Pentecost: Western Christians embrace Holy Spirit’s descent, more, with ancient feast

receiving oil on forehead, pentecost

A girl receives oil on her forehead on Pentecost Sunday in England. Photo by Marcin Marzur, via Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MAY 19: Today, the ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Traditionally, Pentecost falls seven weeks after the Christian Easter.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS—This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on June 23, as Pascha (Easter) was celebrated weeks after the Western Christian Easter.

TRADITIONAL STORY

According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. Then, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

As is stated by Catholic Culture.org: Pentecost (Whitsunday), with Christmas and Easter, ranks among the great feasts of Christianity. It commemorates not only the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Disciples, but also the fruits and effects of that event: the completion of the work of redemption, the fullness of grace for the Church and its children, and the gift of faith for all nations.

PENTECOST IN THE WEST:
FIRE AND DOVES

Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even an old tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Pentecost.

Posadas Navidenas: Hispanic Christians anticipate Nativity with processions, traditions

Las Posadas kids and procession

A Las Posadas procession. Photo by Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas (or, more simply, Las Posadas) across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community.

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

LODGING AND ACCOMMODATION

Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

RECIPES, LEARNING & MORE

Advent: Western Christians begin season of preparations for Christ’s birth

Advent wreath, lit, all candles

Photo by Bruce / Starfish, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3: Advent wreaths glow and the anticipation of Jesus’s birth begins as Western Christians around the world begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays leading to Christmas, many Christians light a new candle on the wreath. Often, these wreaths are a part of congregational worship during this season—but many families also make their own wreaths at home.

One unusual question in 2023 is: At what time of day will families light the fourth and fifth candles? That’s an issue this year, because the final Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.

ADVENT: MEANING AND TRADITION

For Western Christians, Advent focuses on both the ancient arrival of Jesus and the Second Coming; on both spiritual longing and alertness. Most churches are draped in purple and/or blue during the Advent season, representing penitence and hope.

Did you know? Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—the Eastern equivalent of the Western Advent—on November 15. The Nativity Fast lasts 40 days, and incorporates prayer and strict fasting.

Each Sunday during Advent, a new candle is lit on the Advent wreath. Typically, an Advent wreath is fashioned of evergreens and contains three purple candles and one rose one, with an optional white pillar candle at its center. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and the white candle may be lit on Christmas Eve. (Tradition varies: in Protestant churches, candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, blue candles are common.)

Origins of the Advent wreath are believed to be Germanic, though opinions vary. The wreath’s circular nature now represents the eternity of God, and the increasing glow of the candles symbolizes a people previously living in spiritual darkness and, at last, witnessing the coming of the Light of the World. Advent calendars and Jesse Trees have also gained popularity of use during this Christian season.

Make a DIY Advent wreath, with information on structuring a base, candle-holders, greens and decorations at Catholic Culture.

Create a chic Advent calendarno matter what your taste—with the multitude of ideas suggested by Martha Stewart. For more ideas, check out Country Living and House Beautiful.

Blessings for the Advent wreath, for a Christmas tree and more are at the official site for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Nativity Fast: Eastern Orthodox Christians begin fast, prepare for Nativity

vegan food, Orthodox Christian Nativity Fast

For the Nativity Fast, Eastern Orthodox Christians avoid meat, dairy, fish, oil and wine (with a few days of exception). Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: The American Thanksgiving may still be around the corner, but millions of Orthodox Christians across the globe are turning toward the season of Jesus’s birth—which they refer to as the Nativity—with, today, the start of the Nativity Fast.

For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared for the Nativity with a 40-day Nativity Fast. Traditionally, two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. (Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars, such as the Julian calendar.)

In the Gregorian calendar, December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian church—no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky; afterward, the fast is joyously broken. Many then head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, while others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

Did you know? The Nativity Fast thematically focuses on glorification of the Incarnation of God; the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus. 

