Christmas, Nativity: Christians across the globe rejoice in Christ’s birth

Altar of a church decorated for Christmas

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25: Sing for joy and ring the bells—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians worldwide, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Pew Research tells us that, even with declines in religious affiliation in the U.S., half of all Americans say they attend church on Christmas Eve.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire, Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say that Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.

CHRISTMAS DIY: DECORATIONS, RECIPES & PARTY TIPS

Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. Don’t leave out the kids—their crafts and printables are at Kaboose. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services. Chocolate lovers can find more festive food ideas at Hersheys.com.

DID YOU KNOW? (PARTY ICEBREAKERS)

Now, for some extra fun: Are you looking to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or that family member you only see once a year? Try tossing out a few of these interesting tidbits during your next gathering:

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales.

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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

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

Easter: Western and Eastern Christians rejoice for the Resurrection

Pink tulips, colored eggs, one fancy painted egg, in basket

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, and SUNDAY APRIL 28: EASTER is the most important Christian celebration of the year in both Eastern (Orthodox) and Western churches—but the two branches of Christianity will mark the date one week apart this year.

Hot cross buns, chocolate bunnies and brunch soufflé fill tables and baskets of plenty on this joyous holiday, as families and friends gather to mark this, the focal point of the Christian calendar. Lilies adorn altar spaces and remind churchgoers both of resurrection (blossoms from dormant spring bulbs)—and that Jesus enjoyed a form of lily himself as is evidenced in the Gospel of Luke. The 50 days following Easter are called Eastertide.

(Note: Though termed Pascha in the Eastern Christian Church, the themes are similar across East and West.)

Ham on white plate with sliced pineapples on top

Click the image to watch a video on three ways to finish an Easter ham. Courtesy of Vimeo

EGG HUNTS AND HAM TO BELLS AND LAMB

Easter in America may be characterized as much by the Easter Bunny and pastel-hued candies as it is by Christian joy in Christ’s Resurrection. Egg hunts, treat-filled baskets and festive brunches mark Easter for many American families, although for Christians, shared meals most often involve white-and-gold settings, fresh lilies on the table and, in many homes, a sacred Paschal Candle. A traditional Easter menu also often features lamb—a symbol of Christ at this time of year as the Paschal Lamb. However, these days, Easter hams far outpace cuts of lamb. Whether at church or at a post-service feast, Christians dress in their best apparel on Easter day.

In France and Belgium, the bells that “went to Rome on Maundy Thursday” return home for the evening Easter Vigil, only to bring Easter eggs to boys and girls—or so, the story has it.

In most countries with a substantial Christian population, Easter is a public holiday.

THE NEW TESTAMENT: WITNESS OF AN EMPTY TOMB

The New Testament describes the events of the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe verify him as the Son of God. There is no recorded “moment of resurrection,” but rather, the discovery by Mary Magdalene (and possibly others) early on Sunday morning—that the tomb was empty.

Did you know? First evidence of the Easter festival appears in the mid-2nd century.

In his crucifixion, Jesus died on a Roman cross. That evening, according to Christian tradition, Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body, wrapped it in linen cloth and laid it in a tomb. Saturday passed, and early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene (and, some Gospels attest, other women in attendance) visited the tomb of Jesus. Much to their surprise, the tomb’s stone was moved, and a messenger announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Gospel accounts vary regarding the messenger’s specific message and the women’s response, but all emphasize that the empty tomb was witnessed. To this day, sunrise services are popular in some regions on Easter Sunday, echoing the traditional stories of the empty tomb.

In the church, Easter is followed by the 50 days of Eastertide, which comes to an end on Pentecost Sunday.

EASTER RECIPES, DIY & MORE

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Ash Wednesday: Christians fast, repent and begin Lenten season 2019

Girl holding sign, 'Ashes here,' on busy city street

Congregations across the nation are taking to the streets, offering ashes on-the-go to busy Christians. Photo by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6: The pancakes, paczkis, blintzes all have been eaten—and today, the solemn Lenten season begins for Western Christians. It’s Ash Wednesday.

Starting today, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) in preparation for Easter. Western Christians (Roman Catholics, Protestants and others in the “Western” branches of the church) are called to repent and reflect. Many “give up something” for Lent. But the Western tradition is not nearly as extreme as the dietary rules followed by Eastern Christians, who begin their Fast of Great Lent on Monday March 11 this year—an observance known as Clean Monday.

Did you know? The Catholic Church permits ashes on the forehead for anyone who wishes to receive them—not just baptized Catholics. Many Protestant and Anglican churches also include this rite at the start of Lent and more congregations add the service each year.

In fact, Lent is more popular than ever nationwide in the U.S.

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

In his book Our Lent: The Things We Carry, ReadTheSpirit magazine Editor David Crumm writes: “Observance of Lent is booming across the U.S., including nontraditional groups and evangelical churches. Even Catholic parishes nationwide are seeing a rise in season-long observances. This makes sense in an era of turbulent change in our world. A return to spiritual practices—from praying daily to following the centuries-old traditions of Lent—is a journey that reconnects us with the timeless wisdom of our faith.”

Where do we see signs of the vitality of the Lenten season in 2019? First, we see it in ongoing survey research about the religious practices of ordinary Americans. Then, we already are seeing it in news headlines.

One example: The evangelical social-action movement Sojourners is urging followers to take Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season seriously this year. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis has published an open letter about this effort on the group’s website.

And—from the spiritual to the strictly commercial realm—Ad Age magazine just reported that the Gorton’s seafood company is preparing a clever new version of its TV ad campaign featuring male mermaids—Mer-Bros. Ad Age reports, “The updated ads come as Gorton’s and other seafood brands gear up for Lent, a busy time for the brand because people often eat more seafood while abstaining from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays.”

This is a very serious matter in America’s multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry, as well. Readers Digest magazine recently published a lengthy story about the history of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, which was created many years ago to meet the preferences of Catholic customers. And today? The magazine reports that about a quarter of the annual Filet-O-Fish sales are during the 40 days of Lent.

A 40-Day Companion for Lent

Many of our readers, over the years, have told us they enjoy reading Crumm’s book during Lent—a book that combines both inspirational reflections on Bible readings as well as a sometimes light-hearted look at contemporary life, today. The book is widely available via online bookstores. Here is the Amazon link for paperback and Kindle.

What’s the book about?

Our Lent is a 40-day, 40-chapter invitation to enjoy that combination of faith and self-guided reflection. Each daily chapter explores something Jesus showed us, including: coins, basins, bowls, bread, cups, swords and tables. In each chapter, the author shares a biblical story from Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and explains the significance of the tangible things Jesus lifted up for his followers. Then, each chapter connects the Bible lesson with our own daily lives as well as the lives of men and women who are celebrated in our culture, including the spiritual writer Thomas Merton, the actress and singer Judy Garland, the country musician Merle Haggard and even the beloved Cat in the Hat. After 40 days of connecting scripture with modern life, readers will find themselves freshly aware of the many blessings we have received and the challenges we face in helping to heal the world around us.

 

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Categories: Christian