Monday, December 29, 2014

Catholic New Year Traditions, Activities, and Recipes

Not surprisingly, many Catholics are asked to attend Mass to celebrate the New Year, but this may depend on the local custom or your country or your bishop.  There are also some other traditions for Catholics in the upcoming days. Recipes for some of the festive food can be found by following the enclosed links.

New Year’s Eve coincides with the celebration of St. Sylvester in Europe on the 31st. The festivities include merry-making and the ringing of bells throughout the night. Although currently regarded as a liturgical feast day, it is a reinvention of the pre-Christian traditions of scaring away bad spirits to ensure good luck in the New Year. St. Sylvester’s special celebration is the drinking and sharing of the punch bowl, which could be non-alcoholic.

New Year’s Day was originally entitled the Circumcision of the Lord but is sometimes recognized instead as the Solemnity of Mary. It is a Holy Day of Obligation, unless it falls on a Saturday or Monday. Many Catholics attend Mass on this day.  It is considered good luck to eat corned beef and cabbage or lentils on this day.

In many countries, New Year’s Day is a renewal of baptism and godparents are often honored with prayers and treats, such as God cakes, which resemble fruit pastries. In many countries, parents are honored as well, with children – of all ages - in places as different as China and Canada wearing their best attire to greet their parents and offering thanksgiving for their love and support throughout the past year.

In Europe, there is an association between beer and certain saints. St. Arnold of France is heralded as an advocate of beer consumption , and St. Brigid of Ireland was considered quite skilled in making ale and beer. This was likely due to the sewage-strewn drinking water of the cities. St. Arnold is credited with announcing that the hard work of man and the Love of God produced the beer of this world. There is also a prayer to bless beer, which is sometimes served as part of the New Year festivities.
Pope John II changed the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus to the January 3rd. This day commemorates the shedding of his blood, the circumcision, and the giving of his name, Jesus, which means Savior. Sweets and pastries such as God Cakes are also served.

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: The Three Wise Men" (named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar). Detail from: "Mary and Child, surrounded by angels", mosaic of a Ravennate italian-byzantine workshop, completed within 526 AD by the so-called "Master of Sant'Apollinare". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany or Feast of the Magi, is commonly regarded as the the Twelfth Night of Christmas, immortalized as part of a children’s carol from many ages ago. Interestingly, many Catholic traditions are simply reinventions of originally pagan holidays. For example, twelfth night was a celebration of the end of winter festival in Medieval England, which started with All Hallow’s Eve (Hallowe’en). Cakes were also served, and finding a bean within the cake meant you were king or queen of the festivities until midnight. Shakespeare based his play, Twelfth Night, on these traditions. These types of festivals date back to Ancient Rome and pre-Christian Europe. Although the Epiphany is not often celebrated as largely as Christmas in the United States, it is regarded as more important than Christmas in many Eastern European churches.
January 6th is regarded as the Epiphany or the Day of the Magi. There might be some confusion between fifth and the sixth but the sixth is generally regarded as the Twelfth Day as opposed to the Twelfth Night.  There is an Epiphany Cake, sometimes called a kings’cake, which is made with trinkets baked inside to symbolize different aspects of the faith, such as a tiny bean to represent baby Jesus. The hidden baby is a reminder that the baby Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod to avoid being captured and killed.  These days it is more common to use a tiny toy baby rather than a bean.  The kings’ cake can be served often, from twelfth night all the way until Mardi Gras, the beginning of the Lenten Season.

This cake can be made of nearly any type of sweet cake, from something resembling a giant cinnamon roll in New Orleans, La. to a puff pastry creation in France or a marzipan-stuffed pastry in Catalonia or sweet bread with dried and candied fruits in Spain and Mexico. The recipes all vary a bit, but in general, their main similarities are that the cakes are typically round with a hole in the middle (like a giant doughnut), there are trinkets hidden inside, and they may be brightly colored. The round circle is said to be representative of a crown. When the cake is prepared closer to Mardi Gras the cakes are typically colored with gold, purple and green.
In some areas, a special Mass is celebrated with Holy Water, a blessing of chalk, frankincense, myrrh and gold. Many people bring the gold (such as a rosary or a ring), a container for the Epiphany Holy Water, and the chalk. These items will be blessed as they are exposed during the Mass. The Holy Water is taken home to bless the home for the New Year, and the chalk is used to inscribe over your front door special letters and numbers.  The letters stand for the names of the three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The four digit year is broken in half, with the first two numbers before the letters, and the last two numbers after the letters. For example, in 2014, it was “20 C+M+B 14”.  In the 21st century, the first two numbers will change to “21”.  There is a special prayer that is said, also, to bless the home for the New Year.

An “Epiphany Play” is a simple re-enactment of the Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus and bringing gifts to him. If you have a Nativity scene in or outside your home, children in your house can wear paper crowns and bring handmade gifts to the baby, as part of a fun procession. Songs can be sung, and the gifts can either be pretend or you can incorporate a charitable act by presenting baby items that can be donated later to a children’s shelter or charity. Afterwards, you can celebrate with cake and Lambs Wool – which is similar to a cider-based eggnog - wassail, or a non-alcoholic, apple juice-based drink, like Hot Apple Pie.
The Sunday after the Epiphany is the Feast of the Holy Family, where they are regarded as models of love and devotion for families everywhere.

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