Symbols & Turning One’s Back

First, a digression or prologue: Here are some descriptions of modern art as proposed by their creators, gleaned off the interwebs:

The picture shows how unhappy people which, is dependent on consumption, and as he turns into a cripple.

The painting shows the influence of television on the number of things we purchase.

Pity draws this exercise to a premature close. The artists themselves seem to be charmingly innocent, just trying to do what they’ve been told to do, and I don’t want to just pick on people. Simply, one could never tell, prior to the explanation, what, if anything, the artwork was supposed to ‘show’. It would be cruel, perhaps, to mix and match descriptions to artwork and see if anyone other than the artist could tell the difference.

Key point: great art doesn’t require a program to appreciate it, only, at most, a common cultural background with the artists. You have failed as an artist if you need to tell people what your work ‘shows’.

Let us pick on more deserving targets. Returning to the well one more time, here are snippets from what might be called the program that explains the cathedral in Los Angeles, from its website, with some commentary.

Spanish architect, Professor José Rafael Moneo has designed a dynamic, contemporary Cathedral with virtually no right angles. This geometry contributes to the Cathedral’s feeling of mystery and its aura of majesty.

We are being told here that the proper feeling to have when viewing this:

LA Cathedral

…is “mystery and its aura of majesty.”

Well. For comparison, I choose from among any of the thousands of great Catholic cathedrals that have been loved for generations:

Image result for siena cathedral

Does the degree to which you feel the “mystery and its aura of majesty” looking at the Duomo in Siena just like the feeling you get looking at the L.A. Cathedral? In any way similar? (Spoiler – having stood in about the spots each of these pictures were taken: no, the feelz are not similar. While the pictures in each case greatly tone down the effects, they do accurately engender them.)

Let’s pop inside: LA Cathedral Interior

Siena

In the first picture, the lack of right angles is supposed to contribute to our feelings of mystery and majesty. In the second, I think maybe it’s the awe-inspiring beauty that gets that done.

 

The challenge in designing and building a new Cathedral Church was to make certain that it reflected the diversity of all people.

Really? Who says? A small ‘c’ catholic church building should rather emphasize unity, maybe?

Rather than duplicate traditional designs of the Middle Ages in Europe, the Cathedral is a new and vibrant expression of the 21st century Catholic peoples of Los Angeles.

None of whom were consulted nor approved of this design. Just saying.

“I wanted both a public space,” said Moneo, “and something else, what it is that people seek when they go to church.” To the architect, the logic of these two competing interests suggested, first of all, a series of “buffering, intermediating spaces” — plazas, staircases, colonnades, and an unorthodox entry.

Um, what? Setting aside the weird circumlocution beginning with ‘something else’ that clumsily avoids talking about God and salvation, there’s an ancient tradition of providing transition from the external to internal worlds. Note, for example, the lovely piazza in front of the Siena Duomo leading to steps and awesome huge doors. It’s perfectly clear as you assend the steps from the piazza and approach those doors that you are moving from the public to the sacred. With its steps, levels, plaza, long confusing ambulatory, the L.A. Cathedral merely awkwardly overdoes it.

The Cathedral is built with architectural concrete in a color reminiscent of the sun-baked adobe walls of the California Missions and is designed to last 500 years.

…which adobe was always whitewashed, often painted, and adorned to the fullest extent the people could manage. That ‘designed to last 500 years’ always seemed like a threat, but maybe that’s just me…

The Cathedral’s interior design captures the principle of a spiritual journey.

The painful and unsettling part? Chesterton talks about how Catholic art favors the gentle, suffering Jesus over the ‘Woe and Temple-cleansing’ Jesus because gentle Jesus is easier to approach in prayer. I guess we modern Catholics are tougher than that!

Unlike most Cathedrals, we are not entering through a rear door near the last pews. Rather, we enter the ambulatory which circles the interior of the Cathedral.

This gets to the entire point of this preamble: one would never suspect there was anything wrong or lacking in the approach and entrance to a traditional cathedral unless he were *told* there was something lacking. To recap: one enters a traditional cathedral typically by crossing a plaza to ascend steps, passing through massive doors and under a tympanum which usually depicts the Last Judgement, entering into an awe-inspiring nave, flanked by lines of columns leading to and focusing attention on the high altar. Many, many people over the centuries have commented on exactly how moving that experience can be.

