Advent Wreaths

Natalie and I have been discussing, and I do believe wishing for the arrival of, Advent.  We’ve been talking a good bit about the coming of the period focused on preparation for the arrival of the baby Jesus.  The term Advent comes from the latin, meaning “coming”.  Something good is coming!  Advent is the liturgical equivalent to the sales at the malls.   Everything at church is exciting in the Advent season.  All the songs and readings are about the coming joy.  I really love this time at mass.  One of the big components of the Advent experience is the lighting of the advent wreath.  The wreath is a great part of our sacred celebrations of the holidays.  I think it’s great that the advent wreath is part of the services at churches AND can be part of your family celebrations at home.  But when did we all start lighting up these candles on a wreath to prep for Christmas?

The wreath may trace its origins back to pre-Christian Europe.  The circular wreath of evergreens was most likely a symbol of the cycles of the seasons.  The wreath might have crept into church practice as Christianity spread through the pagan practices in Europe.  The modern origins go back to the 1830s in Germany.  A Lutheran pastor created a wreath with 23 candles used to mark the time to Christmas.  There were red candles for the weekdays and white for the Sundays.  The wreath idea caught on across the continent and soon the wreaths had been modified to include 4 candles for the Sundays of advent and an optional 5th candle for Christmas.  By the 1920s the German Roman Catholics started to use the wreaths.  The practices spread to North America in the 1930s and today almost all of Western Christianity uses some type of Advent Wreath.

Today’s wreaths are a horizontal wreath of evergreens.  This might include laurel, pine, holly, cedar, and/or yew.  The evergreens serve as a sign of continual life.  The candles might vary in color based on religious or personal practice.  Most Protestant churches use 4 red candles and 1 white.  Roman Catholics use 3 violet candles and 1 rose candle.  The rose candle is for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Halfway!!).  The third Sunday is known as Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday.  I am counting the days until I get to light my first candle (50 days to go).

Today is May Day!

Girls dancing around a pole, singing, dancing and wearing flowers in their hair.  That’s May Day right?  Or maybe images of workers marching in the streets in a show of solidarity or communist strength is your image?  Probably most of us don’t make a connection to Christmas with May Day, but we should!

Traditionally in pre-christian Europe May 1st was recognized as the first day of summer.  Pagan celebrations were held to signify the warmth and growth of the season.  As Christianity adopted many pagan customs/festivals and transformed them into part of the liturgical calendar, so too with May Day.  The Roman Catholic church in particular adopted May events and created a month focused on the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God.  Since the 16th century May has been Mary’s month full of devotions, prayers, and ceremonies crowning Mary Queen of mothers.  The ceremonies might be simple or elaborate and often involved the entire parish community.  The common element would be the crowning of MAry with flowers.  Usually a statue or sculpture of the virgin mother would be in a procession and end with all the girls bringing flowers to crown her.  The oldest girl, or May Queen, would place the final crown of flowers on Mary’s head.  Depending on the nature of the congregation, these ceremonies are large parties or solemn and focused meditations.  I like the idea of the large, fun, community celebration for the mother of the baby Jesus!  I’m not sure how my sister missed out on being part of these ceremonies growing up, or maybe I just thought it was part of one of her many dance recitals.

In reading about the celebrations for Mary in May I came across a tradition that I didn’t know about- May baskets.  May baskets are small baskets full of gifts of sweets and flowers.  These would be placed anonymously on a neighbor’s doorstep.  Isn’t that a cool idea?  I think Natalie and I might have a new project- May baskets!

Countdown Podcast #10- 300 Days to Go!

Leapin’ Lent– Click to hear this week’s podcast.

This week we start with the highlights of our Presidential posts.  We recap Secret #10 for a Happy Christmas 2012 and share some of our own thoughts of the simple side of a fantastic Christmas.  Discussion on the Liturgical calendar narrows in on the similarities and connections between Lent and Advent.  Do you know the difference between your Gregorian and the Julian calendar?  Believe it or not Leap Day has a huge role in the establishment of our current calendar, and can throw quite a wrench a the liturgical calendar if not careful.  We close with a little extra candy tip that Natalie didn’t know- and I figured everyone knew about it!

