Saturday, December 31, 2022

Pope Benedict XVI, RIP

Deus, qui inter summos sacerdótes fámulum tuum Benedictum ineffábili tua dispositióne connumerári voluisti: praesta, quáesumus; ut, qui Unigéniti Filii tui vices in terris gerébat, sanctórum tuórum Pontíficum consortio perpétuo aggregétur. Per eundem Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

God, Who in Thy ineffable providence, did will that Thy servant Benedict should be numbered among the high priests, grant, we beseech Thee, that he, who on earth held the place of Thine Only-begotten Son, may be joined forevermore to the fellowship of Thy holy pontiffs. Through the same Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

As we pray for the eternal repose of the deceased Pope Emeritus, let us also remember with gratitude the gift of his papacy, his graciousness and good humor, his many wise and well-considered writings, his paternal love especially for priests and religious, but of course above all, his restoration to the Church of the incomparable treasure of the traditional Roman Rite, an act which will continue to bear great spiritual fruit and lead the way for much-needed reform. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

Friday, December 30, 2022

A Traditional Italian Manger Scene at the FSSP Parish in Rome

Although the invention of the creche is attributed to an Umbrian, St Francis of Assisi, the city of Naples can truly boast of having developed it into a particular art form, with the creation of a highly theatrical Baroque style admired and imitated up and down the peninsula. The Neapolitan tradition began with St Cajetan, the founder of the Theatine Order. One of his favorite places to pray in Rome was the basilica of St Mary Major, specifically, the chapel where the relics of Christ’s crib were kept. At the end of the 13th century, the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio had carved for this chapel a large Nativity set, several pieces of which survive to this day. While praying there one year on Christmas Eve, St Cajetan had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who handed him the Baby Jesus to hold. When he came to Naples in 1534, he set up a Nativity scene in the church of a major public hospital, in imitation of the Roman one; this was then picked up by many other churches, as well as private families. It was also in Naples that the tradition began of dismantling the creche after the Christmas season ended, so that it could be reassembled, perhaps in a different way, the following year; previous ones like di Cambio’s, the figures of which were all stone, were permanent fixtures.

As the tradition developed and spread throughout Italy and elsewhere, it became a kind of competition (a friendly one, we hope) to enrich the scene with an ever larger number of human figures, and make them continually bigger with the addition of whole buildings, streets, piazzas etc. The persons and scenes shown are for the most part ordinary folks going about their ordinary lives, a theological declaration that the sanctifying grace of Christ, which begins to come to us in the Incarnation, is available to all in whatever station of life they find themselves. Very frequently, the Holy Family are shown within a ruined temple, or some other ancient Roman building, representing the world which suffers from the ruin of sin, and longs for renewal in the coming of the Savior.

This year, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, the Fraternity of St Peter’s parish in Rome, set up a new Nativity scene in the finest Neapolitan tradition, with many of the sections made to look like the streets of the neighborhood, and as you can see below, even includes a scene with the church’s founder, St Philip Neri. The figures are clothed in a manner more in keeping with the traditions of Rome and environs, as seen, for example, in the flat headdresses of the women, and the costumes of the shepherds. The first twelve photos were taken on Christmas night before the Midnight Mass; some photos with brighter light are seen below.

St Philip hanging out in the neighborhood.

Durandus on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas

Since Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, the Mass and Office of the Sunday within the octave of Christmas are transferred to December 30th. Here is William Durandus’ commentary on the Mass, the 14th chapter of book six book of his Rationale Divinorum Officium.

On the Sunday which falls within the octave of the Lord’s birth, the Mass is sung of the Nativity; whence the Introit is “Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia.”

