On the Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

John Mason Neale’s 1853 carol “Good King Wenceslas”  tells the story of a king who went out into the cold on the day after Christmas in order to present a gift to a peasant.  Everyone who has heard this carol is, therefore, familiar with the Feast of St. Stephen.  Many know that his feast is celebrated on December 26 in the Roman Catholic Church and on December 27 in the Eastern Catholic Church.  Some knowledgeable souls may even know that St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr.

Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral

Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral

SOURCE: Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral (Monaco-Ville, Monaco); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 03 August 2011.

Stephen was probably of Greek origin and was probably a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  He was chosen by the apostles to be one of the first Deacons of the Church:

And they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit.

Stephen’s success in ministering to the early Christians attracted the wrath of certain of the Jews who proceeded to engage him in arguments.  Stephen’s detractors could not win their arguments and, so, they accused him of blaspheming against Moses and God.

This man does not cease to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him saying that this Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and will change the traditions, which Moses handed down to us.

Stephen defended himself against his accusers, but his words only fanned the flames of their wrath.  Encouraged by Saul of Tarsus (who would later convert to Christianity himself, eventually to become Saint Paul), the mob drove Stephen out beyond the city of Jerusalem and stoned him.

Then, having been brought to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his murder.

Stephen’s body was removed by Rabbi Gamaliel who buried it on his estate at Caphar Gamala, north of Jerusalem.

The biblical account of St. Stephen’s appointment as a deacon, his ministry, and his death may be read in Acts of the Apostles (6:1-8:2).

According to my Polish heritage, it is common to celebrate one’s “Name Day”, often in preference to celebrating one’s birthday.  So, on this my name day, I invite you to celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and the patron saint of deacons, headaches, horses, coffin makers, and masons.

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen J. Danko


Reflections on Christmas Eve

While growing up, I looked forward to Christmas Eve even more so than Christmas Day. There were two reasons for this:  Midnight mass at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic church, and gathering with my family to participate in the rituals and traditions of my Slovak/Rusyn heritage.

Christmas Eve, known [in Slovak] as “Štedrý Vecer” (shtedree vecher), is traditionally the biggest annual event in the home, where the entire family gathers for the traditional Slovak meal called the Vilija/Vilia (vee-lee-yah). The term comes from the Latin “vigilia” or “night watch.” The name implies the joyful anticipation in waiting for the arrival of the Christ child.

My Slovak grandma (Baba) worked tirelessly to carry out the traditions of her heritage. In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed.

Verona Figlar making pirohy, 1970s. [Photo held for private use by Lisa Alzo]

Our family would gather each year on Christmas Eve at my Grandma Figlar’s house to celebrate the Vilia Supper.  It is a meatless meal (to honor the Christian practice of fasting). During this supper, the following foods are served:

Oplatka/Oplatky (from the word oblata, which means “offering”) – unleavened wafers imprinted with scenes of the Lord’s holy birth, served with honey.

Mushroom soup – usually made of sauerkraut brine and dried mushrooms.

Bobalky (bo-by-ke) – sweet, raised dough or a biscuit type dough sweetened with honey and sprinkled with a pleasant preparation of poppy seed, or browned butter and sauerkraut.

Pagace/Pagach – A thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes. After baking, it is brushed with butter and cut in pie wedges. We called it “Slovak Pizza.”

Fish – served because Catholics in Eastern Europe observed a strict fast on the vigil of Christmas.

Pirohy – dough pockets, pastry filled with fillings of sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, lekvar, prunes, or potatoes and cheese and boiled, then served with browned butter.

Other foods eaten include dried prunes, apples, nuts, and other items as dictated by family, village or regional customs.

Slovak pastry, known as kolace or strudel-like rolls which are filled with walnuts, poppy seed, lekvar (prune butter) or cheese.

Red wine is also served.

