CHRISTIAN FEASTS AND CUSTOMS
by Francis Weiser (1952)
Other Feasts of Mary
The Law of Moses prescribed that every Jewish mother after giving birth to a boy child was to be excluded from attendance at public worship for forty days. At the end of that period she had to present a yearling lamb for a holocaust and a pigeon for sin offering, thus purifying herself from ritual uncleanliness. In the case of poor people, two pigeons sufficed as an offering (Leviticus 12, 2-8). The Gospel reports how Mary, after the birth of Jesus, fulfilled this command of the law, and how on the same occasion Simeon and Anna met the newborn Saviour (Luke 2, 22-38).
Since Christ Himself was present at this event, it came to be celebrated quite early as a festival of the Lord. The first historical description of the feast is given in the diary of Aetheria (about 390). She mentioned that the services in Jerusalem began with a solemn procession in the morning, followed by a sermon on the Gospel text of the day, and finally Mass was offered. At that time the festival was kept on February 14, because the birth of Christ was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). It had no special name but was called "the fortieth day after Epiphany." 1
From Jerusalem the feast spread into the other churches of the Orient. The Armenians call it the "Coming of the Son of God into the Temple" and still celebrate it on February 14.2 In the Coptic (Egyptian) Rite it is termed "Presentation of the Lord in the Temple."3 East Roman Emperor Justinian I in 542 prescribed it for the whole country as a public holyday, in thanksgiving for the end of a great pestilence. By that time it was known in the Greek Church under the title Hypapante Kyriou (The Meeting of the Lord), in commemoration of Christ's meeting with Simeon and Anna.4
According to the Gospel, Simeon, holding the Child in his arms, said, "Now doest thou dismiss thy servant, O Lord. . . ." The word "now" prompted the Christians of the Orient to believe that Simeon, having seen the Saviour, died on the same day. Thus they made Candlemas also the annual feast of Simeon. Hence the Chaldeans and Syrians even today call the festival 'id Shamoun al-Shaikh (Feast of Simeon the Old Man).
In the Western Church the commemoration of this event appeared first in the liturgical books (Gelasianum, Gregorianum) of the seventh and eighth centuries. It bore the title "Purification of Mary" and was listed for February 2 (forty days after Christmas).5
It was Pope Sergius I (701) who prescribed the procession with candles, not only for the Feast of the Purification, but also for the other three feasts of Mary which were then annually celebrated in Rome (Annunciation, Assumption, Nativity of Mary). The procession was first instituted as a penitentiary rite with prayers (litaniae) imploring God's mercy; hence the Church uses the penitential color (purple) even now for the blessing of candles and for the procession.6
Some scholars explain these light processions on the feasts of Mary in Rome as a Christian substitute for the ancient popular torch parades at various times of the year.7 In this case the Candlemas procession would have replaced the light parades of the Lupercalia, a pagan feast celebrated on February 14 and 15.8 Other scholars, however, claim that there is no historical connection between the Christian processions and pagan parades, for the festival of Mary's purification was never kept on February 14 in the Western Church; moreover, there was no procession of lights in the beginning, and the pagan custom of the Lupercalia had been discontinued three hundred years before the procession was inaugurated.9
The original rite of Pope Sergius did not provide for any blessing of candles. The celebrant in those early centuries distributed to the clergy, for the procession, candles that were neither blessed nor lighted. The ceremony of blessing originated at the end of the eighth century in the Carolingian Empire, as did most of the other liturgical blessings (of Easter fire, Easter water, palms).10
In present liturgical usage the officiating priest blesses the candles before the Mass. He sings or recites five prayers of blessing. The following excerpts show the intention and purpose for which this blessing is bestowed by the Church:
. . . We humbly implore thee [O God] through the invocation of thy holy name and through the intercession of Mary, ever Virgin, whose feast we devoutly celebrate today, also through the prayers of all thy saints: Deign to bless and sanctify these candles for human use, for the welfare of body and soul both on land and on water. These thy servants desire to carry them in their hands while they praise thee with their hymns: Hear their voices graciously from thy holy Heaven and from the throne of thy majesty; be merciful to all who cry to thee, whom thou hast redeemed by the precious blood of thy Son, who lives and reigns with thee, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, true fight that enlightens every man who comes into this world, bestow thy blessing upon these candles, and sanctify them with the light of thy grace. As these tapers burn with visible fire and dispel the darkness of night, so may our hearts with the help of thy grace be enlightened by the invisible fire of the splendor of the Holy Ghost, and may be free from all blindness of sin. Clarify the eyes of our minds that we may see what is pleasing to thee and conducive to our salvation. After the dark perils of this life let us be worthy to reach the eternal light. Through thee, Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, who in perfect Trinity livest and reignest, God, for ever and ever. Amen.11
After the blessing the celebrant distributes the candles to the clergy and faithful, who carry them in their hands during the solemn procession. Meanwhile, the choir sings the canticle of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2, 29-32), and various antiphons. The symbolism of the light procession is obvious from the anti-phon that is repeated after every verse of the canticle, Lumen ad revelationem gentium (a light of revelation to the gentiles). It represents Christ, the Light of the World, at His presentation in the temple of Jerusalem.
