A couple of weeks ago, as I was gathering my Christmas decorations to put them away, I came upon a booklet called “Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home.” It was published in 1955 as part of a series designed to help parents teach their children about the feasts of the Church year. My mother bought it along with a companion booklet that I also have on the season of Advent.
Because the series is from the 1950s, it reflects customs and liturgical practices of the era before Vatican II, but the booklets contain some wise observations that are as true today as they were more than a half-century ago. As I flipped through “Christmas to Candlemas,” I noticed a quote from Pope Pius XI: “People are instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectively by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all. The Church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart and have a salutary effect upon man’s whole nature.”
Yes, the language is a bit dated now, and Church teaching is spread more widely today by digital communication, although how much those teachings are reflected on and understood is another matter. I agree with Pius XI: The Church’s feasts reach everybody, not just scholars and intellectuals, and they engage not only our minds but also our emotions. In a world that has become much more secular and much less attentive to religious practices, it’s time to take another look at traditions for celebrating the Church’s feasts and seasons. They can deepen our spirituality and our understanding of our faith, and for children they’re a source of delight as well as instruction.
This is a good time to start. The day that I was reading the pamphlet was the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which ends the Christmas season. The Church year is moving on. Easter comes early this year, on April 1. Ash Wednesday, on Feb. 14, is less than a month away. Other feasts, less prominent but filled with meaning, will soon be here, including the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2 and St. Blaise—when throats are blessed—on Feb. 3. Now is the time to do a little research, and the internet makes it easy. Just type “Catholic customs for Lent” or Easter or another feast, and Catholic websites appear offering background and suggestions. There are many ideas for making Lent more meaningful for children, including making a Lenten calendar similar to an Advent calendar and making one’s own prayer book.
So many feasts lend themselves to some kind of special attention at home. Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ: to focus on them, for example, by setting out an image representing the Holy Spirit or a rendition of a host and chalice, can lead us to think more deeply about our faith and help us to remember it amid the distractions of daily life.
Equally important, they remind us of our identity. We are Catholic; we are members of Christ and his universal Church. We celebrate its feasts with our fellow Catholics of every land and culture. That can strengthen our ties to our own family and our sense that we are members of a worldwide family.
The secular world takes advantage of holidays and seasons to boost business. January white sales are here, and stores are filling up with Valentine’s Day cards and candies. The minute the hearts and cupids disappear, shamrocks will take their place for St. Patrick’s Day, along with cards and candy for Easter. If business can use seasonal symbols to its advantage, we can take the cue and bring sacred signs and practices, old and new, into our lives. They enhance our spirituality and our celebrations, and they help us to remember who we are: the family of the Lord, journeying always with him and to him.