"Bank holidays are a poor exchange for the feasts of the Church. It
means that people's noses are now kept much longer to the grindstone
than they ever were in the days when the civil year was based on the
liturgy. It means too that a popular, vivid, visual way of teaching the
faith has almost disappeared. Those who work with young people, in
schools or any sort of youth organizations, or those with families of
young children are the only ones who can ensure that this way of making
religion real does not vanish completely. Many of the Church's feasts
were celebrated in a childish, obvious even crude way. This ought to be
a recommendation, rather than a drawback. When boys and girls drift away
from their faith the reason almost always is that this faith has never
been a reality to them. The popular celebrations that obtained so long
in this country did indeed help to make the faith real then to those who
took part; it could do so again."
In this book the Grail sets out to help everyone who works with young
people by showing how these feasts of the Church were once celebrated,
how they could be revived, adapted, selected, and how, in some cases,
entirely new methods of celebration can be created.
1. THE FAMILY
2. ADVENT TO CHRISTMAS
3. CHRISTMAS TO LENT
4. LENT TO EASTER
5. EASTER TO WHITSUN
6. WHITSUN TO ADVENT
7. REMEMBER TOMORROW
Footnotes in a book of this sort would be inappropriate and would also
give an impression of false learning. While the information given here
has been taken from various sources there are five books to which
acknowledgment must be made. They are: Brand's "Popular Antiquities,"
Hone's "Every-day Book," Fosbrooke's "British Monachism." Gueranger's
"Liturgical Year" and Strutt's "Sports and Pastimes of the People of
THERE is a whole school of thought that sniffs at the idea of
encouraging Catholic customs in the home—or
anywhere else, for that matter. Customs like the saying of the rosary
together, the decorating of an altar in May seem to them too childish
for consideration. For them the doctrines of the Church are sufficient,
without these extras. And indeed the doctrines of the Church are enough
for anyone. They are like straight, unwinding roads that lead into
eternity; only on either side of these roads are hedges and ditches and
meadows and all sorts of flowers. The ultra- catholic Catholic is not
interested in these flowers or fields. Still, such things are to a road
what Catholic customs are to the faith; they adorn it, enliven it, they
help to keep one on the journey.
It is not strange that all sorts of devotional practices have sprung up
round Catholicism, sometimes practices that may seem rather trifling
until one realizes that customs cannot be worthless that have evolved
from the faith of the people through many hundreds of years, sometimes
through well over a thousand years. What family is there that does not
use certain sayings and phrases that have significance only for those
belonging to the circle? What family exists that has no peculiar
customs, nicknames, rites, birthday ceremonial that outsiders cannot be
expected to appreciate? I can remember an unfailing ritual that was
observed among us as children when we ate porridge. First, you ate it
all round the edge until half of it was gone and then straight across
until the red and blue figure of Tom the piper's son showed himself on
the bottom of the plate, complete with pig and pursuing policeman. Why
we did that I have no idea and I doubt if anyone can account for the
curious rites they observed as children. Those rites are not necessary
for family life, but they adorn it and enliven it. And since the Church
is not an institution but a family that ranges from God and God's mother
and thence to the saints and thence to the souls in purgatory and from
them to ourselves, is it astonishing that spiritual family rites and
customs have sprung up? It is surprising how few people think of this.
But the parents who do enter into these spiritual family customs can
give their children treasures, whose value they may not realize until
eternity. And not only parents can do this, but anyone who works with
young people and children, whether in school or clubs or any type of
There is nothing forced in this idea: why does the church in her liturgy
allot the various days to the honor of her saints, or to events in the
lives of Christ and of Mary, if she does not wish us to celebrate them
in some way?
These feasts are fixed, but the way they can be celebrated can vary—and
does vary tremendously from place to place. With the passing of time the
festivities and the customs of the day have also changed, still the
essence remains the same. At Christmas, for instance, Jesus is the
center of the day, and everywhere in the world Christians will show
their love to the new-born Child in their own way, whether this be with
carol singing, erecting cribs, hanging Advent wreaths, placing lighted
candles in the windows, leaving empty places at the table for the holy
Family, or by making it a special festive day for children, their own or
Before the reformation we had in this country a vast number of
celebrations springing from the Church's feasts and days of devotion,
while much more of the civil year than one realizes is still conducted
according to the liturgical calendar. Before the reformation the
smallest things all had their connection with a feast day. Holy Rood
day, September 14th, was the first day to go nutting. On St. James's day
the first apples of the crop were blessed and the first oysters might be
eaten. St. Martin's day was the signal for the slaughter of all cattle
to be dried for winter meat. In the days of SS. Simon & Jude, and of St.
Barnabas you took good notice of the weather, because storms were always
expected on these days. On the feast of St. Bartholomew the fairs began.
Many customs like these were swept away at the reformation, and of those
in the remoter parts of the country naturally much more survived than in
came at last to forget the origin. Not unnaturally, a certain amount of
superstition had certainly been present in some of those who had
celebrated these feasts before, but now, when the liturgy and the faith
were swept aside, superstition swelled until one finds St. Luke's day
for instance celebrated in this country in the early 19th century in
this way: "Let any number of young women, not exceeding seven, assemble
in a room by themselves just as the clock strikes eleven at night. Take
a sprig of myrtle, fold it in a piece of tissue paper; then light up a
small chafing-dish of charcoal and let each maiden throw in it nine
hairs from her head and a paring of each of her toe and finger nails.
Then let each sprinkle a small quantity of myrrh and frankincense in the
charcoal, and while the vapor rises fumigate the myrtle with it. Go to
bed in silence while the clock strikes twelve, and place the myrtle
under your head. Say:
'St. Luke, be kind to me, In dreams, let me my true love see.'"
St. Mark's day fared worse than St. Luke's. In Yorkshire, the people
would sit and watch in the church porch on the eve of his feast,
watching from eleven o'clock until one in the morning. The third year
(for it must be done three times), they were supposed to see the ghosts
of all who would die in the next year pass by into the church in the
order of time in which they were doomed to depart. Those who would not
die, but have a long sickness, would go into the church, but presently
return. "When anyone sickens that is thought to have been seen in this
manner, it is presently whispered about that he will not recover, that
such-and-such a one, who has watched St. Mark's eve, says so. This
superstition is in such force that if the patients themselves hear of it
they almost despair of recovery."
Because the origin of many of the customary celebrations of feast days
was forgotten one can find ludicrous explanations vouchsafed to various
rustic ceremonies, some of which have survived practically to our own
days. The Oxfordshire May procession, for instance, in which the village
girls would walk in procession bearing a garland of flowers and affixed
to it two dolls, a large and a small doll, dressed in contemporary
clothes, is given a pagan Roman origin; as though there had never been
hundreds of years in which the most natural thing in the world in the
month of May would have been a procession with the images of Mary and
her Son! Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, on which a
plough bedecked with ribbons was borne through the streets, a custom
surviving until a hundred years ago, is certainly a relic of the time
when ploughs were blessed, just as crops were blessed and hounds and
fishing boats and herb gardens.
There are many places in England now where May processions still take
place; where cart-horses, be-ribboned and be-decked, walk proudly, with
stiffly-plaited manes; where farmers' carts, newly painted and adorned,
vie with each other; where anyone may walk in some sort of festive
tress, where the local bands play, the boy scouts and the girl guides
walk, and all the local organizations. They collect money, and now it
goes to the neighboring hospitals. But it is all a relic of processions
in honor of our Lady, though now she has no place in it. And what else
is the crowning of the May queen but the transference to the handsomest
girl of the district of a ceremony that once centered round our Lady's
It is, however, entirely in keeping with the Church's custom that where
she found pagan festive days with a deep hold on the people she
christianized these days. Thus in some cases the feasts and the
celebrations around them can indeed spring from a pagan origin.
Christmas day itself was chosen to coincide with a pagan festival.
Certainly the one-time celebration of St. Valentine's day in this
country, marked by the drawing of lots bearing the name of your patron
saint for the year, is derived from Roman festivities in honor of Juno.
All Souls day, Halloween, Soulmass, All-hallow even also christianized
the pagan custom of giving food to the dead.
Some of the customs once generally observed are easy to understand. Fire
has always been a symbol of immortality, so it is not strange that on
All Souls' day bonfires were lighted all over the hillside. Nor is it
unusual that on this day the people of the Western Islands of Scotland
should paint crosses of tar on their cottages and on their fishing
boats: nor that the boys of Lanark used on Palm Saturday to parade the
streets with a willow tree in blossom ornamented with daffodils and
Not all the traditional celebrations woven round the liturgy and
corrupted after the reformation are easy to explain. Who knows what Hoke
day is, or Mace Monday, the first Monday after St. Anne's day? Or why
St. Luke's day was called in Yorkshire "Whip- dog day"? Or what the
origin was of going "a-gooding" on St. Thomas's day? Or why the country
people spent Easter Monday "lifting" or "heaving," as it is variously
called, when everyone who met the chosen lifters was seized by the arms
and raised high into the air three times? It is said to have been
derived from celebrating Christ's resurrection, but no one really knows.
Similarly, why should bushes of gorse and furze be set on fire to
celebrate St. Peter's feast, or St. John the Baptist's, and why did all
the village men leap over the flames until the fires sank? Or why did
all the people of Western Scotland bake St. Michael's bread at
Michaelmas and insist that all the strangers they met should share it
Far back, all such customs must have arisen in the liturgy, even though
they became, some of them, absurd and gross, and now are forgotten
almost entirely. That they did corrupt, apart from the Church, is not
surprising, but that they should be left in oblivion is wrong. There are
many feasts of the Church which could be celebrated now in a much more
lively fashion than they are. Obviously, no one can press for an
artificial revival of all that prevailed in the fourteenth century.
Fairs and theaters will never open again only when St. Bartholomew comes
round. No one will wait for Holy Cross day before picking the first
nuts. But what one can do, and what an attempt is made here to do is to
revive some of these celebrations as they stand, to take what seems best
from some, to adapt others, or even in some cases to create new ways of
ADVENT TO CHRISTMAS
ONE hardly thinks of things like holly and mince pies as having any
religious significance. Yet they have. Churches and houses, particularly
the windows of houses, were decorated the week before Christmas with
ivy, bay, holly, rosemary, cypress, and any evergreen. And this, say
some, as a reminder of the prophetical description of our Lord as the
branch, the stem rising from the root of Jesse, the thirsty plant.
Others, however, hold that it is reminiscent of the branches cut down by
the Jews and strewn in front of Christ when they hailed him as the Son
of David, and indeed, in many parts of the country these branches were
left until Good Friday.
Mince meat, with its spices, fruit and peels, is supposed to remind one
of the gifts brought from the east by the Wise Men. Be that as it may,
it was for long the custom to make mince pies in the form of a manger.
