Tag Archive: Christmas


Not just groundhogs: Candlemas explained

February 2nd

Christmas may get all the press, but do you know about the Great Holiday Mash-up that is February 2nd? Today, we’ve got five celebrations going on.

In the Church, February 2nd is known variously as The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, The Purification of the Virgin, and Candlemas Day. In the Anglican Communion, The Feast of the Presentation is a “Principal Feast”, along with the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary (25 March), Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany. All of these are Feasts of the Lord except Pentecost. They trump all other events on the liturgical calendar as they move around the week, and all are considered obligatory, not unlike Roman Catholic solemnities and holy days of obligation.

First is the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. We celebrate Mary and Joseph’s fulfillment of the Jewish tradition of the redemption of a firstborn male child according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12), which states that he is to be presented to the priest on the fortieth day (inclusive) after his birth. Today’s gospel reading from Luke, chapter 2, recounts this last recorded moment in Jesus’ infancy.

Second, Mary goes to the Temple to fulfill her ritual purification, which was required of women on the fortieth day after bearing a child.

Third, today is known as Candlemas (Candle Mass) Day. Because of Simeon’s declaration in Luke 2.32 that Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”, the Church has traditionally blessed candles on this day for use throughout the year. Several hypotheses have been offered to explain the origins of Candlemas rituals in pagan observances, though these are not universally recognized.

If you haven’t taken down your Christmas decorations yet, you’d better get on it. According to 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, the Eve of Candlemas (1 February), was the time for the dismantling of Christmas decorations:

“Down with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall” — from “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

Outside church doors, you might see mention of Groundhog Day. The tradition of taking stock of signs in nature as portents of spring is ancient, and not at all unique to America. A friend uncovered this information:

“According to French historian Michele Pastoreau, in pre-Christian Europe, February 2 was believed to be the date when the bears came out of hibernation and that raucous, sometimes violent, celebrations of the end of hibernation continued well into the early Middle Ages, when the church finally cracked down and superimposed various saints’ feasts on the old pagan holiday (The Bear: History of a Fallen King, Belknap Press, 2011).

“There also is an old Scottish verse about the feast of St. Brigit (who is also known as Bride), which is February 1st: ‘This is the day of Bride, the queen will come from the mound…..’ Irish folklore scholar Seamus O Cathain believes that the reference to the ‘queen of the mound’ has its roots in northern traditions about the reappearance of the hibernating bear from the caves (Mara Freeman, Kindling the Celtic Spirit, Harper Collins: 2000).”

Other traditions associated with divinating the coming of spring on 2 February abound. Find some at: <http://projectbritain.com/year/candlemas.html>.

So, we’re up to four festivals on one day.

If these are not enough, this year, we pile on Super Bowl Sunday (well, some of you might).

And, if when all this revelry ends tonight, if you still haven’t had enough (or if you yelled at your television too forcefully), remember that tomorrow (3 February) is the Feast of St. Blaise, martyr, who died in 316 during a persecution of Christians. He was famous as a doctor, a healer of body and soul, in Sebaste in Armenia, and was named bishop there. He is known as the Patron Saint of Throats because he is said to have healed a boy who was choking to death on a fishbone as he (Blaise) was being led to prison. In many places, churches still offer the blessing of throats on his day.

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Christmas—Held Over!

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

This has been an odd Christmastide for me. Odd even that I am still thinking of it in the present tense. I was late to decorate for Christmas, and even later to feel like I had slipped into the “Christmas Groove”. I followed the set-up of the holiday train diorama in the lobby of our Thanksgiving hotel with frequent check-ins, yet baked not a single Christmas cookie.

Christmas at home, once I finally got there late Christmas night, was as festive and enjoyable as ever. I fell into the Groove immediately. It snowed, I skied. We cooked, I ate. Family gathered, I mingled. Gifts appeared, I unwrapped. Corks popped, I drank. Lights twinkled, I gazed.

Snow drifted, I stayed an extra day. Readily.

When my partner and I went our separate ways at the end of Christmas time in snowy, bucolic Hamilton, neither of us wanted to see the celebrations end. When I reached Chicago on the 4th of January, I still had two days left to celebrate. I squeezed in Christmas shows and movies, CDs and stories.

Epiphany (January 6) came, and I hadn’t had my Christmas fill, so I left the decorations up. The Christmas tree hadn’t lost any needles, so I gave it another week. I continued shopping the post-holiday sales for Christmas decorations with particular verve. My Lego® Holiday Bakery is still on the sideboard.

We have a family fondness for Sesame Street, and we usually watch the 1978 special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” when we’re together. This year, the show’s signature song, “Keep Christmas with you” has become like a battle cry for some of us. It says,

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, You can keep it near. Think of this Christmas day When Christmas is far away.

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, Save some Christmas cheer. These precious moments, Hold them very dear And keep Christmas with you All through the year.

“Christmas means the spirit of giving Peace and joy to you, The goodness of loving, The gladness of living; These are Christmas too.”

It’s the 24th of January, and I’m watching “The Bishop’s Wife”! What is happening to me this year? As Christmas comes round every year, I think I enjoy our homecoming, my family home, and my hometown more and more. It is tinged with nostalgia, but also revived and refreshed with new tastes and experiences.

I wrote the following article for the weekly newsletter of the church where I work as Director of Music. (If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come visit us <www.sp-r.org>.) As a church worker, I have a multi-layered—some may say ‘complex’—relationship with Christmas. Perhaps reading this now will help *you* “keep Christmas with you” for at least a little longer this year.

