We had our first ever St. Nicholas Day celebration today. I’d call it a success. They weren’t as excited about the cinnamon sugar roasted almonds I stayed up til midnight making as I’d hoped (are they ever as excited about things we gruel over as we want them to be?), but the chocolate coins and candy canes were a hit.
The story of how we came to start celebrating St. Nicholas day all began this past Fall. It doesn’t involve visions of sugar plums dancing through my kids’ heads but there is a Mama in a kerchief.
My husband was becoming more and more involved in following what was going on at Standing Rock (in case you only watch mainstream media: First People’s activists and allies were fighting an oil pipeline that a company was building under the Missouri River and through sacred tribal burial land). At this point, various protestant churches and Jewish denominations had given formal statements of support to the movement. Because, why wouldn’t they? Not only were the indigenous people standing up for religious freedom, they were standing up for our water, for our environment. For now and future generations.
There was one decidedly absent Christian church though. The Catholic Church. Catholic with the big C. You know, that church headed by Pope Francis. You know, that descendent of St. Peter, the rock upon which Christianity is built, who happened to have written a little something called Laudato Si, an encyclical on the environment (read it here when you have the time). In it, he called on every person to recognize their responsibility to taking care of the Earth. He said as Christians it simply wasn’t optional. Protecting the earth is part of our vocation.
My hubs and I were sad about this. Where was Mother Church when Mother Earth needed her? There were certainly nuns and priest there at Standing Rock as individuals, but no official show of support by Rome.
We began talking about it. And about how all of my son’s friends at school (Catholic school) had parents supporting Trump. They’d been supporting Trump all through the primary. They *really* liked Trump. We talked about the complete lack of energy in the congregation at mass and the seeming attitude of “let’s get in, sit through all that crap, get the communion, then duck out as quickly as possible to go watch the Steelers.”
We converted to Catholicism at the Easter Vigil in 2015. Before that, we’d been Pentecostal. There is *no* lack of energy at a Pentecostal church. They are feeling the Spirit. We went to an amazing church in Harrisburg, Kingdom Embassy. It was singing and dancing and prophesizing and clapping and shouting and crying. Anyone was joyfully welcome to attend. It was people who’d made mistakes in life and were saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Can I get an Amen? Always can. And they mean it. It was also amazing sermons. Sometimes an hour or two long (when you mention this to lifelong Catholics, they’re horrified. A twenty minute homily is considered neverending in the Church). Tithing was a joy, complete with strutting ushers and the congregation dancing their tithe up to the basket. And getting called to the alter to be prayed over. Lay it down. Your struggles, your failures, your fears. Prostrate yourself as the faithful lay hands and pray over you and fill you with the power of the Holy Spirit. Folks may have been late (we pretty much always were. No one was ever judgy about it either. Just glad you came) but no one was bolting for the door, trying to leave early. You didn’t want that feeling to end. The Spirit alive.
Mass? Not so much.
And then you have the whole Trump thing.
The ones who go to mass weekly and are seemingly the “most” Catholic are overwhelmingly socially conservative. They want abortion to be illegal, but… let’s cut Medicaid (lazy poor), keep out those illegals, who the hell cares about equal pay for women, let’s keep that war going, the death penalty is a great deterant, no don’t let in those Syrian refugees, black lives matter? nah, and everyone knows global warming is a hoax and union workers are just greedy whiners. An exaggeration? Not really. Pro-life? Not on your life. They’d be more appropriately called The Criminalize Abortion movement. Honestly. It would be more factually accurate. God is Love. Where’s the love, y’all?
Here’s the thing: Pope Francis is the head of this church. The Church. He is a descendent of St. Peter. The divinely chosen holy father of the Body of Christ. And Pope Francis don’t play all that. He can accurately be called pro-life whether you agree with him or not. He is against abortion but he is also for the environment, civil rights, human rights, immigrant rights, refugees, peace, reigning in capitalism, food and healthcare and clean water for all. Imagine that. God is Love.
Not clear on how the ones going to mass every week or even everyday, getting filled with the Eucharist, are saying, eh, what does he know? It’s hard enough to understand how you can read the Gospels and have so unloving a view of things, but when God goes so far as to appoint you an actual physical person right in front of you, very specifically spelling it all out for you, and you still hold to your fear and your judgment and smallness? No wonder people are cutting out of mass. The Church Alive is the church comatose. We’re your grumpy uncle who’s had one too many beers sitting on the recliner bitching that you need to get a *real* job and someday when you’ve seen what the *real* world is, you won’t be such a damn hippy.
We’re supposed to be your cool Grandma who bakes your favorite cookies but also watches professional wrestling and smokes little sugar dipper cigars and tells you stories about that St. Patrick’s day she was drinking in the pub in Lawrenceville and somehow ended up signing up for the IRA. Yeah, *that* one.
They take the eucharist like it’s this annoying obligation they do to avoid getting nagged at. Thing is: it’s God. The eucharist is… God. God. God. They take God into their body likes it’s just a habit. A dull, repetitive habit. The church comatose.
