THERE is a whole school of thought that sniffs at the idea of encouraging Catholic customs in the home--or anywhere else, for that matter. Customs like the saying of the rosary together, the decorating of an altar in May seem to them too childish for consideration. For them the doctrines of the Church are sufficient without these extras. And indeed the doctrines of the Church are enough for anyone. They are like straight, unwinding roads that lead into eternity; only on either side of these roads are hedges and ditches and meadows and all sorts of flowers. The ultra-catholic Catholic is not interested in these flowers or fields. Still, such things are to a road what Catholic customs are to the faith; they adorn it, enliven it, they help to keep one on the journey.
It is not strange that all sorts of devotional practices have sprung up round Catholicism, sometimes practices that may seem rather trifling until one realizes that customs cannot be worthless that have evolved from the faith of the people through many hundreds of years, sometimes through well over a thousand years. What family is there that does not use certain sayings and phrases that have significance only for those belonging to the circle? What family exists that has no peculiar customs, nicknames, rites, birthday ceremonial that outsiders cannot be expected to appreciate? I can remember an unfailing ritual that was observed among us as children when we ate porridge. First, you ate it all round the edge until half of it was gone and then straight across until the red and blue figure of Tom the piper's son showed himself on the bottom of the plate, complete with pig and pursuing policeman. Why we did that I have no idea and I doubt if anyone can account for the curious rites they observed as children. Those rites are not necessary for family life, but they adorn it and enliven it. And since the Church is not an institution but a family that ranges from God and God's mother and thence to the saints and thence to the souls in purgatory and from them to ourselves, is it astonishing that spiritual family rites and customs have sprung up? It is surprising how few people think of this. But the parents who do enter into these spiritual family customs can give their children treasures, whose value they may not realize until eternity.
There is nothing forced in this idea: why does the church in her liturgy allot the various days to the honor of her saints, or to events in the lives of Christ and of Mary, if she does not wish us to celebrate them in some way?These feasts are fixed, but the way they can be celebrated can vary--and does vary tremendously from place to place. With the passing of time the festivities and the customs of the day have also changed, still the essence remains the same. At Christmas, for instance, Jesus is the center of the day, and everywhere in the world Christians will show their love to the new-born Child in their own way, whether this be with carol singing, erecting cribs, hanging Advent wreaths, placing lighted candles in the windows, leaving empty places at the table for the holy Family, or by making it a special festive day for children, their own or other people's.
Before the reformation we had in this country a vast number of celebrations springing from the Church's feasts and days of devotion, while much more of the civil year than one realizes is still conducted according to the liturgical calendar. Before the reformation the smallest things all had their connection with a feast day. Holy Rood day, September 14th, was the first day to go nutting. On St. James's day the first apples of the crop were blessed and the first oysters might be eaten. St. Martin's day was the signal for the slaughter of all cattle to be dried for winter meat. In the days of SS. Simon & Jude, and of St. Barnabas you took good notice of the weather, because storms were always expected on these days. On the feast of St. Bartholomew the fairs began.
Many customs like these were swept away at the reformation, and of those which survived--and in the remoter parts of the country naturally much more survived than in the towns--people came at last to forget the origin. Not unnaturally, a certain amount of superstition had certainly been present in some of those who had celebrated these feasts before, but now, when the liturgy and the faith were swept aside, superstition swelled until one finds St. Luke's day for instance celebrated in this country in the early 19th century in this way: "Let any number of young women, not exceeding seven, assemble in a room by themselves just as the clock strikes eleven at night. Take a sprig of myrtle, fold it in a piece of tissue paper; then light up a small chafing-dish of charcoal and let each maiden throw in it nine hairs from her head and a paring of each of her toe and finger nails. Then let each sprinkle a small quantity of myrrh and frankincense in the charcoal, and while the vapor rises fumigate the myrtle with it. Go to bed in silence while the clock strikes twelve, and place the myrtle under your head. Say:
"St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams, let me my true love see.'"
