Sunday morning on our way to Mass Dom commented on the sign at the corner pharmacy advertising Valentines Day merchandise, wondering if people really buy Valentines stuff this far in advance of the holiday. That got us talking about all these secularized holidays and how cut off they are from their roots in authentic Christian culture. How people seem to need these seasonal holidays and how when they don’t have authentic liturgies available they will create them.
I thought of people I’ve known who celebrate, decorate, and even send greeting cards for every “Hallmark” holiday. Thought about New Year’s paraphernalia and the obligatory Auld Lang Syne even if you aren’t Scottish and don’t know what the words mean; Valentine’s Day with hearts and cupids and chocolates; St Patrick’s Day with green beer, shamrocks and cardboard cutout leprechauns; Mardi Gras with colored beads and parades and all the feasting and none of the Ash Wednesday fasting; Easter with bunnies and eggs; Fourth of July flags, fireworks and parades with no reference to the Declaration of Independence; Halloween with ghosts and zombies and vampires but no All Saints Day to follow; Thanksgiving turkeys and not so much on the pilgrims and Indians anymore and who are we giving thanks to anyway and for what?; Christmas with red and green everything and Santa Claus and Christmas Trees, but no Christ Child. Those holidays that we do still celebrate as Christian have two versions now, separated in parallel: the sacred and the secular and many people have no idea that the sacred form even exists. We are cut off from the roots, even if we still hang decorations from the branches.
We create ersatz holidays that have passing reference to the farmer’s world, we yearn to be connected to the seasons in a liturgical way, but most of us are grasping at straws, we have no idea really what we’re yearning for, just trying to fill the emptiness with lawn decorations and seasonal flags. When Halloween decorations appear in September and Valentines decorations sit side by side with remnants of Christmas candy and the first ridiculously early displays of Easter paraphernalia, then these days cease to be discrete days and they become one more shopping “season.”
Even when we are estranged from the rhythms of sowing and reaping, we still hang Indian corn as decorations, tie corn stalks up near the door and set up scarecrows in out yards. Why? Why are these rhythms and celebrations so hard to get rid of? Why do we create new ones when we cease to have connections to the old ones in a post-Christian age?
St George and Killing the Michaelmas Goose
In pre-Industrial Europe the rhythm of the year was tied to the growing seasons but also to the liturgical calendar, to saints days, the original holidays. Last night I was watching Lark Rise to Candleford and in the episode the folk of Lark Rise and Candleford were preparing to celebrate two events: an annual St George play put on for the local squire, and the feast of Michaelmas. (I was a little unclear as to why they were doing a St George play in the fall when the feast of St George falls in April, but maybe the creators of the tv show were taking some creative license?)I loved the way both celebrations were so anticipated and so much a part of the fabric of the community. This, I thought, is how it’s supposed to look.
The St George play was the same one that they had put on every year that anyone could remember. Probably their grandparents and great grandparents had been putting on the same play. The same costumes, the same lines, sometimes the same actors playing the same part for the better part of a lifetime. It was short, simple, and yet it was also the vehicle by which some of the characters worked out current conflicts, new ad libs bringing new comedy and also healing to torn relationships.
I was equally struck by the side plot about the Michaelmas preparations, how everyone was looking forward to their favorite foods: a Michaelmas goose, a plum pudding. I also loved the scene where they recount a bit of local folklore: you’d better pick all the blackberries by Michaelmas because when St Michael threw Satan out of heaven he fell into a blackberry bush and either peed all over the berries or cursed them… and that’s why the berries are inedible after Michaelmas. This explanation then countered by a more scientific observation about mold caused by the shifting weather.
Somewhere along the line most of us have been cut off from most of these sorts of folk traditions that all of our ancestors celebrated in one form or another no matter where they hailed from. There is a contemporary movement among many Catholic moms (mostly the moms, yes.) to revive these traditions. I have found myself following suit at times. We don’t have a special recipe for Lucia bread passed down from Dom’s Sicilian grandmother or challah passed down from his Jewish great-grandmother. Heck, I don’t even use his father’s recipe for red sauce. We follow a few family traditions we inherited from our families, but much of what we do is newly adopted, often inspired by what I read on other Catholic mom blogs.
If you do not come too close
How and why were these things lost? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer and I think trying to find one reduces the complexity of the thing and doesn’t help at all in the great task of seeking to, well, I was going to say seeking to restore what has been lost, but I’m not sure that’s really feasible or if it’s even desirable. But to find a new way forward, a new way to integrate the patterns of liturgy into everyday life, to reunite the sacred and secular into something vital and organic and lived. I suppose that we’re like the speaker of The Waste Land, shoring fragments against the ruins.
I think I’m coming close to what Eliot is getting at in both The Waste Land and also in the Four Quartets too when he writes about dancing, dung, and death in Little Gidding:
In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
the association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie˜
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
Eliot, too, feels it slipping away, disappearing from his grasp. What he describes, is it any more real for him than it is for me, or was it for him too a literary image, something derived more from books than from personal experience? I suspect the latter. It had already slipped away.
What can we do, how can we find integration in a shattered world? Our Thanksgiving turkey seems a poor substitute somehow for the Michaelmas goose. And much as I admire the work of the bloggers at Catholic Culture , Catholic Cuisine , Catholic Foodie, and others, Pinterest-type spreads about Catholic culture feel hollow compared to the vision of the good folk of the Candleford post office gathered together around their Michaelmas feast.