Oplatky and honey [Photo taken by Lisa Alzo, 2005, held for private use]

The foods take a long time to prepare. My mother and grandmother would start a few days in advance to make sure everything was ready for the family on Christmas Eve. Recipes for these Christmas Eve favorites are included in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions, Second Edition (Lulu.com)

Foods served at the Slovak Vilija. [Photo by Lisa Alzo, 1995; held for private use]

After we finished the meal and family visit, it was time to attend to midnight mass at Holy Trinity.  The church was (and to my knowledge still is) decorated so beautifully with seasonal flowers and white lights.

[Photo courtesy of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, West Mifflin, PA, 2004, held for Private Use by Lisa Alzo]

One of my favorite parts of the midnight mass were the carols, many of which were sung both in English and Slovak, including Silent Night (Tichá noc).  You could not leave the church without feeling the true meaning of Christmas in your heart. To hear a version of Tichá noc click here.

Time and distance, and the passing of loved ones have prevented the large family gatherings we used to have, but I still try to observe as many as the rituals and traditions as possible.  Also, since I live hundreds of miles away now, I must listen to the Slovak Christmas carols on my own.  I play an album that belonged to my mother, “Vesele Vianoce” by Saint Matthews Choir, recorded many, many years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the church was consolidated with other South Side parishes in 1992 into Prince of Peace Parish).  But nothing will replace the special memories of those Christmas Eves at Grandma’s house, and after she passed away, my own home, with my mother at the helm, or attending mass with my parents at Holy Trinity.

I will end with the traditional Slovak Christmas greeting:

Veselé Vianoce a Šťastný Nový Rok!

(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)

Catholic Christmases in Three Languages: Part III–The Universality of Meaning

   8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will  be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12.

Whether one says Feliz Navidad or Froeliche Weihnachten or just “Merry Christmas”, spoken from faith and love the words have a universal meaning of hope for all. And that’s my prayer for my Catholic Gene colleagues, our readers, our brothers and sisters around the world, those we know as well as those we’ll never meet.

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among all with whom He is pleased.”

Catholic Christmases in Three Languages–Part II: German

Part of my childhood was spent in Germany. I went to a German school for part of that time and we had a German nanny. I was immersed in the culture and language at an early age. And Christmas in Germany became one of my favorite times and some of my best memories.

We celebrated every year Sankt Nikolaus Tag. On the night of December 5, we would place our shoes outside the door. If we had been good that year, Sankt Nikolaus would leave chocolates, fruit, and other goodies in our shoes. If we had been bad, then we would find wood switches in our shoes the next morning. This was the commencement of the Christmas season which would last until Epiphanie (January 6).   As Donna Pointkouski  has written here, celebrations of this sort are Catholic traditions in Germany, especially in the southern regions such as Bavaria.

The story of Saint Nicholas’s generosity was the certain precursor to the now secularized story of Santa Claus.  But today, some German Catholics object to the blurring of the distinction between the holy saint and the jolly elf who slides down chimneys (whom they call “Weihnachtsmann” [“Christmas Man”]).  They’re waging a campaign to maintain the dignity of the historical St Nicholas by declaring Weihnachtsmann-free zones.  Even the German  version of CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ) supports the campaign in some areas. See the website Weihnachtsmann-freie Zone at http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/.

Another Catholic tradition that I first became familiar with in Germany is the Advent Calendar. This is a calendar for counting down the days of Advent until Christmas. Frequently, the calendar has little doors to open for each date.  There may be a religious message or gift, or a small toy, piece fruit, or candy associated with each opened door. I looked forward to each Advent in Germany to get a new Advent Calendar.

Other countries have embraced the idea of the Advent Calender.   American Catholics see the Advent calendar as a way to be reminded daily of the need to prepare for the greatest liturgical event of the year.

As it turns out, the Advent Calendar in reality is neither of Catholic origin nor “traditional” (at least not in German historical terms).  The idea dates from about 1850 and originated among German Lutherans!

German Christmas carols, however, are firmly grounded in Catholic tradition. My favorite German carol is this one:

At the German school I attended, we learned that the words were written by an Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr in 1816. In 1818, Father Mohr asked Franz Joseph Gruber to coompose a melody for the song. Tradition holds that Father Mohr asked Gruber to compose the music for guitar because the piano in his church was not functioning. Some historians today find this story apocryphal. Whatever its origins, it has become a Christmas tradition worldwide. An Episcopalian bishop, John Freeman Young, wrote the widely used English translation in 1859.

