Posadas Navidenas: Colorful processions recall an ancient journey

A Las Posadas procession. Photo by Anza Trail NPS, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community.

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

FROM AN AZTEC WINTER CELEBRATION TO A NEIGHBORHOOD EVENT

Roots of the nine-day Las Posadas likely lie in the Aztec winter celebration of the sun god, which took place over nine nights; when the native peoples of Mexico were converting to Catholicism, church leaders encouraged nine nights of devotion to the parents of Jesus—focusing each evening on a month of Mary’s pregnancy.

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

DIY: RECIPES & MAKING A PINATA

Shake off the winter chill by adopting a Las Posadas tradition in your neighborhood, and invite friends over for a traditional meal of vegetable tamale pie, Tijuana chicken and warm apple empanadas. (Recipes can be found at Cinnamon Hearts.)

Craft a simple piñata with help from OneCharmingParty.

For recipes for tamales, rompope and more, check out an article from the Washington Postthis Pinterest page and Lowes.com.

 

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Categories: Christian

St. Nicholas Day: Welcoming the ‘real’ Santa Claus (and his companions)

Click this image from the Saint Nicholas Center to visit that vast, educational and downright fun website devoted to the saint who became known as Santa Claus.

SUNSET TUESDAY, DECEMBER 5 and WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 6: Whether he’s known as Sinterklaas, San Nicola or St. Nicholas in your part of the world, keep watch for the white-bearded man in the red suit, as Christians around the globe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. In European countries, today’s festival means heaps of sweets, small toys and exciting surprises left by the famed fourth-century saint as he makes his rounds. By receiving gifts—or coal—on St. Nicholas Day, advocates of this observance say,  then children can focus on the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

ADVENT FOR WESTERN CHRISTIANS: This special season for more than a billion Western Christians began on December 3, this year. We’ve got that story for you.

NATIVITY FAST FOR EASTERN CHRISTIANS: Families who belong to Orthodox churches began their annual fast on November 15. And, we’ve got that story, too.

BEHIND THE LEGEND: LIFE OF ST. NICHOLAS

The “real” story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a man born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas took to heart the words of Jesus and eventually sold what his wealthy parents had left to him. Nicholas gave his proceeds to the poor, and was made bishop of Myra while still a relatively young man. His reputation for compassion and generosity continued. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)

With the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians—included Bishop Nicholas—were imprisoned and exiled. Following his release, Nicholas’s passion for helping others persisted. Stories of his deeds rapidly spun into legends, and many of those legends are still told on St. Nicholas Day.

Did you know? It is popular custom for families to host a St. Nicholas Day feast on the eve of this saint’s holiday, on December 5.

Wooden shoes filled with candies

Traditional shoes filled with sweets, a custom of St. Nicholas Day. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas, courtesy of Flickr

In 343 CE, Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, and was buried beneath his cathedral church. A relic known as manna formed in his grave, and the sweet-smelling liquid was rumored to have healing powers. This manna posthumously increased the popularity of the saint, and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian Church.

AROUND THE WORLD:
FRENCH MANNALA TO THE FIERA DI SAN NICOLA

In stark contrast to the secular figure of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas bears religious connotations in many of the countries that grandly celebrate his feast day. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s legend that St. Nicholas arrives by steamship and rides a white horse. French children often hear the tales of St. Nicholas from grandparents and elders, while gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) are prepared in kitchens and bakeries. In Italy, the Fiera di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Fair) is celebrated in early December.

ACTIVITIES, RESOURCES & SPECULAAS GINGER COOKIES

Children young and old can get into the spirit of St. Nicholas with help from the St. Nicholas Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting his life. Among the highlights you might enjoy:

Across the site, visitors can find everything from printable candy bar wrappers and paper bag puppets to recipes for St. Nicholas cookies and chocolate initial cookies. Men dressing up as St. Nicholas can join the St. Nicholas Directory, and churches can find a range of inspirational study guides, too.

In addition, Sycamore Stirrings suggests ideas for St. Nicholas spoon puppets.

ZWARTE PIET‘ CONTROVERSY

St. Nicholas has many different companions, according to traditions that evolved across Europe. The St. Nicholas Center offers an overview of the entire array, which includes a white horse, a donkey, angels and then some companions from the dark side of mythology. Among them is Krampus, a demonic figure associated with St. Nicholas in some European cultures. Krampus was  largely unknown outside of Europe until the last decade when versions of the demon began showing up in a handful of American TV shows and even a 2015 feature film.