Introitus (Sap. 18) Dum medium silentium tenérent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter habéret, omnípotens Sermo tuus, Dómine, de caelis a regálibus sédibus venit. Ps 92 Dóminus regnávit, decórem indútus est: indútus est Dóminus fortitúdinem, et præcinxit se. Gloria Patri ... Sicut erat... Dum médium siléntium...
Introit (Wisdom 18) When a profound stillness compassed all things, and the night in its swift course was half-spent, Thy almighty Word, o Lord, came down from heaven’s royal throne. Ps. 92 The Lord hath reigned, he is clothed in splendor; robed is the Lord with strength, and hath girt himself. Glory be... As it was in the beginning... When a profound stillness...
The silence is threefold, namely, of ignorance, of despair, and of glory. The silence of ignorance was before the Law, because they knew not their sins, and therefore they did not cry out to the Lord; for death reigned from Adam until Moses (Rom. 5, 14). But after the Law was given for the knowledge of sin, for a long time they kept the Law, but at the last, they despaired, namely, when “all (had) gone aside (and) become unprofitable together.” (Ps. 13, 3). Then was the silence of despair. But after Christ came, the silence was broken, whence all cry out the praises of God. The silence of glory will come, when all our desire is fulfilled. In the silence of despair the Lord will come, so that the salvation of the human race may be attributed to Him who is the true healer. …
There follows “the night”, that is, the devil, “in his course had the middle way”, i.e. the common way, for all were going down into hell together; “Thy almighty word”, that is, Thy son, “Lord” and Father, who is called the Word of the Father, because He was born through Him, came from the royal seats to seek (men) and make them kings. Or literally, “When all things had the middle, that is common silence, from the night, namely, when all things are silent, and the night was in the midst of its course, Thy almighty Word (came) form the royal seats” because the Lord was born in the night. …
The Graduale is “Thou art beautiful (above the sons of men; Ps. 44)” because He is immune from all sin, and full of all virtues; for as the Apostle says, “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead corporeally” (Col. 2, 9), … according to grace (divinity) is in the Saints, but by way of union it is in Christ, and therefore, “grace is poured forth upon thy lips (Ps. 44, 3).” Grace, since never did a man speak thus (Jo, 7, 46) is poured forth, I say, because the law of clemency is on his tongue (Prov. 31, 26), as when he said, “Woman … doth none condemn thee? … neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.” (Jo. 8, 1-11). The Gospel (Luke 2, 33-40) likewise pertains to His Birth… “His father, putative, of course, and Mother were wondering at the things which were being said about him, namely, by the shepherds.
There follows in the Gospel the prophecy of Simeon “ Behold (this child) is set for the fall”, that is, of unbelievers, “and for the resurrection of many”, that is, of the faithful, “and for a sign which shall be contradicted…”
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1620, by the Flemish painter Cornelis de Vos. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Again, the introit Dum medium is the voice of the primitive Church, in which it recalls the birth of the Lord, the fruit of which it preaches in the Epistle, because we have passed from servitude to adoption … but in the Postcommunion, “Take up the boy”, the time of the flight is invoked, when the Lord went down into Egypt, and mystically, this looks to the adoption of the gentile nations, because the Lord passed from Judea to the nations, that he might adopt them as heirs.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Rorate Mass Photopost 2022 (Part 6)

Before we move on to photos of your Christmas liturgies, here is one last set of Rorate Masses, a record-breaking sixth post in this annual series. This brings us to over 270 photos, from churches in 19 American states and 11 other countries, with several duplicates (three Canadian provinces, three locations in England etc.) We can all add to our other reasons for Christmas cheer the knowledge that the slow but steady work of recovering our Catholic liturgical tradition continues! 

We must also remember to pray for our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedictus XVI, to whose incomparable pastoral wisdom and good example this recovery is due in no small measure.

St Patrick Oratory – Waterbury, Connecticut (ICRSP)
Courtesy of the Society of St Hugh of Cluny 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Season 5 of Square Notes is Live

Just in time to provide some listening for the relaxation of the Christmas holiday, Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast is back with season 5.
Our season kicks off with an inspiring discussion with Fr. Christopher Smith about his work with his parish school, their excellent liturgies, strong Catholic identity, and welcoming spirit. A wonderfully engaging interview with Dr. Thomas Forrest Kelly (Harvard) covers some of the topics from his excellent book, Capturing Music: The Story of Notation. The hot topic of church musician burnout (and the related clergy burnout) is covered in the third episode. Episode four is a very special interview with one of the foremost improvisers and composers in the French tradition, Naji Hakim.
Access the episodes on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, Spotify, iHeart Radio, YouTube, Stitcher, or most any podcast app.

The Feast of Childermas

The Massacre of the Innocent, by Nicolas Poussin, ca. 1625-29

The biblical description of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is brief but chilling:

Herod, perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: “A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” (Matt. 2, 16-18).
St. Matthew’s account does not indicate how many were killed in Herod’s effort to murder the Infant Jesus. The Byzantine liturgy mentions 14,000, the Syrian churches speak of 64,000, and some medieval authors, inspired by Revelation 14, 3, speak of a staggering 144,000. Based on fertility rates and the size of the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, however, a more realistic estimate places the number of the slain somewhere between ten and twenty.
Matthew is also silent about the date of the massacre, except for hinting that it happened within two years of the apparition of the Magi’s star. The Armenian feast day honoring the Holy Innocents falls on the Monday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost in accordance with a belief that they were killed fifteen weeks after the nativity of our Lord. The Byzantine calendar has the feast on December 29, while the Syrian and Chaldean calendars have it on December 27.
The Church of Rome, from what we can tell, has always kept the feast of “Childermas” (Children’s Mass) on December 28, ever since it first began being celebrated there in the fifth century. In so doing, the Western Church presents an interesting array of Christ’s “counts” on December 26, 27, and 28: first St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr who is martyr by will, love, and blood; then St. John the Evangelist, who is martyr by will and love (John is considered a martyr because of the attempts made on his life even though he died a natural death); and lastly, the Holy Innocents, who are martyrs by blood alone.
But if they are not martyrs by blood alone, how can they be martyrs at all? For surely a martyr is someone who dies because he consciously professes faith in Christ. The very fact that the Church acknowledges the murder of these little ones as holy martyrdom is itself significant, as it tells us something about the nature of salvation and childhood. A child normally does not attain the use of reason until the age of seven, and even then he is under the care of his parents, who act as a kind of surrogate reason, helping him develop his rational faculties. Yet an infant, under the supervision of another surrogate (his godparents), may be baptized long before he has the ability to believe in the Creed for the simple reason that just as he did not personally choose the curse of original sin with which he was born, so too need he not choose the cure of baptismal grace in order to be saved.
Similarly, the Holy Innocents did not choose martyrdom or even Christ, but this is not due to any failure on their part but to the undeveloped state of their minds. (See this this essay by Peter Kwasniewski.) What matters here, as with baptism, is the action done to them. The fact that they died not only for Christ but instead of Him makes them flores martyrum, the “flowers of the martyrs.” As St. Augustine eloquently puts it: “They are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution.” [1] The Breviary Hymn for the feast, Salvete Flores Martyrum, alludes to this botanical epithet, along with a touching portrayal of the Innocents playing with their symbols of martyrdom before the altar of God:
You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beside the very altar, gay
With palms and crowns, ye seem to play.
The Mass
As this bittersweet image attests, even though martyrdom is a glorious event in which the Church rejoices, it is difficult not to be moved by the thought of helpless toddlers being cut down in the streets. The Church, therefore, taking heed of Matthew’s citation of “Rachel weeping for her children” from the prophet Jeremiah, assumed the role of a second Rachel and mourned for these little ones. Except for when the feast fell on a Sunday, violet was the liturgical color, and the Gloria and Alleluia were suppressed. In the early centuries, Roman Christians also abstained from meat on Holy Innocents’ Day. It was on the octave day of the feast (January 4) that the Church turned her thoughts to the young martyrs’ glory, the Mass being celebrated in red with the Gloria and Alleluia. In the 1950s, however, the octave was eliminated, and so currently in the 1962 calendar red is the color of Childermas, and the Gloria and Alleluia are used (See Gregory DiPippo’s treatment of the subject.)
The station church of the day, St. Paul Outside the Walls, was chosen because it is believed that it contains the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents.
Coventry Carol
And since we broached the subject of music earlier: the Coventry mystery plays were medieval performances held in Coventry, England that told the entire life of Christ. One of them, the “Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors” (named after the sponsoring guilds), depicts the events of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which includes the massacre of the Holy Innocents. One of the songs from the play, the “Coventry Carol,” is a lullaby by the mothers of the children who are doomed to die. The first verse is:
Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
The mystery plays were performed for the summer feast of Corpus Christi, but eventually the “Coventry Carol” went on to become what it is today: hands down, the most depressing Christmas carol of all time. The song got a boost in popularity in 1940 when the BBC Empire Broadcast concluded its Christmas program with the carol being sung in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed by the Germans a month earlier. Even the way in which the song’s popularity spread is depressing!
