Nativity of Mary: Eastern and Western Christians celebrate a holy birth

Full white statue of adult Virgin Mary holding out hands

A statue of the Virgin Mary in New York. Photo by Slice of NYC, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: The Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Mary’s birth on the Nativity of Mary. Down through many centuries, churches honored three figures on both their birthdays and death anniversaries: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians know her as the Virgin Mary and she remains the only woman in Christian history to receive the honor of a holy birth (i.e. Immaculate Conception). Ironically, the modern canon of scripture gives no mention of exact details concerning Mary’s birth, as the earliest known account is contained in an apocryphal text from the second century. (Readings for the day and more are at USCCB.org.) The Church holds that the Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin, to Sts. Anne and Joachim in Jerusalem.

A feast for the Nativity of Mary began in the fifth century, and by the seventh century, it was recognized by Byzantine Christians to the East. For Eastern Orthodox Christian, September brings the first month of the Ecclesiastical Year. In France, the grape harvest is at a peak, and winegrowers refer to the Nativity of Mary as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” (Wikipedia has details.) Prime grapes are brought to a local church to be blessed, and in some regions, bunches of grapes are attached to the hands of statues of Mary.

NEWS: APPARITIONS & A VATICAN REPORT

On a scale that has garnered attention from the Vatican, the small town of Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been the site of mass tourism since the report of six youths over three decades ago that the Virgin Mary appeared to them. (New York Times has the story.) Unlike most apparitions, this one is reported to have lasted for 34 years—and continues today. Millions have traveled to Medjugorje with dozens of reports of miraculous healings and conversions, though the Vatican has exercised caution and is expected to soon make public its findings on the investigations concerning the apparitions.

 

New Year’s Day: Shogatsu, the Solemnity of Mary and Feast of St. Basil

Platters in gold of lobster and other fancy Japanese delicacies

Traditional Japanese New Year’s foods. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, JANUARY 1: The Gregorian year 2015 rings in at midnight, and around the world, parades, games and greetings fill the streets while traditional dishes fill tables in homes. Cultural customs vary from parades and football in the United States to ancestor tributes in Korea. Polar Bear Club plunges—jumping into icy-cold bodies of water—have been steadily gaining popularity in Canada, the United States, the UK, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, and in many areas, family and friends will gather for a New Year’s Day brunch. (Find interactive information and history at History.com.)

Bake up some: Blini! Nothing says “New Year” quite like blini—in Russian culture, that is. Ancient Slavs regarded the thin pancakes as symbols of the sun, given their round form, and blini have been reserved for festive occasions for centuries. The Russian form of blini can be stuffed with cheese, and that recipe—along with two others, plus a personal tale of family history—can be found at Wall Street Journal.com.

Grey stone bell with simple Eastern carvings

Buddhist bells are run 108 times on New Year’s Eve. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SHOGATSU:
JAPANESE BUDDHIST EXTRAVAGANZA

The grand celebrations for Christmas in the West compare to elaborate preparations for New Year’s in the East, and Japan observes Shogatsu with grandeur. Families prepare weeks in advance, with most businesses closed on New Year’s Day. Traditional pressed rice cakes, mochi, are cooked ahead of time and then finally prepared in a variety of flavors. Some mochi are cooked with broth to create a New Year’s soup. (Read more from Food & Nutrition.)

At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples throughout Japan ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. The Watch Night Bell is a renowned destination on New Year’s Eve. After midnight, families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together on soba noodles. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed, while children are presented with small envelopes containing money. (Wikipedia has details.) Most New Year’s celebrations last several days.

Happy New Year!  Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!

SOLEMNITY OF MARY,
MOTHER OF GOD:
OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS

The octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1. Feasts for the Mother of God were popular from the earliest centuries of the Church. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) Millions of Christians, in Eastern and Western branches of the faith, turn to the Virgin Mary who is, by Greek description, the Theotokos “She Who Gave Birth to God.” (Note: in the Anglican and Lutheran denominations, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ is observed today.)

BASIL THE GREAT
& VASILOPITA CAKE

Saint Basil the Great takes the cake—literally—in Greece and in Orthodox Christian communities today. On New Year’s Eve, both adults and children walk through neighborhoods singing Kalanda—carols—and then gather for enormous bonfires. In hopes of luck in the New Year, tables are graced with plentiful dishes, and the St. Basil’s Cake is the centerpiece. The vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake, is cooked with a coin inside, and the recipient of the piece of cake with the coin is said to be lucky for the coming year. (Find a recipe here.)

St. Basil the Great was born in the 4th century CE in Caesarea of Cappadocia, to a family well known for its holiness. At his sister’s urging, Basil followed an ascetic life and visited monks in several regions. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The saint inspired and preached throughout his life until his death, on January 1, 379 CE.