What is more, every boy and girl used to be given the Christmas dough, a
little pastry figure representing the Christ child, a figure no doubt as
crude as the gingerbread man who can still be seen, but for all that,
serving some purpose of instruction. That the innocuous mince pie did
help to remind people of Christ's being born in a stable and being
adored by the kings is plain enough when one reads of the puritans who
"inveigh against the mince pie as an invention of the scarlet whore of
Babylon, an hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil and all his
In view of this sour attitude, it is not surprising to find occasional
protests, like this written in 1661:
"Christmas, farewell; thy days, I fear, And merry days are done. If thus
they keep feasts all the year Our Savior shall have none. Gone are those
golden days of yore When Christmas was a high day, Whose sports we now
shall see no more; 'Tis turned into Good Friday."
THE ADVENT WREATH
This could once be found hanging up in homes all over Christian Europe.
Its symbolism is obvious enough—a
wreath bearing four candles, which are gradually lighted as advent
advances and the birthday of the Light of the world draws closer. The
wreaths are not difficult to make. Twist some wire into a strong circle
about a foot or 18 ins. across. If you have no wire, roll newspapers
into spirals, bind them with string and make the circle from that. Then
twist strips of evergreen round the circle, the more the better, and
secure it with purple ribbon (have also white ribbons ready, for later
the purple ribbons give place to white). Yew is the best evergreen to
use because of its feathery leaves, but box, privet, ivy cypress, holly,
will do. Laurel is often used because of its association with victory,
and Christ's coming is a victory over sin. Tie at equal distances round
the wreath the four purple ribbons and tie the ends together. It is from
this that the wreath should be suspended from the ceiling.
On the first Sunday in Advent the wreath is hung and four candles are
fixed among the green. Someone explains to the others the meaning of it.
"Advent lasts four weeks. Each week brings us closer to Christ, who is
the light of the world. The little flame of the candle is the symbol of
his coming. We could also think of the people who do not realize that
Christ is coming and who do not believe it, even if they know." The
youngest person present lights the candle and an Advent hymn is sung.
On the second Sunday of Advent this is repeated, only two candles are
lighted, on the third Sunday three, on the fourth four; and on
Christmas-day the purple ribbons change to white. The waiting is over,
Christ has come upon earth.
ST. NICHOLAS DAY
This saint is the patron of schoolboys. It is well known that his feast
is celebrated in many European countries by children putting out their
shoes in the evening, only to find them in the morning filled with
sweets and little gifts, presumably by St. Nicholas. In some countries
St. Nicholas visits families himself on December 6th and holds a
cross-examination of the children, and those who in his opinion deserve
it, receive a present, while those who do not, go without. In Rumania on
this day parents would have a talk with each of their children in turn,
telling them all the good things they had noticed in them, praising them
generously where praise was earned, and with equal justice pointing out
the faults in them that needed to be corrected.
In this country the festivities in honor of St. Nicholas took a somewhat
different turn. Here they centered round the boy bishops—boys
chosen from the church choirs, who on December 6th were allowed to rule
over their fellows, who led processions round the villages, singing and
dancing, who were given a place of honor in the village church during
this season, and who even went about complete with cope and miter and
episcopal staff. It is clear that though its origin became obscured, and
ultimately the boy bishops were forbidden, the custom is based on the
truth that a little child shall lead us: that Christ, though a child in
the manger, yet held the whole world in the hollow of his hand. In any
family or any school or youth group one of the younger members might
well be given the powers and privileges of the boy bishop for that day
while all the others should undertake to obey him and to follow him. It
was customary- and could still be—to
have a boy bishop not only on St. Nicholas but also on Childermas, that
is on Holy Innocents-day, December 28th.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
In mediaeval days when the building of a great church or cathedral was a
work of love and devotion on the part of all the craftsmen who took part
in it, it was very often the practice to make a window of stained glass,
called a Jesse window, which portrayed the lineage of Christ from Jesse,
the father of David, through Mary, the one spotless human creature.
Nowadays it is not generally possible for us actually to take part in
the making of such a beautiful and lasting act of homage, but it would
be possible to give honor to our Lady on the feast of her Immaculate
Conception in a similar way by planting a rose bush or tree, which would
also symbolize the root which rose out of Jesse and flowered through the
agency. of the mystic rose, Mary. The Jesse windows showed the ancestors
of Christ as the leaves and branches coming from the central stem and
then at the top of the stem there were shown Mary and her Child. At the
ceremony of the planting of the rose tree the symbolism of root, stem
and flower should be explained and the caring for the plant through
winter and spring until the time of flowering should be the
responsibility of one or a group of the family or club members.
A great many people seem to think that no carols exist beyond "Good King
Wenceslaus" and one or two others. "The Oxford Carol Book" would be a
revelation to them with its collection of lesser known songs for all the
carols are not necessarily Christmas songs—there
are others for Easter, for Passion-tide as well. Many of the old, lesser
known carols have a simple rhythm and if necessary they could easily be
sung to tunes more familiar.
It is worth a little trouble to find some of these obscure carols and it
is surprising how often one's local public library can help in the
matter. Here for example is a translation of a carol, which comes from
Carmichael's translation of "Ortha Nan Gaidheal," the standard
collection of Hebridean folk songs.
That night the star shone Was born the Shepherd of the flock. Of the
Virgin of the hundred charms, The Mary Mother.
The Trinity eternal by her side, In the manger cold and lowly. Come and
give to her of thy means, To the healing Man.
The foam-white breastling beloved. Without one home in the world, The
tender holy Babe forth driven, Immanuel!
Ye three angels of power, Come ye, come ye down; To the Christ of the
people Give ye salutation.
Kiss ye His hands, Dry ye his feet With the hair of your heads; And O!
Thou world-pervading God, And ye, Jesu, Michael, Mary, Do not ye forsake
Where there is a large family, or in any youth group, it should be easy
enough to get together a party of carol singers. Traditionally, they
should sing on the three Thursdays before Christmas and on
Christmas-eve. It is worth mentioning that there are other places than
people's houses at which carols could be sung—why
not in orphanages, hospitals, institutions of one sort or another?
Christmas is the feast of lights, so all the singers should be armed
with candles. What is more they ought to take with them a crib, or at
least two figures, our Lady and the Child. These could be fixed securely
on a shelf set on a pole, which one of the singers carries. This custom
of bearing the images with the carol singers, so obviously Catholic, was
flourishing in this country as late as the middle of the nineteenth
century. It is mentioned too, by Archbishop Ullathorne, when he
describes the old women in Yorkshire who used to trudge from house to
house, collecting halfpennies while they showed their images to the
families and sang "The Seven Joys of Mary." This song, which is included
in "The Oxford Carol Book" might well form an essential feature in any
It is curious that the fascination of the crib never fades, even though
the figures grow old and chipped and the background, with its brown
paper rocks, sprinkled with glittering silver, becomes more fantastic
every year. It is a fascination that few can resist. Though people may
smile at the extravagances and tinsel and silver paper of some church
cribs, yet they still take their turn in the queue to light a candle and
to gaze into the manger. Children never try to resist the lure of the
crib. To them its chief attraction lies in the fact that it tells a
story, and a story with a baby in it. Children, left to themselves, are
perfectly at home at the crib. They will lift out the bambino to nurse
and kiss it—often
with the disapproval of the sacristan—for
by Epiphany the bambino's face will be kissed quite colorless and his
swaddling clothes smeared with finger-marks. Children hardly see the
figures in the grotto as puppets; for them it is all real, as real as it
was to the peasants of 14th century Germany, who used to take turns at
rocking the Christ-child to sleep in his crib, or like the little Dutch
boy who took the bambino for a ride on his bicycle.
In some churches, and in some countries, cribs are judged simply by
their size and magnificence, so that the Christmas crib is not complete
unless it grows in grandeur every year. The retinue of the three kings
becomes more magnificent, the shepherds grow in number, their flocks
increase rapidly. But the curious thing is that, despite all this
distraction the three central figures are hardly ever dwarfed. Fashions
in cribs have come and gone, but the human trinity round which they
center never changes.
It is often thought that St. Francis made the first crib, but the
devotion is far older than that. It goes back to the first days of the
Church, when the actual site of Christ's birth and the clay manger in
which he lay were venerated in Bethlehem. In time a silver manger was
substituted for the clay one, and a basilica was built over the site.
Copies of this crib spread to Rome and over the Christian world.
Veneration expanded with the centuries. The crib that was used at
Christmas might be a model of the clay manger, or a painting or a mosaic
of the Nativity. Various ceremonies grew up around it, until by the 13th
century they had evolved into theatrical drama and opera combined, with
a snatch of folk-dancing thrown in. Then Pope Honorius stopped the whole
thing, and sixteen years afterwards St. Francis of Assisi was allowed to
make a wooden manger, to fill it with hay, to tether an ox and ass
nearby, and to gather round it a group of people who sang songs and
carols in honor of the birth of the Christ-child. That is the beginning
of the crib as we know it.
Nowadays the custom of having a crib in the home has been considerably
revived. What might more often be seen however, is the crib made at home
by the different members of the family, instead of the repository
article. It is possible to buy designs for cribs, and to make them up
yourself. What is better is to try to design your own crib figures and
to make them entirely. They may be drawn and glued on wood, carved or
modeled; they may be made after the fashion of puppets; if there are
children in the family, then their dolls may be utilized.
What is important is to have some means whereby the crib-makers are
represented at the crib they have set up. This may be done by adding
additional figures; or small flags bearing the makers' names can fly
outside the crib. There have even been cribs in which ingenious people
have stuck among the straw cut-out, full- length photographs of
themselves. Not that that particular effect was very beautiful, but at
any rate it did convey something of the truth which the setting up of
any crib should convey—that
we number ourselves among the people who acknowledge Christ and who
THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE
It seems to have been the habit on Christmas-eve to try to turn night
into day. Before candles came into general use, enormous logs, Christmas
blocks, as they were called, were lighted and so long as they burned,
all meals taken in their light and warmth were as festive as the family
purse allowed. With the coming of candles the light of the Christmas
block was added to by outsize candles which decorated the dining tables.
These candles were lighted for meals every day until Twelfth-day, the
official end of Christmas. There is no reason why we should not
substitute as many candles as we can get for electric light during these
twelve Christmas days. Christmas is the feast of lights, and the very
novelty of having all meals at a candle-lit table cannot help but bring
it more clearly to one's mind. During these twelve days, too, it can be
a regular reminder of the coming of Christ, if at all meals one place is
left empty for Christ, and the largest candle of all burns before it.
THE CHRISTMAS PLAY
As children we were all able to concoct plays of one sort or another.