The Twelve Days of Christmas are a time of “topsy-turvy” customs, where social ranks and pecking orders are inverted in giddy imitation of the grandest inversion of all, the fact that Almighty God humbled Himself to be born a man in a chilly and foul-smelling stable. Childermas is no exception. In many religious communities, the novices had the privilege of sitting at the head of the table at meals and meetings, while the last person who had taken vows in the monastery or convent got to be superior for a day. Young monks and nuns would receive congratulations and have “baby food,” such as hot cereal, served to them for dinner.
A similar flip-flop occurred in the family. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby were standard ways of observing the feast, and the youngest child was allowed special privileges and honors, even becoming master of the household. Not all customs, however, bode well for the young ’uns, as some children awoke to a spanking from their parents “to remind them of the sufferings of the Innocents.” [2]
But the most famous topsy-turvy Childermas custom is the reign of the boy bishop. The earliest mention of a boy bishop during Christmastime is from the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland. [3] A boy dressed in the vestments of a bishop and accompanied by young classmates dressed as priests presided over Solemn Vespers. King Conrad I came to the abbey to observe this custom in A.D. 912, and he decided to test their resolve by having apples strewn along the aisle of the church. He was impressed when not even the tiniest lad broke rank from the procession to grab one.
Originally the custom was meant to foster vocations to the priesthood by giving youngsters a taste of liturgical officiating, but once it moved to within the Twelve Days of Christmas, it became linked with more riotous topsy-turvy customs like the Feast of the Ass or the Lord of Misrule. In an effort to put an end to this nonsense, Church authorities decided to move the custom to the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, safely out of the way of the Christmas mayhem. The plan, however, backfired. Instead of stemming abuses, it prolonged them: the Boy Bishop would now preside from December 6 to December 28.
And the practice was spreading. Initially it was associated only with cathedrals (which by definition have a presiding bishop), but over time other churches took up the practice. Even prestigious institutions like Eton in England had a boy bishop. From Italy to Scandinavia and from Ireland to Hungary, medieval Christians relished the Boy Bishop or Nicholas Bishop (as he came to be called) as he and his entourage solemnly processed through the town and blessed the crowds. We still have inventory records of the little vestments kept for the occasion. And although complaints continued to pour in about abuses (not unlike their corrupt adult counterparts, the boys sometimes emptied the church kitty to fuel their merriment), there was a touching side as well. When a boy bishop in the diocese of Salisbury died during his brief appointment, he was given the full funeral of a bishop and buried in the cathedral.
Eventually, authorities began to crack down. In 1541, King Henry VIII outlawed the practice as superstitious and pagan. Queen Mary brought the boy bishop back, but after Elizabeth’s accession he fell into disfavor again; by the seventeenth century he was an extinct species in England. In 1982, however, the Anglican cathedral in Hereford resurrected the boy bishop, who again presides over some services from December 6 to 28 and gives a sermon. He is installed in a memorable way: during the celebration of Evensong or Vespers, when the Magnificat is sung, the bishop of Hereford rises from his episcopal throne at the verse “He hath put down the mighty from their seat.” Then, the boy, dressed in the regalia of a bishop, takes his seat at the verse “And He hath exalted the humble” and is given the bishop’s crozier. Whatever effect this inversion has for the boy, it must surely be good for the humility of the bishop.
The boy bishop, 2009
All of Christendom once abstained from servile work during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but there was an extra incentive to do so on the feast of the Holy Innocents. According to an old superstition, it is bad luck to begin any new work on this day, either because it will never be finished or because it will come to a bad end. The superstition was strong enough to keep leaders like King Louis XI of France and King Edward IV of England from doing any business on this day. Perhaps the rationale is that just as the Holy Innocents’ lives were cut tragically short, so too would be any work done on their feast day.
In German-speaking countries, Christianity almost literally baptized a pagan fear of souls wandering the earth after the winter solstice. According to legend, the souls of unbaptized children are chaperoned by the frightening Hel, the Germanic goddess of the underworld (from which the English word “Hell” is derived). Each child carries a pitcher filled with the tears he or she shed that year. But thanks to the mercy of God, if a person on Innocents’ Day hears their cry in the howling wind or sees their ghostly shape fluttering in the dark, he should call out a Christian name. By being given a “baptismal” name, the child is freed from Lady Hel’s grip and allowed to join the Holy Innocents in eternal bliss.
In central Europe, groups of children observed a pre-Christian fertility rite by going to women and girls with branches and twigs and chanting:
Many years of healthy life,
Happy girl, happy wife:
Many children, hale and strong,
Nothing harmful, nothing wrong,
Much to drink and more to eat;
Now we beg a kindly treat.
They would then swat them gently with branches and twigs. These and other "ritual scourgings" were once popular with our pagan and later Christian ancestors: the recipients were even expected to thank their floggers for the service and give them treats. Anything to help mankind be fruitful and multiply!

