St. Nicholas Day: Children, adults worldwide welcome the ‘real’ Saint Nick

Boots set out for St. Nicholas. Photo by Patrick Buechner

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6: Santa Claus may be seen in malls across America, but the real St. Nick—the historical bishop of Myra, that is—makes his grand appearance around the world on December 6—St. Nicholas Day. From the Netherlands to France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Bulgaria, St. Nicholas Day is greeted with beloved customs, special baked goods, processions and reenactments. In many countries, St. Nicholas Day is an opportunity to move away from the commercialization of the holiday season and toward the “true meaning” of Christmas—as a time of giving, reflection and gratitude. A 4th-century Christian leader renowned for immense generosity, St. Nicholas is known as the protector of children and is the patron saint of an entire list of cities and peoples.

How is St. Nicholas celebrated? French households are especially likely to smell of spiced gingerbread biscuits, while children learn songs and poems about St. Nicholas in school; the Italian fair known as Fiera di San Nicolo can last more than a week; in Serbia, St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint.

In many cities, St. Nicholas makes his grand entrance in a parade. Photo by FaceMePLS, courtesy of Flickr

NICHOLAS OF MYRA: THE SAINT BEHIND SANTA CLAUS

The story of Nicholas begins in modern-day Turkey, with a baby born into a wealthy Christian family. Fate quickly turned when the young St. Nicholas became an orphan, however. Taking to heart the words of Jesus—“sell what you own and give the money to the poor”—Nicholas used his inheritance to help the needy, devoted his life to God, and was made bishop of Myra. Through the years, Nicholas would become renowned for his humble and generous spirit.

Though persecuted for his faith, Nicholas remained steadfast in his beliefs, and his story spread far and wide. Following his death, a relic called manna formed on his grave, and the substance became known for its healing abilities. The date of St. Nicholas’ death soon became widely celebrated.

RESOURCES:
ST. NICHOLAS CENTER OFFERS ACTIVITIES, RECIPES & MORE

To make the traditions and customs of St. Nicholas Day available to the world, the St. Nicholas Center was created as a nonprofit organization for everything related to the famed bishop of Myra. Dozens of new pages and resources are added to the site each year,  from videos, how-tos, printables, articles and more on everything from traditional Speculaas cookie recipes to church resources to general information:

St. Nicholas Day speculaas

Speculaas cookies for St. Nicholas Day, made with traditional cookie molds. Photo by Turku Gingerbread, courtesy of Flickr

Interested in the life of St. Nicholas? Learn more here.

For children, check out this page.

For youth groups, visit here.

Cook up Speculaas cookies, gluten-free Speculoos and Ukrainian Christmas Honey Cookies, with cookie recipes here.

For tips on how to use cookie molds, check out this article.

Get crafty with suggestions and directions, here.

Or, access printable ornaments, figures and candy wrappers, puppets and more here.

What makes a Dutch St. Nicholas party unique? Find out—and host your own version of the party—by visiting here.

Introducing St. Nicholas to a group? Check out this video for information about the famed bishop.

Looking for a short play about St. Nicholas? Find two miracle plays, ideal for use with young people, here and here.

View 14th-century Icelandic illuminations of St. Nicholas, here. From among the Medieval manuscripts of Iceland, the Helgastaðabók: Nikulás Saga (Book of Helgastadir) contains the Life of St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra, along with three full-page pictures of St. Nicholas and 15 figured initials (note that it was highly unusual to have more than one full-page illumination for such a book). The original manuscript is currently in the Royal Library in Stockholm.

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Categories: Christian

Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15—or THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians with a 40-day period of abstinence known as the Nativity Fast.

Usually, our ReadTheSpirit magazine column about this centuries-old practice focuses on the earlier start of the fasting period, which is most common in the U.S. Here is how the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains this period of self-denial and deepening spiritual reflection:

The Nativity Fast is one of four main fast periods throughout the ecclesiastical year. Beginning on November 15 and concluding on December 24, the Nativity Fast gives individuals the opportunity to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior  on December 25. By abstaining from certain food and drink—particularly from meat, fish, dairy products, olive oil, and wine—as well as focusing more deeply on prayer and almsgiving, we can find that the primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

However, in this 2019 holiday column we are aware of almost daily newspaper headlines about Ukraine and Russia—so we are including their later starting date, as well. That variance between starting on what today is November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar—while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

One Russian Orthodox church on the West Coast, for example, has this note on its website’s calendar: “During this fast, the general rule is that from Nov. 15/Nov. 28—and up until the Feast of Nativity (Christmas)—no meat, meat-products, dairy, dairy-products or egg and egg-products are eaten. Children under 7, lactating and pregnant women are exempt.” Both dates are offered because it’s clear to the pastor that Orthodox Christians from other backgrounds like to attend liturgies at that church.

