Today is the first day of winter and the Winter Solstice. It is the shortest day for the Northern Hemisphere. The Winter Solstice usually falls between December 20-23 and the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn resulting in the North Pole being tilted the furthest away. The result is shorter days for sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere. And the further north you are (like Alaska or Scandinavian countries) means less sun during the day. The reverse happens in the Southern Hemisphere as the sun is closer to them and they celebrate the Summer Solstice. Those closer to the South Pole can have nearly 24 hours of sun during this time of year.
Many cultures observed the Winter Solstice as it marked an important time in the agricultural cycle. By this time all crops and livestock had been prepared for winter. Important foodstuffs were stored for the months when virtually nothing grew. Wine and beer, which had been fermenting during the year, was ready at this time. Cattle and pigs would often be killed at the start of winter so they would not have to be fed during this time. The early months of winter were tough in many places and often called the “famine months” since little food was to be found. Many cultures observed the Winter Solstice as a renewal or that the year was reborn. For out of the seeming withdrawal of the sun, it would come back just as strong and powerful as before. Thus the Winter Solstice was seen by many as the start of a new year such as the old Roman Feast of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) which happened around the 25th of December.
For more information:
- Winter Solstice(History.com)
- Winter Solstice (Britannica.com)
- 13 Fascinating Winter Solstice Traditions Around the World (Readers Digest)
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and it is the last one of course before Christmas. Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus and not Christmas itself. While the secular world conflates the two (Advent and Christmas), the distinction is kept within the Christian church. Advent is a time of preparation for the birth so spiritual readings and vestments will reflect it. Unlike Lent which has strict observances that include fasts, Advent has no such strict requirement.
Yet it is a time for reflection as one awaits the approach of Christmas Day. In more olden times, there were fasts (it is still practiced in Eastern and Russian Orthodox where meat and dairy is prohibited for a specific period leading up to Christmas Day) but it is no longer a requirement in most Western churches. However there is a trend emerging that encourages the faithful to perhaps give up something during Advent or perform a service that benefits others (like volunteering to help feed homeless people). Music during this period also is designed to do this as well.
Happy Sunday everyone!
As we count down the days till Christmas Day next Friday, here are some popular tunes of the holiday for you. Enjoy!
And the ending of that all time favorite It’s A Wonderful Life.
Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and eye disorders and her feast day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice which is the day often celebrated as a festival of light in many places. Many stories and legends have become associated with her but research has failed to substantiate many of them. It is known she lived in Sicily early in the fourth century and was persecuted and executed for her faith. One story that is likely true is that she was denounced as a Christian by a suitor after she turned him down because of her faith. She faced torture and death for her beliefs. Because it is believed she was blinded during Roman torture, she is the patron saint of the blind.
Her feast day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries as a festival of light during the long winter night. A young girl in a white dress and red sash carries palms and wears a wreath of candles on head. Special rolls or cookies are made for the day and often handed out to the elderly. It is also celebrated in parts of Italy particularly in Sicily and in many places of the world today. There are many churches dedicated to her and the island of Santa Lucia in the Caribbean is named for her.
What Is Advent? Advent on the Christian calendar is a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. It is a season of joy leading up to Christmas Day and also a time of preparation similar to Lent. Prayer, fasting and penance are part of the Advent season. The rules are not as strict as Lent but a time of self-preparation. The color purple is associated with penance. Each Advent Sunday is meant to ready oneself for rejoicing at the birth of Jesus that is to come. The Third Sunday of Advent is the anticipatory celebration and the color rose is used to represent joy.
The Advent wreath
Many homes and churches will have an Advent wreath to symbolize the season, and to mark each Sunday as it happens. The practice began by German Lutherans in the 18th century as a means of teaching Advent to children. The practice began to spread to Catholics and other Christian denominations as well. Advent wreaths are circular to show that God’s love is infinite and is made with evergreen leaves. It used to be a family event to gather the leaves and make the wreath. The practice has resurfaced in recent years as many families now do this again. Advent wreaths made of artificial evergreens are available in a wide series of designs. Handmade ones can be made to last many years.
Advent: Dates, Traditions, and History(Infoplease.com)
Catholic Traditions (Catholic Education Resource Center) https://youtu.be/7AmWu2zLzrU
The Sussex Carol is a very popular Christmas carol in Britain. Its lyrics first were written by a 17th century Irish bishop. It was later discovered by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan who heard it being sung by Harriet Verrall. Williams used the tune Verrall sang and published the lyrics. While some of the lyrics have been altered by different arrangers or composers, the tune has stayed the same. Enjoy!
Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the basis for what has become known as Santa Claus. He was born in the third century to a wealthy family in the village of Patara (now located on the southern coast of Turkey). At the time the area was mostly Greek. While he was young, his parents died during an epidemic. Raised as a Christian, he believed in obeying Jesus in giving his inheritance to those in need. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra was still quite young. He earned a reputation for being generous to those in need, his love for children, and concern for sailors and ships.