For more information on the Christmas season, see Michael Foley's latest book, Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of this article also appeared as “The Counts of Jesu Christo, Part II” in The Latin Mass magazine 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.

[1] Sermon 10 on the Saints.
[2] Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Gracewing, 1992), 59.
[3] Originally, the custom was for the Feast of Pope St. Gregory Great on March 12.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Beloved Disciple

St John the Apostle, by Deodato Orlandi, ca. 1310

Last week we looked at St. Stephen, the first of the so-called Comrades of Christ who huddle close in spirit to the manger of their Lord. Today we pay homage to the second Comrade.

Like Stephen, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is associated with charity, since his writings marvelously emphasize the love of God. [1] John, in turn, was blessed by Christ’s special love for him. Although Our Lord made St. Peter the head of His Church, He retained a personal affection for the “beloved disciple.” This is all the more endearing given the fact that Our Lord also referred to John and his older brother St. James the Great as “sons of thunder,” most likely for their fiery tempers. (Mark 3, 17)

It is difficult for any lover of the Latin Mass not to have a special love for St. John, whose Prologue to his Gospel furnishes us with the Gregorian rite’s seemingly misplaced yet magnificent conclusion. I say seemingly misplaced, for no one would logically expect another Gospel to be read after the dismissal and final blessing. Yet the Prologue to John’s Gospel, which St. Jerome says is so splendid that it should be written in letters of gold, is the perfect summary of the mystery of the altar and the perfect blueprint of how we should henceforth conduct ourselves. For in speaking of the Word becoming flesh, the Prologue reminds us not only of the Incarnation, but of the Eucharist, God in the flesh before us. And in describing the testimony of John the Baptist, the Prologue admonishes us to bear similar witness after we leave the church to Him that is “full of grace and truth.”

It has been said that St. John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr because he already testified to the Cross by standing at its foot with the Mother of God. Yet this does not mean that no attempts on his life were ever made. According to St. Jerome, John was brought to Rome and thrown into a vat of boiling oil but emerged miraculously unscathed (on the spot near the Porta Latina where this is reputed to have taken place, there is a tiny shrine and, not far away, a beautiful Romanesque church named San Giovanni). The frustrated Emperor then banished John to the Island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.
St John at Patmos, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1489
In the traditional Roman Rite prior to 1955, the Feast of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist had a proper Mass on December 27 and on the octave day of January 3. In the Breviary, the feast featured Psalm antiphons for Lauds that told the story of his life as well as proper antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat and a proper Collect. Prior to 1960, John’s cult was also recapitulated on May 6 as the Feast of St. John at the Latin Gate, the anniversary of his would-be martyrdom.
In Vino Caritas
But perhaps the Saint’s most famous brush with death (as far as popular folklore is concerned) is when his enemies tried to kill him by poisoning his cup of wine. Some say that when the Divine John (as he is called in the East) made the sign of the cross over the cup, it split in half, thus spilling the poison. Others, however, claim that his blessing neutralized the deadly beverage and allowed him to enjoy it unharmed. Either way, it is a powerful reminder to say one’s grace before meals.
It is also a reminder to observe an old and charming custom that literally toasts to the memory of the saint. In the Roman ritual is a blessing of wine specifically for this feast:
O Lord God, deign to bless and consecrate with Thy right hand this cup of wine and of any drink whatsoever: and grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist all who believe in Thee and who drink from this cup may be blessed and protected. And as Blessed John drank poison from the cup and remained completely unharmed, may all who drink from this cup on this day in honor of Blessed John be, by his merits, rescued from every sickness of poison and from every kind of harm; and, offering themselves up body and soul, may they be delivered from all fault. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, this drink, Thy creation: that it may be a salutary remedy for all who consume it: and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Thy generosity, receive health of the soul as well as of the body. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, descend upon this wine, Thy creation, and upon any drink whatsoever, and remain forever. Amen.
According to Maria von Trapp, it was customary in Austria and other places to bring wine or cider to church on this day so that the priest could give this blessing after Mass. Later that night, the wine is poured into everyone’s glass before dinner. The father then takes his glass, touches it to the mother’s and says, “I drink to you the love of St. John,” to which the mother replies, “I thank you for the love of St. John.” Both take a sip before the mother turns to the oldest child and repeats the ritual, at which point the child turns to the next oldest, etc. The last one to receive St. John’s love gives it back to the father, thus closing the family circle. [2]
Trapp Family Singers, 1941
Since the blessed wine is a sacramental, it is also kept in the house throughout the year for newlyweds to drink immediately after their wedding ceremony, for travelers before a trip, and for the dying after receiving Last Rites. But if it is not possible to have the wine blessed by a priest, the blessing may still be said by the family (it will not have the same efficacy, of course, but it is still a prayer to God).
And the wine can also be mulled.
St. John’s Wine
1 quart red wine
3 whole cloves
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 two-inch cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
Pour the wine into a large saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Boil for 5 minutes. Serve hot. 8-10 servings.
This is an ideal family treat, since most of the alcohol is evaporated. And it is perfect for a cold winter’s night: its temperature warms the tips of one’s toes, and the story it betokens the cockles of one’s heart. May the Love of the Infant Jesus fill the cup of our souls as it surely did Christ’s good comrades.

For more information on the Christmas season, see Michael Foley's latest book, Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of this article also appeared as “The Counts of Jesu Christo” in The Latin Mass magazine 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.
[1] See John 3, 16; 1 John 4, 7-8.
[2] Maria Augusta Trapp, Around the Year with the Trapp Family (NY: Pantheon, 1955), pp. 64-65.

Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Christ Painted Onto a Candle

We are in the Christmas season, but thought it would do no harm for us to connect the newly born Christ to his life, ministry, death and resurrection through the unusual art featured today that seems to bind these essential elements of salvation history all together. 