The first Christmas song I learned in Germany has also become a classic. The traditional version consists of a melody of an old German folk song and words composed by Ernst Gebhardt Anschutz (1780-1861). Here’s Nat King Cole’s popular rendition:


Catholic Christmases in Three Languages: Part I, Spanish


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Este noche es la primera noche de la novena de Las Posadas.”

My Catholic family moved to New Mexico a little more than 50 years ago.  New Mexico had not yet been a state 50 years at the time.  Thanks to my parents’ emphasis on learning and culture, and aided by the mandatory Spanish classes in Albuquerque’s public school system, we soon became familiar with the cultural practices of the Land of Enchantment.  From food to music to dress, we became as completely “Mexican” or “New Mexican” as we possibly could.My favorite traditions were the Christmas ones.  The people in New Mexico honored a Mexican tradition called Las Posadas.  Brought originally to Mexico from Spain, this is a nine day event celebrated from December 16 to December 24 (“Buena Noche“). Every night, there is a live dramatization of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. A couple portraying Mary and Joseph go from house to house for shelter and are turned away, until finally they are admitted. There are songs that go with this dramatization–some of which I remember to this day. The songs are sung by los peregrinos, begging for shelter, and are answered by los hosteleros. At the place where they are finally admitted, there is a great party. One feature of the party usually is la pinata for the children. A pinata is a papier-mache effigy on a string, dangled above the ground. It is filled with candies, fruits, nuts and other goodies. A child who is blindfolded (con los ojos cubiertos) holds a stick (en los manos un baston) and swings at the pinata to break it (ya se romper la pinata). An adult usually controls the movement  of the pinata by the string. The other children sing cantos para romper la pinata(songs for breaking the pinata).This pageant is repeated every night for each of the nine nights, with different families playing the Holy Family, other pilgrims, and the innkeepers.  A different house hosts the party each of the nine nights.  In some Catholic countries whose cultures derive from Spain, the pageant involves carrying statues of the holy family instead of live participants.  Some form of Las Posadas is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Cuba.

Here are some of the songs I recall from Las Posadas in Albuquerque:

Los peregrinos:

En el nombre del cielo os pido posada pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.
In the name of Heaven I beg you for lodging, for she cannot walk, my beloved wife.
Los hosteleros:
Aquí no es mesón, sigan adelante. Yo no debo abrir, no sea algún tunante.
This is not an inn so keep going. I cannot open; you may be a rogue.

Los peregrinos:
No seas inhumano, tennos caridad, que el Dios de los cielos te lo premiará.
Don’t be inhuman; Have mercy on us.The God of the heavens will reward you for it.
Los hosteleros:
Ya se pueden iry no molestar porque si me enfadoos voy a apalear.
You can go on now and don’t bother us, because if I become annoyed I’ll give you a thrashing.

Los peregrinos:
Venimos rendidosdesde Nazarét, yo soy carpintero de nombre José.
We are worn out coming from Nazareth. I am a carpenter, Joseph by name.
Los hosteleros:
No me importa el nombre, déjenme dormir, pues que yo les digo que no hemos de abrir.
I don’t care about your name: Let me sleep, because I already told you we shall not open up.

Los peregrinos:

Posada te pide, amado casero, por sólo una noche la Reina del Cielo.
I’m asking you for lodging dear man of the house Just for one night for the Queen of Heaven.
Los hosteleros:
Pues si es una reina quien lo solicita, ¿cómo es que de noche anda tan solita?
Well, if it’s a queen who solicits it, why is it at night that she travels so alone?

Los peregrinos:

Mi esposa es María, es Reina del Cielo y madre va a serdel Divino Verbo.
My wife is Mary. She’s the Queen of Heaven and she’s going to be the mother of the Divine Word.
Los hosteleros:
¿Eres tú José? ¿Tu esposa es María? Entren, peregrinos, no los conocía.
Are you Joseph? Your wife is Mary? Enter, pilgrims; I did not recognize you.

