Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Reason for the Season: “Oh when the saints ...”

Recently, Jeff Miller, The Curt Jester, was lamenting how people celebrate Christmas too early. He'll do his part in fighting the good fight in the culture war. He'll call his Christmas tree an "advent tree" until it's Christmas, then he'll call it a Christmas tree. And he'll keep it up until Epiphany. He'll also avoid listening to any Christmas music until the Big Day.

So far, so good. Right?

Those of us who identify ourselves as traditional Catholics, tend to rebel against the over-commercialization of Christmas, not by celebrating it in its fullness, but in denying the celebration altogether until the very day. (No, this isn't about my aforementioned colleague; it's about all of us.) Our period of self-proclaimed self-mortification lasts much longer than the celebration that follows, as if we enjoy fasting more than feasting. And let's be honest, do we really keep the party going until the visit of the Three Kings?

For the past several years, we here at mwbh have all but gotten down on our hands and knees, to urge families to extend the gift-giving of Christmas for twelve days! (Just one gift a day, as if that's gonna kill you, huh?) It is worth pondering how many families will actually avoid doing that, while at the same time whining about the retail buying season starting earlier every year. Not that it's surprising. Getting ready for a party takes work, and work is hard. Keeping the party going is more work, which is even harder. Complaining, on the other hand, is always easier.

Another thing that is easier, or at least a part of the human condition, is the urge to prolong the anticipation. We can enjoy the feast without dropping what we're doing, and without getting the feast over with. The only problem is, we let the world tell us how to do that, instead of doing so on our own terms, the way our ancestors did (and still do in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, as seen in the previous video clip).

The trap into which many of us have fallen, is not a proper view of festal celebrations in Christendom, particularly as we remember the Birth of Christ. The month of December is host to the feast days of numerous saints, the devotion to whom over time has lent themselves to local and regional customs of seasonal commemoration. Their remembrance shed a light on the role of the communion of saints, as the birth of the Savior is prerequisite to the victory over death on the Cross, and the forerunner of that which we call "the Church Triumphant."

Back when I was married and Paul was growing up, we went to the little Byzantine Rite church in Annandale. To this day, on the fifth of December, an elderly man appears dressed as a fourth-century bishop in red vestments, while everyone sings:

O kto kto, Nikolaja l'ubit,
O kto kto, Nikolaju sluzit.
    Tomu svjatyj Nikolaj,
    Na vsjakij cas pomahaj.
    Nikolaj, Nikolaj!

O who loves Nicholas the Saintly,
O who loves Nicholas the Saintly.
    Him will Nicholas receive,
    and give help in time of need.
    Nicholas, Nicholas!

I think about those days, of the celebration revolving around the children, one that lasted the whole day, beginning with the Divine Liturgy, and ending with supper in the parish hall and a visit from Father Nicholas. I wonder how many Catholic parishes will be visited by a bearded man whose origin is found in turn-of-the-century Coca-Cola advertising, as opposed to fourth-century Asia Minor.


Fortunately, the REAL Saint Nicholas is remembered in many Christian cultures. As a boy, growing up amidst families mostly of Irish and German origin, I remember a few of my classmates would leave their shoes outside their bedroom doors, in the hopes that "Sinterklauss" (???) would leave little toys or candy or what-not. Closer to the DC area, and earlier today, the Maryland suburbs were graced by the tradition of Flanders. The following is provided by Samantha Ferris, Education Coordinator of the Riversdale House Museum:

Sint Niklaas [made] his annual visit to Riversdale on Saturday, December 5 at 10am. If you've been to our Sint Niklaas Day in the past, you'll notice that this year, [we did] things a bit differently. Sint Niklaas [joined] visitors and guests for breakfast! Rosalie Stier Calvert, the mistress of Riversdale, celebrated her Flemish heritage and would surely have told her children about Sint Niklaas, the Flemish forerunner of our modern Santa Claus. In keeping with this tradition, children ages 3-10 and their families [were] welcome to enjoy a Belgian-inspired breakfast, make a craft, receive a gift bag, and visit with Sint Niklaas.

This past week, New Liturgical Movement also did a piece on the celebration of Saint Barbara on the third of December. There are any number of saints whose veneration is tied to the anticipation of the Coming of Our Savior, and we will be featuring them as well as the month goes on.

And maybe, just maybe, Christmas can mean more this year without costing more. Meanwhile, at Chez Alexandre, a two-foot miniature tree will be set on top of the stereo cabinet. The decorations will wait until Christmas Eve, but the music will not. We will be sharing some of that music in a later installment, so you can understand what possesses us to appear to jump the gun.

With a song in our hearts, or course.


Banshee said...

Actually, that translation loses some of the meaning.

O who, who loves Nicholas?
O who, who listens to Nicholas?
Him, saintly Nicholas
Will receive and aid.
Nicholas, Nicholas!

Heh. Makes a bit of difference.

David L Alexander said...

A faithful translation, if not a literal one. I don't think the words were meant so much for the latter, as they were to facilitate singing in English.