The procession is always held on February 2, even when the Mass and Office are transferred to another day. In most places it is now held inside the church, but in past centuries the clergy used to proceed into the open and walk through the churchyard past the graves of departed parishioners.12
From the blessing of candles and the procession of lights come the names of the feast in most countries: Candlemas (English), Lichtmess (German), Gandelas (Spanish), Can&elora (Italian), Chandeleur (French), Hromnice (Feast of Candles, among the Slovaks and Czechs), Svijetlo Marijino (Light Feast of Mary, in Yugoslavia). The Slavs of the Eastern Rite (Russians, Ukrainians) call it "Meeting of the Lord" (Strefenije Go$poda).13
In some countries the faithful use large and adorned candles, which they bring along for the blessing. Among the Syrians and Chaldeans the sexton of the parish church prepares these candles, which are made of unbleached wax and painted with designs of gold. In central and eastern Europe people bring candles and tapers of various colors, decorated with flower motifs, holy pictures, and liturgical symbols. After the blessing they take them home and keep them all through the year as cherished sacramentals, to be lighted during storms and lightning, in sickrooms, and at the bedside of dying persons.14
The Poles have a beautiful legend that Mary, the "Mother of God of the Blessed Thunder Candle" (Matka Boska Gromniczna), watches on wintry nights around Candlemas, when hungry Wolves are on rampage outside the sleeping village. With her thunder candle she wards off the ravenous pack and protects the peasants from all harm.
In ancient times the tenant farmers had to pay their rent at Candlemas. After this disagreeable task they were entertained by the landlord with a sumptuous banquet. Candlemas is also the term day for rural laborers in most countries of central Europe and in England. Both farm hands and maids who have hired themselves out for the coming season move in with their new masters and begin work on February S.15
All over Europe Candlemas was considered one of the great days of weather forecasting. Popular belief claims that bad weather and cloudy skies on February 2 mean an early and prosperous summer. If the sun shines through the greater part of Candlemas Day, there will be at least forty more days of cold and snow. This superstition is familiar to all in our famous story of the ground hog looking for his shadow on Candlemas Day.16 In rural sections of Austria it is held an omen of blessing and good luck if the sun breaks through the cloudy skies for just a few minutes to cast its radiant glow over the earth. Children wait for this moment and greet the appearance of the sunlight with little songs like this one from the province of Vorarlberg:
Hail, glorious herald, holy light, God sends you from His Heaven bright. Your cheerful glow and golden rays May bring us happy summer days. Lead us through earthly toil and strife To everlasting light and life.17
Finally, Candlemas Day used to be, and still is in many countries, the end of the popular Christmas season. Cribs and decorations are taken down with care and stored away for the following Christmas season. The Christmas plants are burned, together with the remnants of the Yule log, and the ashes are strewn over garden and fields to insure wholesome and healthy growth for the corning spring.18
Liturgical Pbayer • Almighty and eternal God, we humbly beseech Thy majesty: as Thy only begotten Son was presented in the temple this day in the substance of our flesh, so let us he presented unto Thee with cleansed souls.
This feast, which commemorates the message of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and the Incarnation of Christ (Luke 1, 26-38), bears the official title "Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In early medieval times it was called the "Annunciation of the Lord" or the "Conception of Christ," indicating that in those days it was considered more a festival of the Lord.19 Its date, March 25, is placed nine months before the celebration of Christ's birth (Christmas).
