As I sit at my kitchen table writing this, I look up from my keyboard frequently to watch the legions of birds gathering at one of the four feeders my husband keeps filled just outside our sliding glass doors. Against the frosty white backdrop, the cardinals are brilliant, but the blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees and finches also stand out against the snow.
I sip coffee as I watch, and I think about how my former neighbor in Dixon, Illinois, is likely doing the same thing right now. Bonnie, who turned 91 in July, has a large picture window in her dining room that looks out over a massive bush that seems to always be full of feathered and furry visitors no matter the season. The window creates a frame for living art as birds and squirrels flit in and out of the picture to feed on the corn and other seeds she religiously stocks for them.
I used to love sitting with her, sipping a cup of tea or coffee, talking about life (and having been born in 1929, Bonnie had a multitude of interesting experiences and keen observations) and enjoying the view from her window.
When I spoke with Bonnie recently, she said she’d been watching the birds a lot as she has been quarantining since March. Her daughters bring her groceries and visit with her on the back porch now that it is too cold to sit outside. She’d been venturing out only to fill her many bird feeders until another neighbor insisted on doing this for her while the ground is snow- and ice-covered.
I also am thinking of Bonnie as I write this on Monday because for years my husband and I celebrated Twelfth Night with her on Jan. 6. We did that until we moved to Iowa in 2014. Bonnie would make a feast of hors d’oeuvres and a fancy dinner (she is an excellent cook, having run a banquet hall/restaurant/golf club for decades).
Before we ate, we’d have a toast and reflect on the year we’d just completed and our wishes for the 12-months ahead. We’d shake hand bells to chase away the bad and ring in the good. We’d reflect on the gift of having wonderful friends.
Twelfth Night has been celebrated since the middle ages in different ways around the world, marking the end of the Christmas season. Jan. 6 is also the Epiphany or the Feast of the Three Kings. Some people celebrate by eating “king cake.” Sometimes a small plastic baby, symbolizing Baby Jesus, is hidden in the cake (in earlier times it was a pea or bean). Whoever gets the piece containing the figure is the honored guest at the celebration.
I still remember the first time I ate king cake when I was working at a small newspaper in Chicago 30 years ago. I was lucky enough to get the special piece, and I was charmed by the idea. Since then I have met others who celebrate Twelfth Night with this tradition. In my family, we always left our Christmas decorations up until at least Jan. 6, and at the Catholic church my family attended, the three kings didn’t appear with the manger scene until that day.
No matter what the custom, I plan to observe Twelfth Night by thinking about the friends and family who are with me in spirit despite many months of absence. I will likely spend some time early in the day watching the birds. And I’ll take down the jingle bells hanging on my back door and ring in wishes for health and happiness for all.