What happened to the Joy?
When I was called to become Catholic fourteen years ago, it was a call to the most beautiful overwhelming gorgeous heartaching love. Something so big, something… I really can’t explain with words. Which is sort of the point. Protestants have great sermons. Catholics have sensuality and beauty and mystery and transubstantiation and a church and her saints that go back two thousand years.
Christ is a sacrament that God sent us so we could know him with our senses (our body) as much as we know him with our hearts and souls (our spirit). Christ is both fully human and fully God. And so is his Church. And so we worship God with our bodies and our souls. We glorify God with our bodies and spirits. We love our fellow human’s bodies and souls with our bodies and souls.
This feeling I’d had then had long since faded. How, I wondered now, could I get it back?
My husband and I had both spent time in Orthodox Jewish communities before we’d met and seen so much that was wonderful there. We talked now, wondering how could Catholicism have lost what the Jewish people have retained all these thousands of years? What was the secret?
I sat down and began brainstorming (I have not forgotten the lessons my elementary school gifted program teacher taught me). I took out three sheets of paper. On one I wrote down everything good about Judaism I missed, on another I wrote down everything wonderful about Catholicism I could think of, and on the last I wrote down everything bad/frustrating about Catholicism. Then, I looked for patterns (a skill of mine, #AutismRocks). A few things emerged.
I identified the broad categories of what Judaism does so well: the flow of the year with holy days, wonderful traditions, a sense of identity and belonging, spiritualy fulfilling food and music, Shabbat, a dedication to God that extends to the food they eat (Kosher), the clothes they wear, and so much more, that also sets them apart to the gentiles, a strong connection to the past as well as the diaspora, lively intellectual discussion and debate. And one last one for me: praying in Hebrew. It technically fits into a couple of the broader categories but it’s a really important one for me. And it’s *my* list so, there you go.
And then I looked at my Things That Are Good About Catholicism page and found each and every one of them there (uh, except Hebrew). I found monks chanting and choirs singing Ave Maria and incense and staues, and cathedrals so beautiful it makes you cry, I found a two thousand year old Church with amazing intellects from Theresa of Avilla to Augustine to Pope Francis and saints with faith hard to fathom, babkas and buche noel and hot cross buns, fasts and feasts, a liturgical calendar with enough holidays and holy days and venerations to keep you busy all year long, women covering their heads, girls in Communion veils, the most beautiful contemplative prayer complete with beads made of rose petals-the rosary, rebel nuns and priests living out Liberation Theology, Dorothy Day and Thomas Martin and their Catholic Worker movement, not to mention a world that for 500 years has most definitely viewed Catholics as a distinct people set aside from them (and oftentimes not treated very well at all). After all, we worship Mary and have babies like rabbits and eat flesh.
I looked at my bad things about Catholicism list and saw they were almost all really recent and really American. A self induced spiritual coma amongst American Catholics. I decided to wake me and mine up. Hopefully we shake up the ICU in the process.
And so, here we are at St. Nicholas Day. Christmas is a beautiful glorious feast of the Church. But, today? Not so much. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I knew I needed to read up on how Christmas is *really* supposed to be recognized and do it STAT! (my husband tells me people don’t know what that means if they’re not in the medical world. Really? Okay, well, it means do it NOW. Not ASAP (that’s a separate order), do it NOW).
The first thing I found out made a lot of sense. If you’re going to have a celebratory feast for the birth of God (i.e. a really BIG celebration) then you need to get ready with a fast (fast-feast, repeat). And that’s what Advent is. It’s a mini Lent. The best description I found came in a book by Meredith Gould (formerly Jewish, by the way, so girlfriend knows how to make the liturgical year pop!) called “The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days and Everyday.” Christmas is the birth of Christ. So, Advent is like pregnancy, awaiting this baby you’ve been looking forward to for so long. She describes it as a, “time to luxuriate in peaceful waiting.” Ohmygosh how can anyone *not* want to be Catholic after reading this book? I have no idea.
Lent is pretty much pure fast, contemplate, repent, sorrowful mysteries, stations of the cross all the way up until Easter. Advent is a little more complex. On the one hand we’re fasting and focusing on giving to others so that the feast day is all that much sweeter. We’re focusing on what a gift our salvation is, what a gift Christ is. We’re feeling those aches and pains of the last few weeks of pregnancy (and if it’s anything like me last pregnancy with kiddo #4, we’re talking some real pain. And really swollen ankles).
On the other hand, we’re so excited the baby is coming. So grateful. Dying with anticipation. Getting ready, having baby showers (okay, not with #4 but if you’re lucky you get one or two along they way), knitting booties (hopefully you’re better at that than I am. Mine came out big enough for a heavyweight boxer).
That’s where jolly old St. Nicholas comes in. We’ve had the first two Advent candle lightings, reflecting on Love and Hope, reading scriptures (translation: a kid snooze-fest except for the part where one of them gets to light the candles. We try our best, but, yeah, not exciting stuff to a kid). Now it’s time for the good stuff. St. Nicholas Day. We don’t know too too much about Nicholas but we do know he was a giving man who did good deeds and gave to those in need in secret. At times, they say, leaving coins in the shoes of the poor.