Many American-based Orthodox clergy and lay people have to navigate complex cultural expectations.

Making American Exceptions and Adaptations

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

One of the most popular writers about American Orthodox faith and culture is theologian and educator Federica Matthewes-Green—a famous convert to Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, she has appeared on national panels and in public TV documentaries as an expert on the American experience of Orthodoxy. Among her most popular introductions to the Orthodox church is her 1997 memoir, Facing East—A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy

In that book, she writes:

Last Saturday, when I went out with a friend for lunch, I mentioned that we were in the Nativity fast. When she asked what that meant, I replied that we go without meat from November 15 to Christmas, 40 days. Our parish doesn’t observe a stringent fast now like we do before Pascha (Easter), though some Orthodox do. I said, “Of course, we make an exception on Thanksgiving. We eat turkey.”

“Then what?” she asked. “Do you have to feel guilty about it and go to confession?”

“No,” I said, “American Orthodox generally make an exception and feast on Thanksgiving. Because it’s a local custom.” A minute later I realize how funny this sounds In Orthodoxy, the vast United States of America from sea to shining sea is “local.”

‘We Fast Faithfully and in Secret’

Despite that practical advice from her parish—most official Orthodox websites, even in the U.S., don’t mention a Thanksgiving adaptation. What they offer is pastoral advice about the contemporary spiritual value of fasting—and a warning not to judge others for how they choose to follow this call to self denial. Pastors tend to warn against pointing fingers at others whose fasting practice may not be as strict.

Here’s an example from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America. The archdiocesan website first offers a detailed fasting chart, then adds this pastoral advice:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20 (or later, depending on one’s calendar), with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

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Categories: Christian

Feast of St. Francis of Assisi: Embrace pets, animals and nature

St. Francis of Assisi animals

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4: Take your pet to a church service!

Many congregations nationwide are holding pet blessings in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. What used to be a parade of rural farm animals down country lanes has evolved into preachers raising a hand over dogs, cats and hamsters; some pastors even travel to dog parks! But, note: Some blessings occur prior to the Oct. 4 feast day, while others are delayed until later in the calendar, so check your local listings.

Did you know? St. Francis of Assisi not only founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of St. Clare, but he also created the first Nativity scene—and received the first recorded stigmata!

Christians might not agree on the fate of pets, but St. Francis of Assisi went called animals his “brothers and sisters”; he insisted that they are an integral part of God’s creation.

ST FRANCIS: FROM WEALTH TO INTENTIONAL POVERTY

As with many famous saints, St. Francis’ life began in wealth. Born to a cloth merchant in Assisi in 1181, Francis lived in luxury until war called him away from home, in 1204. It was immediately following the war that Francis received a vision; he soon lost his desire for a worldly life and returned to Assisi as a peasant. Francis’ father disowned him for his choice to follow Christ, and the saint-to-be began both begging and preaching on the streets. Soon after, Francis created an order that would, in 10 years, number more than 5,000. St. Francis was canonized less than two years after his death.

ST. FRANCIS: ON ANIMALS, NATURE & THE ENVIRONMENT

Pet blessings

U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Jesus Navarrete sprinkles a dog with holy water during the Blessing of Pets ceremony at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Photo by Senior Airman Aubrey White, courtesy of U.S. Air Force

St. Francis wasn’t the first to raise the question of animals in heaven—and he wasn’t the first to affirm his belief, either! (It’s a common theme in Psalms that all creatures of God, whether man or beast, have a duty to praise Him.) Nor was St. Francis the last to preach this message: although some evangelical Christians believe that our pets are barred from heaven, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous as an early advocate for humane treatment of animals. Wesley preached that we will see our pets in heaven. To this day, many Protestant and Anglican congregations offer St. Francis-themed blessings of animals.

St. Francis challenged everyone to protect nature: We are, after all, God’s stewards on earth. Legends about St. Francis paint a portrait of a man whose donkey wept upon his death; who blessed a wolf and commanded him to stop harming townspeople and their flocks; and who garnered rapt attention from birds when he told his companions that he would “preach to” his “sisters the birds.” It’s said that during his sermon, not one bird flew away.