Traditional Orthodox fasting is no simple task: It means giving up meat and dairy, in addition to fish, wine and oil (fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days). Yet Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed. Prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

You may ask: Are American Orthodox Christians allowed to break the Nativity Fast for Thanksgiving? In short: It depends. Under the direction of Archbishop Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America from 1959-1996, a special dispensation was issued that permitted the faithful to break fast in order to celebrate Thanksgiving. On a local level, most clergy give dispensation for Thanksgiving, though there are some that do not. For those Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, the Nativity Fast starts after the American Thanksgiving.

THE PURPOSE OF FASTING: A SYNOPSIS

What is the purpose of fasting, according to the Eastern Orthodox Christian church? Following is pastoral advice from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

PROPHETS AND THE AFTERFEAST

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

On December 25 (or January 7, in the Julian calendar) it is the Feast of the Nativity. On this day fasting is forbidden, and a fast-free period—or Afterfeast—lasts through January 4 (or later, depending on one’s calendar).

Allhallowtide, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos: A trio of ‘Halloween’

Allhallowtide, Halloween

Photo by Morton1905, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31-THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Deeply rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. It’s not all solemn, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!

HALLOWEEN: CHRISTIAN TO SECULAR

Allhallowtide, the triduum of Halloween, recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of deceased loved ones. In the Christian faith, the two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that are now with God.

Did you know? In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.

Halloween’s secular side has emerged during the past century, and today, trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, visiting haunted houses, watching horror movies and dressing up like favored characters has become custom in Western culture.

SAMHAIN: GUISING FOR A TRICK AND PREPARING FOR THE ‘DARKER SEASON’

mulled wine, samhain

Mulled wine is common fare for Samhain. Photo courtesy of PickPik

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. During this time of year, bonfires were lit for the purpose of divination and as a protective and cleansing measure. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain, and hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: DAY OF THE DEAD

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls.

In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

Dia de los Muertos dressed up

Dressed up for Dia de los Muertos. Photo by Giovanny Hernández Rodríguez, courtesy of Pexels

ALL THINGS HALLOWEEN:
DIY COSTUMES, DÉCOR, PARTIES & MORE

What’s Halloween without some good costumes and tasty treats?

Assumption / Dormition of Mary: Christians commemorate the Blessed Virgin / Theotokos

Virgin Mary assumption

Domenichino’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’, in Basilica Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome. Photo by Slices of Light, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, AUGUST 15: It’s been more than 70 years since Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith, and today, Catholics are part of the observance that both branches of Christianity—West and East—acknowledge, in an event that is known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / the Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul.

NOTE: Eastern Orthodox Christians began preparing for this day on August 1, with the start of the two-week Dormition Fast.

MARY THROUGH THE MILLENNIA

While no evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. The church points to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those “fallen asleep” after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for centuries, it wasn’t until November 1, 1950 that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily.

In the West: The Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Within Protestantism, views often differ. 

A HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details specify the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans, more embrace harvest season of ‘first fruits’

Close-up of grains growing, sideways

Grains growing in a field. Photo by fietzfotos, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, AUGUST 1: As August begins and grains turn golden in the fields, Christians and Pagans (and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland) mark the feast of Lammas. An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and in some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day”; historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing.

Did you know? The Anglo-Saxon version of Lammas, or “loaf-mass,” refers to the practice of bringing a loaf of freshly baked bread to one’s local church for blessing.

It is the joyful simplicity of gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s occasion. Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

In the Neopagan and Wiccan faiths, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and is the first of three harvest festivals. Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnasadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnasadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries.

Watch a video of traditional Morris dancing, in Oxford, at this YouTube link.

Interested in making a Lammas loaf? Try this recipe, from Recipes for a Pagan Soul:

4 cups all purpose/bread flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Stir flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and raisins together. Separately, fork-blend eggs and buttermilk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until sticky batter is formed. Scrape batter onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly. Shape batter into a ball, then place in a round, non-stick casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1-1/4 hours.

Wait 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove bread from casserole, then cool on wire rack. If desired, cut loaf into quarters and then slice thinly.