Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Here is a clip of the Cautley Carollers singing the Conventry Carol:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Feast of St. John

Much to my disappointment, though I have assiduously ransacked the internet for the better part of the evening, looking for a hymn, song or carol proper to this feast day, I have turned up very little worth talking about. There is a very fine website dedicated to hymns and carols of Christmas, which contains a list of hymns in honour of St. John, and the lyrics as well. I had hoped for find one of the old, Middle English carols to post - I particularly liked the lyrics to To The Now, Crystys Der Darling - but my ambitions came to not.

Instead, I shall draw your attention to a rather interesting tradition for the Feast of St. John. According to legend, St. John was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink, but he blessed it, and the poison came out of the wine in the shape of a serpent. In memory of this miracle, it used to be the custom for wine to be blessed in honour of St. John. The faithful would serve the blessed wine at the main meal. The wine would be poured into glasses, and the father of the family would raise his glass in toast to the mother, saying, "I drink you the love of St. John." The resonse would be, "I thank you for the love of St. John." Then the mother would give the toast to the oldest child, who would in turn, give it to the next, until the love of St. John had been passed around the table. Sometimes the wine would be prepared before hand according to the following recipe:

St. John's Love (serves 8)

1 quart red wine
3 whole cloves
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 two-inch cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar

Pour the wine into a large saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Boil for 5 minutes or so. Serve hot. with the toast "Drink the love of St. John!"

Monday, December 26, 2011

On the Second Day of Christmas....

I have the rather ambitious intention of trying to do a post for each day of the twelve days of Christmas, finishing on the Feast of the Epiphany. Ideally, I would like to post something particular to each day - a song or a carol if I can find one. Today is St. Stephen's Day, and I had originally intended to publish a clip of a very old carol called St. Stephen Was a Clerk. Unfortunately, though the tune seems to be fairly well known in certain circles (i.e. medieval and renaissance musicians) diligent research did not turn up a single clip of the tune, other than as an mp3 sample. This being the case, I am posting a more flippant clip of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing The Wren Song.

The tradition of the hunting of the wren, which is described briefly at the beginning if the clip, is an old Irish custom. The story behind it is that a wren was responsible for betraying St. Stephen to his murders - and also for betraying the Irish during a key battle, by beating its wings against a shield, and rousing the enemy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Manger and the Cross

I recently stumbled across the following transcript from Jack Horkheimer, the host of the show Star Gazer, a PBS series devoted to astronomy. This particular episode - number 994 - aired in December of 1996:

...I'd like to retell a story about a fascinating cosmic coincidence I discovered back in December of '87, a story many viewers ask me to retell year after year. It all happened by accident as I was searching for something unusual for my Christmas week show and strangely it all began, not with a constellation of winter, but with a constellation of summer, Cygnus the swan, a star pattern which rises in the east just after sunset in July. I think Cygnus has always enchanted me because it looks so much like its name, a graceful swan, its tail marked by one bright star, its beak by another, a star for the tip of the left wing and a star for the tip of the right wing; stars which, if we draw lines between them, represent a swan with outstretched wings. In my youth I always loved to watch Cygnus rise in the east on summer evenings and climb higher and higher until at midnight he appeared with wings outstretched across the very roof of heaven. Then after midnight he would silently descend, gliding downward to the western horizon. Now one thing that always fascinated me about Cygnus was that as he approached the western horizon he seemed to change his shape from a swan into a great cross, a star pattern early Christians called the Northern Cross [Ed. it is still known as such]. It was also interesting to me that every year during Christmas week, around 8 p.m. or so that this cross stands almost upright on the northwestern horizon. And in December of '87 as I was researching my Christmas show the little obscure star cluster called the "Bee Hive" caught my attention and jogged an old memory, for I remembered that the Bee Hive's real name is 'Praesepe' which is Latin for 'The Manger'. So I said to myself, "Wouldn't it be a nice coincidence if at Christmas time we could see both the Cross and the Manger at the same time?" Well, just for fun I picked up my star wheel and dialed in December 25th, 8 p.m. and noticed something which gave me a pleasant start . . . for indeed, there on the wheel at 8 p.m. on the 25th of December was not only the Northern Cross standing upright on the western horizon, just about to set, but directly opposite on the eastern horizon was Praesepe, the Manger, just rising. And they will always be there opposite each other in the heavens every year, every Christmas of our lives. How poetic. Indeed, in all my years as a star gazer I had never heard or read of this lovely coincidence. So, as you gaze up at the night sky this Christmas week at the setting Cross and the rising Manger, may the heavens themselves remind you of a wish that should know no religious boundaries and that is simply: Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men . . . a hope for all mankind of all beliefs if we remind each other to Keep Looking Up!

Isn't that a beautiful arrangement? (I cannot bring myself to call it a mere coincidence.) Unfortunately, I live in the mountains, and by the time Praesepe would be visible in our sky, the Northern Cross would already set behind the great peaks to the west, otherwise, poor astronomer that I am, I would be outside on Christmas evening, doing my level best to spot these two constellations.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Away in a Manger

A couple years ago, my sisters and I decided to make a recording of ourselves singing Christmas music for my dad. It was a labour of love that soon turned into a private purgatory of all those who were involved. We recorded it at night, after Dad had gone to bed, using a karaoke machine which we plugged into the computer, and which picked up, in addition to our voices, every click and whir that the computer made. We recorded it in the living room, in between the chimes of the clock telling each quarter hour, and we all had miserable colds that left us with raw throats and strained voices. When regular cold remedies proved useless, we took to consuming great quantities of drink: cocoa, hot toddies, wine, or whisky, straight up, depending on the age of the drinker. The strong, warm libations were quite effective for relaxing the vocal chords, and getting us through each song, but the experience was still miserable. By the time we finished, we had eight songs to our credit. We cordially hated each and every one of them, and would have been just as pleased never to hear them again.