“Christmas is the Church’s ‘Try to Remember’ Holiday”

Merry Christmas. Except for the two years when I had flu (maybe even then), I’ve been blessed with Merry Christmases. Fun, food, family, friends, snow for skiing and sledding, games, movies, singing, wonderful worship… I love Christmastide! More than any other holiday I celebrate, Christmas is a smörgåsbord of experiences, origins and meanings. Complex, like me.

While at Choir Camp last summer, an hour from New Haven, where I spent nine of the most wonderful, friend-filled years of my life, I sat in on a colleague’s boy-choir rehearsal. They rehearsed “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks for a concert. Listening to my godson, his younger brother, and their fellow choir members sing this simple tune, I began to cry. I felt deeply how much things have changed in my life.

The irony wasn’t lost on me, however, that the singers were all preteens, some as young as eight. What could they possibly be nostalgic for? Christmas, maybe.

Christmas nostalgia is often born at a tender age, when one discovers that all is not as it had seemed earlier. Through the years, the revelations keep coming, as one’s view of life and loved ones becomes more nuanced. Relatives die, friends and family move away, new ones arrive. Sibling rivalry, aging parents, challenging children, irksome in-laws. Who wouldn’t be nostalgic for earlier, simpler Christmases? “Try to remember…”

When I began my work as a church musician during graduate school, I had to miss Christmas Eve and Christmas Day family gatherings to play for services. Those first few years, I decided to divorce my new Christmas routine from my memories and old expectations. It was time to “remember the reason for the season”, and respect Christmas as the religious holiday it was meant to be.

The Vulcan treatment worked for a while, and helped to ease the grief that came when one of my grandparents died shortly before Christmas each of the first two years. As the years passed, though, nostalgia trampled my holiday compartmentalization. Ah, Ye Happy Olde Tymes!

Church plays a complex role in the Christmas drama. The trappings of Christmas liturgies are intimacy, warmth, beauty, and—yes—nostalgia, but the message of Christmas is forward-looking. Who else gets myrrh (for embalming) as a baby gift? The crèche is only a brief stopping place for Jesus. Before the nursery is painted, the Holy Family is off to Egypt, fleeing for their lives.

My mother cries when she sings Christmas carols, perhaps because they evoke some latent nostalgia. We want children to be adorable in pageants so we can wax wistful about how precious and fleeting these moments are. Church traditions—the same six hymns year after year; “Silent Night” on our knees, the lights dimmed—connect us to our tribe and our memories.

There is no harm, and much joy, in these moments. We should celebrate them. The Church’s Christmas commemoration, however, is not simply for cooing over cute children or luxuriating in intimacy and beauty. It is, instead, to show the great power of humility and the bottomless well of God’s love for humanity. Through the incarnation, God helps us frail humans to see and understand Godself more fully, and to chart our path to care for the world, and gain our salvation, by following Jesus’ example. Christmas is only the prologue, the flash that fixes our gaze. God knew we humans are suckers for a cute baby, having evolved that way so we wouldn’t get distracted and walk off and leave little Norbert to be eaten by pterodactyls.

But followers of the story, like singers of the hymn “Once in royal David’s city”, may get distracted before they get to the point. We are entranced by the nostalgia and homeyness of the manger, but in the second half (as we sing it from The Hymnal 1982), the message comes forth:

“For he is our lifelong pattern; daily, when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.

“And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.

“Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing round, we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where his saints his throne surround: Christ, revealed to faithful eye, set at God’s right hand on high.”

As you gather your beloved around your own hearth and memories, as you tell the story and sing the old Christmas hymns, listen for the message that goes beyond the wonder of God’s arrival in infant form, and be transformed, so you will be ready to transform the world. Merry Christmas. May it be ever so!

Not my childhood “Silver Bells”

“Silver bells, silver bells/It’s Christmastime in the city” plays on the radio as we head out of Port-au-Prince, Haïti, on the morning of Friday 9 November 2012.

“Silver Bells” has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs. When I was a little boy, I would often stay with Nana and Poppa in their flat on Rutger Street in east Utica, NY. They lived one house west of the intersection with Jefferson Avenue, and from the living room windows, I loved to watch the traffic light at the corner “blink a bright red and green” through the puffy lake-effect snowflakes. Just like in the song that I’m sure I asked them to play for me frequently until I was old enough to work the record player on my own.

How unlike that romantic vision of Christmas in the city, this dystopian nightmare. As we leave the capital for Jacmel on the south coast, I am finally confronted with a level of filth, poverty and chaos that, unlike our previous drives around the city, exceeds my worst imaginings.

“Children laughing/People passing/Meeting smile after smile…As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.” The sides of the streets, teeming with life—men, women, children, dogs—are still lined with countless vendors of produce, sundries, car parts, vegetable and motor oil in used soda bottles (Careful which one you buy for cooking.), but this main thoroughfare is somehow even more shockingly dirty than those I’ve seen previously. We drive through a section of more-or-less four-lane boulevard (traffic here doesn’t really stay in lanes, or even stay on the right side if obstacles suggest better alternatives.) with a median. But the median, instead of being filled in by greenery or capped by concrete, bubbles with a toxic brew of sewage, rotting food, leaking automobile fluids and Lord-knows-what-else. My instinct is to roll up the windows, but the car lacks air-conditioning, and it’s well into the 80s Fahrenheit (at least 30ºC) on this humid, sunny day. I hold back gags.

“Hear the snow crunch/See the kids bunch”. By the time we round the curve toward the south, “Silver Bells” has long since ended, but it keeps cropping up in my imagination. Here on the edge of the city, the thrum of pedestrian activity and street-side commerce thins out somewhat. After we pass a string of industrial sites and waterside events facilities, we see to the right a huge lot filled with piles of trash, some of it on fire, the acrid black smoke fouling our lungs and everything else around.

Will I ever hear “Silver Bells” the same way again?