They were plays with plenty of dressing up, much singing, little scenery
or props. But there is something about these plays—crude,
pitiful, absurd as they were—that
keeps them in the mind when memories of real plays, with real actors, in
real theaters, have long since gone.
There were two reasons for this, I think. The first and obvious one is
that as children we did not merely act the story, we lived it; it meant
something to us, we were in deadly earnest about it. And the second
helped to make possible the first—is
that there was no audience looking on. The play was not given for the
sake of an audience, but for its own sake. It ceased to be a play,
impersonation; it became reality.
The only requirements for making a home-produced nativity play a success
are the very ones that went to make the success of the children's plays—that
the story you are acting should be real to you, should mean something.
If you want to have a nativity play at home, with all the family joining
in, then it is no good trying to deal objectively with the story of the
first Christmas. An impartial play about Christmas will be a useless
Then, be firm and have no audience, no one to watch and criticize how
you acquit yourself. Audiences spell self-consciousness to those who
act, and self-consciousness makes impossible any real "living" of the
play. It is only when everyone present is joining in that it can become
real, that it can be lived, that it can indeed become real adoration.
But how to set about the actual play?
First, cut the cast to suit your circumstances. If need be you can act
it with three people——a
narrator, one angel, one shepherd. But if your family or friends run to
it you can have angels and shepherds by the dozen. If you insist, get
people to represent our Lady and Saint Joseph. However, it is generally
far more satisfactory to use the Christmas crib as the center of the
play. If you are at all interested in producing a Christmas play at
home, then it is fairly certain that you will already have a crib put up
somewhere in the house. So this does not call for any difficulty. Then
divide up the available people into angels, shepherds, wise men, people
on these last you can ring enough changes to suit any sort of family,
with members of any age.
Dress up for the play. The most stolid and bovine people can be
transformed into new beings simply by dressing up. Whether the dresses
look at all oriental is of no importance; in any case, few of us have
more than a vague idea of what was worn in the days of Christ. The main
thing is that those who take part are helped to get out of their
ordinary, everyday selves; and few things are more helpful for this than
setting aside the dress of everyday. With the new dress a new character
is put on.
The basis of the play lies ready in the words of St. Luke. One person
might read the story slowly and with care while the others act what is
being read. No one can lay down rules about this. In one family they may
like to mime the Gospel story; in another the narrator will have to be
content with lengthy pauses while angels and shepherds and Palestinians
hold impromptu conversation for as long as the spirit moves them. It is
important to keep as much of the dialogue as possible spontaneous. This
is not a stage play; there is no audience to satisfy. This is really an
act of prayer. And though indeed a stage play can also be a prayer,
still all the same, a stage play must be practiced, rehearsed,
perfected. Not so the play at home. Let it be rough and ready, with
little or no stage craft, certainly with no conscious striving for
polish or perfection. Sing as many carols as you know. Putting it at the
lowest level, a carol will always fill up any unexpected hitch in the
play. Putting it higher, carols can make the play into a real prayer.
Here the story is acted for its own sake, to make it a reality, so that
those who are joining in may live it and make an adoration of it.
There is plenty of precedent for this sort of homely play. When St.
Francis of Assisi re-introduced the crib into Europe he did it with a
little play, acted spontaneously by a group of brothers and himself. St.
Teresa of Avila often acted the Christmas story with her nuns. Every
Christmas-eve St. John of the Cross and the friars held a nativity
procession in the monastery. They took a statue of our Lady, and two of
them carried it from cell door to cell door, asking for shelter for Mary
and her Child. Those within had to refuse, and would join on to the end
of the procession as it went from door to door, always being refused.
Then at last the procession wended its way into the chapel and presently
the statue of the Christ-child would be laid in the straw of the manger.
So immersed were those who took part, so much did they live the story,
that it is related that on more than one occasion John of the Cross,
unable to contain himself for joy that Christ was born, plucked the
child from the manger and danced round the chapel, holding it in his
CHRISTMAS TO LENT
THE feast of Christmas continues until Twelfth-night, though in many
parts of the country people spoke of "the twenty days of Christmas." At
any rate, those twenty days were full of celebrations of one kind or
another. A popular tag summed up the ordinary person's feelings at this
"Blessed be Saint Stephen, There's no fast upon his even!"
Between Christmas and Candlemas there seems to have been only one somber
day. This, curiously enough, was "Childermas,"—
Innocents' day. It is true that the boy bishop might be leading his
troop through the streets, but all the same this was everywhere
considered a day of ill-omen. No one would dream of marrying on
Childermas, nor of buying nor wearing new clothes, nor, indeed, of
beginning any new undertaking. The coronation of Edward IV was even
postponed so as to avoid Childermas. Nor could this be considered a
cheerful day for the children themselves: "...it hath been a custom, and
yet is elsewhere, to whip the children upon Innocents' day, that the
memory of Herod's murder of the Innocents might stick the closer; and in
a moderate proportion to act over the crueltie in kind...."
Still, apart from this, feast days followed on each other's heels—St.
Stephen's; the Circumcision (called "Singene'en" in Scotland, because it
was celebrated by much caroling and when, according to popular belief,
even the bees could be heard singing in their hives); Saint Agnes' day,
when girls prayed to get husbands, and at whose Mass it was once the
custom to bring a lamb into the church at the Agnus Dei of the Mass; a
custom still obtaining now on Easter Sunday in some parts of the world;
Twelfth-night, the festival of the kings; Candlemas—our
Lady's churching-day, when again one sees how great a part is played in
the celebrating of feasts by lights, lanterns, candles and fires; St.
Valentine's day, the feast of lovers, one which has survived in a
corrupted form practically to our own day.
Rejoicing gathered itself for a last fling on Collop Monday, when all
the meat and bacon that might not be eaten in Lent were finished off. On
the egg feast, the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday, eggs were similarly
treated. On Shrove Tuesday itself further Lent- forbidden foods were
eaten, and on this day the pancake bell rang early in the morning as a
signal for the first frying and again at night, after which second bell
no more pancakes were eaten, and the bell called people to confession,
to be shriven before the fast of Lent should start.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
In the fruit-growing counties of England "apple-howling" was regularly
observed. Boys went from orchard to orchard, surrounding the trees,
singing to the accompaniment of a pipe:—
"Stand fast, root, bear well, top, Pray God send us a good howling crop;
Every twig, apple big, Every bough, apple enow."
Then they shouted in chorus, and rapped the trees with their sticks.
This, again, was probably a pagan rite that the Church took over and
turned into the blessing of fruit trees, since popular belief lingered
persistently that the wind of New Year's-eve was responsible for the
fruitfulness of orchards, and that an east wind meant much fruit. The
Church has many prayers for every sort of crop, and there seems no
reason why people with a garden and fruit trees or fruit bushes of any
kind should not ask on this last day of the year for a good crop. Here
is the Church's prayer for the fruits of the earth, which could be said:
"Pour down Thy blessing, we beseech Thee, O Lord, upon Thy people, and
on all the fruits of the earth, that when collected they may be
mercifully distributed to the honor and glory of Thy Holy Name."
CIRCUMCISION: NEW YEAR'S DAY
This was the day of the giving of gifts, husbands to wives, masters to
servants, parishioners to their priests. Moreover, it was a day to go
visiting. "On the first day of this month will be given more gifts than
will be kindly received or gratefully rewarded. Children, to their
inexpressible joy, will be drest in their best bibs and aprons, and may
be seen handed along streets, some bearing Kentish pippins, others
oranges stuck with cloves, in order to crave a blessing of their
godfathers and godmothers." It is pleasant to think that the day of
Christ's naming should be the occasion of honoring godparents; and it
would be easy enough in any family with small children to invite the
godparents to some celebration, or in the case of grown-ups, to visit or
to write to those who have been their sponsors. Godparents undertake a
considerable responsibility at the font, so what could be more
appropriate than some sort of acknowledgment of it on this day?
TWELFTH DAY, EPIPHANY
In Staffordshire, fires were lighted on this day "in memory of the
blazing star that conducted the three magi to the manger in Bethlehem."
In Irish homes there was the same insistence on light. In a sieve of
oats, surrounded by twelve burning candles, a single large candle was
lighted. But generally speaking, all the festivities of the day were
based on the idea of kingship and bent on honoring the three kings, so
that lots were drawn to determine who should be the king for the day.
Here was one way of marking the day. An Epiphany cake was made,
traditionally of flour, honey, pepper and ginger, and a halfpenny put in
it. When it was baked it was cut into as many pieces as there were
members of the family, while portions were also assigned to our Lord, to
Mary and to the three Magi. These were given to strangers, preferably to
people in need. Whoever found the halfpenny in his piece of cake was
saluted as king, placed in a chair of honor, and three times raised up
to the ceiling, on which with his right hand he drew a cross. A carol
was sung and the king ruled the party that followed.
An Epiphany party might easily become a feature of this day in any
Catholic youth club or school or family. After a brief re-telling of the
story of the Wise Men, those arranging the party could follow the custom
of having in the cake three beans, each of which will represent a king.
On their being chosen, the three kings rule the party, which should end
with a carol-singing procession and the giving away to someone in need
of some food which had been held back for this purpose.
This is one of the oldest feasts of our Lady, and in Rome in the 7th
century it ranked next to the Assumption. Everyone received a candle,
which had been blessed at Mass, and afterwards walked in procession with
it. The procession recalled the journey of Mary and Joseph to the
temple, the burning candles, Simeon's words that the child in his arms
was a "light for the revelation of the gentiles." And how appropriate is
this symbolic burning candle! "A candle is made of wick and wax; so was
Christ's soul hid within the manhood; also the fire betokeneth the
Godhead; also it betokeneth our Lady's motherhood and maidenhood,
lighted with the fire of love."
If anything still remained of the Christmas candle, or the Christmas
block, it was lighted on this day. Now-a-days, one could light up the
Christmas candle and these smaller candles whenever the family are
together, or at meal-times, or let them burn before a statue of our
This day was called the "Wives' feast," and "our Lady's-churching," and
it is in memory of this that even today women carry a candle at their
churching, even though of course theirs is a ceremony of thanksgiving,
and Mary's was that of ritual purification.
ST. VALENTINE'S DAY
There are records of St. Valentine's-day being celebrated in the country
as long ago as 1446, but how St. Valentine came to be the patron of
lovers no one seems to know.
On this day "an equal number of maids and bachelors get together, each
writes their true or feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll
up and draw by lots, the girls taking the men's billets, the men the
maids; so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls
his valentine and each of the girls upon a young man whom she calls her
valentine. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples,
the men give balls and treats to their valentines and wear their billets
several days upon their sleeves,"—possibly giving rise to the saying
that so-and-so wears his heart upon his sleeve. In Scotland it was not
only the men who gave gifts to their valentines; the giving was mutual.