Gina Switzer is a Catholic artist who paints Easter candles. I think she has surpassed herself in these ones which are decorated with designs based upon the “Vulnerary of Christ”, that is, emblems of the wounds of Christ, incorporated into a cross. 

Her design, as she explains in her description of it, relates the life and death of Christ on the cross to his resurrection by directing our attention, through the symbolism of the flowers she uses, to paradise. You can read more about the candles and order them here

Gina wrote: 
In this design the Cross is transformed into an image of Paradise restored. Each section overflows with delightful flowers. According to The Vulnerary of Christ there is a veritable garden of flowers that are typically presented in red to symbolize the blood shed by Jesus in His passion. Among those I chose the anemone, strawberry, poppy and rose to represent Paradise restored. The only nontraditional flower is the red dahlia from my own garden. Its eight petals struck me this summer as a lovely and fitting representation of the Eighth Day so it is included. Instead of red alone, I painted the flowers in a profusion of natural color signifying a return to the fullness of the Garden. (Most flowers are also from my own or my sister’s garden.) 
The center of the Cross, the Heart if you will, is a ruby surrounded by pearls set in gold. The ruby has a long history in art of representing the heart and blood of Christ. The refined stone symbolizes the blood of Christ transformed into a gem by the Resurrection and Ascension. The pearls surrounding the ruby along with the alpha/omega are the Saints who sold everything to purchase the pearl of great price. The Saints united themselves to Christ on the Cross and they now enjoy the bliss of Paradise, life with Christ eternally.Heraldic shields bearing the instruments of humiliation and torture surround the Cross pointing to His Passion—the flagellum, nails, dice, sponge, and spear.
In each shield the wounded heart appears. Images of the wounded heart, pierced by the spear, date back to at least the 5th Century and are precursors to our contemporary devotions to the Sacred Heart. The field in which the flowers are set along with the shields are rich purple in color indicating Christ is King of the new heaven and new earth forever and ever. It is my hope that viewers who see this Paschal candle cross will contemplate the depth of God’s love and trust Jesus to see the overwhelming beauty of Paradise He restored for those who follow Him and love Him.
To inquire about Easter candles go to Gina’s website, here

Monday, December 26, 2022

Why 1962 Must Eventually Perish: The Case of St. John

Each year after Christmas comes the wonderful sequence of companion feasts. This week at NLM, I should like to make a brief reflection on St. John the Divine.

December 27th is the feast of the virgin disciple who rested his head on the breast of Jesus and who alone remained faithful in the hour of His Passion; the one who merited to receive the Mother of God as his mother, with whom he dwelt in Patmos; the author of the loftiest of the four Gospels, the Epistles of Agape, and the Apocalypse; the Theologian par excellence, model and measure of all mystics; the last living Apostle with the cessation of whose breath public revelation ceased.

St. John’s feast on December 27th is older than the octave of Christmas. In every missal known to Christendom, his feast would have been celebrated on this date, no matter what. Dignum et justum.

But in the 1960 code of rubrics that governs the 1962 Missale Romanum, whenever December 27th falls on a Sunday, the beloved disciple simply vanishes from Mass and receives a measly commemoration at Lauds and Vespers, as if we were suddenly catapulted into the middle of Lent.

The same thing happens, believe it or not, to St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents: all of them can be bumped off, liturgically speaking.

To make it even sillier, there’s always at least one universal feria, the 30th, to which the Sunday gets bumped when the Comites Christi or even St. Thomas of Canterbury takes precedence. Indeed, apostolic devaluation is infectious: all of the Apostles other than Saints Peter and Paul get shabby treatment in the 1960 rubrics. Needless to say, Peter and Paul were shorn of their octave some years earlier.

Such topsy-turvy rubrics and grave omissions point up the feebleness of the editio typica of 1962, the “missal of Bd. John XXIII” in the short-lived nomenclature of Summorum Pontificum, as well as the importance of restoring the Tridentine rite to its own proper principles. 1962 is a half-dismantled building waiting for the demolition crew called the Consilium. Such is the burden of the argument of chapter 12 in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite.

I should note that by the time the Novus Ordo Ambrosianus was designed, the folly of these feasts being impeded had been recognized, and the neo-Ambrosian rite does not allow it to occur. So, even though the Ambrosian rite normally does not allow any feast to impede a Sunday, even things like All Saints, Assumption, St Charles Borromeo, yet there is an exception during the octave of Christmas, when Stephen, John, the Holy Innocents, and even Thomas of Canterbury do take precedence over the Sunday after Christmas. Meanwhile, neither the 1962 and 1969 missals has rectified this egregious defect.

