St. Nicholas Day: Children around the world welcome the legendary saint of Myra

White horse carrying man in red robes with white beard, two people guide horse in front

St. Nicholas arrives on horseback, flanked by Black Peter. Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6: The white-bearded man in the red suit may travel by reindeer in the West, but today, Sinterklaas, or San Nicola, arrives across Europe on horseback—for St. Nicholas Day. For European children, St. Nicholas Day brings hope of sweets, small toys and surprises, as the fourth-century saint makes his rounds with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). For Christian families, the excitement and gifts of St. Nicholas Day can better prepare children for focus on the Nativity on Christmas Day.

Advent season: For more than a billion Western Christians, Advent begins before St. Nicholas day. (The first Advent Sunday is December 2 in 2018.)

Nativity Fast: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the 40-day fasting period known as Nativity Fast lasts through December 24.

NICHOLAS: A BISHOP BECOMES A LEGEND

The historical St. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. When orphaned at a young age, Nicholas followed the words of Jesus and sold his inheritance, giving the profits to the poor. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.) The generous young man devoted his life to God and was soon made bishop of Myra, where his reputation for compassion continued. Despite imprisonment and persecution during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas unwaveringly continued his servitude toward others .

Stories of his works and deeds spread throughout the land, and some of those stories are still told on St. Nicholas Day today. In 343 CE, St. Nicholas died in Myra. A relic, known as manna, formed on his grave, and the substance was believed to have healing properties.

NIKOLAOS THE WONDERWORKER & EUROPEAN TRADITIONS

In the many countries that observe St. Nicholas Day—the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and more—the day is met with special baked goods, processions and reenactments of wonderful stories from the life of St. Nicholas. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in France, the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) fills kitchens and bakeries. St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint in Serbia. Throughout Europe, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5, to be filled with either treats or coal by the passing St. Nicholas and his sidekick companion, Zwarte Piet.

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

This year, the nonprofit St. Nicholas Center has expanded its free printables, stories, handmade gifts and more with 49 new features: a video to introduce St. Nicholas, intended for St. Nicholas events and a handout on The Real Santa (with an Eastern image, too) are just a few of the features. Visitors to the site can find printable candy bar wrappers, paper bag puppets, cookies and even a religious devotional for churches—all with the intention of spreading the story of the life of the famed bishop of Myra.

Learn about the life of St. Nicholas, here. For children, check out this page.

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

Get creative with craft ideas and directions, here.

Access St. Nicholas Day blessings and other faith-based resources, here.

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Categories: Christian

Advent: Christians enter season of anticipation, hope

Purple candle lit, sitting in evergreen wreath with other candles

An Advent wreath with one candle lit, representing the first Sunday of Advent. Photo by Stephen Little, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2: The season of Advent begins today for over a billion Western Christians, as the church enters a new liturgical year and begins the season whose lighted wreaths and prayers anticipate the birth of Jesus.

On each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas, Christians light a new candle on the Advent wreath: three purple, and one rose-colored one. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and in some churches, a white pillar candle in the middle of the wreath is lit in Christmas Eve. (Note: In Protestant churches, Advent candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, they are typically blue.) Many congregations are draped in purple or blue, symbolizing hope and repentance. During Advent, Christians look to both Christ’s ancient birth and the Second Coming.

Note: Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—a strict, 40-day fast leading to the Nativity—on November 15.

Advent calendars have rapidly been gaining popularity in recent years, even amongst secular Christmas celebrants: Star Wars, candy-filled and even LEGO Advent calendars are filling store shelves in 2015. Still, traditionally faithful families may fashion their own Advent wreaths of evergreens and candles. Jesse Trees, used in many churches to provide necessary items for the needy during the season, have also been steadily gaining popularity.

Interested in making a DIY Advent wreath? Find information on making a base, candle-holders, greens and more at Catholic Culture.

Blessings for the Advent wreath can be found at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Categories: Christian

Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: It’s Halloween!

Lit-up lanterns with designs, pumpkin, Halloween themes

Photo courtesy of GoodFreePhotos

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31-FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted 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. So grab your best ghoulish mask and get the (Halloween) party started!

HALLOWEEN: A CHRISTIAN ORIGIN; A CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Girl in dress at door of woman in mask, pumpkins, Halloween

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, 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—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture. Recent estimates are that the very diverse American business of “haunted attractions” brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the commercial elements of Halloween have spread from North America to Europe, South America, Australia, Japan and parts of East Asia.

SAMHAIN: GUISING FOR A TRICK

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. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

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. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and 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.

Woman looking at camera with face paint, man at side, Dia de los Muertos skeleton

Dressed for a Dia de los Muertos festival, Los Angeles. Photo by Rob Sheridan, courtesy of Flickr

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: DAY OF THE DEAD

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.