Not too long ago, by sheerest accident, I came across one of the songs we had managed to produce under such adverse conditions, and was rather surprised by how nicely it had turned out. The quality is not the best - it sounds a bit like some long lost, primitive recording of folk music from the 50s, but for all that, the arrangement is satisfactory, and the voices blend rather better than any of us remembered them doing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Today is the first day of Hanukkah, a fact I bring up only because of an odd bit of trivia concerning this well know Jewish holiday. The feast of Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that occurred during the revolt of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers against the Syrians. During the fighting, the Syrians captured the Temple and desecrated it using it as a place of worship to the pagan god, Zeus. After the Syrians were driven out of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus order the Temple to be cleansed, the altar restored, and the menorah re-lighted. The menorah was supposed to remain burning all through the night, every night. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil remaining for a single night, however, by a miracle, the menorah remained burning for eight nights, giving the Jews enough time to replenish the supply.

Now, the interesting thing about all this, is that, though Hanukkah has been commemorated ever since as a minor feast, the Hebrew Bible does not contain the Books of the Maccabees. The Jews consider those books as part of the Apocrypha. For that matter, the Protestants consider them as Apocryphal books as well. Oddly enough, it is only the Catholic Bible that contains them. Indeed, according to this website, the early Christian Church is to thank that written history of the Maccabees survived at all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

Yesterday, December 17th, marked the first day in which the Great O Antiphons of Advent are sung. Do I hear you ask, oh Reader, “what are the Great O Antiphon”? I am glad you do, for I had never heard of this beautiful liturgical custom until this year.

The Great O Antiphons are a series of seven special antiphons which are sung before the Magnificat at Vespers each day from December 17th through December 23rd, begging our Lord to make haste and come. Each of the antiphons begins by addressing the Messiah by one of His titles. The first begins, O Sapientia – that is, O Wisdom - and the others follow suit: O Adonai – O Lord; O Radix Jesse – O Root of Jesse; O Clavis David – O Key of David; O Oriens – O Rising Sun; O Rex Gentium – O King of Nations; and finally, O Emmanuel – O, God with us

The Antiphons are of great antiquity. The sixth century philosopher, Boethius, makes mention of them, and by the 8th century, they were a tradition part of the Roman Liturgy. The Antiphons are singular to Christmas. No other feast in the Church – not even Easter – has anything similar preceding the feast. Given their venerable age, and their unique standing, it seems a pity that they are not better known. Therefore, I am posting a clip of the antiphon for today, O Adonai:

For an brief history and explanation of the O Antiphons, this site is a good place to start.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas

Today is the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe. The story of the simple Juan Diego, and his beautiful lady, is one of the most touching accounts of our Lady's love for us, and the confidence we should have in her motherhood. Below is a really fine video concerning the miraculous image which was imprinted on the tilma of Juan Diego. It is a bit long, but worth looking at. One of the most beautiful aspects of this image, which is not covered in the video, is that the black sash which our Lady wears symbolises that she is with child. How fitting that we should be celebrating this particular feast day, during Advent, as we await our Lord's birth at Christmas.

This website contains a good, brief history of Mexico at the time of the apparition. For the adventurous, here is a recipe for Mayan hot chocolate, with cinnamon and chili powder in it. Believe it or not, the chili is really wonderful in hot chocolate, and I intend to make some tonight in celebration of the feast day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gaudete Sunday

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, and, like it's counterpart, Laetare Sunday in Lent, it is a small, joyful break to the penitential season. Rose coloured vestments are permitted in lieu of violet, the the liturgy takes on a decidedly hopeful and joyous tone.

I must admit that I love the season of Advent. It is a penitential season, and our family has always treated it as such, but it has such a different feel to it than Lent does. Lent is looking towards a death. Oh, I know the Resurrection comes too, but the death is still first, and there is a bitterness about the Lenten fast that bespeaks of sack cloth and ashes. Advent, however, is looking towards a birth, and therefore, cannot help but have an atmosphere of suppressed excitement, and anticipation. The penance itself feels incidental - rather like foregoing breakfast on Thanksgiving, when you know you are going to have a fantastic dinner. It simply makes a beautiful feast day that much more joyful when it actually arrives. Below is a group of carollers from Ireland, enthusiastically singing a lovely Advent song, "Behold a Virgin Bearing Him":

Behold a virgin bearing him
Who comes to save us from our sin;
The prophets cry: prepare his way!
Make straight his paths to Christmas Day.
Behold our Hope and Life and Light,
The promise of the holy night;
We lift our prayer and bend our knee
To his great love and majesty.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Today is a special feast day, the feast of the Patroness of the United States: the Immaculate Conception. Below is the very beautiful Introit from the Mass of today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Feast Day!

I have remarked upon my affection for St. Nicholas before on this blog, making particular mention of the story of himself and Arius at the Counsel of Nicea. I shall not rehash the story, fond as I am of it, but I shall share with you all a fine old icon of the event:

I am intending to celebrate St. Nicholas's day right properly, by placing his picture in a place of honour, lighting a candle before it, and brewing up a Bisschopswijn by way of making merry, for all it is still the season of Advent. It is only fitting that a saint with so warm and strong a spirit should have his day marked with the drinking of warm and strong spirits. I shall, however, refrain as far as possible from giving blows to persons who eminently deserve them.