Archive for the ‘Advent’ category

St. Nicholas

December 22, 2008

I collect vintage post cards and have quite a few of Santa Claus and many more of St. Nicholas. It is fascinating to see how he was depicted 100 or more years ago. The European cards are my favorites. As on the Dutch card here, he is often depicted in his role as a bishop. In many cards he is not;  he is dressed much more humbly; often in brown robes. Amusingly, instead of coal he is usually depicted carrying switches for bad children, as well as presents for good ones– but not when he is portrayed as a bishop.

In almost all the cards I have, St. Nicholas is also pictured as carrying a tree with him and he is usually on foot.  When he does have help, it is a simple sled drawn by one or two donkeys or reindeer.  In the next example we have a brown robed St. Nick carrying toys and switches:


St.Nicholas in brown.The card is postmarked 1907.

 To my surprise, I have discovered a serious website devoted to all things St. Nicholas: the St. Nicholas Center. This site is simply amazing. It tells the story of the real bishop and  has an extensive history of his celebration the world over from Aruba to Palestine to Turkey. There are pictures, e-cards and even a screen saver to be found at the site along with activities for children and a list of events centered on St. Nicholas around the world.

 I must say that I was amazed to find how rich a history is associated with him and how widely this saint is celebrated. The St. Nicholas Center is a treasure and well worth exploring.

Purple robed St. Nicholas with one reindeer. The card is postmarked 1910.

Below is a card on which we see St. Nicholas carrying a tree as well as a large bag of gifts with him.



Brown robed St. Nicholas on a card postmarked 1908.


Immaculate Conception

December 8, 2008


Saint Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary

Jean Bellegambe: Saint Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The understanding that Mary had been conceived without the taint of original sin is very ancient. However, the feast cannot be traced back past the 7th century where it was celebrated in the eastern churches.  It spread to the west and there is evidence that it was being celebrated in some parts of  it by the 8th century.  The adoption of the feast had a long and very complex history in the west for a couple of reasons. One important one was the inability of  theologians to agree on how Mary could be preserved from original sin. 

Although Pope Sixtus IV adopted the feast for the entire Latin Church in 1476, the Immaculate Conception did not become settled doctrine until this day in 1854.  Pope Pius IX explained the dogma (only one of two times that any doctrine has been pronounced “infallible.”)  in Ineffabilis Deus.

The Immaculate Conception is a solemnity. It is also a Holy Day of obligation which means that all Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on this day. It is fitting, indeed that it occurs in Advent, given Mary’s rather considerable role in the coming of the Lord.

The terms, Solemnity and Holy Day of obligation are quite foreign to most of us (former) Protestants and to those from different backgrounds.

Solemnity is defined at Knowledgerush in this way:


A Solemnity of the Roman Catholic Church observes an event in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, beginning on the evening prior to actual date. Solemnity is made up of Latin words solet and annus, meaning a yearly (annual) celebration. They are observed throughout the entire Church.

A helpful list of the solemnities follows the definition. 


KnowledgeRush defines a Holy Day of obligation as: 


a day, besides a Sunday, on which its members are required by canon law to attend Mass. 

You can find a list of Holy days of obligation at the end of the entry. 

 If you would like to read up on the rather complex history of this feast, there is a long and very scholarly discussion in the Catholic Encyclopedia online. It is not for the faint of heart! The online Encyclopedia is the superceded 1913 edition. (The current edition was published in 2002). This means that caution is needed, particularly when looking at scientific topics, and some doctrinal ones. However, the historical information is quite sound. 


Advent: A Time of Preparation … and Joy

December 1, 2008

christmas_decoration_21Yesterday was the start of Advent. It was made even more special because we welcomed catechumens and candidates into the Catechumenate. It is hard for me to believe that a whole year has gone by since I also went through this process but, indeed, it has.

So, what is Advent? It marks the beginning of the ecclesiastical year in the western churches. During this time we prepare ourselves to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming. Remembering his coming should always remind us that he is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead– as the Creed we recite every week tells us.

christmas21We don’t know, exactly, when the celebration of Advent began. The feast of the Nativity of the Lord did not begin until the 4th century, so we know it didn’t start before then. In the following centuries the period of preparation for that feast began at various times in November and was not settled until the sixth century (other accounts place it later).

There are many traditions associated with Advent. The Advent calendar is one. While the commercial ones we see are often aimed at children, this was not always the case. The calendar has its origins in the 19th century and was developed by German Lutherans. Not every such calendar is made of cardboard. The city of Gengenbach, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest, turns its city hall into a giant calendar by decorating the 24 windows on its facade to resemble the windows on a calendar. Needless to say, it draws thousands of visitors every year.

Gegenbach City Hall decked out for Advent

Gegenbach City Hall decked out for Advent

 Of course, there are also Advent calendars to be found online. EWTN, for example, offers one, as does the St. Margaret Mary parish (Naperville, Illinois). Theirs is fun because there is a window to be opened each day and you can’t skip ahead! Another really nice one is offered by the University of Dayton’s Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. This is one I was very glad to have discovered because the information about Mary is simply wonderful. As a former Protestant I struggled to understand the Catholic view of Mary and to free myself of the misunderstanding that Protestants often have about her role in Catholic doctrine. 

Beliefnet  offers a very nice calendar. Each day is an adventure of sorts. The day opens with a theme and then there are links to more information on that theme. Today’s theme is angels. If you look at Dec. 1, you will  have an opportunity to  hear Thomas Merton’s poem Advent. Don’t know who Thomas Merton is? This is someone you probably will want to learn about. Like many others online, this calendar does not allow you to peek ahead.

Artcyclopedia has a calendar that is dated 2004 but it is a perpetual calendar. Its theme is the Nativity in Renaissance Art. Each day is a thumbnail of the art work that will be revealed when you click on it.

We lit the first candle of the Advent wreath yesterday. Here again, the origin of this tradition is not well known. It may have had pagan Germanic roots. Whatever the case may be, Christians had adopted it by the Middle Ages. If you would like to know more, there is a very nice article about the meaning of the wreath and the candles to be found at the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Here is a lovely example:











Here is another example from a church in England:











In the slightly reworked opening of a well-known song:

 This is the season that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!