Pope Francis has made it clear that the Tradition is unwelcome and unwanted. If there is a place for the Tradition, it cannot rest on the shifting grounds of papal approval; it must be a matter of inherent worth and dignity. 1920 is the safe editio typica from which to begin the restoration; any editio post typicam until about 1948 will present no great difficulties.

The most urgent practical need right now in the new liturgical movement is the republication of all of the liturgical books before their post-War deformations.
Don't let the rigged rubrics of this John take away the homage owed to that John

The images below are taken from my 1951 Monastic Diurnal, reflecting preconciliar Benedictine usage (which is virtually identical to the pre-Pacellian Roman use):

The images of St. John and John XXIII are from Fr. Lawrence Lew's Flickr account.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas!

Hodie nobis caelorum Rex de Virgine nasci dignatus est, ut hominem perditum ad caelestia regna revocaret: * Gaudet exercitus Angelorum: quia salus aeterna humano generi apparuit. V. Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. R. Gaudet exercitus Angelorum: quia salus aeterna humano generi apparuit. V. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. R. Hodie nobis caelorum Rex ... (The first responsory of Christmas Matins.)

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1620, by the Flemish painter Cornelis de Vos. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
R. Today the King of heaven deigned to be born of a Virgin for us, that He might bring back to the kingdom of heaven man who was lost. * The host of Angels rejoiceth, because eternal salvation hath appeared to the human race. V. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth. peace to men of goodwill. The host of Angels... Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Today...
The Gregorian chant version, sung by the schola of the Fraternity of St Peter’s seminary in Bavaria.

A polyphonic setting by the Italian composer Giovanni Maria Nanino (1544-1607).

On behalf of the publisher and writers of New Liturgical Movement, I wish all of our readers a Merry Christmas, and every blessing from the Child that is born unto us! By the prayers of the Holy Mother of God and all the Saints, may God grant the world peace in the coming year.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Gaudete Sunday and Rorate Mass Photopost 2022 (Part 5)

Even with our fifth Gaudete Sunday and Rorate Mass photopost of this year, we still aren’t finished; the record-breaking sixth post will appear shortly after Christmas. Once again, our heartfelt thanks to everyone who sent these in, and don’t forget to have your cameras ready for Christmas and the following feasts. We wish you all a most blessed and peaceful Christmas Eve - today you shall know that the Lord will come, and in the morning, you shall see His glory.

Church of the Assumption – Nashville, Tennessee

Liturgical Notes on the Vigil of Christmas

A vigil is traditionally a full liturgical day, penitential in nature, in preparation for a major feast, including the whole day’s Office from Matins to None. The Mass of a vigil is not an anticipation of the feast, but a part of the preparation for it, said after None, without Gloria in excelsis, Alleluia or the Creed; First Vespers said after Mass is then the official beginning of the feast itself.

In various medieval uses of the Roman Rite, although not in that of Rome itself, the vigil of Christmas was often extended back to include the Vespers of the preceding day, December 23rd, with the addition of a special responsory to be sung between the chapter and the hymn. (A similar custom is found in the Breviary of St. Pius V on the Epiphany, the vigil of which runs from Vespers of January 4th to None of the 5th.)

De illa occulta habitatione sua egressus est Filius Dei; descendit visitare et consolari omnes, qui eum de toto corde desiderabant. V. Ex Sion species decoris ejus, Deus noster manifeste veniet. Descendit. Gloria Patri. Descendit.

From that hidden habitation of His, the Son of God shall go forth; He hath come down to visit and console all those, who long for Him with all their heart. V. Out of Sion the loveliness of His beauty, our God shall come manifestly. He hath come down. Glory be. He hath come down.
In his curious work On the Correction of the Antiphonary, the first liturgy critic, Agobard of Lyon (ca. 780-840), says that this responsory should be rejected “with great severity”, since its “vain and presumptuous author … lyingly asserts that He visited and consoled all those who long for Him, when rather He caused those whom He deigned to visit to acknowledge and long for Him.” His opinion was not accepted, and the responsory is found in a great number of medieval antiphonaries and breviaries; in the post-Tridentine period, however, it appears to have been retained only by the Premonstratensian Order and a few local uses.

