A few days after Christmas in 1982, I was up to my knees in the inevitable detritus of wrapping paper and such when I stumbled upon a book about pre-Christmas traditions. I was about to put it away, but instead opened it and read a bit.
Apparently, in preliterate times, people sawed off circles of wood from the base of the Yule log, drew crude drawings on them and threw them into a fire.
This made instant sense. Our children and our friend’s children could draw on such discs of wood. For the rest of us, being literate, we could write down what we wanted to burn – the feelings and events we needed to leave behind. That year, I had bushels to burn. This became the start of our annual Twelfth Night celebration.
A month earlier, my husband and I had been told that our youngest daughter, then three months old, had a syndrome called Cornelia De Lange. She was expected to have a 50/50 chance of living past the age of 2, and would likely be profoundly retarded and autistic. Her future turned out to be nowhere near as bleak, but we didn’t know that then.
On top of that, my mother had recently been diagnosed with bladder cancer. She was in her mid-60s.
These two events fuelled my desperation to have our Christmas tree and all the leftover wrapping and boxes burnt down to absolutely nothing. I needed to have it all mean something. Anything. A massive conflagration felt to me to be just what the doctor ordered.
I called all my friends and told them to save their trees. We were going to have a party, one hell of a party. We lived on a mountain outside Mission, B.C., so a massive blaze was okay with our neighbours, who were at least half a kilometre away.
We had 15 guests that first Twelfth Night. The food I prepared was northern European in origin: sauerbraten with gravy thickened with ginger snaps, spaetzle, rotkohl and gingered carrots.
We drizzled rum on to a cone of sugar held with a set of tongs and set it alight over a pot containing warmed, spiced wine. As the caramelized rum dripped into the wine, more rum was added to keep the flame going until the entire bottle had been consumed. Whether the end result was any good was immaterial. After a glass of that, everything was good.
My eldest daughter helped me bake a cake called the king and queen of bean cake. A penny wrapped in parchment was baked into the dough. Whoever got that piece would then have to host a party in a month’s time. When the days are short and the nights are long, we all need to be shaken out of our midwinter gloom.
Since then, much of this tradition continues in the same manner. My husband ignites an accelerant-doused pile of trees and boughs, and one of us declaims the line from a poem by Robert Bringhurst where Moses says: And the bush burned as they said it would.
He also contributes a political rant where we all participate in a call and refrain mocking the actions of the powerful. Occasionally, these targets are politicians and parties that other friends have actually voted for, but it seems that we are an eclectic and forgiving lot.
As our children and our friends’ children grew into their teen years, the event grew up with them. Teenagers would often write two lists for the fire. One would be a humorous litany of the misdeeds of their parents and teachers. This one would be read aloud. The second, a private list and usually much longer, would be tucked into the flames in silence.
We moved up to the Sunshine Coast in 1999, and since then have added another ritual, thanks to new friends of Danish ancestry. This means wearing horned helmets and leading everyone in a rousing rendition of The Viking Song, after which a square of pumpernickel with pickled herring – or cheese for the vegetarians – is washed down with a shot of aquavit, followed by a mouthful of beer. After a few rounds of this, even the non-drinkers are off to a roaring start.
One of our friends, now grown up, was only a month old when we celebrated our first Twelfth Night. She has been at every one of them, is now recently married and qualified as a chartered accountant. She and her husband are also talented musicians. For the past few years, they have started us off with rap music, some composed specially for the event.
Every year is different, with an ever-changing cast of about 40 participants. Everyone pitches in. Eldest daughter is the cocktail queen and manages the bar along with the eldest son of a lifelong friend. Much food is consumed, laughter rings out and the trees burn as they said they would. Hopes are celebrated and losses are burned and left behind. When we are done with the fire, but before desserts are served inside, my husband and his cohorts put on a great fireworks show. After all that, the dancing begins.
And as for our daughter with CDLS, she now works and lives independently in her own house in a co-housing development. As always, she will be right in the thick of it all, dancing with family and friends till the wee hours of the morn. The night is done when the last sound to be heard is that of some dear friend snoring on the couch.
Sharon Oddie Brown lives in Roberts Creek, B.C.