The Daily: 6 January 2023

It is Epiphany, 6 January, the close of the Christmas season. This is the date the Catholic Church assigned to the arrival of the Magi and also the date that Jesus met up with John the Baptist and was blessed by God in the river.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”. On this day, the Magi discovered the infant Jesus after following a star; and then later, on the banks of the River Jordan, Jesus revealed himself as the Son of God made mortal. In both stories he appears, he comes out of hidden places and into the light. In fact, an older root of the name means “to shine”, and it is this sense that folk traditions follow in naming this a festival of light. The Feast of Epiphany is most often celebrated to the light of numerous candles and blazing lamps though there is little about light in either story — except that star.

Epiphany is the 13th day of the Christmas festival. It is the last feast day and, in many ways, the first day of “normal” time. It is traditional to take down all Christmas decorations on 12th Night, and work resumes with Plough Monday and Distaff Day in a day or so. So Epiphany is the end of holy days. Few people remember that this day also commemorates the baptism. In many traditions, Epiphany is celebrated solely as Three Kings Day or Little Christmas. This is when gifts are given to children in much of the world, in honor of the gifts that the Magi brought to the infant Jesus.

In Italy, this is when la Befana rides her broom through the night giving out presents to all children since she still hasn’t managed to find the Christ Child. The story goes that the Magi stopped by her cottage asking for directions and then invited her to come along on their journey. She declined, claiming she had too much to do, and so the Magi shrugged and went on with their travels. A bit later Befana regretted not setting out with the caravan. She tossed together what she thought might be a good gift for a baby — mostly food and warm clothes. She then put her house in order and tottered out the door, still clutching her broom. But the Wise Men were too far ahead for her to catch up and she never found them again. Nor did she find the home of Jesus. But she did find that her broom could fly. The whole world in a night. And ever since, over millennia, on the eve of Epiphany, she still flies around the world, searching for the Child and giving good gifts to all children — mostly food and warm clothes.

The story does not say why the Wise Men were in Italy on the way to Bethlehem (which in an interesting happenstance means “house of food”). But the Bible doesn’t say much about their travels either. In fact, there is also nothing to indicate that they were kings or that there were three of them. The whole story is twelve verses in the Book of Matthew.

Matthew 2:1-12
New International Version

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Most Christians know that the Magi did not come to the stable. There is good reason to think that the infant was a toddler by the time the Wise Men showed up at Mary’s house. After this short tale, Herod, in a rage, decided to kill all infants who could possibly be this new king, and he chose to slaughter all male children two years old and younger. Presumably the Magi led him to believe that the “king of the Jews” could be as old as two. But in any case, the Magi find Mary and Jesus in a house, not a barn. Yet, all the images of the Nativity have three richly dressed Kings and their camels, all bending down to worship a baby in a manger.

This is odd enough but perhaps understandable. It makes for an easier story (and somewhat mitigates all the bloody horror with Herod). What is stranger is that of this truly epic story — men of great learning set out across miles of desert, following a blazing star, seeking a hidden king — we seem to have latched on to the last words of the penultimate verse, the gifts.

When I learned this story I was dumbfounded by all the unasked questions that lay behind this gifting. “Who cares what they carried!” I thought. Who were these people? Where did they come from? East of Jerusalem is a pretty large place. (It wasn’t until much later that I learned that these were Magi, that is Zoroastrian priests, and therefore from Persia.) How did they ever find Bethlehem, and then how did they find one small peasant family in their hovel, just by following a star? And if they could see it, why couldn’t anyone else? What did that star mean to them? Why did they bother with perhaps years of searching? Why don’t we talk about that gift — the time they took from their lives to go find a baby!

And what kind of bum gifts are gold and incense for a poor young mother and her infant anyway! These are just the symbolic things that rich people pass amongst themselves to show that they are rich. These “gifts” would have been worse than useless to peasant folk. Having such wealth in your hut would invite certain calamity. At best, the tax collector would ask difficult questions. More than likely, if you tried to spend it or trade it for something useful, you’d end up imprisoned for theft. Or worse.

Yet gifting is what we commonly take away from this whole astonishing story. We summarize the tale in our Nativity scenes — wealthy men, kneeling at the manger and giving luxurious gifts to the Child. (Why they are three and also kings is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish… which maybe I’ll go into next year…) We place emphasis on the luxury as well. These rich men gave gifts that only rich men can give — and nobody can really use. In other words, this gifting is a status display and has very little to do with generosity or benevolence — or even sacrifice — and this is the sum total of wisdom that we wrest out of the tale of the Wise Men.

For this is how we give in this culture. Either the story has been polluted by our culture or the narrow focus on the last bits has influenced our culture (probably both), but this presentation of symbols of our own status is how we do gifting. We do not give. We present. We display. There is no attempt to give what is wanted, much less needed. Quite the opposite, gifting in our society serves as a singular measure of how little the giver cares to know the recipient. Often insultingly so. (How many presents have you opened only to be bewildered at the idea that anyone would think you would want that thing…) Gifting does not involve care. Gifting is almost solely focused on pleasing the giver’s ego. Compound this selfish meaninglessness with the horrible waste — the manipulation and the deception and the packaging and all the expense and stress on both sides — and there is little to like in this unfortunate tradition.