AT HOME: ST. FRANCIS FOR FAMILIES

Whether you’re honoring St. Francis or your own pet today, there are plenty of activities to choose from! Those wishing to remember the saint can pray the Canticle of the Sun; learn more about the fantastic festival in Assisi today; or cook up an Italian feast. (Catholic Culture has additional ideas.) Aside from taking your pet for a walk or to a pet-blessing service, animal lovers can raise money for a local animal shelter; make Fido an herbal flea collar; or even take a lesson in pet communication. (TLC has more.)

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Categories: Christian

Michaelmas: Daisies, archangels and a feast for one ‘who is like God’

Michaelmas flowers daisies

The Michaelmas Daisy (Aster). Photo by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojector, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29: Search for an Aster flower, make a blackberry crumble or bake a bannock today: It’s Michaelmas, the Christian feast for St. Michael the Archangel. Often depicted as a white-robed angel with his foot on a demon, St. Michael is seen as the warrior of God and, not surprisingly, has become the patron of soldiers, mariners and anyone going into battle. Autumn ushers in the darker half of the year, and by many Christians, St. Michael is prayerfully invoked for for extra protection.

WEEK-LONG GOOSE FEST: In Lewistown, Pennsylvania, today is known as Goose Day—and tourists now, ahem, flock to Lewistown for the occasion. Events are becoming so popular that many are expanding into the week preceding September 29 (read the full story in the Penn Live Patriot-News).

Beyond honoring St. Michael the Archangel, Michaelmas has taken on a seasonal association through the centuries, signaling the beginning of autumn: In the United Kingdom and Ireland, “Michaelmas” is the name of the first term of the academic year, while in Wales and England, “Michaelmas” is associated with one of four terms of the year in the courts.

ST. MICHAEL: FROM HEBREW SCRIPTURES TO THE GOLDEN LEGEND

St. Michael archangel stained glass

A stained glass depiction of St. Michael the Archangel. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

Christianity is split on how to regard “Archangels,” but generally seven are recognized in Christian tradition—and three of them are honored liturgically. Among these, St. Michael is the seen as the greatest of all the Archangels.

Did you know? In the 5th century, a basilica near Rome was built and dedicated to St. Michael on September 30, with celebrations starting the evening before; thus, September 29 became established as the feast day for the Archangel in the Western Christian Church.

Hebrew for “Who is like God,” Michael carried the victory over Lucifer in the war of heaven. Michael appears several times in the Hebrew scriptures and generally is seen as an advocate of Israel. Michael also is honored in Islam for his role in carrying out God’s plans.

The Golden Legend describes in great detail the battles of St. Michael, but none are to be as great as his final victory over the Antichrist. According to the Golden Legend, the Archangel Michael will slay the Antichrist on the Mount of Olivet.

Note: With the exception of Serbian Orthodox Christians, most Eastern Christians do not observe Michaelmas. The Greek Orthodox Church honors Archangels on November 8.

DAISIES, APPLES AND A BLACKBERRY LEGEND

As the Aster blooms around this time each year, it has slowly gained a new name: the Michaelmas Daisy. In every color from white to pink to purple, the Michaelmas Daisy is the original flower from which lovers pick petals and alternately chant, “S/he loves me, S/he loves me not.” Gardens in England and the United Kingdom still attract throngs of visitors around Michaelmas for their glorious displays of Michaelmas daisies.

With a date near the Equinox, Michaelmas soon became associated with livestock and hiring fairs, and many events in Scotland included processions and sports. Today, Michaelmas fairs continue in some parts of England, complete with music and dancing, art and delicious fare.

Geese were once plentiful on Michaelmas—as were autumn apples—and the most popular dish of Michaelmas has always been roast goose and apples. Side dishes and desserts vary by country, with the Irish making Michaelmas Pie and Scots baking St. Michael’s Bannock, a type of scone. (Get recipes and more from Catholic Culture and FishEaters.) As folklore suggests that blackberries may not be picked after Michaelmas—because Satan fell from heaven into/onto blackberry bushes—blackberry pies and crumbles remain a popular dish for Michaelmas.

Looking for more Michaelmas goose recipes? Try Food Network and AllRecipes.