But not in L.A.! Here, we need to be told that we’ve been missing something, and told we should love and prefer a meandering, pointless, artificially long entrance.

Our betters will tell us what to think. If we don’t like it, well, that just demonstrates why they are our betters!

The ambulatory urges us forward, on a slight incline, heightening our sense of an upward journey, past various devotional chapels that open onto the walkway, not onto the Cathedral’s worship space, allowing a more meditative environment for devotional prayer.

The light and diversity of shapes draws people forward along the ambulatory and around the corner to the Baptistery and the enormous public worship space.

Hey! ‘Enormous’ used correctly in its original sense!  Also, note ‘worship space’. Not a church or even a nave, a ‘worship space’. OK, enough of this.

Artist statements we love

When I first began this blog, I wrote a number of items on symbols versus signs. The key distinction: symbols have meaning that does not need to be explained, or, at worst, once explained ‘clicks’ – the church uses red symbolically on the feasts of the Martyrs. Any questions?

Signs, on the other hand, will sometimes employ symbolism, but are more conventional in their meaning. Stop signs are traditionally red, but that they mean ‘stop’ is conventional. Red is a good color for this, but not necessary to get the point across. Blood, and therefore martyrdom, and red are connected in a way that stopping and red are not.

Signs can be made much more powerful by the artful use of symbols. In the old days, banks, which engage in the most abstract and ephemeral of businesses, made their buildings out of stone, as a sign of permanence. Good use of the natural symbolic content of stone – hard, enduring, not going anywhere – to communicate what they wanted to communicate – See? We’re not the fly-by-night operation you might reasonably suspect us of being! Solid as a rock, you might even say.

Gestures can also be symbolic, having meaning independent of social convention. Bowing and kneeling are gestures your dog understands. This doesn’t have to be the case – shaking your head for no and nodding for yes are, I hear, conventional. But I will contend that there is a large range of human gestures the meanings of which are not conventional, or at least have a core meaning conventions hang off of.

The whole preamble of this essay was intended to show how we, in the modern age, often try to gloss over with words of explanation the symbolic content or lack thereof of art, gestures, and actions in general. The L.A. Cathedral is known as the Taj Mahoney, because many people saw right through the pretend taking of input and invocation of diversity as attempting to veil what was essentially a $200M+ exercise in hubris. Both symbols and signs were involved in getting this project through – mitered cardinals in long processions, masses, blessings – but a key was blowing smoke, smoke illustrated in the snippets quoted above. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

All this ramble was occasioned by an observation at mass yesterday. One universal symbol, a gesture that, again, your dog understands, is turning you back. Your dog knows that you are withholding approval or showing disapproval when you turn away from him. By dozens of gestures, we turn our backs on the Eucharist both literally and figuratively. As a symbol, this gesture has its meaning and emotional effect regardless of the words – the artistic program – used to explain why that’s not what it means. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

This turning has been ritualized to the point where failure to comply makes one stand out, so very few people, even among those who understand what’s happening on some level, will buck the behaviors.

Before I go on, let me say that there are more or less reasonable reasons for many of these gestures. Taken separately, each might be OK in the sense that there is at least a sound theological or practical debate possible on the topic. Taken together, however, and it’s clear the goal is to change theology, or to express a theology already changed.

Let me count the ways:

  • Churches renovated so that it is all but impossible for some portion of the congregation not to stand with their backs to the tabernacle. Maybe it’s the choir, or maybe it’s some pews positioned so that the altar is surrounded. Either way, everybody gets the clear message that the tabernacle, and by necessary and inescapable logic, what is in the tabernacle, is not only not important, but is being actively shunned.
  • Versum Populum. This might be the number one case in point for where there are good historical and theological reasons. The Church has done this off and on over the centuries. But how it was implemented – I’ve heard stories about centuries old altars being jack-hammered because they were too close to the wall to allow the priest to face the people – shows inescapable contempt for history and craftsmanship (I’ve yet to see a new ‘table’ half as beautifully done as many old altars). And you’ve turned your back on the tabernacle, if it hasn’t been consigned to the outer darkness.