St. Mark's day fared worse than St. Luke's. In Yorkshire, the people would sit and watch in the church porch on the eve of his feast, watching from eleven o'clock until one in the morning. The third year (for it must be done three times), they were supposed to see the ghosts of all who would die in the next year pass by into the church in the order of time in which they were doomed to depart. Those who would not die, but have a long sickness, would go into the church, but presently return. "When anyone sickens that is thought to have been seen in this manner, it is presently whispered about that he will not recover, that such-and-such a one, who has watched St. Mark's eve, says so. This superstition is in such force that if the patients themselves hear of it they almost despair of recovery."
Because the origin of many of the customary celebrations of feast days was forgotten one can find ludicrous explanations vouchsafed to various rustic ceremonies, some of which have survived practically to our own days. The Oxfordshire May procession, for instance, in which the village girls would walk in procession bearing a garland of flowers and affixed to it two dolls, a large and a small doll, dressed in contemporary clothes, is given a pagan Roman origin; as though there had never been hundreds of years in which the most natural thing in the world in the month of May would have been a procession with the images of Mary and her Son! Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, on which a plough bedecked with ribbons was borne through the streets, a custom surviving until a hundred years ago, is certainly a relic of the time when ploughs were blessed, just as crops were blessed and hounds and fishing boats and herb gardens.
There are many places in England now where May processions still take place; where cart-horses, be-ribboned and be-decked, walk proudly, with stiffly-plaited manes; where farmers' carts, newly painted and adorned, vie with each other; where anyone may walk in some sort of festive tress, where the local bands play, the boy scouts and the girl guides walk, and all the local organizations. They collect money, and now it goes to the neighboring hospitals. But it is all a relic of processions in honor of our Lady, though now she has no place in it. And what else is the crowning of the May queen but the transference to the handsomest girl of the district of a ceremony that once centered round our Lady's statue?
It is, however, entirely in keeping with the Church's custom that where she found pagan festive days with a deep hold on the people she christianized these days. Thus in some cases the feasts and the celebrations around them can indeed spring from a pagan origin. Christmas day itself was chosen to coincide with a pagan festival. Certainly the one-time celebration of St. Valentine's day in this country, marked by the drawing of lots bearing the name of your patron saint for the year, is derived from Roman festivities in honor of Juno. All Souls day, Halloween, Soulmass, All-hallow even also christianized the pagan custom of giving food to the dead.
Some of the customs once generally observed are easy to understand. Fire has always been a symbol of immortality, so it is not strange that on All Souls' day bonfires were lighted all over the hillside. Nor is it unusual that on this day the people of the Western Islands of Scotland should paint crosses of tar on their cottages and on their fishing boats: nor that the boys of Lanark used on Palm Saturday to parade the streets with a willow tree in blossom ornamented with daffodils and box-branches.
Not all the traditional celebrations woven round the liturgy and corrupted after the reformation are easy to explain. Who knows what Hoke day is, or Mace Monday, the first Monday after St. Anne's day? Or why St. Luke's day was called in Yorkshire "Whip-dog day"? Or what the origin was of going "a-gooding" on St. Thomas's day? Or why the country people spent Easter Monday "lifting" or "heaving," as it is variously called, when everyone who met the chosen lifters was seized by the arms and raised high into the air three times? It is said to have been derived from celebrating Christ's resurrection, but no one really knows. Similarly, why should bushes of gorse and furze be set on fire to
celebrate St. Peter's feast, or St. John the Baptist's, and why did all the village men leap over the flames until the fires sank? Or why did all the people of Western Scotland bake St. Michael's bread at Michaelmas and insist that all the strangers they met should share it with them?
Far back, all such customs must have arisen in the liturgy, even though they became, some of them, absurd and gross, and now are forgotten almost entirely. That they did corrupt, apart from the Church, is not surprising, but that they should be left in oblivion is wrong. There are many feasts of the Church which could be celebrated now in a much more lively fashion than they are.
Obviously, no one can press for an artificial revival of all that prevailed in the fourteenth century. Fairs and theaters will never open again only when St. Bartholomew comes round. No one will wait for Holy Cross day before picking the first nuts. But what one can do, and what an attempt is made here to do is to revive some of these celebrations as they stand, to take what seems best from some, to adapt others, or even in some cases to create new ways of celebration.
Source: A Candle is Lighted, Imprimatur 1945