Candlemas and the marmots…

Yesterday we all were updated on Candlemas origins and the connection to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  Today let’s start with some more of the traditions.  There are specific foods to eat.  Generally crepes, pancakes, and cakes made with grain were prepared.  These were used due to the round shape symbolizing the sun and the light of the renewal of faith.  In France tradition held that if you could flip your crepe while holding a coin in the other hand you were guaranteed a year of prosperity.  No crepes in Mexico, tamales are the food for Candlemas there.  Remember those little baby Jesus figures baked into our Three Kings cakes on epiphany?  If you were the one to find it, you get to pay for the tamales on Candlemas!!

Some non-food significance on Candlemas as well.  If you should hear funeral bells on the day, you will hear the news of the death of a close friends or relative- for each toll of the bell, a day will pass until the news.  In Serbia they celebrate Seretenje on Candlemas. This bit of folklore follows the bears rising from their winter hibernation.  If the bears come out and stay awake winter will end soon.  If the bears head back into their caves, 40 more days of winter weather.  Sound familiar??  It should.  It’s almost the same as the Western European tradition using badgers to predict the end of winter.  Here in North America the creature got switched around to a groundhog.  The earliest celebrations of Groundhog Day in the US started with the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid Nineteenth Century.

The PA Dutch hold festivals full of food, songs, and skits, to signify the importance of the annual Groundhog arrival.  The largest festival is held in Punxsutawney , PA.  Huge crowds, sometimes numbering 40,000 or more, gather to await the arrival of Phil, the resident groundhog.  Phil is your average North American groundhog, which are actually a type of ground squirrel.  He weighs about 15 pounds and lives year round in a climate controlled habitat.  At exactly 7:25 AM on each February 2nd Phil emerges from his heated burrow to appear before the crowd.  Phil is no average hog.  Wild groundhogs like to eat plants, Phil’s diet is dog food and ice cream.  Your average groundhog lives about 10 years.  Phil is said to be over 120 years old!  How does he live so long?  Phil has a group of supporters known as the Inner Circle.  Each summer these top hat wearing folks give Phil a dose of magic groundhog elixir.  This extends Phil’s life another 7 years!  That magic is about it, statistically Phil is accurate only about 40% of the time.

Two other crazy groundhog fun facts.  The University of Dallas actually has Groundhog Day as an official University holiday.  The state of Alaska officially changed the day to Marmot Day.  Seems there aren’t any groundhogs in Alaska.  Governor Palin signed the legislation in 2009.

Ready for Candlemas?

A major feast is upon us.  This Thursday Christians around the world will pause to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  Many know this feast as Candlemas, a term used due to the connection of candles with the day- more on that later.  This feast is one of the oldest in Christendom, recordings of its celebration can be found as early as 312.  The feast marks the end of the 40 day period begun with the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  In the time of Mary, the Laws of Moses dictated that all firstborn children must be brought to temple for the ritual of the first-born.  This was to purify the mother after childbirth.  Mary and Joseph made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Practice held that a lamb would be brought to sacrifice by the young couple.  Not having the funds for a lamb, Mary and Joseph most likely took the secondary option as outlined in Leviticus.  If no lamb, then two turtle doves, young pigeons.  [Another connection to the 12 Days of Christmas!!]  At the Temple they encounter Simeon, who through his prophecy proclaims the baby as the Christ, a “light for revelation”.  By the 6th century the date of the feast had been set as February 2nd, then known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary.

February 2nd!  An important day for so many.  It is 40 days since the birth of the Christ child.  But it also lines up with some other key seasonal dates of importance.  The second marks the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  Many consider it the unofficial beginning of Spring, a time to plant and to focus on new birth or growth.  It is the point of the return of light, signified with the lighting of large fires and candles (told you we’d get back to those).  In Ireland the time aligned with the Gaelic celebration of Imbolc.  This was a festival for the pagan goddess Brigid, later transformed to honor St. Brigid.  St. Brigid was a nun who established the first Irish convent in Kildare.  Traditional celebrations in Ireland include placing a loaf of bread on the window for the saint and an ear of corn for her cow.  One other, more curious, connection to the date deals with witches!  Covens often chose to initiate new members on this day because of  the connections to renewal and birth. [Yes- there is another connection on the 2nd- we’ll tackle the groundhog tomorrow]

