A Little Night Magic

by Maria Theresa Maggi on December 8, 2017

"Christmas Tree Throumough Two Windows," pastel memory sketch by MTM

“Christmas Tree Through Two Windows,” pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi


My parents were sticklers for honoring the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, which hardly anyone seems to recognize anymore. The traditional 12 days of Christmas  are bookended by Christmas Eve,  the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. In between are days that have both pagan and Christian significance. In even earlier times the “party” may have begun on Winter Solstice. Christmas Day, the “first” day,  is the day the sun begins to appear to move forward again in the sky after seeming to “stand still”–which is what “Solstice” means, and thus was a convenient day for the church to pick as the day to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. At any rate, growing up in a Catholic household, we observed the season of Advent, even to the extent that my Dad would playfully put up purple “Advent lights” around the outside of the house, getting up on the ladder to change them to the multi-colored Christmas lights only as it grew dark on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve also started two weeks of vacation for him–he always said it was to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas. He did all his shopping on that day. He’d grow a beard and enjoy Italian Christmas treats by the fire, savor the salted almonds and roasted chestnuts, and in general enjoy letting the year wind down.

Thus, the anticipation for the season unfolding in traditional time was high at our house. My parents would say people who put their trees up early were rushing things. We never got our tree until about a week before Christmas, because it had to last until January 6th. Ours was probably up longer than anyone else’s on the block.

Nowadays, the Christmas season truly does begin the day after Thanksgiving, and seem to end the day after Christmas (which in the traditional 12 days of Christmas is Boxing Day). The 12 days of Christmas are rarely observed or even remembered, except in the Christmas song. Nevertheless, I can’t help put feel a kind of old-fashioned holiday jet lag, if you will, when my friends or neighbors tell me about baking they’re doing, or that suddenly it’s time for a Christmas party and it’s only the first week of December. I just can’t seem to “catch up.”

The bright side of the big hurry, though, is that if I want to see Christmas lights, I have from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas. The sight of twinkling lights can soothe the way I often miss my parents at this time of year, and how they came together and made everything special for each other, my sister and I, and many people in our community.

Nevertheless, I actually love it when something comes along to upend my somewhat pompous and definitely outdated attitude about timing the Christmas season. And that’s exactly what happened this year.

The first time I met my new across-the-street neighbor, I happened to be leaving the house with the dogs for a late afternoon walk. I saw that she had just driven up and was standing outside looking up at what was her brand new house. The way she was looking at it reminded me of my own gazing at mine, and I felt compelled to go over and congratulate her. She had just signed the papers.

She teaches at a university in Washington and so is not here full time, but each time she is I am happy she is around. I was delighted when she mentioned in one of our conversations that she collects Mother Mary statues. I have yet to show her the one in my garden, but that’s something I look forward to.

In one of our brief conversations, my new neighbor told me she would be having friends and family visit over the Thanksgiving holiday. When Thanksgiving arrived, my kids were here, and my neighbor’s guests had arrived, too, so she and I didn’t do much but wave at each other from across the street. I noticed on the day after Thanksgiving that someone with a child was there. Later in the day I happened to notice a Christmas tree going in and at first my heart sank reflexively a little about how early it is to be doing that, but then I “caught up” and remembered the day after Thanksgiving is now the official start of the Christmas season.

I didn’t think much more about it; in fact I completely forgot. The rest of my day was filled with outings with my son and daughter-in-law before they left to go back to Portland. But in the evening as I closed the blinds in my living room, I saw the lights were on the tree, and I had the thought that it must be nice to do that for the child who is visiting.

Later on in the middle of the night, I got up to use the bathroom. I close the blinds on one half of my bedroom window to block out the porch light (that hopefully discourages the racoons and the bears), but I keep the other half open to be able to see the night sky, at least a little: it always helps me sleep just knowing it is there for me to look at any time I want.

As I came through the door from the bathroom, I gasped. It was the middle of the night, and the street light shone on the house across the street. The window where I had seen the tree being put up was not shuttered, and the lights on the tree were still on. It was magical. It had the air of Christmas night itself, the kind I have loved so long ago, or the times I have made a yule log on Solstice and left it to burn the night through. Suddenly I envisioned what a special thing this was for the visiting child; perhaps the tree had been left on all night for him or her–perhaps he or she was snuggled in on a couch in the living room next to it, where it could twinkle through dreams the whole night through.

I don’t know who this child is: I only saw him or her once, making herself dead weight against a parent’s urging. I had happened to look out the window as the mother bent over the child and spoke to it in tones that evidently helped her or him decide to get up and go in. Perhaps the tree was a reward for the child, or for everyone. Perhaps this was the only time they could do it all together during the season.

The sight of this tree through my window and my neighbor’s window in the middle of the night certainly enraptured the child in me, who loves a lighted Christmas tree twinkling through the night, the best of all night lights. In fact, I loved lighted Christmas trees so much as a kid that one April morning I tried as hard as I could to conjure one into the living room simply by visualizing it as I made my slow way down the hall. I was sorely disappointed when my powers of concentration did not produce the hoped-for lighted tree.

In these times, when it can be so hard to find, we all need to make our magic when we can. My neighbor and her visitors had done that, and that magic spilled out into the night and “stirred up my heart,” as the Advent Prayer my father used to read to us began. I wanted to remember how it surprised and delighted me, so I did my best to draw it from memory.

