The White Days
liminal spaces and auld lang syne
“[W]e have arrived at the most wonderful time of the year—nominally still the holidays, but also the opposite of a holiday, a blank space stretching between Christmas and New Year’s Eve when nothing makes sense and time loses its meaning. For many of us, this is the only time of year when it feels possible, and even encouraged, to do nothing. I look forward to it all year long.”1
When I was at Barnard, the magnificent Theodor Gaster2 taught a course in basic Folklore and Mythology. He must have enjoyed doing it - surely a Big Name Scholar could have avoided teaching an intro class. Not that he ever told us who he was. He was British and opinionated and I adored him. It was he who introduced me to the concept of that “blank space” at the turning of the year, a liminal time when the old year is done, and the new one not yet begun.
Jews may recognize this liminal space in the Yamim HaNoraim, the “Days of Awe” that fall between (and include) Rosh Hashanah (the new year, which is an autumn holiday in the Hebrew calendar) and Yom Kippur, the final day of repentance and fasting, 10 days later. In between those two holidays, it is said that the gates are open: it’s a good slice of time to do whatever you have to do to wind the old year up and start the new year clean.3
Many cultures have such a liminal time,4 so when Delia Sherman & I wrote our Swordspoint sequel, The Fall of the Kings, which delves into the myth and history of my imaginary land, I decided to put one in. Called the White Days. Here is, I think, their first appearance in the book:
The year drew on to MidWinter, the White Days between the old year and the new. It was a time of holiday for every soul in the city except the tavern-keepers and the Watch.
(The Fall of the Kings: Part II, Chapter 2. All the University bits were written by Delia Sherman.)
In the “White Days” section, scenes of the University’s riotous celebrations alternate with the quieter ones of a noble family:
And now, back to the University!
. . . . where the Duchess’s young cousin and presumed heir, Theron Campion, has a foot in both camps, and a University History Master for a lover who may be a bit too steeped in the ancient legends he teaches:
The White Days feature again in the next novel I wrote, The Privilege of the Sword. Which actually takes place some 45 years before The Fall of the Kings, and includes characters from Swordspoint seen through the eyes of a sassy teenage girl.5
It turns out there is a name for this: I am an achronological series writer.6 Recognizing how hard this is on readers, I have written a guide to what was going on in my brain. The web page features a slice of the glorious French first edition cover:
Speaking of Swordspoint, can I tell you how much I love my agency, New Leaf Literary? They actually sent me this attractive clipping specifically so that I could share it with you:
As the New Leaf website announces, Our aim is to challenge conformity and re-imagine the marketplace while equipping our clients with the tools necessary to navigate an evolving landscape and succeed.
So far, so good.
Swords in the living room again?
Having finished reading through the entire Shakespeare canon last spring, our nickname for our weekly Zoom Shakespeare group is now Beyond the Bard. But we still like plays with swords in them.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
We’re all pretty confused about omicron (or omiCRUD, as I childishly call it). Being masked & triple-vaxxed was supposed to save us! Delia & I have been Testing like mad, and all so far have come back negative - a great relief after the week we spent in Washington, DC at the World SFF Convention, where several people were infected despite Best Practices.
The WorldCon has been keeping everyone well informed. A week after the end of the con, they write:
DisCon III had approximately 2,300 attendees. In the ten days between December 17th and December 26th, 26 of them—1.13%—reported positive test results. In contrast, the District of Columbia has approximately 670,000 residents. In the ten days between December 17th and December 26th, 17,546 of them—2.62%—reported positive test results.
This is not and cannot be a perfect comparison. Among other things, we do not know what percentage of DisCon III members did not report their COVID status to DisCon III, or what percentage of DC residents’ tests have not been reported to the Department of Health. But …the fact that our apparent rate is lower than the general DC rate, we attribute to our masking and vaccination requirements.
My own theory is that it was the elevators.7
A friend of ours, a virologist who tweets as @JohnSkylar, went to the con taking every precaution known to virologists—including investing in rapid antigen kits so he & his wife could test daily. And they still caught the omicrud! I recommend his Twitter feed or his Substack, COVID Transmissions, where he’s been going into thoughtful detail about his own experience, and what we’re all facing.