The most controversial figure from the dark side of the St. Nicholas legend is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who has been popular in the Netherlands and also Belgium and Luxembourg. Historians debate whether this figure, often described as the saint’s playful black servant, was part of popular traditions before the mid 19th Century. But, all agree that a hugely popular 1850 children’s book crystalized the figure as part of St. Nicholas Day in the Low Countries.

The St. Nicholas Center has a lengthy, detailed history of this controversial figure, including lots of links to read more about this troubling tradition. Dutch communities are gradually coming to terms with this figure, who many observers around the world now consider a racist stereotype. Some traditional Dutch towns continue to feature Piet in the original black-face characterization. Other cities, businesses and organizations are changing to more acceptable forms of Piet: some as rainbow-hued helpers; some as a servant whose face is dark from chimney soot.

The Nicholas Center’s recommended links include a November, 2017, column about this issue that begins: The Netherlands may not have any Confederate statues to pull down, but the country has its own racially charged issues with its past and its cultural institutions – most notably these days the controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet.

 

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Categories: ChristianInternational Observances

Advent: Preparation for Christ’s coming begins for Western Christians

Wreath of greens with five lit candles, in building

An Advent wreath with all candles lit. Photo by Christine McIntosh, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3: Advent wreaths glow and the anticipation of Jesus’s birth begins as Western Christians around the world begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays leading to Christmas, many Christians light a new candle upon the wreath. Often, these wreaths are a part of congregational worship during this season—but many families also make their own wreaths at home.

One unusual question in 2017 is: At what time of day will families light the fourth and fifth candles? That’s an issue because the final Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve this year. (This convergence will occur again in 2023.

Coming in 2018:
50th Anniversary of Apollo 8

Already, plans are being made to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Christmas Eve message from the crew of Apollo 8, December 24, 1968.

Click the image to learn more about the historic reading.

A new book by Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, already has racked up more than 170 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars. The book’s Amazon description tells the story:

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision, launching humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft. President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit.

That “inspiring message”? On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the Moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 10, using the King James Version text.

THE MEANING OF ADVENT

For Western Christians, Advent focuses on both the ancient arrival of Jesus and the Second Coming; on both spiritual longing and alertness. Most churches are draped in purple and/or blue during the Advent season, representing penitence and hope.

Did you know? Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—the Eastern equivalent of the Western Advent—on November 15. The Nativity Fast lasts 40 days, and incorporates prayer and strict fasting.

Each Sunday during Advent, a new candle is lit on the Advent wreath. Typically, an Advent wreath is fashioned of evergreens and contains three purple candles and one rose one, with an optional white pillar candle at its center. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and the white candle may be lit on Christmas Eve. (Tradition varies: in Protestant churches, candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, blue candles are common. Wikipedia has details.)

Origins of the Advent wreath are believed to be Germanic, though opinions vary. The wreath’s circular nature now represents the eternity of God, and the increasing glow of the candles symbolizes a people previously living in spiritual darkness and, at last, witnessing the coming of the Light of the World. Advent calendars and Jesse Trees have also gained popularity of use during this Christian season.

Make a DIY Advent wreath, with information on structuring a base, candle-holders, greens and decorations at Catholic Culture.

Create a chic Advent calendarno matter what your taste—with the multitude of ideas suggested by Martha Stewart. For European flair, check out the related article from the UK’s Daily Express.

Blessings for the Advent wreath, for a Christmas tree and more are at the official site for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Categories: Christian

Nativity Fast: Orthodox Christians begin joyous fasting period for Jesus’s birth

Candles lit interior of Orthodox Christian church

Photo by Mr.TinDC, courtesy of Flickr

Nativity Orthodox iconWEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Even before the American Thanksgiving, millions of Orthodox Christians around the world are looking toward Jesus’s birth, which they refer to formally as the Nativity. Of course, in Western Christian culture, we know this as the period leading up to Christmas. For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared with a 40-day Nativity Fast.

By Western standards, this is a daunting spiritual and physical challenge. Traditional Orthodox fasting means giving up meat and dairy in addition to fish, wine and oil; fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.) Throughout the Nativity Fast, several other holidays take place, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day and recognition of those prophets regarded by Eastern Christians as having prepared the way for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths.

Two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through the Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony, no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky, and afterward, the fast is joyously broken.

Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. (OCA.org has more.) Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed; prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars. For example, many Armenian Christians begin their fast later and focus on January 6 as the Feast of the Nativity.

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Categories: Christian

Halloween, Allhallowtide and Samhain: A spook-tacular time of year!