Seems unlikely that Wise Men would approve of what we have made of their story.

Perhaps they would prefer that we look at the time they spent. Or the knowledge they possessed, that which made them Wise, that which prompted them to follow a hunch across years of lonely travel just to see a miracle. Maybe they would like to be remembered as priests and holy men who came to acknowledge a greater holiness. Maybe they didn’t give gold or incense at all. There is such a lot lost in translation. Maybe they gave honor and praise. Or food and warm clothing. Maybe they gave everything they had, which after two years in a desert of brigands was probably not much. Especially if they made it all the way to Italy before they asked for directions.

Maybe they gave nothing but their hearts.

Maybe they were seeking the light — and they found it in a young mother’s arms.

Isn’t that a more compelling story?

Full Moon Tales

And now for another story… Today is also the full moon. At 6:08pm today, the Midwinter Moon is full. So here is a story that I wrote quite a while ago that I think pairs nicely with the moon of Midwinter.

Winter Home

My grandmother was a treasure-trove of faerie lore. She told her grandchildren the many stories of sightings and close encounters she’d heard as a young child in Ireland. She respected the taboos and set out food on required nights. She cultivated all the flowers she knew would most please the Good People. Far enough from the back porch to keep the mischief outdoors, mind. Never invite them into your house, if you know what’s good for you. But she never told me, before she passed on, where the Good People go in wintertime. I had to learn that on my own.

We bought the farm in the spring. It was my husband’s fondest ambition to scratch a living out of good, organic soil in northern California, perhaps brewing boutique label ales as the mood struck. He was fast approaching disgusted with his job as a civic engineer, designing bridges with no buttressing budgets. I was tired of a dead-end position at an nth-market newspaper, writing stories nobody read and chasing fires nobody put out. In the spring of that year I sold off stock inherited from my frugal grandfather — he was Scottish, god rest his soul — and we bought the farm, so to speak.

It didn’t turn out to be northern California. 

One afternoon, having nothing to do at the office but obey a requirement to stay there, I started to do a little virtual traveling by way of foreign real estate listings. The expensive kind. The kind with turrets in Bavaria and minarets in Hungary. The kind in which whole Swiss mountains are for sale by impoverished descendants of 19th century royalty. The first thing I noticed about this particular property was the price; it was dirt cheap, loads of cheap dirt. The second was that it came with stock. Not my grandpa’s stock, but stock stock. In this case, a herd of sheep. Not less than one-hundred fifty healthy animals, the advertisement read.

I broached the subject one evening at home after falling in love with the internet advertisement. I had spent entirely too much work time dreaming about the idea; my reasoning was a little impaired. Anyway, one evening I broached the subject. Two months later we were flying to New Zealand.

The farm, not more than an hour from Wellington as we both noted with enthusiasm, was even more lovely that it had appeared to our distant eyes. The soil, well suited to growing barley and hops. There was even a sheltered slope that might, with enough effort and without the sheep, support a vineyard which pleased me greatly. (I just never have cultivated a taste for beer.) It was all we had ever dreamed. So, being rash and impetuous, we sold grandpa’s stock and bought some of our own, along with a tidy bit of land.

That whole year was one humongous, protracted move. Quitting jobs. Taking leave of our families. Shipping what we couldn’t part with across the ocean. This last turned out to require the least effort. When taking inventory my husband and I noticed that we had amassed a great deal of junk, pure and simple. Holiday decorations from retail monoliths (and made, incidentally, much closer to where we would be moving). Furniture we couldn’t remember acquiring and old cast-offs that we’d never bothered to replace. Office clothes that would never do as farm attire. We moved our dogs, our inherited china and some kitchenware, our computers, a few crates of memories and very little else. 

And then we were there, and the unpacking and the learning began. We first learned that the farm foreman was a crook. He was gone very soon. We next learned that we hated sheep. They were gone soon after. I know our neighbors were laughing into their shoes at night, watching my husband and I trying to adjust to our novel lives. But adjust we did. 

Of course, we had changed poles, so we had extra time to adjust. We bought the farm in the spring, the southern winter. So we had extra time to learn all that we needed to learn. We sold off the flock for a tidy sum. As I look back on it, it seems that what we had paid for in purchasing the farm was the flock. That should have warned us, right there. But we were busy learning. We planted hops, herbs, and laid in a lovely vineyard on the hillside. We built a brewery and a drying barn. We renovated and excavated, turned earth and moved igneous rock, planted and pruned, relentlessly pursuing all our desires and idyllic fancies. And by the end of that year we had largely achieved our goals. 

