’ll be out after dark, looking at stars, admiring Christmas lights, and watching Orion rise above the trees. Storms are due overnight, bringing hard cold and screaming winds. Winter does not go easily, even as days slowly lengthen.

When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,

And where the midsummer tree grows tall, By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

A Great Miracle Happened There

Hanukkah starts at sundown. May no one leave their gelt too close to the heater*, may the latkes not scorch, and may HaShem bless you with light and joy in this dark season of the year.

[Click the image for source.]

*That’s when I discovered just how much of a mess gold-wrapped chocolate makes when it melts down the windowsill onto the radiator.

Winter Gothic

At some point, while looking for something else most likely, I found Erasure’s video of “Gaudete.” I started watching, blinked, and said, “It’s Caspar David Friedrich!” Because everyone borrows imagery from him when they want to do “ancient church in snow at night mildly creepy but maybe not” settings.

Gothic? Check, check. Eerie but not truly scary? Probably check. Winter? Check! Article about CDF:

This one tells a story:


Not all of C.D.F.’s paintings are “moody, brooding, cold,” but some of the most famous are, or at least the most often reproduced and borrowed from.

“Oaks in the Snow with Domlan.” A dolman is a prehistoric marker or burial mound, common (formerly) in parts of the northern German-speaking lands.

So, the video that borrows so heavily from C. D. F and a few others? Note that the video has some creepy and possibly sacrilegious elements, notable the burning candle.

The hard contrasts of dark, bare trees and stones against white snow have been noted by artists and poets for a very long time. Northern Europe tends to be misty and dark this time of year, especially the far northern areas where C. D. F. visited. The sun rises around eight-thirty and sets around three-thirty. That is, if you can see the sun for the heavy clouds. When I was in Vienna over Christmas, heavy skies, snow, and then hard cold reminded everyone that yes, winter had arrived. It was one of the few times that I ate everything in sight and lost weight, because I was converting so much of the snacks and treats into heat. The importance of light, and the turning of the year, was firmly reinforced on that trip. The true cold of winter usually arrives a little later than December, but not always.

One thing I like about so many of C. D. F.’s paintings is that they catch the mystery of things. Christmas and Advent are often too shiny, up-front, and bright for my taste. There’s a Mystery in the familiar story, a hushed and intent waiting for . . . something. Something wonderful, but something also deep and more than a little scary. “He is good, but he’s not safe,” as C. S. Lewis describes Aslan. “Gaudete” calls us to rejoice, but in a minor key, often arranged with slightly discordant harmonies. The turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, brings light but also deeper cold in many places. There’s a mystery, something hidden in the night, in the winter mist and clouds.

Life Without Hope?

The question, because it is a question, came to mind when I was mulling over some reader comments about a character, and trying to suss out motivations and what drove him. Something motivates him, otherwise he’d be dead twice over. But I’m not sure he knows, which makes character development tricky. What is his reason for living? Well, his faith takes a dim view of suicide unless it is for very, very specific reasons, but “you’re not allowed to kill yourself” doesn’t fit his personality, at least not at the moment.

Pig-headed determination can be a heck of a motivator, especially when linked with, “I’ll show him/them!” People who live decades after doctors told them to go home and die, military personnel and other warriors who survive terrible odds out of pure spite (often tied in with getting even, or avenging someone else.) Those are both examples, as are the people who keep going out of duty. I’ve met one person like that, and she was . . . different. She could not let herself die, or even step back and rest, until she got four children raised and out into the world on their own feet. They were not her children, but she’d promised to take care of them no matter what, and so she was. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t a believer in any religion. it didn’t matter. She’d given her word, and had taken up the duty, and was raising the children as best she could. I was in awe, and somewhat uncomfortable. I suspect that when the last child became independent, she would follow her late husband and other family members to the grave.

This character, though . . . duty fits, duties that he’s been assigned by his culture, and those he’s taken upon himself. He has faith, strong faith, but that’s not his only motivator, nor will it keep him going through the years. He’s not called to be clergy. He lacks hope, other than hope for a better life in the next world. He plans for survival, but it’s just that – survival. Nothing more, not where he will be in X years, not looking for a wife or making close friends.

People can live without hope, perhaps, if they have a strong enough goal and personality. Some thinkers say that hope is the cruelest thing, because it raises expectations and leads to dreams of better times and happiness that are then destroyed, crushing the spirit. That’s true. We’ve all had hopes dashed, be they hopes for neat Christmas stuff, or hopes that the dream date will be as good as anticipated, or that the cute guy will accept an invitation to the dance, or that a scenario will turn out right and the world will improve. And it doesn’t happen. Prayers are not answered in the way we want, the cute guy turns out to be a cad (or has a family commitment that night), the band cancels the concert, the politician isn’t as advertised, the serpent lied about the taste of the fruit . . . Hopes collapse, leaving bitterness and ashes behind. Been there, felt that, and it hurts. Duty replaces hope, or wrath and the desire for revenge replace hope, and the person pushes through.

That doesn’t work in this instance. The character has to grow, to enjoy life and to look ahead to a future with hope and dreams in it. How to get him there . . . I’m still grappling with, in part because it means looking inside me and asking some questions.