The feast was held in the Eastern Church as early as the fifth century. It was introduced into the West during the sixth and seventh centuries.20 The tenth Synod of Toledo (656) mentions it as a festival already weU known and universally celebrated.21 It was kept on the same date as in the East, March 25. In many churches of Spain, however, it was annually held on December 18.22 During the eleventh century the Spaniards adopted the Roman date but also retained their own, so they had two feasts in honor of the Annunciation. In the eighteenth century Rome replaced the Annunciation in December with a feast of the "Expectation of Birth of the Blessed Virgin" (meaning that Mary expected the birth of Christ). The Gospel of the new feast is still that of the Annunciation.
The Annunciation was a feast of obligation and one of the public holydays in the Middle Ages. In Catholic countries it was so celebrated up to 1918, when the obligation of attending Mass and resting from work was rescinded by the new Code of Canon Law. In the liturgy, however, it still enjoys its character as one of the major feasts of Mary.
In the early Christian centuries March 25 was observed in a special way as the Day of the Incarnation. In order to make the Lord's life on earth an exact number of years, even down to the day, an early tradition claimed that it was also the date of the crucifixion. This fact is mentioned in many ancient martyrologies (calendars of feasts) and in the sermons of various Fathers of the Church. Soon other events of the history of our salvation were placed on this day "by legendary "belief, and thus we find in some calendars of the Middle Ages the following quaint "anniversaries" listed for March 25:
The Creation of the World
The Fall of Adam and Eve
The Sacrifice of Isaac
The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt
The Crucifixion and Death of Christ
The Last Judgment.23
It was an ancient custom of the papal Curia (executive office) to start the year on March 25 in all their communications and documents, thus calling it the "Year of the Incarnation." This practice was also adopted by most civil governments for the legal dating of documents. In fact, the Feast of the Annunciation, called "Lady Day," marked the beginning of the legal year in England, even after the Reformation, up to 1752.24
The name of the feast in most nations is the same as the liturgical one, either in its Latin form or in translation, like Verkiindigung in German. In the Greek Church it is called Evangelismos (Glad Tidings); among the Slavs of the Eastern Rite, Blagovescenije Marii (Glad Tidings of Mary). The Slavs of the Latin Rite call it Z-oestovanie Panie Marii (Message to Lady Mary); the Arabic Christians, 'id al-bishara (Feast of Good News).25
A popular name in central Europe is "Feast of Swallows" (Schwalbentag, Fecskek napja). It is the general belief (and usually happens) that the first swallows return from their migration on or about this day.26 An ancient saying in Austria claims:
When Gabriel does the message bring, Return the swallows, comes the spring.
This coincidence might have been the reason why people in medieval Europe ascribed to the swallows a certain hallowed character.. They call them "God's birds" in Hungary, "Mary's birds" in Austria and Germany; and no farmer would ever kill swallows or destroy their nests.27 Another reason might well have been the fact (made known in Europe by Crusaders and pilgrims ) that the town of Nazareth, where the Annunciation took place, has an abundance of swallows circling the houses all day with their cheerful twittering.28
The scene of the Annunciation used to be represented in mystery plays. In the cathedrals of France, Italy, Germany, and England, on the feast itself, or on a Wednesday in Lent, the "Golden Mass" (Missa Aurea) was celebrated, during which the Blessed Virgin and Gabriel were represented by deacons kneeling in the sanctuary and singing the Gospel of the Mass in Latin dialogue, while another deacon sang the part of the narrator. It is reported that the Golden Mass was inaugurated at Tournay in Belgium in 12S1.29
In other places the solemn Mass was followed by a procession in which a choirboy representing Mary was led through the church and the churchyard. In western Germany, a boy dressed as an angel and suspended on a rope from the Holy Ghost Hole would slowly descend inside the church and, hanging in midair, would address "Mary" with the words of Gabriel. While the children stared up at the approaching "angel" their mothers put cookies and candy on the pew benches, making their little ones believe that Gabriel's invisible companion angels had brought them these presents from Heaven.30
In the city of Rome a colorful and splendid procession used to be held on the feast day at the end of the Middle Ages. A richly decorated carriage bearing a picture of the Blessed Virgin was drawn by six black horses from St. Peters to Santa Maria della Minerva. There the pope celebrated a pontifical Mass and afterward distributed fifty gold pieces to each of three hundred deserving poor girls to provide them with the necessary means for an honorable and appropriate marriage.31
In Russia priests would bless large wafers of wheat flour and present them to the faithful after the service. Returning home, the father would hand a small piece of the wafer to each member of his family and to the servants. They received it with a deep bow and ate it in silence. Later on in the day they took the remaining crumbs of the "Annunciation bread" out into the fields and buried them in the ground as a protection against blight, hail, frost, and drought.32
In central Europe the farmers put a picture representing the Annunciation in the barrel that holds the seed grain. While doing so they pronounce some ancient prayer rhyme like this one from upper Austria:
O Mary, Mother, we pray to you; Your life today with fruit was blessed: Give us the happy promise, too, That our harvest will be of the best. If you protect and bless the field, A hundredfold each grain must yield.33
Having thus implored the help of Mary, they start sowing their summer grains on the following day, assured that no inclement weather will threaten their crops, for, as the ancient saying goes,
Saint Gabriel to Mary flies: This is the end of snow and ice.