During the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians were ruthlessly persecuted and Nicholas suffered for his faith by being exiled and imprisoned. Despite all of the hardship he endured, he never wavered in his faith. He was released and attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. He died on 6 December 343 AD in Myra and was buried. The anniversary of his death would become a celebration and still celebrated to this day (it is 19 December on the Julian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox churches).
His generous deeds and miracles attributed to him spread during the Middle Ages. Many sailors claimed him as a patron and told of him when they traveled. Churches dedicated to Nicholas appeared in many seaport cities. His name spread both east and west making him a very popular saint with many churches named after him in Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Russia and Switzerland to name a few. His tomb became popular to visit but concerns over wars in the area cutting off access worried many. In 1087 sailors from Bari were able to retrieve his relics and bring them back. A church was built over his crypt so that pilgrims could visit. The shrine to St. Nicholas in Bari became a major pilgrimage center during medieval Europe. People still visit the shrine today at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari.
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches all have his feast day on their calendars. His generosity and compassion are seen as a model of Christian life. There is some confusion generated about how saint feasts days are celebrated in the Catholic church. Since there quite a number of saints with feasts, it was decided that some saint feast days would be optional for a diocese to celebrate. Saint Nicholas became one of them. He was not stripped of his sainthood. In a diocese where he is popular, has churches or schools named after him, or perhaps the bishop believes he is model to be held up for veneration, his feast day will be celebrated. His feast day is celebrated throughout Europe and in Russia and children receive gifts on the day. Saint Nicholas’ feast day is usually the start of the Christmas season in Europe and elsewhere.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas did not fare well during the Protestant Reformation. Saints, even revered ones, were removed to focus on Jesus. Some went so far as to nearly ban any public display of traditional religious customs related to saints or even Christmas (it was not a holiday for that reason in areas that groups like the Puritans dominated). Martin Luther wanted to shift the focus of Christmas to Jesus. The problem was that you cannot have a baby delivering gifts to children as Saint Nicholas did. He came up with the Christkind, a children’s gift giver. This angel, depicted as young girl, brings the gifts when the children are not present. In Nuremberg, the Christkind is selected every two years by vote and between the ages of 16-19. The Christkind opens the Christmas market. She also has her picture taken with kids, listens to what they want, visits kids in hospitals and the elderly as well amongst many other duties. The Christkind was also adopted by many German Catholics as well and spread into Latin America as well. In some cases, both the Christkind and Saint Nicholas deliver presents together.
Despite attempts to diminish Saint Nicholas using the Christkind, he remained popular except in England where many Christmas folk traditions were altered (especially under the rule of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell). Puritans in America (and some others as well) forbade celebrating Christmas. German immigrants brought celebrating Christmas with them along with Saint Nicholas as well. It was believed the Dutch had brought Saint Nicholas to America, but recent scholarship indicates that was not likely (it is not mentioned in letters or records from the Dutch who lived in New Amsterdam at the time). It appears a series of fictional stories about Saint Nicholas (described as a jolly man with a clay piper) being celebrated by the early Dutch may have been the source.
The 19th century was one of change in America regarding Christmas-and elsewhere as well. Since it was not a sacred or public holiday in many places, it was not the time of carols and goodwill we think about today. Instead, it was a was a rowdy holiday where many got wildly drunk, gambled, and got riotous in some cases threatening people. In England, the Father Christmas figure was about adult merriment and feasting and had nothing to do with children. The actual celebration of Christmas seemed to be fading until books were published depicting Christmas as a time for family, children and faith were published in the 19th century. Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819) depicted the celebration of Christmas in England as a warm holiday where peasants were invited into the home to celebrate the holiday. And stories about a magical gift giver called Sante Claus began to appear. Books such as The Children’s Friend (1821)had a character delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Flying a sleigh and living up north, this Sante Claus would form the basis of what is known today as Santa Claus.
The famous Clement Clark Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas would further cement the image of this Sante Claus. Books depicting Christmas began to appear and of course the most famous being A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843. This came at a time in Britain when they were re-examining Christmas. This book and others would further help to makeChristmas as a time for families, children, and caring about the less fortunate as well. Thomas Nast, the famous political cartoonist, illustrated him as a rotund figure with a beard, fur clothing, and with a clay pipe in 1863. He also changed the name to Santa Claus. His image, with some embellishments and refinements, has remained more or less intact to our time. Christmas was becoming widely celebrated and by 1860 had already been adopted as a state holiday in fourteen states. In 1870, President Grant proclaimed Christmas Day as a federal holiday in the District of Columbia. Congress would pass legislation that made Christmas, New Years, Independence Day and Thanksgiving as federal holidays (remember back then nearly all federal workers were in the District of Columbia). States would also make it a holiday as well.
By the start of the 1930’s, the American Santa had come full form thanks to various illustrators such as Norman Rockwell. Coca-Cola would use Santa in its advertising further establishing his identity in the commercial world. The jolly man with the red suit would be seen in magazines, billboards, shop counters, and greeting cards. A benign source of happiness and seemingly endorsing all kinds of commercial products, he became as American as apple pie (to coin a phrase). His image would spread out to the world competing with local versions (Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Babbo Natale, Sinter Klass, Julenesse etc.) Saint Nicholas still retains his place in Europe despite this.