I hate it when characters make me do that. 🙂

The Tree of Jesse

The idea of the tree of life is found in lots and lots of traditions, be they “organized religion,” animist, environmentalism-as-religion, neopagan, or just people who see certain trees as having special personal, spiritual significance.

The concept of the Jesse Tree comes from the book of Isaiah. In 11:1, it says, “But there shall come a rod forth of the stock of Jesse, and a grass shall grow out of his roots.” (Geneva Translation) More common is “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Either way, medieval artists depicted this literally, showing the sleeping figure of Jesse, father of David, with a tree growing from him. This ties back into the Genesis account of the Tree of Life vs the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life comes from Jesse.

The above was the only Jesse Tree I found in Scotland. It is in the National Museum, on a panel from woodwork associated with Mary Queen of Scots. Since the reformers in Scotland took a dim view on “idol worship” as they described it, a lot of the visual imagery from the medieval period in lowland Scotland vanished in the 1500s-1600s. It remains in the German lands, however.

From Limburg, Germany. This and the above photo from Swabisch Hall are author photos.

Ceilings are also a tad unusual.

This is another tree of life, the only one I’ve seen thus far on the ceiling of a church. It is inverted, so you can follow the order. Adam and Eve are on the bottom, then Jesse, David, and on to Jesus.

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was called the Holy Tree, or Holy Rood (rod) in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. One of the first surviving hymns in “English” is the Dream of the Rood, where the tree that became the cross talks about what happened. A modern depiction from York Minster that takes the idea literally is below.

Modern art seems to have gotten away from the idea, although I have seen some attempts to reclaim the neopagan tree of life images for Catholicism in particular. That one . . . doesn’t quite work for me, although I can’t pin down quite why. The Latter-day Saints use the image of the Tree of Life, taken from the vision of Nephi, in their faith, sometimes literally as in the case of Mack Wilburg’s song “O Tree of Life” and the dance setting that used it during Christmas a few years ago.

Most Protestants hear the text once a year, during Advent, but don’t see it depicted. We might, rarely, get to hear the song, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Although not directly about the Tree of Jesse*, it is often done around Christmas.

*Oddly enough, what I think of with the Jesse Tree is “Behold a star from Jacob shining” by Mendelssohn.

Book Review: Defenders of the West

Ibrahim, Raymond. Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes who stood Against Islam. (Bombardier Books 2022) Kindle edition

I’ve read Ibrahim’s other history book, a study of battles, so I picked this one up as well. I’d heard of El Cid, both from the movie and from a (very hagiographic) older young reader biography I read a long time ago. Richard the Lionheart? Crusader and the good guy in Robin Hood, who was dumb enough to think irking the Duke of Austria was a good idea and then trying to sneak through the duke’s home territory. Jan Hunyadi? The not-a-king king of Hungary. I’d crossed paths with a number of the individuals highlighted in this book, which spans the years 1000 to 1600, more or less. However, other individuals are less well known, or are strangers to the western tradition (Skenderbeg), or have an afterlife unrelated to their real life (Vlad III).

Ibrahim is blunt about where his preferences are. He also uses primary sources from all sides in the conflicts, giving a good view of what the Berbers, Arabs, and Ottomans thought about the different men. He frames each mini-biography with the events of the time, giving the reader context often skipped in modern studies. This can make for odd reading, because often the primary sources are far more laudatory than modern accounts can be, or dare to be, or are supposed to be. Dispassion and balance were NOT considered critical attitudes for historians to have in the Middle Ages or early modern era. That lack of distance might be offputting to some readers. It took me a bit to adjust my mental frame, so to speak, to get past my Historian’s Bristle at effusive descriptions of people’s virtues (and vices, although that’s not something lacking from many current works.)

The biographic chapters are in chronologic order, from Godfrey of Bolougne and Rodrigo de Vivar “El Cid” to Skenderbeg and Vlad III. One thing Ibrahim points out on a regular basis is that these men fought defensive wars. The First Crusade and subsequent were launched in answer to the conquest of the Levant by the Seljuk Turks and the enslaving, robbing, and killing of native Christians (and Jews) and pilgrims from Europe. El Cid and Fernando de Leon y Castile (descendant of El Cid) fought to regain land occupied by the Berbers since the early 700s. Hunyadi, Skenderbeg, and Vlad III challenged the Ottoman Conquest of southeastern Europe, pushing back against Ottoman attacks and aggression. It’s easy today to forget that until 1689, Western Christianity fought a defensive war against Arab/Berber/Turkish forces.

The stories are great reads. Ibrahim lets the material speak for itself, with some additions to clarify places and to put events in the larger context of European politics. He’s not unbiased, but he is upfront about that, so you know what you are getting. I found his reminders about “yes, this lord/petty king turned his coat to survive, but that was normal. What Skenderbeg/Hunyadi/Vlad did was the exception” to be useful.

I’d recommend this to people interested in the various military figures, those curious about primary sources and where to find more (the bibliography and notes are extensive), and people looking for solid role-models for boys (and girls, but now days, especially boys.) Ibrahim does a good job working with the primary sources, and the book is quite readable once you get used to the various styles of the original material. I found his defense of Vlad III a bit intense, but then I remembered that I’ve read the books, and I know the history and politics of that region. Normal people don’t. They know either novel-Dracula, or Vlad the sadistic b-stard of an impaler.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the publisher or author for this review.