These are the most literal and obvious cases of turning your back. Other similar issues:

  • Bowing instead of genuflecting when passing in front of the tabernacle. Again, can be non-stupid reasons. Taken with everything else…
  • Communion received standing in the hand, instead of kneeling on the tongue. Sure, reasons, but since we’ve turned our backs on the Real Presence, traipsed back and forth across the sanctuary like a living room and otherwise worked to actively destroy any sense that this moment is sacred – well, is it sacred? What does sacred even mean?
  • General loss of the distinction of vulgar versus sacred space. Inside the church, a building made sacred by the Real Presence, should be fundamentally and patently difference from the space outside. Is it?

Anyway, I find myself more in favor of any gesture that marks the Mass and the physical church it is celebrated in as sacred. We are a people set apart. High time we started acting like it.

 

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Mission Church/Checking In

Been busy and a bit under the weather. Checking back in.

Today, the Concord Queen of All Saints Feast and Faith group took a field trip to Mission Dolores in San Francisco for Mass, a tour of the old adobe mission chapel and lunch. There were 13 of us. It was fun and educational, and it’s always a blessing to be able to say a few prayers in a church you are visiting.

Mision San Francisco de Assis was the sixth mission founded by St. Junipero Serra. In October 9, 1776, the official documents arrived establishing the mission, but Mass had already been celebrated at the site on June 29, so, in a sense, the mission is 5 days older than America. From a very early date, the Mission was called Mission Dolores after an adjacent creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. I imagine St. Francis would be amused by this, and wholeheartedly approve.

Originally, the mission comprised a fairly vast area, with 10,000 head of cattle, 10,000 sheep, many horses, etc., as well as workshops, farms and gardens. In a very real sense, it was San Francisco. Several thousand native Americans lived and worked there. Following Mexican independence, in 1834 the missions were ‘secularized’ meaning, in effect, that all their lands except that upon which stood the church buildings and cemeteries were seized by the Mexican government and given to private citizens. This impoverished the mission and lead to a decades long decline. By 1842, only a few Indians lived at the mission, and what remained of the building fell into serious disrepair.

Mission Dolores in the early 1850's in San Francisco.
By the 1850s, it looked like this. 

Then statehood and the Gold Rush brought a flood of people to the Bay, including many Irish and other Catholics. A new parish church in a Gothic Revival style was built adjacent to the old mission chapel to handle the crowds. The old adobe was clad in clapboard, for both aesthetic (it was looking pretty ratty, as the above picture illustrates) and protective reasons.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the large brick church but left the adobe intact and largely undamaged. In the following dozen years, a new Mission revival style church was built to replace the destroyed brick church and the old mission was carefully restored. Today, the majority of parish activities take place in the new (only 100 years old!) Basilica, while the old chapel is used for one mass a week and is otherwise mostly a tourist attraction. But they do a very respectful job.

A cemetery used to occupy acres around the old church, with about 11,000 people buried there from the 1790s up into the late 1800s. As the streets were put through and land became more dear, the cemetery shrank and the remains moved until, today, only a tiny plot on the south side of the old mission chapel remains. A quick look at the tombstones that remain reveals many names that now grace San Francisco streets and landmarks.

Also adding to the holiness of the place: two saints (at least) have prayed there: St. Junipero Serra celebrated mass while it was under construction, and Pope St. John Paul the Great stopped by to pray when he visited San Francisco.

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The reredos and sanctuary. Note the ceiling, painted in a pattern used by the Ohlone in their basket weaving. 
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Top center: St. Michael guards the place. As well he should. 

Finally, we went to lunch at the Kitchen Story just up the street on 16th. Highly recommended.

 

The Good Shepherd

Image result for good shepherdYesterday’s Gospel reading was the Good Shepherd passage from John 10:

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”

The priest pointed out in his homily how, to Jews who all knew the Psalms, this claim was Jesus setting Himself up as the equal to the Father – the Lord is my Shepherd, as they all knew. This is precisely the point John (and Jesus!) is making: John’s Gospel starts by saying the Word is with God and the Word is God on the first page, and ends with Thomas declaring ‘My Lord and my God!’  near the end.