I hope the holiday season “stirs up your hearts,” and brings you each your own magical surprises, perhaps at moments when they are least expected. That makes them all the brighter.


Maria (moonwatcher)




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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 cheryl December 9, 2017 at 9:08 am

Very lovely post, Maria. I’m one of those 12 days of Christmas holdouts, too. I keep my tree up until January 6 (or beyond!). Christmas always presents the opportunity to find balance between the magical memories of my childhood with the realities of my life today. Your painting is a beautiful tribute to your past and a meaningful experience to link past and present. Wishing you a Merry Christmas, all 12 days of it!


2 Maria Theresa Maggi December 9, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Thanks Cheryl! I like the way you say Christmas provides an opportunity to find balance between past memories and today’s realities. And I’m so pleased that you find the painting a beautiful tribute. And a Merry 12 Days of Christmas back to you!


3 Marge Evans December 9, 2017 at 9:17 am

we never got our tree until Christmas eve because ours had to last until Jan. 7th my brothers birthday.


4 Maria Theresa Maggi December 9, 2017 at 1:30 pm

This is great Marge! My own birthday is January 8, so we sometimes did this too, when I was a child. 🙂


5 Lee December 9, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Maria, what a lovely, touching post. The holidays are both joyful and melancholy; I know that when the day comes when I lose my parents, much of the holiday sweetness will be gone. At the same time, I’m glad to know that some magic never fades.

I also have to say–I’m with that family who puts the tree up early! However, the joy of “faux” trees is that I can–and do–happily leave my tree up until Valentine’s Day, much to the consternation of my neighbors, no doubt. But I do it anyway, because it lights up the dark, cold nights and never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!!


6 Maria Theresa Maggi December 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Thanks, Lee– they sure are, aren’t they? I LOVE that you span the whole spectrum–from early to well into February, with your artificial tree! I am absolutely “guilty” of that on a string of lights basis. Last year I found starfish lights for Christmas, but of course they’re still up over my mantel. 🙂 Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!! xoxo


7 Sarah December 9, 2017 at 7:22 pm

Ah Maria. You spoke right to my grinchy heart. Brought up Lutheran, Christmas came magically between the 7 o’clock service and the 11. In came the tree, the greens and wreaths perfuming the entire house. The lights were put on and the ornaments set out for our return from late service to decorate. It was magic.
I have been at war with consumermas for too long. I loved your vision and heartfelt response. Going to give it a try.


8 Maria Theresa Maggi December 9, 2017 at 7:26 pm

Oh Sarah, thank you.I loved reading your memory as well. It reminded me of how our own celebrations at home when I was small especially were timed around when my Mom directed the choir or played the organ at church. Later I would sing too. I love your family’s tradition of setting out the decorations to put up after late service. It really does sound magical.


9 Veronica December 11, 2017 at 4:24 pm

My family does the 12 days, too! Growing up, we’d always be the last to get a tree – like you, about a week before the 25th – and then leave it up until the 6th. 🙂 Though now I put up the tree earlier, (1st/2nd week of December) since it’s a fake tree (Mark is allergic to real ones) so I don’t have to worry about it dying before the 6th! Plus I get to enjoy the holiday decor just a bit longer, making the effort to put it all up worth it. (Confession: the outdoor lights I put up on the deer fence last year are still there- never took them down; they’re solar charged and quite pretty, so I figure a little lighting every evening isn’t so bad!)
We just got back from a long, lovely beach vacation where they put up a tree in the house we were renting! 85 degrees and ocean waves outside with a lovely white tree inside, the contrast was quite beautiful. They decorated it with regular ornaments, but also a few dolphins, fish, whale, ocean-themed ones, too.
Though now I’m back, and need to get our house in holiday order! To the garage for me, lugging boxes of decor and a fake tree… It’s always worth it. 🙂
Thank you for sharing your traditions and story of your neighbor; the picture is so pretty! I wish you a very merry Christmas, Maria! xoxo


10 Maria Theresa Maggi December 11, 2017 at 9:51 pm

Hi Veronica! I’m so glad I wrote this post because I’m really enjoying reading about everyone’s holiday traditions, and to find out there are so many other families like my own that celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas! Thanks for sharing. I love that you still have your lights up the year round on the deer fence–truth be told, I bought star fish lights for my mantle last year and they are still up!! Love the image of the white Christmas tree with sea life ornaments at the ocean, too. And happy you like the drawing. Merry Christmas back to you!! xoxo


11 Gena February 3, 2018 at 5:36 am

Christmas has come and gone, but this post is heart-stirring for any season, Maria!

It was actually you who first explained those twelve days to me. My mother is familiar with them as a Waldorf educator, but we never observed them in their fullness. The end of the winter holiday season is always marked with melancholy for me, and recognizing that there is a traditional progression away from Christmas day, rather than an abrupt end to 24 hours of celebration, has been a mighty comforting thought.

Here’s to keeping the holiday spirit alive as we continue to move into this new year.



12 Maria Theresa Maggi February 3, 2018 at 4:00 pm

Gena, I’m so honored to have been the first to explain the 12 days of Christmas to you! I sure do think it helps to have a traditional progression away from Christmas Day–I like how you put that! Thank you! xoxo


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