It ain’t over ’til the wise men kneel
Today is the day I take down my Christmas tree. It would seem sacrilegious to do otherwise. Yet, ever since Boxing Day I have watched car after car, gorgeous full-bodied Christmas trees strapped to the roof, hardly a needle missing, winding their way to the mulcher pile at Quidi Vidi Lake.
I have to keep my tree up until Jan. 6 because that’s the day the three kings reached the stable in Bethlehem. If I turn out the Christmas lights before the 12th night of Christmas, it would be like snuffing out the Magi’s star.
Baby Jesus would be in the smelly stable with his impoverished parents, giftless. No gold to help the poor family claw their way up to a better life. No frankincense to make the stable smell a bit better than cow dung. No myrrh to cure any diaper rash that may have cropped up in the baby’s first 12 days of life.
No, if I take my tree down before the 6th, it would be like setting Melchoir, Balthasar and Caspar adrift in a fog so thick, not even a holy star could penetrate its pea-soupedness.
At the home of my friends, Francoise and René Enguehard, the three kings slowly make their way across the living room floor until they reach the stable which is delicately placed under the Christmas tree each December. Their journey takes — you guessed it — 12 days. The 12 Days of Christmas.
At our house, the kings are always on site because the mantle is only so big, but Baby Jesus doesn’t appear until the wee hours of Christmas morning. I have been known to find, in the days leading up to Christmas, Homer Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and various other insundry Lego characters trying to sneak into the coveted spot between Mary and Joseph. These I remove while my husband does his best not to smile while voicing weak denials.
On the table in front of the fireplace we have a small vial with gold flakes and two little golden bags, one with frankincense, the other with myrrh. Gold is just as valuable now as it was 2,013 years ago. But did you know that back in the day of Jesus’s birth, frankincense was equally valuable and myrrh was way more valuable than both? Gold does not tarnish and may have helped Mary and Joseph out of a financial pickle. Frankincense and myrrh are both rare tree resins found only in places like Oman, Yemen and Somalia.
Assuming the three kings travelled from these areas with the treasures, which explains the almost two-week delay in making it to the stable. That probably gave Mary a bit of time to get back on her feet and for Jesus to get used to breastfeeding. Although hanging out that long in a stable. Ugh.
So, if the gold would bring money, what were the tree resins for?
When you place frankincense (ours looks like cloves or potpourri) on hot coals, it burns slowly and the overwhelming odour is so powerful it would indeed override any stable smells. In fact the smell is so potent, it is believed it can be used to communicate between the human and divine worlds. Think of the incense at the end of a funeral when we send the spirit of a loved one up to Heaven.
Drops of dried myrrh look like golden tears and can be used as perfume or medicine. Myrrh tears can be rubbed on skin to heal wounds or fevers and can be ingested to help digestive problems. Like gas that tends to build in a baby’s gizzard.
Some people say there may have been up to a dozen kings visiting the stable, but because of the three well-known gifts, we have whittled the number of kings down to three for convenience sake. I guess whether there were three kings or three dozen, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that these astrologers, or their forefathers, knew the constellations and had been on the lookout for this new bright star, perhaps for centuries, and dropped everything to hop on their camels and hightail it wherever the star led them.
Back in Auntie Crae days, you could buy a 12th night cake topped with a golden crown and with a little metal king baked into the batter. The person to get the trinket in his piece of cake became king for the following year. But now, with Janet Kelly happily retired, the onus is on me to make my own 12th night cake. Yesterday, I wrapped the tiny king in tin foil to ensure no one would choke. I didn’t follow the traditional recipe but baked a decadent chocolate that I knew would be well received at the home of my friends, Chris and Christina, who have hosted a 12th night party for 23 years.
“It might be the New Year, Santa may have pipped off to the Pole, the reindeers retired, the temperature congealed, but Christmas has to be a proper 12-day affair in our fair freezing isle, and it ain't over 'til January 6th,” writes Chris in his invitation.
“In his papal wisdom, Gregory of the calendar anointed Monday to be the night for this year’s 12th. So we hope we’ll see you on Monday evening, January 6th at our annual 12th Night bash. … Come and help us kiss off Christmas with mulled wine and music and good company. And a dirty great big roast ham to keep away the cold.”
One of the funnest parts of 12th Night is actually getting to the party. The weather is usually abysmal, cold and snowy and you risk being blown into the ocean as you navigate your way to their home. Chris and Christina’s three-storey house is not situated on a traditional lot with plenty of parking and sidewalks. Oh, no, their house is straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Or maybe a Ted Harrison painting. The first floor houses the kitchen and small sitting room with a wood stove. You’d be hard pressed to find a chair with the eclectic crowd that graces that level.
The second floor is where the dirty big roast ham gets carved. It’s so jam-packed with people that the only place you can really see is the ceiling where books and other oddities are placed amongst the open beams. One corner of the floor is made of glass bricks and when you walk on them you can’t help but think of the woodstove below.
The band takes over the third floor which houses the bedroom. Space is at a premium so the fiddlers sometimes enter the claw-footed bathtub next to the bed where they have space to saw their strings. This is also the location of the sole washroom on the premises, so things can get a bit tangly in the stairwell.
One corner of the third floor has been left open – as in no floor – so you can gaze down on the partiers below. A bit hairy, but always fun. I’m reading a book now called, “Where’d you go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple that features an architect named Bernadette Fox. Chris and Christina’s house may have been designed by this fictitious character.
When I asked Chris about his favourite memories of 12th night, he said when Bruno, the Water Street Restaurateur, used to show up late at night with pannetone (sweet bread) and when Frank Maher plays accordion and Dave Paddon does recitations. And, of course, he loves when the mummers appear.
Jan. 6 is the last chance for mummers to come out, but you never know if or when they’ll show. All in all, a 12th night party makes for a great way to celebrate the end of the Christmas season.
Just don’t choke on the king.
Susan Flanagan can be reached