Los peregrinos:

Dios pague, señores, vuestra caridad, y que os colme el cielo de felicidad.
May God pay, gentle folks, your charity, and thus heaven heap happiness upon you.

¡Dichosa la casa que alberga este día a la Viren pura.la hermosa María!
Blessed is the house that shelters this day the pure Virgin, the beautiful Mary.

Todos: [Everybody sing!]

Entren, Santos Peregrinos, reciban este rincón, que aunque es pobre la morada, os la doy de corazón.

Enter, holy pilgrims, receive this corner, for though this dwelling is poor, I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina madre, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada.
Oh, graced pilgrim, oh, most beautiful Mary. I offer you my soul so you may have lodging.

Humildes peregrinos Jesús, María y José, el alma doy por ellos,mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give my soul for them and my heart as well.

Cantemos con alegría todos al considerarque Jesús, José y Maríanos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy, all bearing in mind that Jesus, Joseph and Mary honor us by having come.

The video below gives an idea of what the music sounds like:

And then on the way to the great party, the throng might sing:

Marchemos cantando
Let us march singing
marchemos cantando
Let us march singing
con gozo y fervor
With joy and fervor
para ir saludando
To go greet
las glorias de Dios!
the Glories of God!

One version of the pinata song is this:

Andale, nino,
No pierdas el tino,
Mide la distancia
Que hay en el camino

Dale, dale, dale,
No pierdas el tino,
porque si lo pierdes
pierdes el camino

No quiero oro
No quiero plata
yo lo que quiero
es romper la piñata

Echen confites
y canelones
pa’ los muchachos
que son muy tragones.

La piñata tiene caca,
tiene caca,
tiene caca,
cacahuates de a montón

Hit, boy!
Don’t lose your aim,
Measure the distance
That’s on the way.

Hit, hit, hit,
Don’t lose your aim,
Because if you lose it,
You lose the way.

I don’t want gold
I don’t want silver
What I want is
To break the piñata

Throw candies
And mints
For the kids
Who are very greedy

The piñata has pee,
Peanuts by the ton!

For more information on Las Posadas, see the following links:

San Felipe de Neri Parish (Albuquerque): Las Posadas

About.com: Las Posadas in the Albuquerque area

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Christmas around the world: Mexico

Personal Note: I cannot think of Las Posadas without remembering two very special teachers who brought different cultures into our classrooms long before it was fashionable (or on the other hand, mandatory) to do so: my  fourth grade teacher, Theodora Erikson Cooper (1907-2006) and my fifth grade teacher, Nathalie A. Harshman (1907-2001). May God bless their souls forever and ever.

Feast of Saint Lucy

Saint Lucy was born about 283 AD in Syracuse, Sicily and died about 304 AD in the same area. The thing about saints born so long ago is that there weren’t many (if any) records kept to detail their lives and deaths. Often times their histories were told and retold orally many times before they were ever written down. Legends grew over time. There are several legends attributed to Saint Lucy, some may be based in truth, others may be nothing more than myths. It’s hard to say which are which.

Photo from Wikipedia

One legend says Lucy was betrothed against her will and vowed to remain a virgin as a pledge to her faith in Jesus Christ. Supposedly her betrothed didn’t like that idea and reported her (as a Christian) to the Roman authorities. The legend has it that her eyes were gouged out as punishment. Or she gouged them out herself and offered them to her captors. (There are different versions.) This legend was commonly believed and when she was the subject of artists in the 1500s she was depicted with her eyeballs on a plate. And for that reason and because her name means “light”, she is the patron saint of the blind and eye disorders.

The one thing that seems to be accepted as fact is that she was persecuted for her belief in Jesus Christ.

Photo from Wikipedia

There are St Lucy (Lucia) light festivals held in some Scandinavian countries. According to folk legend, December 13th follows the longest night of the year in Sweden. In celebration, school girls dress up in white robes with a candle-lit wreath on their heads. What a lovely sight that must be!