In a lot of countries, European low countries in particular, St. Nicholas is the big present day instead of Christmas. he brings them oranges and coins and chocolates and whatnot and puts it in their little Dutch shoes or their stockings.
Christmas in the States today is really this very empty, commercial thing. I love Frosty and Rudolph and cookies and all. But, let’s be honest: they’re a sometimes tradition. It’s like food. Veggies and fruits and nuts and whatnot are the All the Time foods. Granola bars and jerky are Fun foods. And candy and French fries and, well, cookies, are Sometimes foods. They’re the foods that taste really good. Release large amounts of dopamine into your brain, ya know (like cocaine). But they don’t fill you up because they’re void of nutrition. You can eat til you have a belly ache but your brain won’t trigger satiety until you eat something from the All the Time group. Sorry Frosty. You leave us wanting something more. Something else, whether we realize it or not.
So, my hubs and I wanted to give Christmas more meaning. Catholic meaning, specifically. Still with some sometimes foods tossed in there, but some micro and macronutrients at the base.
We decided we needed to get the kids less presents overall (well, he’d decided this years ago but I was now on board so it would actually happen starting this year) and I also suggested we shift some of the gifting and sweets focus from Christmas onto St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day (we’ll talk about her next week when it’s *her* feast day). This also allowed me to wean them from Santa by explaining Santa is simply St. Nicholas’s nickname (no pun intended) and St. Nick comes first on his feast day and then again on Christmas because he’s just so excited it’s Jesus’s birthday. They’ve given me some puzzled looks over this. I think mainly because it’s confusing and less that they don’t believe me. As long as we’re infusing a bit more God into the Santa thing I’m not concerned about the exact details. They get the gist.
I read up on St. Nicholas traditions around the world. I was frustrated at first that Catholic traditions are defined by what country you’re in. I wanted a little more universality (wanted it a little more catholic–little “c”). But I’ve calmed down about it. I started out focusing on Dutch traditions because my husband’s family is Dutch (thus, the burden of forever explaining to people my last name is spelled “S-P-A-A-R. Two A’s, One R” which I now follow up with “it’s Dutch”. Less annoying than explaining my boys from my previous marriage’s last name is spelled “C-H-I-A-N-G. It’s a transliteration of the Chinese name ‘Jiang'” as I pronounce it in the Mandarin tone its intended to be (like singing it as a high note, if you’re not familiar with the Mandarin language. Which I’m sure you totally are). I soon began to enjoy piecing together traditions from different countries.
The Dutch use shoes but that seemed off to me. I wanted something more organic for us, you could say. I saw some countries use the stockings instead. Perfect. We’d use the stockings for St. Nicholas and then presents under the tree for Christmas. Lovely little bridge there. I also began reading up on the horribly racist Dutch character of Black Peter and decided we would skip that one. (Seriously, watch this or read David Sedaris’s take here).
The Dutch have these special cookies they make for St. Nicholas called speculaas . They’re made in these special wooden presses and we happen to have one that my hub’s Dutch step-grandfather Peter had given him years ago. I decided to make those but then we couldn’t find the press so we went with this cookie called a gadette instead. You make it in a waffle maker and it’s a lot different from a typical modern American cookie (translation: not full of sugar and red food coloring and more sugar). There was also a lot about St. Nicholas Day that reminded me of Channukah so, for St. Nicholas Eve dinner I made a roast chicken and latkes to eat before the gadettes.
This morning they awoke to stockings filled with the traditional (fruit, nuts, candy canes, chocolate coins) as well as a small present for each. My four year old daughter also got a couple books about the story of Christmas (along with the fairy Barbie we prayed and asked St. Nick for). I didn’t think fresh fruit would do it for them, so I got them some nice dried fruit from trader Joe’s (they weren’t terribly excited but I’m burning happy traditions into their little psyches, damn it. They’ll thank me one day). We have nuts year round so I took some and slow roasted them into candied nuts (stayed up until MIDNIGHT, have I mentioned that part? Seriously. And I had a 12 hour shift the next day. Not trying to be a martyr here, but… you make up your own mind on my possible election to sainthood). My 12 year old can’t eat dairy so I went on a long, arduous quest for quality kosher pareve chocolate coins on the internets (helps that chocolate coins are part of Chanukah too). Then this morning, I made silver dollar pancakes (silver dollar, coins. get it?) and we had orange (St. Nicholas associated fruit) juice. We don’t allow our kids juice very often (we haven’t had it since August according to my 11 year old) so it was a pretty big treat, actually.
This Sunday is the the third Sunday of Lent which means we will burn our frankincense and myrh and dim the lights and play the Gregorian chanting, as usual. But this week we light the pink candle (the other three are purple). This is Gaudete Sunday. Named for the first word of the week’s introit (read what that is here if you don’t know)
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob
Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always.