This is a feast that has been, and still can be, celebrated in adapted
form. In a family or group lots are drawn for a valentine, but the names
of various saints are written on papers and lots drawn. The saint then
becomes one's patron for the day or the octave. Where children draw lots
one should tell them something of their saints; where older people are
concerned they should discover all they can about their patron, because
during the octave they ought in some way to imitate their valentine.
SHROVE TUESDAY, FASTEN EVEN
This day was a general holiday, particularly for apprentices, and it
would have been strange if it had not frequently become a day into which
people tried to cram all the pleasure they would soon have to forego.
In Norwich, as probably in other cities, processions were made to
symbolize the rapid approach of Lent. In 1440, say the Norwich records,
such a procession was instigated by a certain John Gladman, who was
known "as a man ever trewe and feythfilll to God." Crowned as king of
Christmas, his horse bedecked with gilt and every sort of finery and
tinsel he was preceded in the procession by twelve other horsemen, each
representing a month of the year and each dressed appropriately. Last in
the procession, following after the glittering king of Christmas, came
Lent, a horseman dressed from head to foot in white cloth and herring
skins, mounted on a horse with trappings of oyster shells—and this "in
token that sadnesse shulde folowe, and a holy tyme." Thus they rode
through Norwich, and many others of the townspeople joined in, dressed
in every sort of fantastic dress, all of them "making myrth, disportes
That they ate pancakes everywhere is merely because eggs and butter and
milk had to be finished off before the fasting began, and the making of
pancakes, the beating of the batter, the frying and tossing of the
pancakes, could be a festive affair.
There seems no reason why one should not have a party on Shrove Tuesday.
Few people have the faintest idea why pancakes are eaten, so these could
be made and the reason for them explained. Now, when butter and eggs and
milk are all allowed in Lent one might let the party include a last
ceremonial tasting of whatever those taking part intend to give up
during these forty days—sweets, sugar, cigarettes, whatever it may be.
In Kent, it was once the custom to make two effigies on Shrove Tuesday,
and to burn them to ashes as a sign that good living was now over and
done with and that a stricter time was at hand, and at a Shrove-tide
party there could be a short explanation of Lent, while it might very
well end up with the whole group going to confession.
LENT TO EASTER
ALL Fools' day" hardly springs to mind as having the slightest
connection with Lent. All the same, it seems reasonable enough to
believe that it alludes to the mockery of Christ by the Jews, and "that
as the passion of our Savior took place about this time of the year, and
as the Jews sent Jesus backwards and forwards to mock and torment him,
i.e. from Annas to Caiphas, from Caiphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod
and from Herod back again to Pilate, this ridiculous or rather impious
custom took its rise from thence, by which we send about from one place
to another such persons as we think proper objects of our ridicule." It
is worth remembering that the commonest way of making "April fools" of
people is by sending them on absurd errands.
Mothering Sunday, Shere Thursday or Maundy Thursday are names of which
not everyone knows the origin. Mothering Sunday is so called because the
Mid-Lent Sunday Mass likens the Church to a mother. The meaning of Shere
Thursday, if shere were spelt "shear" in the modern way would not
surprise us: "The people would that day shere theyr hedes and clypp
theyr berdes, and so make them honest ayenst Easter Day," thus
suggesting, perhaps, that the Lenten austerities included abstinence
from shaving or hair-dressing as well as from certain foods. The word "maundy"
is derived from "mandatum," a command, and it was in virtue of Christ's
command at the Last Supper that we should imitate him that on this day
kings and queens and bishops undertook to wash the feet of poor people,
as Christ had washed his apostles' feet, and at the same time to give
them gifts. In 1530, when Cardinal Wolsey washed the feet of 59 poor
men, he gave each one "twelve pence in money, three ells of good canvas
to make them shirts, a pair of new shoes, a cast of red herrings and
three white herrings."
Dried herrings, indeed, together with dried peas and beans, seem to have
been the staple food of Lent, and Passion Sunday in the north of England
was even called "Carle Sunday" from the invariable custom of eating
carlings, or dried peas. On Good Friday, after the veneration of the
cross, when people brought offerings of eggs and wheat to the church,
they made a herb pudding, whose chief ingredient was the passion dock,
and which could hardly have been intended as a palatable dish. Neither
could the buns, baked with a cross, which they ate, since they were
originally unleavened and certainly reminiscent of the bread used at the
Last Supper. On this day, in Gonnaught and in central Ireland, it was
quite common for children, even babies, to fast, so that from midnight
on Maundy Thursday to midnight on Good Friday they ate nothing, and in
the case of babies, drank nothing at all, while their parents did a hard
day's work on only a drink of water and a small piece of dry bread. It
is entirely in keeping with the human understanding of the Church that
no one was shocked when these same people at midday on Holy Saturday
clapped their hands loudly, shouted: "Out with the Lent!" and set to on
a piece of bacon, or a chicken, or whatever their family purse allowed!
It is St. Paul's words in the Mass of the day that gives Mothering
Sunday its name. He speaks of "that Jerusalem which is above... which is
our mother," On this day, everyone paid a solemn visit to his mother
church, and left an offering there at the high altar.
The introit, communion and tract of the Mass speak of the heavenly
Jerusalem where Christians will raise their songs of joy. Heaven, the
heavenly Jerusalem, has so often been likened to and represented as a
garden full of flowers, that on this day the Church used to bless the
loveliest of flowers, the rose.
The word "mothering" came to have other associations; it became a feast
day for the mothers of families. All the children who were away from
home went back on that day to visit their mothers, taking with them "a
present of money, a trinket, or some nice eatable, and they are all
anxious not to fail in this custom." The "nice eatable" was often a
mothering cake. Exactly what this was made of seems uncertain, but at
any rate it was highly ornamented and adorned. In return, the mother
seems to have provided for the visitors a dish of furmety, a sort of
rice pudding, only made with grains of wheat instead of rice.
There are relics of the observance of Mothering Sunday still left, but
there is no reason why it should not be more widely noted, and given as
much attention in every family as is the mother's birthday. All children
could give gifts to their mothers; where she is dead they can have a
Mass said; otherwise they can begin the Sunday by offering their Mass
for her. They could link up their gift with the one-time blessing of the
roses, and give her flowers; or they could arrange some entertainment or
amusement for her; they could even try their hand at a mothering cake.
And in return, of course, the mother would certainly be only too glad to
give her children a modern equivalent of furmety!
Today, in the church, all the statues, pictures and even the crucifixes
are veiled until Easter Saturday. That the crucifix is also hidden is
the remains of the custom of hanging a curtain between sanctuary and
nave during the whole of Lent. In most homes there will be a crucifix,
perhaps pictures or statues. On Passion Sunday we might remove them all,
and their very absence will bring our minds much more often to the
thought of the Passion than would their familiar presence.
ST. BENEDICT'S DAY: MARCH 21ST
St. Benedict is the patron of bee-keepers, and those who themselves have
bees could not do better than mark his day by praying for their hives.
Farmers can pray for their cattle and their barns; fishermen for their
fishing boats and the fish in the sea, why should bee-keepers do less?
In some parts of France it was, and may still be, customary for
bee-keepers to have a medal of St. Benedict affixed to their hives:
"O Lord, God almighty, who hast created heaven and earth and every
animal existing over them and in them for the use of men, and who hast
commanded through the ministers of holy Church that candles made from
the products of bees be lit in church during the carrying out of the
sacred office in which the most holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ thy
Son is made present and is received; may thy holy blessing descend upon
these bees and these hives, so that they may multiply, be fruitful and
be preserved from all ills and that the fruits coming forth from them
may be distributed for thy praise and that of thy Son and the holy
Spirit and of the most blessed Virgin Mary."
"It is called Palm Sunday because the palm betokeneth victory, wherefore
all Christian people should bear palms in processions to signify that
the Lord hath fought with the fiend, our enemy, and hath the victory
over him." But palms are also used on this day in memory of the
acclamations of the Jewish crowds on Christ's journey into Jerusalem and
their waving of palm branches before him. Once it was the custom to have
a palm procession with the Blessed Sacrament, before which the people
waved green branches and sang hosannahs. Occasionally, instead of the
Blessed Sacrament the priest bore a copy of the New Testament which was
intended to represent our Lord.
Actual palm, of course, was not used. Box and willow branches, and
sometimes yew, were all called palm. On this day, parties of boys or
girls used to go out collecting willow. Everyone decorated their houses
with it on Palm Sunday, while the church too was adorned. Generally the
countryside is beautiful now, and nothing there is lovelier than the
willow tree. This day could see family or school or club expeditions
into the spring countryside to find willow branches both for their homes
and for their parish church. Just before beginning the decorating of the
house all could say this prayer, adapted from the ceremony of the
blessing of the palms:
"O God who didst bless the people who carried branches to meet Jesus;
bless also these branches which we have gathered and with which we mean
to honor thy name, so that wherever they are placed people may obtain
thy blessing and may be protected from all adversity by thy right hand.
Through Christ our Lord."
MAUNDY THURSDAY, SHERE THURSDAY
The last king in this country who performed the office of washing the
feet of the poor, in imitation of Christ, was James II. In the Catholic
Church the custom has never died out and the Mandatum may be seen in
many churches on Maundy Thursday. When Christ said to the apostles: "I
have been setting you an example, which will teach you in your turn to
do what I have done for you," he spoke to all Christians. Maundy
Thursday therefore could be a special day when all Catholics
deliberately set out to give their services to someone who needs help,
and to do it in the spirit of Christ's self-forgetfulness. Such service
should include the seeking out of someone who needs help. It might be
looking after a child so that the mother could have a free evening,
undertaking some mending or darning, humble, unostentatious things like
that. What is more, such service might very well begin at close
quarters, for in every home or school or club there must be someone who
needs help, and such people, just because they are so close to us, can
easily be overlooked.
Today the crucifix, which each home is certain to possess and which was
put away on Passion Sunday in unison with the custom in the churches,
could be brought out again, and this time, during the whole day, placed
in the most prominent position in the house.
Until very recent times Good Friday was a day of strict fasting, and
many people alive now can remember that as children they were allowed no
milk and no butter. This, however, was mild in comparison with the fasts
of their grandparents. Today, when fasting in Lent has been, temporarily
at least, abolished, one could still make some sacrifice. One of
Christ's sufferings on the cross was that of thirst; we could all go
without drinking anything on this day; or we could sacrifice one meal.
But one has to realize that any outward thing like fasting has to be
equaled by an attempt at interior fasting from deliberate failings or
imperfections; otherwise it is simply hypocrisy.
THE WAY OF THE CROSS
It was a Spanish Dominican who first set up in his Church pictures of
Christ's journey to Calvary and who thus began one of the most popular
practices of the Church and one which most people follow in Lent and
Holy week, even if erratically.