In Italy and Sicily, Saint Lucy is honored on December 13th with dinner feasts of pasta dishes and other Italian foods. Now that’s a grand idea, don’t you think? Perhaps you will honor Saint Lucy with pasta at dinner tonight!

My mother’s name was Lucy. Actually, she was baptized in the Catholic church as Lucja (Polish version of Lucy) and legally her name was Lucille. But everyone called her Lucy. I always wondered why she was given that name. She wasn’t named for anyone in the family. Nor for her Godmother. Nor for my grandmother’s best friend in America. The thought crossed my mind that she may have been named for St Lucy but I can’t find any information about the saint that would have my grandmother naming her daughter after her. And the timing wasn’t right for her to have been named for the saint simply because her birth was in close proximity to the feast day. The Feast of St Lucy is today, December 13th while my mother was born in July. Perhaps she was given the name simply because my grandmother or grandfather liked it. Back in 1918, when she was born, Lucille was the 29th most common name for baby girls.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Now Appearing at a Target Store Near You

Candles at a local Target Store.

You can’t be in Los Angeles very long before you bump into the iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or at least, that’s the way it used to be.

The stretch of Pasadena Freeway Highway 110 that I travel frequently between Pasadena and Los Angeles was for years home to a particularly large and garish mural painted on the side of a building along a frontage road, with only a raw chain link fence separating God’s Mother and the merciless humanity that flowed by each day.

When I decided to write this article for The Catholic Gene on Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Angeles, I thought I would have no problem locating the freeway virgin and  several other popular renditions. Alas, times change. Freeway improvements and a new sound wall now obscure sections of neighborhood streets.

I’ve lost Our Lady somewhere between Highland Park and Dodger Stadium.

Angelenos’ affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the oldest traditions in our rather recent history, with roots in the desert near Mexico City.

On his way to Mass on December 9, 1531, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was passing near Tepeyac when he heard music and saw a vision of a beautiful young woman. She spoke to him in his own language, identifying herself as the Virgin Mary, and expressed her wish that a shrine be built at the place she appeared. She told Juan Diego to go to the Bishop in Mexico City and share the story of the vision and her wishes for a chapel.

Juan Diego was unable to persuade the Bishop of the truth of his story, and returned to the hill where he saw the Virgin a second time. She told him to return to the Bishop, who then asked Juan Diego to bring him a sign from the Lady.

Then, life intervened. Juan Diego’s uncle became seriously ill and Juan Diego was unable returned to Tepeyac until December 12. What he saw must have been truly astounding. The lady waited for him and assured him that his uncle would recover. When she heard the Bishop’s request for a sign, she directed Juan Diego to the summit of the hill where he found a wealth of fresh flowers in an area where they had never been known to grow. He gathered the blooms in his cloak and carried the bundle to the Bishop.

But, when Juan Diego opened his cloak to show the Bishop the flowers sent as a sign from the lady, the surprise was not the blossoms as much the colored image of the Virgin depicted exactly as Juan Diego had described her.

The image itself bore a striking resemblance to an Indian woman, not a European or Spaniard, with symbolism that would have been familiar to 16th century Aztecs. Blue referenced divinity and the gods; the rays of the sun emanating from her figure indicate her superiority to the great sun god; she stands on the moon, and hence the moon god. Her rose-covered dress would have been worn by an Aztec princess.

The Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appeared on Juan Diego's cloak.

By appearing to Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Catholicism, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the rally-cry and devotion for millions of native people ready to turn away from the cruel Aztec religion to a loving and accepting deity. Her insistence that an Indian convert should act as her messenger sent a powerful message to the disenfranchised natives of Mexico.

Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to inspire devotion throughout the world, especially in the Americas. The image is now displayed behind the altar at La Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in what is now La Villa, Mexico City.

Closer to home, at least to me in Pasadena, California, Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere. Not surprisingly, she is the patron saint of “little businesses” and often found adorning corner markets in the barrio. Her image on bumper stickers guards the family car, on skin speaks of commitment, and in front-lawn shrines shares devotion.