ALL THINGS HALLOWEEN:
DIY COSTUMES, DÉCOR, PARTIES & MORE

What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

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Categories: International Observances

Feast of the Transfiguration: Western, Eastern Christians recall ‘greatest miracle’

Painting of men in white light, others looking on while shielding eyes

A painted rendering of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 6: An event shrouded in mystery and revered by St. Thomas Aquinas as “the greatest miracle” is recalled by both Eastern and Western Christians today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. (Note: Catholic and most Orthodox churches mark this feast on August 6, though many American Protestant congregations, among them United Methodist and some Lutheran churches, celebrated Jesus’s transfiguration much earlier this year as part of their Epiphany season.)

Three Gospels tell of Jesus taking three disciples—Peter, James and John—along with him on an ascent of a mountain. Once at their destination, the prophets Elijah and Moses appear. A voice in the clouds says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The disciples fall to their knees in wonder.

While heading back down the mountain, the Bible describes Jesus as telling his disciples not to speak of what they had seen until he has risen from the dead. The disciples—confused by the words, “risen from the dead”—discuss the meaning of this puzzling experience.

Theologians have argued for centuries about the metaphysics of the transfiguration—whether his garments became white and his face shone like the sun, or perhaps the apostles’ senses were transfigured so that they could perceive the true glory of God. Nonetheless, Christian churches agree that the transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor. The mountain represents the meeting point of human and God; of earth and heaven.

For an Orthodox perspective on the holiday, learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

For a Western perspective, visit the Global Catholic Network.

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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

WEDNESDAY, 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 the feast of Lammas. An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and in some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day”; historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing.

It is gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s occasion. Lughnasadh customs were 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 sabbats 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

Corpus Christi: Christians venerate Eucharist, honor saints

Group of people dressed in traditional clothing walking down street

A Corpus Christi procession. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

SUNDAY, JUNE 3: Pentecost has passed for both Eastern and Western Christians, and today, the faithful observe the Sunday of All Saints and the Feast of Corpus Christi (respectively). While Western Christians observe All Saints’ Day in November, Eastern Orthodox Christians honor this feast on the Sunday following Pentecost. On this first Sunday of June, Eastern Christians honor all saints—known and unknown—and Western Christians set aside a day for sole veneration of the Eucharist, in the Feast of Corpus Christi. Note: The Feast of Corpus Christi is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday—this year, May 31—but is moved to a Sunday in places where it is not a holy day of obligation.

EASTERN: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox Christians mark the Sunday of All Saints. What began as the Sunday of All Martyrs now includes all saints whose works honor God—the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, shepherds, teachers and holy monastics, both known and unknown. Eastern Christians honor them for their examples of virtue, and as intercessors for the behalf of the living with God.

WESTERN: THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI

Known also as The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and his real presence in the Eucharist. While the Eucharist is recognized and honored on Holy Thursday, its celebration can be overshadowed by the approaching Paschal (Easter) Triduum. Thus a day was designated with the sole purpose of recognizing the Eucharist. At the end of Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Catholic churches may hold a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

ORIGINS: A DAY FOR THE EUCHARIST & JULIANA OF LIEGE

The institution of a day for the Eucharist in the church calendar began with the decades-long work of Juliana of Liege, a 13th-century woman of Belgium who was orphaned and raised by Augustinian nuns. With a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, Juliana reported having a dream of the church under a full moon, with one dark spot: the absence of a solemnity for the Eucharist. For 20 years, Juliana had visions of Christ, and she relayed these to her confessor. Word passed, and Pope Urban IV instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost for the entire Latin Rite. Pope John XXII promulgated a collection of laws in 1317 that made the feast universal.

 

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Categories: Christian

Trinity Sunday (Pentecost): Eastern, Western Christians embrace Trinity mystery

Stained glass window with Trinity mystery

The Trinity mystery on stained glass. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY MAY 27: A central and unfathomable mystery of the Christian faith takes center stage today, on the feast of Trinity Sunday. (Note: Trinity Sunday falls the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian Church each year, and on Pentecost Sunday in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.) White shines from the décor and vestments of most Western churches, as the faithful ponder the one God that is three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. For many centuries, Christian leaders have taught that this mysterious truth must be believed by true followers of the faith.

Though the Holy Trinity is honored every Sunday, this day was officially introduced in the ninth century to focus on this particular doctrine.

For Christians, a joyous Gospel passage proclaims that God’s nature has been revealed: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The sacrament of holy communion still is celebrated in the name of the Holy Trinity. Believers hold that all members of the Blessed Trinity are equal, uncreated and infinite.

It’s said that no mortal can truly grasp the concept of the Holy Trinity, but efforts can be made! Try picking a shamrock today, or a viola tricolor; light a candle with three flames; or decorate a home altar with symbols of the Trinity. (CatholicCulture.org has more ideas. And, if you’d like to learn more about the viola tricolor, visit the American Violet Society’s page for this delightful little blossom.

 

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Categories: Christian