Kids in costumes in a row, smiling

Photo courtesy of Shaw Air Force Base

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31 and WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2:

Gather ‘round for spooky stories, ancient tales, age-old customs and plenty of apples and candy: It’s Halloween!

Rooted deeply in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!

Did you know? Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales.

As Western cultural influences spread worldwide, too, Halloween has steadily been gaining worldwide popularity—even in countries as far from North America as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Western images of witches, black cats and trick-or-treating now have circled the planet. Halloween slowly picked up speed and now is observed as far from the Celtic homeland as Asia and Africa. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

SAMHAIN: AN ANCIENT FESTIVAL REVIVED

Raven of black in shadow against orange moon

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

Did you know? In Gaelic Ireland, guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

ALLHALLOWTIDE: THE CHRISTIAN TRIDUUM OF HALLOWEEN

The triduum of Halloween, “Allhallowtide,” recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God.

Is this part of our story new to you? Practices vary widely across the world’s many Christian denominations today. While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations retain the fuller liturgical celebration in their calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches long ago abandoned the traditional three-day cycle.

However, “Allhallowtide” is a Christian term that emerged in the 1400s to describe this three-day period. For centuries, it was an important part of parish life in many regions. And, while most American Protestant churches have abandoned the larger observance, others are discovering that this opportunity to remember the “saints” can become a rich part of congregational life, especially in Latino communities. Here is an Episcopal perspective on the larger observance. And here is another reflection from the Catholic Culture website.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

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Categories: ChristianInternational ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

St. Francis of Assisi: Pet blessings, ecology and the patron saint of animals

“He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.”

Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
(better known as Pope Francis)

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

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 4: Coast to coast, a small but growing number of churches host autumn pet blessings, honoring St. Francis of Assisi whose official holiday falls on a Wednesday this year. If you are looking for Francis-themed services in your area, check local news sources or congregational websites in your area.

The United Methodist Church’s website offers resources for pet blessings with instructions similar to many mainline denominations—that is, to be used anytime or as close to the October 4 feast day as congregations may find practical.

St. Francis of Assisi certainly is one of the world’s most widely revered saints, especially since the current pope, when elected in 2013, publicly chose Francis’ name and promoted his spiritual example. Mainly associated with concern for animals and the environment, St. Francis of Assisi lived only into his mid 40s, but made a unique impression upon the world. St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order. He also is widely credited with creating the first crèche, or Christmas Nativity Scene. He constantly tried, however possible, to imitate what Jesus had said and done.

LIFE OF ST. FRANCIS

Man in brown robes in field with animals

Saint Francis with the Animals. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St. Francis was born 1181/1182 CE in Assisi, Italy. Nicknamed “Francesco,” for “Frenchman,” Giovanni’s father desired for his son to share a love of the materials trade, silk and acquired wealth. Though sympathy for the poor was evident in his childhood, it wasn’t until he became a young man that Francis began to question his way of life.

Despite his father’s threats and beatings, Francis began preaching in the streets. Followers came to him, and the group known as “Lesser Brothers” claimed no material possessions. (Wikipedia has details.) In 1210, Francis’ Order was officially approved by Pope Innocent III. Later, Francis founded the Order of Poor Clares—an enclosed religious order for women—and the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. In 1224, while praying during a 40-day fast for Michaelmas, Francis had a vision of the Exaltation of the Cross and received the stigmata. (Learn more from Catholic.org.)

St. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. In his Canticle of Creatures, St. Francis refers to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon” and even “Sister Death.” The saint called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” with stories written of his preaching to the birds and convincing a wolf to stop attacking nearby villagers if they agreed to feed him.

Francis died of illness in 1226, and in July 1228—less than two years after his death—he was proclaimed a saint.

RESOURCES:

Many Christian groups offer online samples for pet blessings. The United Methodist website is linked above. Here’s a link to materials from the Episcopal Church. Another popular source is Let All Creation Praise, a website with eco-friendly Christian themes. The Humane Society of the United States also offers many free, online St. Francis-related stories and resources, including on this page within the HSUS website.

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Categories: Christian

Michaelmas: Christians honor ‘warrior’ Archangel, hold fairs and festivals

Angel with wings, foot on demon

St. Michael the Archangel, depicted with his foot on a demon. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 29: Welcome the autumn season and term by roasting a goose today, or making blackberry crumble: 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. For the faithful, autumn ushers in the darker half of the year, and St. Michael is prayerfully invoked by the faithful for extra protection.

Did you know? Several divine appearances are credited to St. Michael, including one reported by St. Joan of Arc.

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: AN ABRAHAMIC PERSPECTIVE

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