Our Lady is the friend of the underdog, the alienated, and according to an article by Judith Dupre, this modern Virgin Mary has become the symbol of gangsters, pro-lifers, and artists.

Last Sunday after Mass I recruited my husband to join me on a pilgrimage of sorts – to see if we could find those neighborhood icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe that keep flashing through my memory.

Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel at St. Andrew Church in Old Pasadena.

I said a prayer in the Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel in our church, St. Andrew in Old Pasadena, and we headed out on our quest. We had no luck along the freeway frontage roads. We cruised Hispanic neighborhoods without success. But after a burger-break in nearby Eagle Rock, Our Lady smiled.

Our Lady adorns a tortilla factory in Eagle Rock, near Los Angeles.

Restaurant in Highland Park.

Side of restaurant building with mural of Aztec symbols and Juan Diego kneeling before vision of Our Lady.

More on Our Lady of Guadalupe

Celebrating St. Nicholas


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Soon that jolly, white-haired man dressed in red will visit your house at night and deliver some treats to the children that have been good.  In fact, the night he comes is tonight!  Wait, did you think I meant Santa Claus?  No, it’s time for the visit from St. Nicholas!

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century in a Greek territory that today is Turkey.  Many legends exist about his life.  Most agree that he came from a wealthy family.  After becoming orphaned, Nicholas used his wealth to help the poor and needy.  He devoted his life to God and became a bishop in the Church.  He continued to perform acts of charity, usually in secret, and he was known throughout the region for his goodness.  In giving gifts, he asked that the recipients do the same to those in need.  By the time Bishop Nicholas died, he was known as a miracle-worker, gift-giver, and a true man of God who cared about others.

There are many stories associated with St. Nicholas and the good dees he performed. One of my favorites involves a poor man with three daughters. The father was too poor to provide a dowry for any of his daughters much less all three – without a dowry, the woman likely would never marry and possibly be sold into slavery. The bishop Nicholas secretly threw a bag of gold in the home’s open window on three nights.  The bag landed in a stocking or boot prompting a tradition that exists to this day of either setting out boots on St. Nicholas’ Eve to receive gifts or hanging stockings by the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill.

St. Nicholas died on December 6 in the year 343 A.D. One of the most fascinating facts about Nicholas is that his bones which were buried in the cathedral church exude a watery substance – to this day.  The substance is called “manna” and is believed to have healing properties.

It became customary around the world to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, by doing what he had done.  On the evening of December 5th, gifts would be left in secret to those in need, presumably left by the saint himself.  He would wander throughout the country and leave gifts for children.  In fact, some children would leave food for St. Nicholas’ means of travel, a donkey.

Many countries continue the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, the area of Bavaria where my great-grandparents came from celebrated the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus. He would arrive in his bishop’s regalia with a miter and crozier and ask the children if they had been good.  Families cleaned the house and children cleaned their rooms in anticipation of his arrival!  Boots were left out, and the kindly saint would leave a gift to those who were good – or coal to those who were not.

In Poland, St. Nicholas was called Sw. Mikołaj. He also visited dressed as a bishop and an angel to help him with his sleigh full of goodies, which were usually sweets such as cookies or fruit.  He also encouraged children to be on their best behavior.  He sometimes returned on Christmas Eve with gifts the children requested in letters.

I laughed when I learned that Italy celebrates San Nicola by recalling the time they stole his earthly remains in the 11th Century and brought them to Italy.  It’s not like it sounds though, for they had a good reason!  (Though relic stealing was quite popular back then…)  The celebration of his “arrival” to Bari is celebrated in May, but he also visits children with goodies on the evening of December 5th.

So, what happened to St. Nicholas and the celebration of his life? Did Nicholas “become” Santa Claus?  Or did Santa “replace” the bishop-saint? In America, the blame gets distributed on the usual suspects: the Puritans, the advertising industry, and the media. One could argue that he slowly  evolved into Santa. I don’t have anything against Santa – in fact, he’s been quite good to me over the years!  But in reading about St. Nicholas and the traditions that our ancestors celebrated made me wish he had the same PR man as Mr. Claus. What parent wouldn’t admire a guy who gets children to clean their rooms and be good? Sure, Santa wants you to be good, too, but St. Nicholas was more about helping those in need and sharing what we have with others – compassion vs. consumption.