To make the way of the cross pictures are not essential it is only the
wooden crosses over the pictures that are necessary. Not only are
pictures unessential but so are any set prayers, such as the our Father,
Hail Mary and Gloria commonly said at each station. The essence of the
practice lies simply in uniting yourself with Christ in his passion,
pondering on all that took place on the road to Calvary, and on moving
from one station to the next as you do so.
This is not so difficult. The devotion is not meant to be a pious
lamentation nor an emotional wallowing. One can think how Mary and the
apostles must have made the way of the cross after Christ's death. Their
little pilgrimage must have been simplicity itself, the silence hardly
broken "here is where he fell...here is where Simon helped him...here is
where he died." That is the way to make the stations, simply, directly
and without much speaking. It can even become a joyful devotion. There
is the true story of the Passionist lay brother who always made the
stations on Easter Sunday. Asked why he continued such an essentially
Lenten practice into the joyful time of Easter, he said simply "I think
of each station and all that happened, and then I say to our Lord 'Now
all that is over, now you are happy.'"
EASTER TO WHITSUN
THE time from Easter Sunday to the Saturday after Whitsun is not
misnamed "the feast of feasts." Take away St. Mark's day and the three
Rogation days and it is a series of celebrations of one sort or
another—and even the Rogation days, despite themselves, seem to have
been drenched by the general tide of joyfulness.
During these fifty days there was no fasting; no prayers of the divine
office were said kneeling, and the alleluia was sung on every possible
occasion. Round Easter itself centered numberless general and local
festivities, many of them apparently trivial enough and yet sometimes
springing from a deeper source than one might have expected—the Easter
standard, Easter candle, Easter garden, Pasch eggs, Easter heaving.
Every possible excuse was found for the using of lights and candles, and
even more of flowers and leaves. The days of May which fall between
Easter and Whitsun saw green branches strewn everywhere, and men and
women decked with sprigs of whitethorn; the Sunday within the octave of
the Ascension was Rose Sunday and all the Church pavements were strewn
with rose petals. Pentecost itself was often called "the Pasch of
Roses." "Going processioning" on Rogation days, though it was called in
some places, perhaps with a certain grudging "grass week" because
salads, eggs and green sauce formed the main food, still gave enough
occasion for the display of flowers; all the streets were decorated with
birch branches and all the girls and children who took part adorned
themselves with flower garlands.
THE EASTER CANDLE
"Lumen Christi!" sings the priest, holding the paschal candle on Holy
Saturday. In memory of this light of Christ we can have a candle burning
in the home, rather as we did at Christmas. This time, the candle, which
should be as large as we can get it, should be set in a vase containing
flowers, and can burn during meals during the octave of the feast. The
significance could be explained the first time it is lighted, and one
could also mention that the flowers as well are emblems of the
resurrection, since they, too, have risen from the earth, though the
coldness of winter might have seemed to overcome them.
In some parts of the country these eggs are called paste or pace eggs, a
corruption of the name "Pasch egg." Their symbolism is obvious enough,
since the apparently lifeless egg contains the elements of new life. "It
is an emblem of the rising up out of the grave, in the same manner as
the chick, entombed, as it were, in the egg, is in due time brought to
Almost everyone eats eggs on Easter day, and this blessing of eggs might
well form the grace before meals on that day:
"We beseech Thee, O Lord, to give the favor of thy blessing to these
eggs; that so they may be a wholesome food for thy faithful who
gratefully take them in honor of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus
Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, for ever and ever."
It is not surprising, in view of their symbolism, that eggs were
decorated. Some were stained scarlet in honor of the blood Christ had
shed in his passion, but generally they were painted yellows and browns,
and sometimes gilded. There are more ways of decorating eggs than by
boiling them with cochineal. Onion peel gives a beautiful yellow ochre,
furze gives yellow, nettle roots give a dark brown. One can stain the
eggs and afterwards with a penknife scrape a design upon the shell: or a
pattern, or perhaps someone's name, may be written on the egg with the
end of a candle, before the egg is cooked. On being boiled the greased
parts of the shell remain uncolored.
One cannot suggest a revival of the custom of giving eggs away at Easter
when eggs are still rationed. But anyone who has hens might decorate a
small basket with flowers, place in it however many eggs she can spare,
eggs stained and greased so that they shine, and she could even set in
the midst of the eggs an unlighted Easter candle.
THE EASTER GARDEN
Just as one makes a crib at Christmas, so one can make an Easter garden
during Lent and set it up on Easter Saturday, adding and removing the
figures, according to the Gospel story. This time one needs more
figures—soldiers, angels, holy women, the apostles, Christ himself, and
a sepulcher—but they can all be made in the same way as the Christmas
figures, drawn on paper, glued on wood and cut out. If they are crude,
never mind; an Easter garden is only a small demonstration of affection
for Christ, not a test of skill. Where this differs from the cribs,
however, is that the figures should all be contained in a shallow box,
in which one puts small flowers, roots and all. Here in this way one
brings in some symbol of new life that has risen from the death of
THE EASTER STANDARD
Just as one hangs up flags and decorations to celebrate victory over an
enemy, so now Christians raise a standard to honor the victory of Christ
over death. Such a standard could be simply a tall home-made cross, say
5-foot high, which could be set up formally in the garden and decorated
with laurel, the emblem of victory—in fact with any flowers or branches
or lanterns or ribbons. The Easter standard is something which could be
explained to the children in a family, and which they could be given the
task of setting up and decorating.
From Easter Sunday until Whitsun one could follow the old custom of not
kneeling to pray. Thus, grace before meals, night and morning prayers,
could all be said standing, as a reminder of two things—first that
Christ rose from the dead and that no power of man was able to keep him
prostrate in his tomb; second that after the Ascension our Lord will be
sending the Holy Spirit to us, whom we should be ready and willing to
receive. Our standing to pray could thus symbolize our readiness.
One might also, instead of grace before meals, sing a simple alleluia.
There was an old tradition that the second coming of Christ would be on
Easter eve, and the practice of watching before the sepulcher was partly
based upon that. In the Abbey Church at Durham between 3 and 4 in the
morning of Easter day some of the eldest monks came to the sepulcher
"out of which they took a marvelous beautiful image of the resurrection,
with a cross in the hand of the image of Christ, in the breast whereof
was enclosed in bright crystal, the Host, so as to be conspicuous to the
beholders. Then after the elevation of the said picture it was carried
by the said monks upon an embroidered cushion, the monks singing the
anthem of Christus resurgens." A procession formed behind the blessed
Sacrament in this strange monstrance and proceeded to the high altar and
thence round the church, "The whole choir following, with torches and
great store of other lights; all singing, rejoicing and praying."
This was a primitive enough practice, a practice perhaps that was not
without its dangers, but it must certainly have impressed upon everyone
in the congregation the fact that Christ had risen and had conquered
So with the more deliberately dramatic presentations in the Church at
Easter, no one had any reason for being unfamiliar with the great
doctrines of faith. This drama grew out of the liturgical responses of
the divine office. One of the most obvious things to present
dramatically was the Easter Sequence: "Tell us Mary, what did you see on
your way to the tomb? "
"In some Churches it was ordained, that Mary Magdalen, Mary of Bethany
and Mary of Naim, should be represented by three deacons clothed in
dalmatics and amices, and holding a vase in their hands. These
performers came through the middle of the choir, and hastening towards
the sepulcher, with downcast looks, said together this verse, "Who will
remove he stone for us?" Upon this a boy, clothed like an angel, in alb,
and holding an ear of wheat in his hand, before the sepulcher said,
"Whom do you seek in the sepulcher?" The Maries answered, "Jesus of
Nazareth who was crucified." The boy-angel answered, "He is not here,
but is risen"; and pointed to the place with his finger. The boy-angel
departed very quickly, and two priests in tunics, sitting without the
sepulcher, said, "Women, whom do ye mourn for? Whom do ye seek?" The
middle one of the women said, "Sir, if you have taken him away, say so."
The priest, showing the cross, said, "They have taken away the Lord."
The two sitting priests said, "Whom do you seek, women?" The Maries,
kissing the place, afterwards went from the sepulcher. In the meantime a
priest, in the character of Christ, in an alb, with a stole, holding a
cross, met them on the left side of the altar, and said, "Mary!" Upon
hearing this, the mock Mary threw herself at his feet, and with a loud
voice, cried "Rabboni!" The priest representing Christ replied, nodding,
"Noli me tangere," touch me not. This being finished, he again appeared
at the right side of the altar, and said to them, as they passed before
the altar, "Hail! do not fear." This being finished, he concealed
himself; and the women-priests, as though joyful at hearing this, bowed
to the altar, and turning to the choir, sang "Alleluja, the Lord is
Nowadays plenty of Easter plays are produced in schools and youth groups
of all kind. Most of these could benefit by observing some of the
formalism and austerity that marked the primitive Easter plays.
In the early ages of the Church Easter was the time for the baptism of
the catechumens, to whose benefit, indeed, many of the Easter ceremonies
Easter Monday for many years was regarded as the special feast day of
all those who had just finished their first year as Christians. Whereas
the pagans made much ado about the anniversary of their physical birth,
so Christians attached a similar importance to the anniversary of their
spiritual birth, their baptism.
One would not suggest the giving up of birthdays, but what one could do
is to introduce into a home or school an equal celebration for the
baptismal days. The family could all offer Mass, give presents and
entertain each other as these baptismal days came round. It means, of
course, a doubling of rejoicings, but no child will mind that; and what
is more, it can be a means by which a child is taught to value the faith
he has received.
In the early ages of the Church many people were baptized during the
long ceremonies which nowadays are held early on Easter Saturday
morning, but which were then held during the night of Easter Saturday.
After the blessing of the font came the baptism of the neophytes, who
afterwards dressed themselves in white garments as a sign of their new
cleanness of soul. They wore these garments all day and every day until
Low Sunday, which came to be called: "The Sunday for the leaving-off of
white garments." It is believed that the day came to be called Low
Sunday in this country because of the insistence on lowliness and
childlikeness in the introit of the day's Mass.
Low Sunday could be an occasion in any club or youth group for the
renewing of baptismal vows. The story of this Sunday, "in albis
depositis" could first be explained to them, then the ceremony of
baptism, then the promises that were undertaken on their behalf by their
godparents. By arrangement with the priest the whole group could go into
the church and make the baptismal promises once more, this time on their
For assistance in the explanation to be given to the group material may
be found in the C.T.S. pamphlet: "Baptisms and Churchings," by C. C.
The ceremony could be arranged in this way:—
RENEWAL OF BAPTISM
The Priest, in surplice and white stole, stands in the sanctuary: the
group stand in one row at the Communion rail.