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Categories: Christian

Meskel: Ethiopian Christian festival deemed a cultural heritage experience

Meskel activities in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Photo by Peter Chou Kee Liu, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27: Across Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Eritrean Orthodox Christian communities, bonfires on the eve of Meskel remind families of an ancient story: the vivid dreams and forthcoming discovery of the true Cross by Queen Helena, in the fourth century. On Meskel, the faithful attend religious services, gather with family and feast together.

Did you know? Ethiopia is the only country in the world that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level. (Watch a one-minute video of Meskel celebrations on YouTube.)

Ethiopia recently petitioned—and succeeded, in December of 2013—in requesting UNESCO to register the Meskel events in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience, for its “ancient nature … color and significance … and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists as well as the immense participation of the society.”

The traditional story tells that St. Helena instructed the people of Jerusalem to bring wood for a bonfire. After adding incense, smoke rose high into the sky then returned to the ground to touch the precise spot where the true Cross was located. Then, a part of the true Cross was brought to Ethiopia, where it lies at the mountain of Amba Geshen.

MESKEL: A UNIQUE CELEBRATION

Injera bread, Meskel

A basket of injera bread. Photo by Pen Waggener, courtesy of Flickr

The Meskel festival traces its roots back 1,600 years. Although it hasn’t been celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm in every century, Ethiopians certainly enjoy the festival today. Colorful processions begin in the early evening of Meskel eve; firewood is gathered by community members, and the bonfire site is sprinkled with fresh yellow daisies. Bonfires burn the night through, and when the flames at last begin to smolder, leftover ash is used to mark the foreheads of the faithful, in an act similar to that of Ash Wednesday.

Ethiopian honey wine, exotic spices and spicy hot peppers complement plates mounded with food, as family-honored recipes fill the table. In community settings, dozens of women gather to prepare food for hungry churchgoers, humming and singing traditional songs while they work. Homemade cheese, tomatoes and lentils are served with injera flatbread. (Make injera with this recipe, from Food.com.) Following food, the time-honored Ethiopian coffee ceremony commences.

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Categories: Christian

You say Lammas, I say Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans embrace harvest

Three rolls with wheat strands on wood board on wood table

Photo courtesy of pxhere

THURSDAY, AUGUST 1: As August begins and grains turn golden in the fields, Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark centuries-old harvest festivals. The customs once were so well known that Shakespeare could use a reference to Lammas as a symbolic date in his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s birthday was Lammas Eve.

Today, families with cultural roots in the UK may mark either Lammas or Lughnasadh. Pagan groups maintain various customs related to these traditions, regarding this point in the year as a “feast of first fruits.”

Historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing on August 1, or Lammas Day.

It is gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s observance. Lughnasadh customs were more commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

In the Neopagan and Wiccan faiths, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbaths and is the first of three harvest festivals. Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnasadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnasadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries.

Interested in making a Lammas loaf? Try this recipe, from Recipes for a Pagan Soul:

4 cups all purpose/bread flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Stir flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and raisins together. Separately, fork-blend eggs and buttermilk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until sticky batter is formed. Scrape batter onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly. Shape batter into a ball, then place in a round, non-stick casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1-1/4 hours.

Wait 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove bread from casserole, then cool on wire rack. If desired, cut loaf into quarters and then slice thinly.

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Sacred Heart of Jesus: Catholic Christians reflect on the love, heart of Christ

Stained glass image of Jesus Christ with Sacred Heart

A stained glass image of Jesus and the Sacred Heart, Bushwood, Maryland. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JUNE 28: In prayerful reflection, Catholics focus today on the depth of divine love for today’s feast, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Note: Many Catholics began preparation for today’s feast by starting a Novena to the Sacred Heart on Corpus Christi (this year, on June 20).

Though general devotion to the Sacred Heart has been popular since the 11th century, specific devotions came into being after the revelation of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun of the 17th century whose visions of Christ revealed the depths of his love and the promises made to those who consecrate themselves and make reparations to his Sacred Heart. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque appealed to the faithful to focus their devotions on the overwhelming love of Christ.

Interested in a prayer of consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, written by St. Margaret Mary? Read it here.

SACRED HEART: FROM ST. MARGARET MARY TO POPE PIUS IX

Since St. Margaret Mary’s revelation, devotion to the Sacred Heart has expanded around the world. Pope Pius IX instituted an obligatory feast for the Sacred Heart for the entire Catholic Church in 1856. The Catechism, quoting Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1956), states, “[Jesus] has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, ‘is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that … love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings’ without exception” (#478).

Since 2002, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has also been the Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests.

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Categories: Christian