Liturgical Prayer - O God, who didst will that Thy Word take flesh in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary at the message of tlxe angel: grant us, we pray, to be aided before Thee by her intercession, whom we believe to be truly the Mother of God.
NATIVITY OF MARY
A feast in honor of Mary's birth seems to have been held in Syria and Palestine in the sixth century. Saint Romanus (457), a. native of Syria and later deacon of a church, in Con-, stantinople, was probably the first one who brought this feast to the attention of the authorities of the Greek Church. He wrote a hymn in honor of Mary's birth and spread the knowledge of this festival among the population of East Rome. 34 His efforts were highly successful, for in the following centuries mention is made of a celebration of Mary's nativity. in many churches of the empire. Saint Andrew of Crete (740), Archbishop, preached sermons in honor of the feast, as did Saint John Damascene.35 This celebration was accepted and adopted by the Roman : Church at the end of the eighth or ninth century, but not generally celebrated at first. It spread very slowly through the rest of Europe. Saint Fulbert (1028), Bishop of Chartres, mentioned it in one of his sermons as a "recent" feast.36 By the twelfth century, however, it was observed among all Christian nations as one of the major feasts of Mary, and remained a holyday of obligation until 1918.
The date (September 8) is explained by the fact that on this day a church in honor of Mary was consecrated in Jerusalem and thus September 8 became an annual anniversary festival of the Blessed Virgin.37 In Europe this reason for the date was unknown. Popular legends of a later period often supplied the missing explanation by miraculous events. The Syrians also observe on this day the solemn memory of the parents of Mary, Saint Joachim and Saint Anna.38
In many places of central and eastern Europe the Feast of Mary's Nativity is traditionally connected with ancient thanksgiving customs and celebrations. The day itself marks the end of the summer in popular reckoning, the beginning of the Indian summer, which is called "after-summer" (Nachsommer), and the start of the fall planting season. A blessing of the harvest and of the seed grains for the winter crops is performed in many churches. The formula of this blessing 'may be found in the Roman ritual.39
In the wine-growing sections of France, September 8 is the day of the grape harvest festival. The owners of vineyards bring their best grapes to church to have them blessed, and afterward tie some of them to the hands of the statue of the Virgin.40 The Feast of Mary's Nativity is called "Our Lady of the Grape Harvest," and a festive meal is held at which the first grapes of the new harvest are consumed.41
In the Alps the "down-driving" (Abtrieh) begins on September 8. Cattle and sheep leave their summer pastures on the high mountain slopes where they have roamed for months, and descend in long caravans to the valleys to take up their winter quarters in the warm stables. The lead animals wear elaborate decorations of flowers and ribbons; the rest carry branches o£ evergreen between their horns and little bells around their necks.42 In central and northern Europe, according to ancient belief, September 8 is also the day on which the swallows leave for the sunny skies of the South. A popular children's rhyme in Austria contains the following lines:
It's Blessed Virgin's Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.
Liturgical Prayer • We pray Thee, O Lord, grant to Thy servants the gift of heavenly grace: as the child-bearing of the blessed Virgin was the beginning of our salvation, so may the devout celebration of her Nativity accord us an increase of peace.
ALL MAY LOOK AND SOUND VERY
SPIRITUAL. BUT IT IS ALL MAN-MADE
RELIGION, OFTEN BASED ON WRONG
IDEAS OF THEOLOGY, BUT OUTWARDLY
LOOKS SO "CHRISTIAN" AND SO HOLY
AND PROPER, THAT IT HAS ALL DECEIVED
HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS AROUND THE EARTH.