Priest and group sing an appropriate hymn. Then the priest, facing the
group, makes the sign of the cross, and says:—
Pr.: What do you ask of the Church of God?
P.: What does faith bring you to?
M.: Life everlasting.
P.: If, then, you desire to enter into life, keep the commandments: You
shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and
with your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
P.: Do you renounce Satan?
M.: I do renounce him.
P.: And all his works?
M.: I do renounce them.
P.: And all his pomps?
M.: I do renounce them.
P.: Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and
M.: I do believe.
P.: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born
into this world and suffered for us?
M.: I do believe.
P.: Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the
communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the
body, and life everlasting?
M.: I do believe.
P.: Pray, then, kneel down and say the "Our Father."
(Kneeling, they say slowly together the "Our Father." The priest gives
to everyone a candle, that one of the group lights, then he says):—
P.: Receive this burning light, and without fail be true to your
baptism, that when our Lord shall come to claim his own you may be
worthy to meet him, together with all the saints in the heavenly court,
and live for ever and ever.
P.: Receive the sign of the cross upon your forehead and also in your
heart, and in your manners be such that you may now be the temple of
P.: Peace be with you.
M.: And with your spirit.
They all stand with the burning candles in their hands and conclude with
ROGATION DAYS: CROSS DAYS
The first Rogation procession was made 1,500 years ago, and its litanies
and antiphons were meant to avert God's anger from his people and to
call down his blessing on the fruits of the fields. It is not strange
that the procession came gradually to make its way over fields and
meadows and ploughed land, in fact throughout the whole of the parish.
In seaside parishes these processions included prayers for the harvest
of the sea and they probably made their way along the sands or cliffs.
In some places the Rogation days were called the Cross days, probably
because the procession halted every so often at certain crosses or at
certain trees marked with a cross, at which the priest read from the New
Testament before the crowd took up the litanies and antiphons once more.
Children in the procession carried green boughs, the girls decorated
themselves with flower garlands, the men carried banners and a cross.
All the streets were hung with green branches.
In Staffordshire by the early 18th century, the processioning had taken
a rather different form; the whole village went out on the three days,
led by the children, who bore long poles decorated with every sort of
flower, and all together they sang over and over again the psalm: "All
ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord."
There are not many processions now over the fields on Rogation days;
still, after our answering the litanies at Mass, we might spend the days
in something of the old spirit. In a school or club we could have a
procession like that once prevailing in Staffordshire, and thus call on
all the created things of God to bless him.
Certainly night or morning prayers might include one or more of the
Church's prayers for the fruits of the earth; particularly if those who
pray have a garden:
"We implore thy blessing, Almighty God, that thou wilt deign to nourish
this earth with temperate winds, to pour over it like a shower of rain
thy gracious blessings, granting to thy people to give thanks to thee
eternally for thy gifts."
St. Luke tells us that Christ, after he had eaten a meal in the Cenacle,
led the whole troop of apostles through the city on the last journey he
would make upon earth, and "...when he had led them as far as Bethany he
lifted up his hands and blessed them; and even as he blessed them he
parted from them and was carried up into heaven." It is easy to
understand why on Ascension day the priest led the people in solemn
procession before Mass, that this last walk of Christ's might be
Since this procession has fallen into disuse, one could make a solitary
visit to a church during the day. The apostles, of course, saw Christ
going before them. But if we cannot, we have no less certainty that he
is with us, closer than he was to any of the apostles on that first
Ascension day. During that walk to the church we can do what the
apostles did—praise and bless God and thank him for the holy Spirit whom
he is going to send us.
A custom has survived in some parts of this country of opening the New
Testament at random on this day, considering that in the page chosen
there may be, as it were, some final message from Jesus as he makes his
way back into heaven. Each one in turn opens the New Testament and reads
the whole chapter he has lighted on, while the rest of the family or
group help him to make that chapter practical for himself.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
On this day we commemorate the protection that St. Joseph bestows upon
the whole family of the Church; this is a recent feast, for only in 1847
was it ordered to be kept throughout the world, but years before, St.
Teresa of Avila had said all that needed to be said about devotion to
St. Joseph: "I took for my patron and lord the glorious St. Joseph, and
recommended myself earnestly to him. I saw clearly that he rendered me
greater services than I knew how to ask for. I cannot call to mind that
I have ever asked him at any time for anything he has not granted. I am
full of amazement when I consider the great favors which God has given
me through this blessed saint, the dangers from which he has delivered
me, both of body and soul. To other saints our Lord seems to have given
grace to succor men in some special necessity: but to this glorious
saint, I know by experience, to help us in all! and our Lord would have
us understand that, as he was himself subject upon earth—for St. Joseph,
having the title of father, and being his guardian, could command him—so
now in heaven he performs all his petitions."
St. Joseph, being the head and protector of the family of Nazareth, is
fittingly the protector of the whole Church and no less of all the
single families that go to make up the Church. He is the pattern of
family life. Why should this Sunday not be celebrated in an appropriate
way? All the members of the family could come home and they could
arrange some sort of entertainment or festivity for themselves. And
before the day is out various family affairs might be recommended to St.
Joseph by the whole family together; it is only fitting that any family
difficulties or trials or joys should be shared with the saint who
shared such things with Jesus and Mary.
This feast has been called the Pasch of Roses, because red roses are
thought to be emblems of the tongues of fire that descended upon Mary
and the apostles. It is for the same reason that red vestments are worn
at the Whitsun Masses.
In the thirteenth century in some parts of Europe a dove was set free
inside the church during the Mass, while pieces of lighted tow were
dropped from the roof. Childish enough, one may say, but at least it
attempted to drive home the reality of what happened on the first
Whitsun. Doves and lighted rope are hardly possible nowadays, but there
is a way of impressing the significance of Whitsun on ourselves. Just as
we make a crib at Christmas and an Easter garden at Easter so we can
make a cenacle at Whitsun. We shall need figures of eleven apostles and
our Lady, while the Dove can hang over all of them and the tongues of
fire radiate from the Dove. We can link up the cenacle with the old name
for Whit Sunday by decorating it with red roses, the symbolism of which
should be explained. Morning and evening during the octave of Whitsun
this prayer to the Holy Spirit could be said near the cenacle:
"O Holy Spirit, soul of my soul, I adore thee: enlighten, guide,
strengthen and console me. Tell me what I ought to do, and command me to
do it. I promise to be submissive to everything that thou shalt ask and
to accept all that thou permittest to happen to me; only show me what is
No other month would seem to be better fitted for dedication to our Lady
than May, the month that finally conquers winter and that sees all the
spring flowers in blossom. How close the common association of Mary with
the hedgerow flowers has always been one can see by the very names we
still give to these flowers. Lady's smock, marigold, lady's thistle,
lady's bedstraw, may blossom, are all called after Mary. Early, on the
first day of her month—"the merry month"—it was once universal in this
country to go maying, when "every man, except impediment, would walk in
the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with
the beauty and savor of sweet flowers and with the harmony of birds
praising God in their kind," while they collected branches of hawthorn
or may, so that there was no house door nor window, no church nor street
that was not decorated with green branches. Men wore sprigs of may in
their hats; women who had risen long before dawn to pick cowslips,
primroses and wild violets made them into garlands and hung them up in
Why should the first of May not be the day when all Catholics wear
flowers in honor of Mary? May blossom is probably one of the easiest
blossoms to get hold of, but if it is impossible, then any spring flower
could be worn. After all, people wear flowers and vegetation to the
honor of St. George, St. Patrick, St. David and St. Andrew, so why
should they not do so in our Lady's honor?
In some families it might be possible to arrange a maying expedition on
the first day of the month; in clubs or schools the first Sunday of the
month would probably have to be substituted. During the expedition
everyone could gather as many different sorts of flowers as possible and
the most perfect branches of may blossom. Formerly any member of a
family who succeeded in finding a branch of may in full blossom was
entitled to a prize and this element of competition could enter into the
maying expedition. The flowers, when brought home, could either be given
to the parish church or they could be used to decorate the statue of our
Lady which most homes possess. Incidentally, anyone who organized such a
maying day would immediately come up against- -and have a chance to
destroy—the still rampant superstition against may blossom, by which it
is believed that such flowers in a home are a portent of death.
Anyone who takes the trouble to use her local library to discover
something of local history is almost certain to find that within a
reasonable distance there was once a shrine dedicated to our Lady. There
may be ruins of it left; it may have vanished. All the same, it is
possible to arrange in any school or club a pilgrimage to the shrine.
Someone should tell the pilgrims the story of that particular shrine and
the purpose of shrines in general, before they set out. If there are not
even ruins left, the pilgrims could take a statue of Mary with them and
place it on the site that was once dedicated to her. A pilgrimage like
this can mean a whole day in the country and it ought to be enlivened
with games and songs and outdoor cooking if possible. In some cases
where records remain, no matter how fragmentary, of the shrine and yet
it exists no longer, a club or youth group could attempt to reproduce on
a small scale in their own meeting place the lost shrine. Or they could
even create an entirely new shrine to replace the lost one. In this way
the statue of our Lady which is so familiar because of its perpetual
presence might be given a certain air of unfamiliarity, and it would
then be not just "our Lady," but "our Lady of Missenden," "our Lady of
Willesden," "our Lady of Sudbury," our Lady of our own district.
WHITSUN TO ADVENT
FROM Whitsun to Advent, in comparison with the long holiday of
Eastertide, one enters a more sober time, though here and there the
feasts of Mary, particularly the great feast of the Assumption (once
called: our Lady in harvest-time) interrupt it. Again one cannot help
but see on these days the perpetual inclination to mark all the feasts
of our Lady with some sort of flower ceremony.
Saints' feasts and angels' feasts follow on each other; guardian angels,
Michael, prince of angels, and Raphael, are all honored during this
time. In parts of England Michaelmas was celebrated as a sort of general
sports day in which one man would lead a gang of followers across
country, through the roughest ways he could find, a crude symbolism,
probably, of Michael leading the host of angels.
If all the angels have their festive day, so too do all the saints, on
November 1st. The vigil of this day, once probably given to invoking
one's patron saints, turned in later days into a superstitious festivity
in which love-charms such as nuts, apples, and glowing embers were
credulously invoked and fortunes told, and future lovers seen in vision.
If all the saints have their festive day during these days, so too have
all the souls. Theirs is on November 2nd, on which day the bells used to
be rung almost unceasingly as a reminder that the members of the
Church-family who were yet in prison needed to be rescued. Thus by the
first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the liturgical year, there is
almost no type of person who has not been celebrated by the Church in
one way or another.
