What’s the Spiritual Season this week? An American becomes a global saint and celebrating Christmas’ Twelfth Day


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(January 4 to 10, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, festivities focus on the end the Twelve Days of Christmas (the picture above shows a traditional Twelfth Night celebration in London as envisioned by Charles Dickens’ illustrator “Phiz”). But, first, millions of Catholics in the U.S. also recall an important saint …

MONDAY is the Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born U.S. citizen canonized as a saint by the Catholic church.
    This spiritual powerhouse of a woman was born in 1774, became a prominent New York socialite and later converted to Catholicism at age 30 in 1805. She only lived until 1821, but she packed a whole lot into those final years of her life. In addition to founding the first order of religious women in America, her community founded schools and supported the education of girls. Her life was marred by a number of tragedies and challenges—including her own death at the age of 46 from tuberculosis. Now, she is regarded as a patron saint of Catholic schools and also the State of Maryland.
Here’s a link to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
    On the Vatican Web site, you still can read Pope Paul VI’s talk when she was canonized in 1975.

TUESDAY brings Twelfth Night, a rich part of Christmas traditions that the majority of Americans tend to downplay.
    For example, in 19th-Century America, fresh fruits were rare treats in the winter months and often were used to decorate homes for Christmas—then they were eagerly consumed as families reached Twelfth Night festivities and headed into Epiphany. The photo at right is a traditional Portugese pastry enjoyed in this part of the season. Generally, a whole lot of Christmas merriment historically was focused on this eve of Epiphany.
    On the food front, seasonal pastries take many forms. Often, they involve a hidden charm of some kind within the pastry. Those who discover the prize may be honored—perhaps as a king of the holiday—or may expect special blessings in the year ahead. The Telegraph newspaper in the UK provides a yummy recipe for a different form of the seasonal cake.
    One part of the U.S. that still turns out for a party at this time of year is New Orleans, where Twelfth Night is regarded as the opening shot of Carnival Season. Here’s a January 1 story from the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune about some of the pageantry hitting the city’s streets—including a birthday party for St. Joan of Arc.
    But, wait! Before you assume your part of the country is devoid of Twelfth Night culture, look a little deeper. For example, there’s an annual bash in Ashville, North Carolina, where a vigorous community of Mardi Gras aficionados has formed. Here’s a 2009 story about the Mystic Mountain Krewe’s Mardi Gras fun, which kicks off each year with an Ashville Twelfth Night party.

WEDNESDAY is Epiphany.
    There’s not a better spot in the U.S. to celebrate Epiphany than Tarpon Springs, which has proclaimed itself Epiphany City U.S.A. in an effort to convince people from far and wide to show up for the annual pageant. This city on the Gulf Coast of Florida focuses on its Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the waters of nearby Spring Bayou. Here’s a news story from Tampa Bay Online. Reports say that His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, plans to participate this year and—after an elaborate parade from the church to the Bayou—will toss the ceremonial cross into the waters. More than 60 boys will dive to retrieve it. Success brings a special blessing for the new year.
    This is the day in the Christmas cycle in which Christians celebrate the revelation of God in Jesus. Western Christians focus on the “Wise Men” or “Magi” or “Three Kings” arriving to pay homage. The significance is that even foreign dignitaries acknowledged the special power revealed in this birth, according to Christian stories that have elaborated greatly on the gospel accounts through the centuries. In Latino communities, this is Dia de los Reyes, or the Day of the Kings. Children may set out freshly polished shoes, perhaps holding treats for the Kings’ beasts of burden, hoping for treats to appear by morning.
    Eastern Christians recognize Jesus’ later baptism in the Jordan River on this day and refer to it as the Feast of Theophany, a Greek term that means “appearance of God.” This baptismal theme explains why a “blessing of the waters”—and regional customs like the procession in Tarpon Springs—are so important in Orthodox communities at this time of year. (Some Orthodox churches that follow older calendars celebrate this later in January.)

SUNDAY is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus in Roman Catholic churches.
    The Western tradition moved its celebration of Jesus’ baptism to the Sunday after Epiphany, so the feast falls on January 10 this year. In the U.S., Catholic bishops also have designated this Sunday to kick off a special National Vocation Awareness Week—in the Catholic church’s ongoing campaign to deal with its chronic shortage of clergy. Here’s the official announcement of the week on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site.


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