Many people, seeing Santa as a commercial and pagan creation, are now reclaiming the saint for use in the holiday. Saint Nicholas brings a spiritual emphasis to the holiday, which Santa does not. Some have tried to ban Santa Claus because of his supposed connection to Saint Nicholas, except there is none. One is a revered saint and bishop, the other a complete concoction of writers, illustrators, and marketing departments. There is nothing Christian about Santa Claus. Movies like The Santa Clause, while entertaining, put him into a world of fantasy beings like Mother Nature, Cupid, and the Tooth Fairy. By returning focus to Saint Nicholas, we get closer to what the celebration is about.
Who is St. Nicholas? (St. Nicholas Center)
Federal Holidays: Evolution and Current Practices (Congressional Research Service)
A History of Christmas in America (The Classical Historian)
History of Christmas (History.com)
Thanksgiving was not an official national holiday until 1863. A letter from a 74-year magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, inspired President Abraham Lincoln to create a national holiday. She wrote in 1863 that we needed to have a national day of Thanksgiving so that everyone could celebrate it on the same day. At the time Thanksgiving was celebrated by the various states but not on the same date. She wanted President Lincoln to make it a national day so it would become a permanent part of “American custom and institution.”
According to Abraham Lincoln Online , other presidents had ignored such requests. Lincoln decided to act on her request and directed a proclamation be drawn up. On 3 October 1863, President Lincoln’s proclamation that establishes Thanksgiving as a national day was issued. It sets aside the last Thursday of November as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Secretary of State William Seward actually drafted the proclamation which Lincoln signed. Thanksgiving became a national holiday and was celebrated on that date until 1939. President Roosevelt in 1939, 1940 and 1941 changed it to the third Thursday (to extend the Christmas season) causing considerable controversy. A joint resolution of Congress in 1941 resolved it by decreeing Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November.
Lincoln’s proclamation was written during the American Civil War, a terrible time in U.S. history. Today we forget why this day was made a national holiday. It was to thank God for the blessings of liberty but also to ask his help. In our politically correct times, this proclamation is not always read in full or edited. So here is the original proclamation. Read it and understand why Lincoln thought a national day of Thanksgiving was needed for the United States of America.
Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day
October 3, 1863
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
[Originally published in 2018.]
When I recently told someone our office would be closed to observe Veterans Day, I got back a blank stare. They had no idea there was such a holiday. Since I work at nonprofit co-located with a federal agency, our office follows the federal holiday schedule. Other workers for offices nearby also reacted the same and some were incredulous that such a holiday existed.
It was never a school holiday as I recall but we all knew what the holiday was about. I think somehow over the years it has fallen by the wayside. Veterans and people who know veterans know of this holiday. Perhaps people just forget there is another holiday after Halloween (not a real holiday but many think it ought to be) and before Thanksgiving.
Veterans Day is a day set aside to thank and honor military personnel who have served in peace and war. The day originally began as Armistice Day to celebrate the end of World War I. It was first officially celebrated on 11 November 1919 and was originally the celebrate veterans who served in that war. In 1954 after many Americans served in both World War II and Korea, veterans organizations petitioned the name be changed from Armistice to Veterans Day to celebrate all who served in the military. Congress approved this change on 1 June 1954 and has been known as Veterans Day since then.
In 1968 as a result of the Uniform Holiday Bill, Veterans Day was shifted to the third Monday in October. Since this law allowed more three day weekends for federal workers (and states that followed the federal holiday calendar) and would allow more people to travel and spend money, this was thought good. The writers of the law never bothered to check and see if people wanted Veterans Day on the third Monday in October. And they were surprised when many states refused to honor the new date and stuck with November 11 for Veterans Day.
The reason is not hard to understand. This patriotic holiday had been celebrated since 1919 and many generations had grown up with with it. In 1975 President Gerald Ford signed into law specifying that Veterans Day would always be celebrated on November 11 no matter what day of the week it falls on. Currently most federal holidays, if they fall on a non-working day (Saturday or Sunday), the nearest working day is the holiday. Meaning if it falls on a Saturday, Friday is a federal holiday. If the holiday falls on a Sunday, the official holiday is Monday. And if it falls into the middle of the week, Monday is when the holiday is observed. Thanksgiving and Fourth of July are two other holidays where they are observed on a specific day every year.
The day is marked with important ceremonies such as the national ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. It starts at precisely 11:00 a.m. with a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is followed by a parade of colors by veterans’ organizations and then speeches and remarks from important dignitaries. Almost always the sitting president will attend though on occasion the Vice President will act in his place should he not be in attendance.
Veterans Day is to honor those who have chosen to serve our country, past or present. We honor and thank them for their service and remember as well that some gave all as well. They give up a lot so that we are protected. And this day is a big Thank You to all of them.