So that’s is well. One more thing to point out, that no doubt has been pointed out a million times but just not to me: In the first chapter of John, John the Baptist declares: “Behold the Lamb of God!” when Jesus walks by. So Jesus is both the Shepherd and the Lamb. Finally, Jesus says to love one another as I have loved you.

In this reading, it is the shepherd’s willingness to die for his sheep that is distinctive. In the Psalms, the Good Shepherd is unchallenged – He is perfect protection and comfort for the sheep. It is new thing to suggest that the Lord would die for them.

The Crucifixion is always recognized as the supreme act of Jesus’s love for us.

Image result for Lamb of God

So: atheists sometimes quip that Christians forget what a shepherd’s job is – to look after the sheep so that they might, eventually, be slaughtered and eaten. In this one sense, they are right: Jesus, as the Master Whose example his students are to follow,  as the Lamb of God, is shepherding us to a sacrificial life and death. We become, in imitation of Him, lambs led to the slaughter. We become, if we follow truly, the Pascal Lamb, Whose death frees Israel from slavery, Whose blood on the doorposts fends off death and Whose flesh feeds the former slaves for their journey. We are shepherded to die to ourselves and live only in Him, and to become the Body of Christ.

Probably this is old hat to more attentive Catholics. But I’ve never heard the Lamb and the Shepherd discussed together in this way.

A Fine Art Triduum

Some art I like for the Holiest of Days. Have a happy, holy and blessed Triduum!

Image result for last supper
The Last Supper, by Bouveret, 19th century
Duccio di Buoninsegna: Jezus wast de voeten van de apostelen (Maestà)
Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319

 

Image result for garden of gethsemane painting
The Agony In The Garden by Guiseppe Cesari
Ciseri – Behold the Man
File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880).jpg
Bouguereau – the Flagellation of Christ
Related image
Christ Meeting His Mother on the Way to Calvary.

 

Image result for bouguereau Christ
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Compassion 
Image result for bouguereau christ
Bouguereau – Pieta
Image result for bouguereau christ
Bouguereau – Mourning Virgin Mother
Image result for Ciseri
Ciseri – The transport of Christ to the sepulcher
Image result for sansepolcro piero della francesca
Piero della Francesca – Resurrection
Related image
Bouguereau – the Holy Women at the Tomb

 

 

These Chairs Offend Me

Descending from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous, consider:

IMG_4887

With my squirrel-level ability to focus and Golden Retriever capacity for distraction, I have been driven nuts for, I dunno, a couple decades by the chairs shown above, a set of which infests the lovely Lady Chapel at a local church.

You must be joking, I hear, from way over here, your generous brains thinking a little too loudly. Could there be anything more innocuous than these bland church chairs? He must be kidding.

Image result for Peet's coffee chairs
For comparison, here is a perfectly bland and functional chair, spotted at a Peet’s Coffee. It does not offend.

You wish.

For a couple decades now, whenever we go to this church, I think to myself EVERY SINGLE TIME ‘what dumb chairs. What a waste of perfectly good wood. They’re so doomed.”  Then my tiny brain, which should be directed at, oh, say, the Mass or God or something along those lines, is instead imagining how I would have designed those chairs, or what could be done to fix them, until somebody launches into a agnus or rings a bell or otherwise brings my attention back to what I’m supposedly doing. For about 0.75 seconds. Then it’s back to chairs.

Why do these chairs so offend? That would take an entire blog post to expla – Oh.

Let me count the ways:

  1. The seat frames are squares of boards joined with finger joints – sturdy enough, but structurally independent of the legs.
  2. the front legs are two straight board simply bolted to the seat. The bolts and maybe some glue are the only thing holding them on.
  3. The back legs are two longer straight boards joined to a curved and padded plywood seat back and also simply bolted onto the seat frame.
  4. All legs are set perfectly perpendicular to the seat and floor.

And? Well, within short order once put into use, those leg joints are going to loosen up, especially the back ones. If you look at the Peet’s chair pictured above, you can note that the back legs are *curved*, integrated into the seat frame, and set at a slightly less than right angle both to the floor and seat. The back leans away to a similar degree.