It’s not that it’s inauthentic, it’s that it’s a hodgepodge. And as much as my children enjoy the new-to-us traditions of St Nichols Day and St Lucy’s day, they don’t seem really real to me. They feel like play acting. And I think a part of that is it’s going on in nuclear isolation. These aren’t celebrations that we share with our neighbors, they don’t happen in the parish. If my kids mentioned them to their friends, they’d find their friends didn’t share in these same traditions. That’s what I remember from my own childhood. I was the only kid in my Catholic school whose family gave gifts at Epiphany. Most of the other kids didn’t even know what “Epiphany” was.
By the Waters of Babylon
I’m realizing this all sounds very gloomy. And I’m wondering how much of this is really just the particular dilemma of the American Catholic Church. Our melting pot means there is no dominant Catholic culture and means that peculiarities brought from the Old Country— really, I suppose, that should be plural: old countries— often failed to take root. Children worried about assimilating or were unable to speak the language of their parents or grandparents, or were ignorant of their own family histories, or didn’t care enough to continue them. Families blending, trying to bridge the gaps between two different native cultures lost what made them distinctive.
And then variations of my own family’s situation: my mom’s parents were converts. My father’s mother was a convert. How much of the culture of their adopted faith were they able to assimilate and pass on to their children? My mom is the only one of her siblings who is Catholic.
My parents certainly passed the faith on to us as best they knew how. But it wasn’t a thick faith, it wasn’t rich with communal para-liturgical celebrations. There weren’t foods and feast days and all these things I see celebrated on the Catholic culture blogs. And I myself, what am I passing on? A little of this, a little of that. It feels a little thicker to me, but not much. Not entirely as satisfying as a universally disliked tangerine in the toe of every stocking, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
We are isolated, cut off, except by the narrow bridges of the internet. This doesn’t feel like authentic culture. It’s an anemic substitute. It ties us neither to our own family’s past nor to our local community. Sometimes I want to weep and join my voice to that of the psalmist:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem. . .
I suppose this is what we are: spiritual exiles. We’ve forgotten Jerusalem, forgotten what it means to live in Zion.
The words from the book of Daniel haunt me:
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls,
or tens of thousands of fat lambs
We have in our day no harvest feasts or mystery plays, no Michaelmas goose to share with out neighbors. But let us… Let us what? Let us be received? Certainly we are received at Mass, but is that enough? Time and time again I hear that it isn’t. It’s not enough to live the faith on Sundays, it must permeate our lives. And we try, we Catholic mommy bloggers. We try to revive an authentic Catholic culture in our domestic churches. But it seems to me we must do more. We must somehow make these traditions live outside the four walls of our homes, we must make our parishes as well as our homes the seats of authentic Catholic culture.
Nobody likes the tangerines
At one point in the recent Dr Who Christmas episode the Doctor sneers at Father Christmas/St Nicholas, “Nobody likes the tangerines.” It’s a curious moment to me as an American, one that made me feel like an outsider: What is that about? I am certain that a British audience would immediately understand a reference to a shared cultural experience. Indeed, Dom looked it up and according to one British newspaper, that the custom of Christmas tangerines can be traced back to12th century French nuns, who gave out tangerines to poor children.
While striving, to revive lost Catholic practices in our domestic churches is a worthy mission, I wonder if it can be too inward focused. The culture of the family is surely paramount, but unless these restorations somehow also feed into making something greater, a living parish culture, I wonder if they might be missing the mark? Although the family is the basic unit of the parish, there must be some coordination, some coherent communal worship and celebration and collective memory beyond just gathering together for Mass on Sundays or we fail to have an authentic parish culture. A parish that doesn’t share a common culture might have plenty of programs but then so does a cruise ship. I fear the atomic family cannot carry the whole enterprise on it’s own. There must be a communal aspect to our para-liturgical celebrations. We must have a collective understanding of something as mundane and universal as tangerines, if only as something that we universally dislike but cling to as a custom we can’t quite bring ourselves to get rid of. There’s something deliciously thick about the custom of tangerines, reaching back to medieval French nuns and forward to alien Time Lords.
But how to create that thickness? I just don’t see how that is to happen. How can you create culture where there is no community? How can you create community where there is no shared culture? How do you get people to invest time in that which they do not value? How do you get them to value that which feels so thin?
On Patrick Frank Day
Is there any hope for restoration? Any hope that we can build something new from the fragments of the old or something completely new and different and valuable in its own right? Is there anything we can do to repopulate our parish life with feasts and celebrations that reach beyond Mass and draw us in to true community?
I guess this has turned into a complaining post. (And probably dreadfully repetitive as well.) It wasn’t really meant to be. Nor is it meant to be a “How do we fix it?” post. It was meant to be a musing on how essential liturgy and the liturgical calendar seem to be to the human psych, so much so that if they are stripped away we will reinvent them. But I keep coming back to that problem of reinvention.
Also, I’m reminded of Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Lord of the World and the new syncretic pseudo-religion that is created that keeps that liturgy but hollows it of any true Christian meaning. All these customs and traditions must be at the service of helping us to come together as a community yes, but as a community that is the Body of Christ, a community that has Jesus as it’s center. And that makes the whole enterprise seem more vital and more elusive than ever. I don’t have any answers to offer, only more and more questions. But sometimes the first step is asking the right questions, right?
I’ll conclude with a little anecdote about one of my personal favorite made-up holidays, one that was invented by my Sophie when she was not quite three. She started singing this little ditty she’d made up: Boo didda didda dadda, boo didda didda dadda, on Patrick Frank Day.” (to the tune of Did You Ever See a Lassie?) She would solemnly explain to us that this tune meant that Christmas was coming. Patrick Frank Day has now become a family tradition. No, we don’t know when it’s celebrated, but at least we do all sing the song. I’m not sure why I include this here, or what it means. Maybe just that her little song and its explanation seem to capture for me both something of the joy and the yearning for the rhythm of the liturgical year and the universal tendency to invent celebrations.