We had a relatively decent harvest that year from the herb and vegetable fields. We didn’t expect anything more. We sold the herbs at a good profit to Chinese medicinal impresarios and the vegetables mostly at farmer’s market for much less profit. And we were still within the financial black — largely due to the sheep sale — when the austral autumn ended.

But the whole summer things had been happening. There is no other way to put it. Things is the only word that encompasses the phenomena. As soon the northern latitudes cooled to winter and we warmed to summer, strange things began to happen and they continued without abatement.

To take one of the earlier instances, one day in October our old retriever, Bunny, came tearing around the house in a blind panic that took nearly an hour to assuage. Bunny hadn’t done any tearing for many years; she was thirteen years old, ancient for a dog, arthritic and nearly blind. She’d never been a dog for much activity even when young. She was a retriever that didn’t retrieve, preferring to sneer at lesser dogs for behaving so doggy. She was tearing that day, however, and she was only calmed down by force.

After we got her settled down, we decided to take both canines for a walk. This was usually a high point for both of them, giving Bunny a chance to strut and Boomer an opportunity to release a bit of his copious energy. Boomer was an unidentifiable mutt that we found we couldn’t live without one day while donating pet food to the Animal Humane Society. From somewhere in his many genetic roots he had inherited an unquenchable spirit and untiring physique. He was the player; Bunny was the cuddler.

So we put them on leashes and walked out the front door of our garage, turned office. Immediately, two things happened. Bunny yanked herself free of her collar and disappeared around the house. Boomer pulled suddenly on his leash, toppling me into the dust, and went chasing after a small, bright object flying just beyond his nose in the erratic path of a butterfly, but at jet speed. Whatever it was outpaced Boomer within minutes and was gone before we could identify it.

New Zealand has some mighty large and strange insects. We probably should have paid more heed to the flying thing, but we didn’t. We chalked it down on the ever widening list of foreign pests. At the time, I think understandably, we were more worried about our dogs than about yet another critter. We thought the thing had bitten Bunny; it was obvious she was terrified of it. Indeed, it took several disgustingly messy days to get Bunny to go outside again.

That was one of the earlier Things. After that, we didn’t see any of the strange critters my husband had dubbed the Rocket Bugs. So it took us a long time to correlate them with the other things. And why would we have? They didn’t seem to have anything to do with the happening Things. Things like drainage ditches filling with mudslides overnight. Farm vehicles roaming the countryside mysteriously and turning up upturned miles away. Vandal kids had always been a problem, the locals told us solemnly. A field of echinacea, brooding for the year on its valuable taproots, was uprooted and trampled. By wild pigs, the farmhands proclaimed. And, as a parting shot in the middle of the harvest season, a large swath of my vineyard hillside was cleared utterly in a freak volcanic eruption.

We were barely solvent at the end of the year. All the stock money was gone. We were considering selling off some property to pay for the vineyard loss. We hired a third fewer field hands because we couldn’t pay them. And those hired got paid less than those of our first, and only prosperous, growing season. But things happen, we told ourselves. And since they don’t continue to happen, things will get better, we always added.

Looking back, I have to admit I was embarrassingly blind. My grandmother would have laughed out loud before proscribing behaviors to ameliorate the situation. We went through the winter and much of the spring without incident that year. Not one act of human or natural destruction, nor even a mild bump of misfortune. The hops came up well, as did the perennial and biennial herbal crops. We found a better market for our winter vegetable crop, selling it for a good profit. And the dogs were as contented as dogs can be. I should have been at least curious, let alone suspicious.

What good fortune we had from our land in the winter was decimated in the summer. The vandals returned in force. The property was lousy with natural disasters that never seemed to spread beyond our fences. And on midsummer eve in December, Bunny died of a heart attack. 

We totted up the losses and came to the inevitable conclusion that we were never meant to own a farm. We would have to sell our dream or mortgage it heavily just to survive. So we decided to sell.

Shortly after putting the farm on the market in February I was walking my hillside, saying goodbye to my squelched dreams. I was just turning for home when a bright, winged creature flashed past, just outside of good view. I turned, wondering what new critter this was, and it hit me all at once. The Rocket Bug. The myriad forces of ill will. The failure of my farm. They were are related to this thing that flew past me. All the stories my grandmother ever told about them went just like my story. And I’d never noticed!

I ran home to tell my husband. It wasn’t our fault! Well, it was, but not in the ways we’d ever imagined because our limited imaginations did not account for such exigencies. We could still farm if we desired, but not this farm. That was the main point. We had to get off this land. It was claimed for other purposes that we would never be able to change. We sold it at the first, very low offer, at a considerable loss that we thought a gift from heaven.

Turns out, most of our neighbors knew the cause of our misfortunes. Some, to be sure, meanly laughed and thought we American upstarts deserved to find out for ourselves. But most just thought we’d never believe it if told. It was common folklore that the hill, my vineyard hill, was the winter home, that is the northern winter home, of all the faerie folk.

And those little buggers did not mean to ever let humans farm their land.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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