St. Nicholas Giving Alms by Jan Heinsch

Over the years the religious aspects of the man and the events surrounding the gift-giving seemed to have disappeared as well.  But, we can always revive the St. Nicholas tradition in our own families by spreading the news and telling the stories about him.  Nick’s stories are even more fascinating than Santa’s stories!  Many countries have similar celebrations and traditions of the saint’s arrival. If you have young children in your family, I encourage you to learn the St. Nicholas tradition from your ancestors’ countries and celebrate the day as they did.

For more information on Saint Nicholas, his history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout the world, visit the wonderful site called The Saint Nicholas Center – discovering the truth about Santa Claus.  In fact, they have reconstructed what he probably looked like — familiar-looking, isn’t he?

St. Nicholas, pray for us!

O God, Who didst adorn blessed Nicholas, the bishop, with miracles unnumbered, grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits and prayer we may be delivered from the fire of hell. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

~ Collect from the Mass of St. Nicholas

Anticipating Advent



Europe 2003 December 1204web

While Christmas is joyfully celebrated by Christians of all varieties, the option of celebrating the weeks before the big holiday have only caught on with Protestants in the last few decades. I didn’t discover Advent until I was in college, and figured any religion that could make Christmas into a four week holiday (longer, if you count Epiphany!) was worth serious consideration.

Leave it to the Catholics to know how to plan a party. First, the colors change. The banners, altar cloths, and priests’ garb changes to violet, white, then gold. In fact, the Church declares that Advent, the season of anticipation, is the beginning of the Church year. Mass begins with the lighting of the Advent candle as a reminder of the new liturgical season, sort of like Black Friday kicking off the holiday shopping season.

When my sons were young we set up a small Advent wreath to light at home and a German Advent Calendar with little paper doors to open each day until December 25th. You never know what little things will lead to. . .

Twenty years later the four of us were in Germany for Christmas discovering yet another Advent tradition at the Weinachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt, a holiday street market with roots in the Middle Ages usually held in the marketplace or on the steps of the local church. The Dresden Weinachtsmarkt is credited as being the oldest market (from 1434), but Vienna claims its Bautzen market of 1294 was the forerunner.

At churches throughout Germany. Austria, and Alsace, the First Sunday Of Advent marks the opening of the Weinachtsmarkt, The Christmas version of our Southern California church fiesta.

We stumbled on our first Weinachtsmarkt somewhere off the autobahn from Munich to Freiberg after a mind-and -body- numbing nonstop flight from Los Angeles. We pulled off the highway in desperate search for a reststop and refreshment, and suddenly found ourselves in front of a Catholic church where the universal sounds of  of hammers and electric drills filled the air. A closer look showed that wooden stalls were being assembled, grills heated, and gluwein set to simmer.
Europe 2003 December 1201web
Europe 2003 December 1203web
We were first to sample the hot mulled drink and sausages, warming our hands around the cups as we watched assorted animals being led into the square for the Nativity stall. Children helped throw the hay for bedding, and stroked the animals. In the short time we were there, stringed lights came to life, the sound of hammers gave way to singing, and more people filled the market.
Europe 2003 December 1211webEurope 2003 December 1216web
In Freiburg im Breisgau where our son lived we discovered double Weinachtsmarkts. The large central fair on the Rathausplatz (town square), and a smaller one set up in front of a smaller church.
Europe 2003 December 1213web
Of course, the main attraction at these events is the food — sizzling wursts in all varieties, steaming mugs of hot spiced Glüwein, stollen, candies, lebkuchen. Stalls offered assorted Bavarian Christmas wares for sale, from handmade wooden cheese boards to knit scarves, to carved wooden ornaments.
Europe 2003 December 1546web
Europe 2003 December 1539web
In Strasbourg, we found the Alsatian version held in the square outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg where Croque Monsier and soft macaroons were the snacks of choice instead of the traditional Bavarian wurst und .