We have a winner
Thank you so much to everyone who supported the launch this year of The Golden Dreidel - and a special thanks those who bought it for non-Jewish kids. Ms. M— D— is the winner of the Space Laser pin - but you all deserve one. They are available here for ready money.
My friend Lunar, in rural England, just tweeted this pic.
My reply to her was: “…why this makes a good Christmas present as well as Chanukah one: It opens with a Jewish kid who is quietly envious of her friends' Christmas trees & other traditions. Useful insight about genuine diversity, beyond the usual "Oh, look! A book that explains Other People's Customs" stuff - it’s also about what being Other really means.”
Sleigh Ride: ADDITION & CORRECTION
I’m so happy that so many people got to enjoy the Ivy League Piano Duo’s version of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride - in which, in the best of Baroque traditions (what? you didn’t know Leroy Anderson was the 199th son of J.S. Bach?), the performers did a little Improvisation on Popular Themes. Mike corrected one slip, though: Jamie’s Canadian, not Alaskan - he lives on a farm in Bergen, Alberta where he grows vegetables and bakes elaborate breads in the summer for local markets when not traveling about judging competitions and delivering master classes.
This virtuosic pair have recorded several more pieces - though none with silly hats. You can see/hear them all RIGHT HERE!
[INSERT ATTRACTIVE DINGBAT HERE]
I keep thinking of more things I meant to tell you! But this is long enough already, even for the White Days. I’ll just have to write more often.
I also keep thinking of music I want to share. For instance, a compilation on Spotify called “Joy, Health, Love and Peace” of traditional British folksongs that run from Christmas through Twelfth Night (so it’s good through Jan. 6th!). Are you interested in links to music (via Spotify? Do you listen there?); to inserted YouTube videos… or will you just nod politely and ignore them?
New Year’s Eve will be quiet. We’ve canceled all plans for January that don’t involve everyone being well masked, which makes quaffing wine or eating King Cake together difficult. But maybe, in the peace, we will be able to hear the bells.
Auld Lang Syne
As twenty one turns twenty two Those of us who made it through Will sweep the old year out with much maligning Then raise a glass and give a thought To old acquaintance not forgot Who can't be here this year for auld lang syning Auld lang syning, auld lang syning (bis)
Stay healthy, stay vigilant, and stay hopeful.
And that’s a good place to stop.
This wonderful piece was brought to my attention by the wonderful Amal el-Mohtar, a human I love deeply. She also writes a wonderful newsletter.
Wiki begins: “Gaster was born in London, the son of the folklorist Moses Gaster, then Chief Rabbi of the English Sephardi community, who was Romanian by birth and a well-known linguist and scholar of Judaica. His father…named his son after his friend, Theodor Herzl. Theodor recalled that the first draft of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was prepared in his father's home…. Visitors to the Gaster home included Churchill, Lenin, and Freud.” It continues: “ books for which Gaster is best known [include] his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, widely admired for its felicitousness; Thespis, his application of the Frazerian myth-and-ritual theory to the ancient Near East and beyond; and his abridgment and updating of Frazer's The Golden Bough (The New Golden Bough ), in which he retained the theory but updated the data.” Holy cow. No wonder he resonated with me!
The radio holiday special I did about this, The Door is Opened, is available for streaming on my website, here. I still consider it some of my best work.
Tudor England - Lord of Misrule - New Year’s gifts
Because I try never to repeat myself.
Which book should you read first?
I wrote each one to stand alone, and I’ve found that readers get a very different experience depending on which they start with – and that’s not a bad thing! But if you’d like to follow the fortunes and adventures of everyone in their linear order, I recommend the Chronology.
And I am trying not to be too hurt that the list of panels that each of the afflicted listed themselves as having attended never mentioned any of mine. What am I, chopped liver?
Another #AltHallelujah by Nathan Long, from Twitter. And from Dictionary.com:
‘The words auld lang syne literally mean “old long since,” though in practice it means “old times, especially times fondly remembered,” as well as an “old or long friendship.” It’s from the Scots language, and the expression was first recorded in 1660–1680.’