If you do something crazy in that Peet’s chair, like sitting in it or – heaven forbid! – leaning back in it, the legs are designed to absorb that kind of stress: they are not perfect little levers to transfer all the force of your sitting or leaning directly into the single point where a bolt attaches them to the seat frame. The legs are designed, in other words, to incorporate best chair design practices from at least the last 1,000 years or so of people building chairs.

The church chairs – wow, profound metaphor time! – are built as if all that history never happened, that we clearly superior moderns don’t need to pay no mind to those old dead guys and their perfectly functional chairs.

IMG_4888
Front legs. Oh, the humanity!

The front legs suffer the same flaw: perfectly straight up and down and simply bolted on. Front leg get less of the leaning/sitting/sliding stress than the back legs, but they get some, and over time, loosen up as well.

When one sits in these chairs, there is a wobble ranging from disconcerting to scary.  Many of the chairs have been ‘repaired’.  (I didn’t get pictures. A somewhat crazed-looking old guy with a phone camera taking pictures of chairs in the chapel while the little old ladies are trying to pray: a talk with Father, or possible Officer, O’Reilly gets more likely by the minute.) The repairs are obvious and obviously doomed (not that I blame the repairman – worth a shot): drill a hole or two and stick a couple more bolts through, lather on some more glue, or both.

Ugly. And doomed – such repairs simply invite additional structural failure, and make splitting the wood more likely. I’ve never witnessed some poor soul sitting on the ground in the wreckage of one of these chairs, but I’d be surprised if it had not happened more than once.

For the defense: as designed, these chairs have lasted (with repairs) about 2 decades. How bad can they be? Also, although I’ve never seen them stacked, it’s possible they were designed to be stacking chairs and what I perceive as flaws are there to allow better stacking.

I answer that plenty of stacking chairs aren’t this bad. Further, stacking chairs offend all sound liturgical sentiment: in the same way that paper missilettes embody the ‘disposable Word of God’ sentiment, stacking chairs convey a ‘we haven’t made up our minds what this church building is really *for*’ concept.

How would I have fixed this design?

  1. Integrate the legs into the seat frame, so that stresses are distributed over multiple wood-to-wood contacts (you know, like how every decent wooden chair has been designed for centuries).
Image result for chair joints
A Sam Maloof joint joining the rear leg of a chair to the seat. Functional and beautiful – everything the Chairs That Shall Not Be Named lack! One needn’t go to this level of art, although Maloof cut and fitted these legs mostly using a table saw, a router and a rasp. Just do it like everyone has been doing it for centuries.

2. Curve the back legs so that in the inevitable event that somebody leans back in the chair, the stress is better distributed.

Chair back legs
A lame drawing illustrating the point. Yes, I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE. Why do you ask?

Deep breaths. Exhale. Ah, all better now.

 

Freak Leeks

I don’t cook with leeks a lot, but I’ve cut up at least dozens of leeks in my life – this is the first time I’ve come across this:

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Setting aside the immediate thought: are leeks evolving into or devolving from onions RIGHT BEFORE MY VERY EYES? was struck by the beauty of it all. Details of this, and the next also fascinating if less dramatic leek I cut into:

leek details 1

Leek details 2

After stopping to admire and photograph these beautiful vegetables, chopped them into bite-size pieces, mixed with halved Brussels sprouts, added a little olive oil, liberally salted and peppered them, spread them on a baking sheet, as roasted them in the oven. Earlier, had done the same to potatoes, yams, beets, and carrots, added whole garlic cloves, added thyme and rosemary and roasted separately – they take longer. Then mixed them all together and brought them to a post-caroling pot luck.

Several older couples attended -older than me, even. Imagine. A couple of people told me to tell my wife (who was off at the airport picking up incoming offspring) how good the vegetables were.

I smiled, and said I surely would.

Advent: St. Lucy’s Day

As we rapidly approach the Winter Solstice, the day of the year with the least sunlight, the Church calendar and readings stick to the theme of light. This coming Sunday’s Gospel opens with John 1:6

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

The ‘O’ Antiphon for December 21:

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

And today is the Feast of St. Lucy, whose name means ‘Light’.

virgin and martyr of Syracuse in Sicily, whose feast is celebrated by Latins and Greeks alike on 13 December.