Back to the candles though.  Candlemas includes a mass celebration with the blessing of beeswax candles.  These candles are used to bring light into the world for the new year.  Families and churches often have lovely displays of candles.  It is a time to renew religious vows in the light of the newly blessed candles.  Candlemas is another option to take down your holiday decorations, especially those of live greenery or plants.  If you didn’t dispose of these items on Twelfth Night, Candlemas is the day to remove them, and then safely burn them.  Superstition holds that to keep these items past the second will bring a death within the congregation before another year ends.  Take time to clean out your fireplace and light a new fire too.  New fire for the new purity!  In addition to the candles and fire there are traditions involving food and more.  Come back tomorrow to read more about the fun you can have on February 2nd!

Countdown Podcast #6- 328 Days to Go!

Donkey Time– Click to hear this week’s Podcast.

This week Natalie & Jeremy planned to talk all about snowflakes.  Since it is unseasonably warm and it’s supposed to be over 60 the next two days, they weren’t in that mood at all.  So a last minute change was made and a new show created (much to their assistant Hildy’s dismay).  Today’s topics include more on Donkeys at Christmas- they show up in a number of songs.  Discussion also begins on Candlemas coming up on February 2nd.  Listen in to hear Nat’s review of Christmas Jars and their rough idea for a new holiday song classic.

Do you prefer donkey, sheep, ox, or camels?

In your nativity scene of course!  All of those animals have made appearances in the birth recreation.  The most traditional are the donkey and the ox.  The ox said to represent patience and the donkey represents humility.   My favorite discovery is the inclusion in some scenes of an elephant.  Personally I love the sheep.  I have very fond memories of the sheep in our display while growing up.  They were hand-made and covered with real wool.  We stored them in a small tin to protect them from any possible danger from mice or other special visitors.  I also really love the sheep in one of my current sets- they’re so happy!! (thanks to my friend Shawn for the great gift)

Whether you call it a nativity, a crèche, or simply a manger it is the traditional representation of the birth of the baby Jesus.  The depiction of the small crib in the manger with the shepherds, animals, the magi, Mary, Joseph, angels, and of course the baby come from descriptions found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew has the star of Bethlehem and the Magi.  Luke has the angel and the shepherds.  Throw it all together and you get our take on the events.  The nativity tradition has been around for nearly 800 years.  History tells us that St. Francis of Assisi began the nativity display with a living display in the year 1223.  The practice was wildly popular and spread throughout the western world.  There are many unique cultural and regional practices connected to nativity displays.  They are as different as are people.  Spend a little time searching the web and you can view elaborate or simple creations.  (Special bonus points to readers who know of the Catalonian tradition of the caganer)  Fisher Price has a Little People display, S’mores marshmallow people have one, the Vatican has one of the most recognized crèche scenes the world over.  Check out this great candle display at savingslifestyle.  I wonder if Lego has ever considered producing a display?

Taking off from the traditional nativity scene is the more expansive Christmas village display of the Christmas Putz.  These village displays can be quite elaborate and a true sense of pride for the owner.  Locally take advantage of the opportunity to see the great Putz display at the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ.  This display is up each season during the Frederick Historic Houses of Worship tour, traditionally held the day after Christmas.  Frederick just celebrated its 25th tour- plan now to catch it in 2012. It is a great night in the downtown area and features architecture, fellowship, refreshments, and great music.

My church has a beautiful nativity scene.  The manger is front and center and the baby Jesus arrived on Christmas.  The shepherds are off to the left tending their flocks.  Slowly over the last weeks the wise men have been moving closer.  It will be exciting to see them arrive this weekend with the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany.  Tomorrow marks the final day of our 12 days of Christmas- Epiphany!!


Finally I wanted to show my newest nativity set.  I have about 9 of them and love to find unique and creative displays.  This one was a gift and I believe was discovered in the discount bin at a Wegman’s of all places!  Thanks Paula:)