ST. ALBAN'S DAY: JUNE 22ND
St. Alban's death came to him through the hospitality he gave to a
stranger, so he is surely the model of hosts and an inspiration of
hospitality. When he was still a pagan Alban gave shelter to a priest
who was being hunted by pagan persecutors. It was not long before Alban
was converted by his guest, and when the soldiers ultimately arrived at
his house in search of the priest it was Alban, disguised in his guest's
clothes, who gave himself up to them, and who was beheaded at what is
now St. Alban's in 303.
There can be no better way of marking St. Alban's day than by imitating
his hospitality. One of the things that Christ will say to his followers
at the last judgment is: "I was a stranger and you took me in," and when
he is asked what he means he will explain that giving hospitality to
anyone is giving hospitality to him. On St. Alban's day everyone could
deliberately go out of their way to invite some lonely person to their
home, and that day could give them all the attention and care and
affection possible, doing it all in the honor of St. Alban, who was
willing to give even his life for the man who was his guest.
ST. JOHN'S EVE: JUNE 23RD
This custom was still observed in Yorkshire as recently as 1826, when it
was described as being of great antiquity. On St. John's eve every
family who had come to live in the parish within the last year would put
a table outside their houses, place on it bread and cheese and beer and
offer this to anyone who passed by. Any of the parish might help
themselves, and if the fortunes of the family ran to it, would be
invited indoors for a further supper and a festive evening spent in the
family circle. By this means the newcomers to the parish made many
acquaintances and friends, and were helped to see themselves as having a
definite place in the local community. One cannot advocate the setting
up of tables full of food in the streets nowadays, but the chance need
not be missed of helping newcomers to make friends. There are far more
lonely people, often converts, in every parish than one might think. On
St. John's eve it could be possible to arrange an open house among the
youth groups, or the different sodalities, or even in various families,
to which all the newcomers in the parish could be invited, this with the
definite idea of making them feel at home and part of the parish
ST. JOHN THE BAPTISTS DAY: JUNE 24TH
When Zachary sang his canticle in praise of his son John he said that
many would rejoice in his birth, and that John would "enlighten them
that sit in darkness." The Baptist's day, midsummer day, was a general
holiday, when everyone did indeed rejoice, a day full of games and
sports and dancing. On the eve of the feast everyone's door "decorated
with birch leaves, St. John's wort and white lilies and such-like,
garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of
glass, with oil burning in them all the night.... Some hung out branches
of iron, curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lighted at
once." On the day itself, no sooner had the sun sunk than fires were
lighted all over the hillsides, fires long known in the west country as
blessing fires. To celebrate the Baptist with lights and flames was
fitting enough, since it was John whom Christ himself described as "a
burning and a shining light" in which the people were to rejoice. These
bonfires, often of immense height, were blessed by the priest, and often
it was he who set light to them. While the fires blazed people danced
and made joyful processions, holding burning torches in their hands;
they sang together and played games by the light of the fire.
St. John's day might be the signal for a festive outdoor evening in a
family or club. A bonfire can be lighted, there can be games and sports,
while someone can tell briefly the story of the origin of St. John's
The coming of the Baptist had been the sign that the Old Law was done
away with. This abolition was symbolized, certainly somewhat crudely, by
burning on the bonfires all rubbish and all unnecessary, useless and
unwanted things in the house. For the many people who are terrified to
dispose of anything in case they should ever need it in the future this
would be an excellent custom to revive! In any case, in all homes
rubbish of one sort or another accumulates, so why should we not dispose
of it on a definite day, and in a ceremonial manner?
ST. PETER'S DAY: JUNE 29TH
In Yorkshire, St. Peter's day was once a special feast of fishermen.
"Upon St. Peter's day they invite their friends and kinsfolk to a
festival kept after their fashion with a free heart and no show of
niggardliness: that day their boats are dressed curiously for the show,
their masts are painted, and certain rites observed around them." What
these rites were is not mentioned, save that one of them consisted in
sprinkling the prows of the boats "with good liquor," a ceremony
reminiscent of the christening of ships. Most probably the whole feast
grew out of a simple blessing of fishing boats.
In a family, St. Peter's day might be observed by special prayer for
fishermen and for all those on the sea. One could use this prayer from
the Mass for those at sea:
"O God, who didst bring our forefathers through the Red Sea and guide
them in safety through the overflowing waters, singing praises to thy
holy name, we humbly beseech thee that thou wouldst ever keep from all
danger thy servants who are on board ship, granting them a calm voyage
and the haven which they desire."
ST. ANNE'S DAY: JULY 26TH
St. Anne was for long the patroness of joiners and cabinet makers, and
for the emblem of their guild they took a figure of St. Anne instructing
her daughter. A curious choice, it seems at first glance. But they
entwined round the two figures this inscription: "sic fingit
tabernaculum Deo," thus she frames a tabernacle for God. These wood
workers realized the parallel between themselves, the tabernacles they
made, the Blessed Sacrament that was housed in them and St. Anne, our
Lady and the Child she bore.
Not only joiners took Anne as their patron; so did all those engaged in
spinning, weaving, embroidery, sewing and any sort of household arts and
skills. She seems indeed to have been the patron of the housewife.
It was in the East that the mother of our Lady was first honored. The
Greek church held her in tremendous reverence and sang her praises in
words that echo the Akathist hymn, that great song of praise written in
her daughter's honor.
"Hail, spiritual bird, announcing the spring time of grace! Hail, sheep,
mother of the ewe lamb, who by a word conceived the Word, the Lamb that
taketh away the sins of the world! Hail, blessed earth, whence sprang
the branch that bore the divine Fruit! O Anne, most blessed in God,
grandmother of Christ our Lord, who didst give to the world a shining
lamp, the mother of God; together with her intercede that great may be
the mercy granted to our souls. Let us cry to holy Anne with cymbals and
psaltery. She brought forth the mountain of God and was borne up to the
spiritual mountains, the tabernacles of Paradise."
In England St. Anne's feast was authorized by Pope Urban IV in 1381.
Thus she was honored here more than two hundred years before her day was
celebrated as a feast of the universal Church. There is then nothing
strange in suggesting that it be given more consideration now. St.
Anne's day is a homely feast. After all, she is the grandmother of
Christ, odd though this may sound in one's ears. If mid-Lent Sunday is
the feast of mothers, is there any reason why this should not be the day
when the grandparents are made the center of everything? Gifts can be
sent them, letters written, visits paid. St. Anne has received
tremendous honor at the shrines that have been set up to her. The one
set up in Brittany, St. Anne d'Auray, discovered to Yves Nicolazic by
herself in 1624, is one of the greatest places of Christian pilgrimage.
Here there is nothing to compete with that. There are a number of
churches dedicated to her, and that is all. But to celebrate her feast
day in such a practical way as that of centering it round the
grandparents of a family is surely something that would appeal to one
whom popular fancy has always linked up with home life.
LAMMAS: AUGUST 1ST
The word "Lammas" is said to be derived from a Saxon word signifying
"loaf-mass" or "bread-mass"; this was the day when country people
offered thanks to God for the crops, particularly for grains of all
kinds. In Ireland fruit was also brought to the church as a
One could follow something of this custom nowadays. Everyone with a
garden could undertake to give some of his vegetables or fruit to others
who need it, either giving it direct to them or asking the parish priest
or the S.V.P. society in the parish for the names of those who would
welcome such gifts.
ASSUMPTION DAY: AUGUST 15TH
In the eastern Church this was so important and celebrated a festival
that it was preceded by a week's fasting. In Rome the day was marked by
an enormous procession, led by the pope, who went barefooted, carrying a
painting of Christ from the Church of the Lateran to the Church of St.
Mary Major, thus to commemorate the coming of Christ for his mother on
This is the greatest of our Lady's feast days, and one of the oldest of
them. All the church's office of the day is filled with praise and
acclamation of the Mother of God, who was raised from her grave, taken
up body and soul into heaven, there to be made the queen of heaven.
Gregory of Tours says: "When the time came for the blessed Mary to leave
this earth the apostles were gathered together from all lands: and
having learnt that the hour was at hand they watched with her. Now the
Lord Jesus came with his angels and received her soul. In the morning
the apostles took up her body and placed it in the tomb. And again the
Lord came and the holy body was taken up in a cloud."
Popular feeling, which had always linked our Lady's feasts with flowers,
did not fail now. In this country the Assumption was marked by people
taking huge bunches of herbs into the church to be blessed there.
Flowers, plants and fruit were also blessed, as though this were the day
of the garden, as distinct from the days of the fields of corn and the
fodder crops. It is possible that herbs were much in evidence because of
the epistle of the day: "I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus and as a
cyprus tree on Mount Sion. I was exalted like a palm tree in Cades and
as a rose plant in Jericho, as a fair olive tree in the plains and as a
plane tree by the water in the streets was I exalted. I gave a sweet
smell like cinnamon and aromatic balm. I yielded a sweet odor like the
Is it possibly connected with this herb-offering that we call two herbs
balm and myrrh in this country which have no resemblance whatever to the
herbs mentioned in the Mass?
Few people have herb gardens now. Still, those who have might decorate
the statue of our Lady with them, perhaps decorating the statue in the
parish church in the same way. The Assumption might also be an occasion
for praying for the flowers and plants and fruit of the ordinary garden.
What is more, why could not those who have a garden send flowers to
those who cannot grow them, or to city churches and convents where every
flower has to be bought? And anyone who had no garden herself could
always buy flowers and send or give them to some church or chapel for
this first of Mary's feast days.
HOLY CROSS DAY: SEPTEMBER 14TH
September 14th commemorates the finding of the Cross by St. Helena, and
it marks the beginning of Lent in many monastic orders. In most homes
there will be a cross or crucifix, but in many cases it is hardly
noticed because of its very familiarity. This day might be an occasion
when someone in the family undertook to make a new wooden cross and to
set it up either indoors or in the garden. If in the garden, the cross
could well be a large one. This does not call for much technical skill,
and rough workmanship does not matter. At all events the cross could be
set up and small slats of wood bearing the names of each member of the
family could be nailed across its vertical bar. Someone might explain in
a few words this significance of one's own name being thus placed on
Christ's cross. Then the story of the appearance of the cross in the sky
shortly before Constantine won the battle of the Milvian bridge could
also be re-told, with special stress laid on the words that were written
in fire round that cross: "In this sign thou shalt conquer!" The cross
could remain until after the day of our Lady's Seven Sorrows.