According to the traditional story, she was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but his early death left her dependent upon her mother, whose name, Eutychia, seems to indicate that she came of Greek stock.

Like so many of the early martyrs, Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to devote all her worldly goods to the service of the poor. Her mother was not so single-minded, but an occasion offered itself when Lucy could carry out her generous resolutions. The fame of the virgin-martyr Agatha, who had been executed fifty-two years before in the Decian persecution, was attracting numerous visitors to her relics at Catania, not fifty miles from Syracuse, and many miracles had been wrought through her intercession. Eutychia was therefore persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in the hope of being cured of a hæmorrhage, from which she had been suffering for several years. There she was in fact cured, and Lucy, availing herself of the opportunity, persuaded her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.

The largess stirred the greed of the unworthy youth to whom Lucy had been unwillingly betrothed, and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. It was in the year 303, during the fierce persecution of Diocletian. She was first of all condemned to suffer the shame of prostitution; but in the strength of God she stood immovable, so that they could not drag her away to the place of shame. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, and again God saved her. Finally, she met her death by the sword. But before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy termination of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. So, strengthened with the Bread of Life, she won her crown of virginity and martyrdom.

And:

Lucy’s legend did not end with her death. According to later accounts, Lucy warned Paschasius he would be punished. When the governor heard this he ordered the guards to gouge out her eyes; however, in another telling, it was Lucy who removed her eyes in an attempt to discourage a persistent suitor who greatly admired them.

When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been restored.

Quotes Catholic Saint Lucia. QuotesGram
St. Lucy. Here’s looking at you! 

Before you dismiss this as sheer pious fantasy, you might want to read this David Warren essay. I’m inclined to believe that the bare bones of the story as factually correct, and that there’s something behind the more legendary claims, even if they might have suffered some embellishment in pious hands. The Church has long held that there’s little harm in pious legends, and much good if they inspire us to greater holiness.

Be that as it may, the feast of St. Lucy has some interesting history and traditions around it. Due to the subtle inaccuracies of the Julian Calendar, the Winter Solstice had slowly crept earlier over the 15 centuries since that calendar’s promulgation. Pope Gregory’s team proposed an equally subtle correction in 1582. That’s the calendar we use today.

Even though the Gregorian Calendar is a better calendar in all practical senses, keeping the days of the solstices and thus the seasons more or less fixed for millennia to come, the Pope had no authority to enforce this change. He could only appeal to reason. We know how far that will get you in a politically charged (to say the least!) environment. Plus, there was a correction needed: the papal bull specified that Thursday, October 4, 1582 under the Julian calendar be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582 in the Gregorian calendar. Tough break if your birthday falls into those now-vanished days!

In the end, Catholic countries pretty much got on the bandwagon pretty fast, while Protestant countries, being Enlightened and all, resisted doing the logical, practical thing for a long, long time.

When John Donne wrote A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day around 1627,  the British were still using the Julian calendar (better to get one’s calendar from a pagan emperor than a pope!), according to which the Winter Solstice had crept forward to indeed fall on (or very near) St. Lucy’s Day. As mentioned in this earlier post, our European ancestors were much less bent out of shape by claims that coincidences showed the hand of God, in fact, they expected God to work through accidents. Thus, that the feast of the saint named Light would fall on the day with the least light would seem appropriate cause for contemplation, portentous, even, to a man of Donne’s time.

St LucyThus has St. Lucy been remembered since the 6th century on. More recently, as in the last 1,000 years or so, Scandinavians have celebrated St. Lucy’s Day as part of the Christmas celebration in this manner: eldest daughter wears white that day, and wears a crown of candles. She is charged with serving food to the family, in commemoration with a legend that has it that St. Lucy did this to have both hands free to serve the poor.

There is a procession, and, in church, appropriate hymns are sung.

The love of Scandinavians for St. Lucy, a Sicilian, is explained by how her feast fell close to the pagan Norse celebration of the Winter Solstice. Those Norsemen would build big bonfires during the longest winter night to drive off the darkness and invite back the light. Lucy’s Day timing, name and story seemed a good segue from pagan to Christian.

And who doesn’t like setting stuff on fire?