In anticipation of Advent, I am dusting off our home Advent wreath and setting up the little German calendar. The Glühwein is already steaming.
Traditional Glühwein (Glow Wine)
1 bottle nice full red wine
1 lemon
12 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 – 1/3 cup sugar
Pour the wine and sugar into a large saucepan and heat gently; do not boil. Cut the lemon in half and stick the cloves into one half. Thinly slice the other half.  Add the lemon with cloves, and lemon slices, and cinnamon stick. Heat slowly until steaming hot. Traditionally served in glass mugs.

Christmas Carols

The Christmas season began this past Sunday on the First Sunday of Advent.  As we await the joyful coming of our Savior, some of The Catholic Gene authors reminisce about their favorite Christmas carols.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Lisa Alzo ~ I have chosen my favorite carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The carol is written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, an early leader of the Methodist church. I know this may seem a bit odd to reference this song on a blog called “The Catholic Gene,” but nevertheless, it is my favorite religious carol. With its numerous scriptural references, the carol speaks of the mystery of the incarnation of Christ.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” Luke 2:13-14

The tune that’s almost always used today was composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, for his cantata Festgesang, written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press.

While it is a religious carol, one of my favorite versions of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is the one sung by the whole Peanuts gang at the end of Charles Schultz’ animated Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas.   It is a song of joy, and that is why it is my favorite.

The Little Drummer Boy

Steve Danko ~ When I was young, my favorite religious Christmas song was “The Little Drummer Boy.”  It’s not exactly a song I would expect to hear at Midnight Mass, but it held a special relevance to me since it tells the story of a young boy who thinks he has nothing to offer the Christ Child.  I could relate to that!  The song, originally titled “Carol of the Drum,” was written in 1941 by Katherine K. Davis who claimed that it was based on a traditional Czech carol.  The popularity of the song increased greatly when the Von Trapp Family Singers recorded the song in 1955, shortly before they retired.  Even now, I can remember playing “The Little Drummer Boy” over and over on my family’s little portable record player to the point where my mother would come over to me and gently say, “Let’s listen to something else now, Stephen.”

O Holy Night

Craig Manson ~ My favorite Christmas song is “O Holy Night.”  It is based on the French poem, “Cantique de Noel.”  Its transcendent melody and lyrics convey the joy of Jesus’ coming in an almost unearthly way. This song sounds great in any language, and anyone filled with true gladness can sing it (well, there is that HIGH note in the last stanza)! I suspect that even the skeptic or nonbeliever can’t help but be moved to some degree by this piece of music. My favorite version is Nat King Cole’s 1960 rendition. See it here:

Obsessed audiophiles may be interested in this 1914 recording of Cantique Noelhttp://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/mp3s/0000/0374/cusb-cyl0374d.mp3.

Donna Pointkouski ~ My favorite Christmas song is also “O Holy Night”.  I had heard the song countless times over the years, but I remember one evening when, for the very first time, one line jumped out at me and I truly listened to it for the first time in my life.  The line that struck me was: Long lay the world in sin and error, pining, ’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. My soul (and my eyes) flooded as I understood the meaning of those words like never before, and the beautiful, wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, the true meaning of Christmas, became clear to me.  I think that song sums it up rather well!

Adeste Fidelis

Jasia ~ My favorite religious Christmas song would have to be “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, aka “Adeste Fideles“. The reason for that is because it’s such an uplifting song! I can remember singing it in church every Christmas as a child and as an adult. It’s the song we sang as the opening hymn while the altar boys and the priest made their way down the aisle from the back of the church to the altar. Everyone in the pews would stand up and sing the old familiar lyrics with joy and goodwill in their hearts. Even those who don’t normally sing at Mass (like me) would sing their hearts out. For me it marks the beginning of the most wonderful Mass of the year!

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of Heaven above!
Glory to God
In the highest:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing!

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?