A Candle Is Lighted
P. Stewart Craig
"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 England."
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 organization.
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 other people's.
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 which survived—and in the remoter parts of the country naturally much more survived than in the towns—people 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 statue?
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 box-branches.
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 with them?
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 celebration.
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 works."
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 liturgical seasons—for 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 us.
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 caroling expedition.
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 worship him.
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 reason—which 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 play.
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 of Palestine—and 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 arms.
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 time:
"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 Lady.
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 and playes."
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 life."
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 winter.
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 death.
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 risen."
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 were directed.
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 own behalf.
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. Martindale, S.J..
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 earth?
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 God.
P.: Peace be with you.
M.: And with your spirit.
They all stand with the burning candles in their hands and conclude with a hymn.
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 remembered.
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 thy will."
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 the churches.
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 community.
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 fires.
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 thank-offering.
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 Mary's death.
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 best myrrh."
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 garment.'"
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 Creator.'"
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.
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THE GRAIL FIELD END HOUSE, EASTCOTE, MIDDX.
First published August, 1945
Printed in Great Britain at the BURLEIGH PRESS, Lewin's Mead, BRISTOL