ALL SOULS DAY: SOULMAS: NOVEMBER 2ND
Fire has always been a symbol of immortality, and the immortality of the
soul was symbolized by lighting fires during the night of All Souls;
perhaps the simpler people thought that their little furze fires dotted
over the hillsides would show the way to souls who were that day making
their journey from purgatory to heaven! Long after the Catholic faith
had been cast out of this country, relics remained at Soulmass of the
once universal praying for the dead, though, as was inevitable, these
became empty and corrupt. Even in the 19th century girls still went "souling"
from door to door; people baked and ate soul cakes, people, who would
have abhorred the idea that the dead can be helped by prayers, would say
on this day: "A soul cake, a soul cake, God have mercy on all Christian
souls for a soul cake." A soul cake was a sort of oat cake, which, in
Catholic times was baked specially as a gift for poor and needy people,
and these people on receiving it would pray for the dead belonging to
those who gave it.
All Souls' day could be made the feast day of the dead members of any
family. One could pray in general for all the souls in purgatory, but
surely the members of the family have first claim. Where there are
children in a family one can make a soul cake for each one and ask each
to undertake to pray particularly for one dead member of the family.
When the dead are buried not too far away an annual expedition could be
made to the churchyard with flowers, or to tidy and clear their graves.
One has only to walk through any churchyard to wish that All Souls' day
could be celebrated in such a way by the whole country! In this way,
starting from a quite unambitious level, children could be taught to
take a real interest in the welfare of the dead members of their family
and could come to have a real devotion to the souls in Purgatory.
MARTINMAS: NOVEMBER 11TH
St. Martin's day once used to rival St. John's day, so much was it given
to rejoicings and festivities. So often did Martinmas bring with it a
brief return of warm weather that the days around the feast are still
called to this day "St. Martin's summer." All types of people claimed
Martin as their patron—"monks, priests, soldiers, knights, travelers,
inn-keepers, charitable organizations of every kind." Why these last
claimed Martin as patron the office of his feast makes clear: "At the
age of 15 he became a soldier and served in the army, first of
Constantius, afterwards of Julian. On one occasion when a poor naked man
at Amiens begged an alms of him in the name of Christ, having nothing
but his armor and clothing, he gave him half his military cloak. The
following night Christ appeared to him clad in that half cloak, and
said; `Martin, while yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this
How better could one honor St. Martin's day than by living it in that
spirit of his? Martin gave away half his cloak: we can go through our
wardrobe and select any clothes that are at all superfluous—if we would
really resemble Martin we should give more than what can be spared—and
we can immediately send or give it to someone in need, either directly,
or indirectly through some organization. It is important to remember,
though, that Martin gave the cloak he was actually wearing, that is to
say, something that was fit to be worn. The idea is not to give away
merely old clothes, but garments in such condition that we ourselves
would be willing to wear them. After all, when Martin saw his cloak, not
on the beggar but on Christ himself, it was reality that he saw. Any
clothes, any single thing that we give to another person we are giving
to Christ himself.
OUR LADY'S PRESENTATION: NOVEMBER 21ST
This feast was kept for hundreds of years in the east before the west
took it over; and in England it was observed long before the rest of
Europe. "The lovely Virgin being born according to the divine decrees,
her parents led her to the temple, to fulfill their promise to give her
to her Creator. Anna in her joy thus cried out to the priest: `Receive
this child, lead her into the most secluded parts of the temple;
surround her with all care: for she was given me as the fruit of my
prayers, and in the joy of my faith I promised to devote her to God her
It is easy to see how this day, which describes Mary as entering upon a
new life, to which she would bring ever greater exactness to her service
of God, came to be thought a fitting occasion for priests and religious
to renew their vows.
One may still commemorate the traditional life of Mary in the temple by
making this day an occasion in youth groups or schools when everyone
belonging to any Catholic organization renews their membership and the
promises they have made on being accepted. This renewal might well be
made in the church, and after the ceremony some sort of general party or
festivity could be arranged.
As recently as 1934 the General of the Salvatorians suggested to Pope
Pius XI that one Saturday each month might become a day specially
devoted to prayers for priests. Pius XI agreed wholeheartedly, declaring
that he praised and blessed the suggestion, and since 1934, bishops of
more than fifty European dioceses have recommended this practice.
How does one take part in Priests' Saturday? It means offering the
Saturday after the First Friday of the month wholly and entirely for the
sanctification of priests throughout the world; offering Mass and Holy
Communion together with all the prayers, actions, joys, sorrows of the
day and offering it all to Christ through the hands of Mary.
Many people probably pray for priests on the Ember days, which are the
ordination days. But then it is naturally for the newly ordained.
Priests' Saturday is intended to help all priests—the Pope, the bishops,
missionaries, all who teach in seminaries and schools, the contemplative
religious, the parish priests.
For some people a week-day Mass will be impossible. Still they can make
an offering of their whole day, and they could say this prayer at least
once on Priests' Saturday:
"Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, who have entrusted your work of redemption
to the priests, who take your place on earth, I offer you, through the
hands of your most holy Mother, for the sanctification of your priests
and future priests this whole day, all my prayers, works, joys,
sacrifices and sufferings. Give us saintly priests. Grant to them
apostolic hearts, filled with love for you and all the souls belonging
to you, so that, being themselves sanctified in you, they may sanctify
us who are entrusted to their care and bring us safely into Heaven.
Loving Jesus, bless all their priestly work and sacrifice. Bless all
their prayers and words at the altar and in the confessional, in the
pulpit, in the school and at the sickbed. Call many young men to the
priesthood and the monastic life. Protect and sanctify all who will
become your priests. And grant to the souls of the priests who have
departed this life, eternal rest.
And do you, Mary, Mother of all priests, take them under your special
protection and lead them ever to the highest priestly sanctity."
In some parts of the country fairs are still known as wakes. Wherever
they have survived the wakes have become completely secular in
character, though once they consisted of a day of prayer and
thanksgiving and feasting on the titular feast of the parish church,
when all the parishioners seem to have spent the day together in the
immediate neighborhood of their church. It is believed that the wakes
provide another example of pagan festivity taken over by the Church. At
any rate the Venerable Bede says that Pope Gregory wrote to the Abbot
Mellitus that "whereas the people were accustomed to sacrifice many oxen
to the honor of demons, let them celebrate a religious and solemn
festival and slay the animals not to the devils, but to be eaten by
themselves to the glory of God." In time the spiritual element began to
be swamped by the secular, the thanksgiving and praying and the visiting
of the church with lighted candles burning, all began to give way before
the grosser material celebrations. In the tenth century priests were
already inveighing against the abuses to which some parish wakes gave
rise. The process of degeneration continued and in the end the wakes
became fairs, pure and simple.
It might be possible in a parish to revive the idea of celebrating the
feast day of the titular saint. It could be made a special day of
thanksgiving and all the various parish organizations and the schools
could celebrate it, each in their own way, uniting, as Pope Gregory
suggested, a spiritual with a material celebration, though each kept in
their right proportion.
THE SUNDAY FESTIVAL
This fell on the Sunday after the titular feast of the parish church.
When they came back from Mass the people had "entertainments for the
reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on
that occasion from each neighboring town." The Sunday Festival was more
than a mere day of open doors and hospitality; it was the occasion on
which efforts were made to restore amity in the neighborhood, for "on
this day they used to end many quarrels between neighbor and neighbor."
Even if the festive side of this day were not revived—though there is no
reason why it should not be—still, the peacemaking side need not be
neglected. This could be the day when everyone in the family sets about
ending any disagreement or quarrel in which he is involved, quite
regardless of whether or not he was to blame for the disagreement. It is
probably to the point to mention that the mending of broken friendships
begins, just as charity does, at home.
BANK holidays are a poor exchange for the feasts of the Church. It means
that people's noses are now kept much longer to the grindstone than they
ever were in the days when the civil year was based on the liturgy. It
means too that a popular, vivid, visual way of teaching the faith has
almost disappeared. Those who work with young people, in schools or any
sort of youth organizations, or those with families of young children
are the only ones who can ensure that this way of making religion real
does not vanish completely.
Many of the Church's feasts were celebrated in a childish, obvious even
crude way. This ought to be a recommendation, rather than a drawback.
When boys and girls drift away from their faith the reason almost always
is that this faith has never been a reality to them. The popular
celebrations that obtained so long in this country did indeed help to
make the faith real then to those who took part; it could do so again.
It is no good approaching these celebrations in any condescending way.
Admittedly it was childish to have processions with the statue of
Christ, in which the Blessed Sacrament was encased, as it were, in a
monstrance, childish to drop pieces of lighted rope from the church
roofs on Whitsunday; equally childish is it now to go on maying
expeditions in honor of our Lady or to make St. Anne's day the feast of
grandparents. However, the Church has never been a society of an
intellectual elite and there is the best authority in the world for
believing that the kingdom of heaven is the province of those who have
become like children.
Many feasts remain to be celebrated, which are not touched on in these
pages. There are, for instance, all the festival days of the early
bishops, monks and abbesses, people like Dunstan, Samson and Hilda, of
the Celtic monks, like Columba, of the English martyrs, led by More and
Fisher. These islands have produced innumerable saints and yet to most
people their names mean almost nothing, instead of being an inspiration
to them. How many of us know anything about St. Alphege, St. Ethelburga,
St. Winifred, St. Teilo, St. Illtyd or St. Edmund? Who even knows with
which parts of the country they are associated? Yet because these are
native saints they are in a special way our possession and have a claim
on us; and one could make a good beginning by attempting to celebrate
the days of these and similar saints in one way or another.
Still more, the feasts of Mary call out for celebration; it was not for
nothing that England was once known as the dowry of Mary—a title that
has become so familiar to us now that we hardly stop to consider what is
implied by it. With our Lady's feasts, as indeed with any feast, the
closer the link with local surroundings the better. There are shrines
and holy wells galore in this country. Once they drew pilgrims from many
miles away. Now they are merely place names in dusty books of local
history. Why should not some attempt be made to bring back the honor in
which they were once held?
All this calls for warning though. It is worse than useless to decide to
introduce such feasts and customs only from the outside, as it were.
Then they would be no more than semi-superstitious devotions, mere pious
frills that would do more harm than good. Flowers and may blossom and
altars for Mary will cut no ice if the instigator of these things does
not at least attempt to practice equally Mary's love for others, her
self-forgetfulness, her courage. You may enthrone a statue of the Sacred
Heart in your home and keep a lamp burning continually before it, and at
the same time keep burning equally steadily a fire of resentment or
dislike in your own heart. In such a case the picture should be burned
too. Candles at Christmas, family prayers, Easter gardens, cribs, all
these ought to be the result of a real love for Christ, they should
spring out of it like flowers out of the soil. The outward show must
have some relation to the inward spirit; otherwise they are like a body
from which the soul had fled, they are play acting and a farce. But when
they spring from a genuine motive they really are adding something to
the life of the great family, of which baptism has made us members.
* * *
THE GRAIL FIELD END HOUSE, EASTCOTE, MIDDX.
First published August, 1945
Printed in Great Britain at the BURLEIGH PRESS, Lewin's Mead, BRISTOL