Monday, November 15, 2021

New Book: The Feasts of Christendom: History, Theology, and Customs of the Principal Feasts of the Catholic Church

Phillip Campbell of the highly-regarded blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam, publisher of many books on historical themes and founding editor of Cruachan Hill Press, has rendered the Catholic world — and more particularly those who care about the liturgical calendar, as NLM readers do — a notable service with the publication of his new book The Feasts of Christendom: History, Theology, and Customs of the Principal Feasts of the Catholic Church. At over 300 pages, the book does not skimp on details nor on the intriguing stories that go along with many of our favorite holydays.

The purpose of the book is succinctly expressed in its description: "Every year, believers worldwide experience the spiritual heritage of the Christian faith through the festivals of the liturgical year. But where did these festivals come from, how did they develop, and how are they observed? Drawing on sources historical, theological, liturgical, and cultural, The Feasts of Christendom provides an exhaustive resource on the major festivals of the Christian calendar. Phillip Campbell leaves no stone unturned in this comprehensive study. When did the Church settle on December 25th for the date of Christmas? How do we know Pentecost happened on a Sunday? Why did central European farmers put a picture of the Annunciation inside a barrel? How come the English observed two St. Michael's days? Find out the answers and much more in The Feasts of Christendom."

Naturally, even a detailed book must have its limits. As the subtitle indicates, Campbell focuses on some of the major feasts of the year: Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Candlemas, Annunciation, Easter, Pentecost, Nativity of St John the Baptist (where, inter alia, we learn about the three findings of his head), Assumption, Michaelmas, All Saints & All Souls, and Christmas. It's true that the Baptism of the Lord is not a major feast liturgically speaking, but Campbell includes a chapter to flesh out its theological significance. His general approach in each chapter (though it admits of a certain flexibility) is to examine the historical events on which the feast is based, then to look at how it is liturgically celebrated and the theological doctrine and spiritual lessons conveyed by it. The author in a number of places digresses at length to show the absurdity of various claims about the "pagan origins" of certain Christian feasts. While no one disputes that Christians were clever about combating pagan revelries by offering opportunities for prayer instead, the idea that Christmas or Easter is "nothing but a Christian version of..." some pagan festival — a position regrettably found among poorly-informed Protestants — deserves to be thoroughly refuted. This aspect of the book would make it useful for apologists and for non-Catholics of good will who sincerely want to understand where these feasts came from and why they are celebrated.

One thing that NLM readers will particularly appreciate is Campbell's sensitivity to the rather chaotic developments in Catholic liturgy over the course of the 20th century. Thus, when discussing Easter, he lists the readings as found in the pre-55, the 1962, and the 1969 rites of Easter, showing how the pre-55 custom best matches the history of the ancient celebration of the Easter Vigil. In the chapter on Christmas, too, he speaks to the superiority of the pre-55 calendar. This is not a major theme in the book, but the fact that it is present at all is testimony to the ever-growing awareness that the traditional movement has long since graduated from 1962 rigorism and that the restoration will take the form of harking back to older and better models, instead of feeling oneself stuck with the messy and self-contradictory reforms of the 20th century.

A charming aspect of the book is the frequent narration of folk customs associated with each of these major feasts, together with quotations from poems and stories. It is always entertaining and enriching to learn about how our ancestors kept the feasts and fasts, and can offer us much inspiration as we try, piecemeal and patiently, to rebuild a Catholic life on the ruins of the postconciliar experiment in modernization. The best models are already to hand in our tradition and we would be foolish not to learn more about them and to make room for them in our midst. The critics of tradition do not seem to realize that when we live our traditions in the present, it is no longer a form of nostalgia for the past, since we have made it contemporary again. Even more profoundly, as Campbell discusses in his chapter on All Saints and All Souls, the entire Church in heaven and in purgatory is contemporaneous with the Church Militant. The souls that have gone to their eternal rest are not in the past, but in the present of God.

The Feasts of Christendom may be purchased at and affiliates. To learn about other books from Cruachan Hill Press, visit their website.

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