A page of the breviary according to the Use of Prague, 1502; the responsory De illa occulta is in the middle of the left column.
The Office and the Mass of the Vigil begin with almost the same words, adapted from Exodus chapter 16: “This day ye shall know that the Lord shall come, and will save us, and on the morrow ye shall see His glory.” The medieval commenter Rupert of Deutz (a man of much finer poetic sensibility than Agobard), explains the sense of this text in the liturgy of the day. Speaking first of the Office, in which these words are sung six times:
On the vigil of the Lord’s Birth, that beautiful prophecy of divine consolation is most frequently and solemnly spoken by the Church. “This day ye shall know that the Lord shall come, and on the morrow ye shall see His glory.”
And then, in reference to Introit of the Mass:
When the Lord had said to the sons of Israel, “Behold, I will rain bread from Heaven for you,” Moses and Aaron said to them, “In the evening you shall know that the Lord hath brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.” (Exod. 16, 4 and 6-7) … (this) invites us to consider that that manna, which was given to the sons of Israel when they had come out of the land of Egypt, and were marching for the promised land, was a figure of the Word of God, which took on the flesh through the Virgin, and came to feed us that believe in Him, … The interpreter of this similitude is not just any man, but the very One who said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat of it, he may not die.” (John 6, 48-51)
The Miracle of the Manna in the Desert, by Tintoretto, 1577
The homily at Matins in the Breviary of St Pius V, is taken from St. Jerome’s commentary on the day’s Gospel, Matthew, 1, 18-21, explaining the reasons why Christ was born of a virgin.
Why was the Lord conceived not simply of a virgin, but of one espoused? First, that by the begetting of Joseph, the origin of Mary may be shown. Secondly, lest she be stoned by the Jews as an adulteress. Third, that She might have a protector as She fled to Egypt. The martyr Ignatius (of Antioch) added a fourth reason why He was conceived of one espoused, saying, “that His birth might be concealed from the devil, who would think that He was begotten not of a virgin, but of one married. “Before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” She was found so by no other, but only by Joseph, who had already almost an husband’s privilege to know all that concerned his wife. But where it is said “Before they came together,” it followeth not that they came together afterwards; but the Scripture showeth what did not happen.
On Christmas Day itself, there are three different Masses; at Matins of Christmas, therefore, there is read in the third nocturn a brief homily on the Gospel of each of the three, the first by St Gregory the Great, the second by St Ambrose, the third by St Augustine. The inclusion of a passage of St Jerome completes the number of the four doctors of the Latin Church; between the vigil and feast, each of the four preaches to us on the Nativity of the Lord.

The Ascension of Christ, depicted in the cupola of the church of Saint John the Evangelist in Parma, Italy. In the corners are depicted the Four Evangelists, each of which is accompanied by one of the Four Doctors. St. Matthew and St. Jerome are depicted together in the lower right.
Nowadays, the most famous liturgical text of Christmas Eve is certainly the notice of the feast of Christmas from the Martyrology. In the traditional Office, the Martyrology’s entry for the following day is read at the Hour of Prime, after the first prayer. Christmas Eve is the only day on which this is done with a particular ceremony, rather than simply being sung by a reader. A priest in violet cope, accompanied by a thurifer and two candles, incenses the book, and then sings the following notice of the Christ’s Birth.
In the year from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, five-thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine; from the Flood, two-thousand, nine hundred and fifty-seven; from the birth of Abraham two-thousand and fifteen; from Moses, and the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt, one-thousand five-hundred and ten; from the anointing of David as King, one-thousand and thirty-two; in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the seven-hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus; while the whole earth was at peace, in the sixth age of the world, Jesus Christ, Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, wishing to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Spirit, nine months having passed after His conception, at Bethlehem of Juda is born of the Virgin Mary, having become Man.
The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
At the words “at Bethlehem of Juda” he raises his voice, and all kneel. The final words, “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh,” are sung “in the tone of the Passion” according to the Martyrology’s rubric, a reminder that the coming of Christ was also so that He might suffer, die and rise for our salvation.

In the Roman Use, the priest who has sung the Martyrology departs at the end of this notice, and those of the other Saints of December 25th are sung by another reader. In the Premonstratensian Use, however, the Breviary directs that all shall prostrate themselves and say Psalm 84 Benedixisti, followed by Kyrie, eleison, Pater noster, a versicle, and the prayers of the vigil of Christmas and the Advent Mass of the Virgin.
O God, who gladden us by the annual expectation of our redemption, grant that we who now joyfully welcome thy Only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may also behold Him without fear when He cometh as our Judge.
O God, Who didst will that Thy Word should, by the message of an Angel, take flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grant unto us, we beseech thee, that all we who do believe Her to be truly the Mother of God, may be helped by Her prayers before Thee.
The rubric continues thus: “Giving thanks to God, who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, let them for a time in silence, with devout elevation of the mind, consider the grace of the divine goodness, which is so great towards man.”

With the abolition of the Hour of Prime, the liturgical use of the Martyrology has all but vanished from the post-Conciliar Rite; a new version was not published until 2001. A prominent exception is the proclamation of the notice for Christmas, which is now often read before Midnight Mass. In the following video, taken in St. Peter’s Basilica, a more-or-less official revised version of the text is sung in a special tone written for the purpose, a tone which was also widely used before the modern reform. It begins with the date according to the famously inconvenient and complicated Roman dating system, in which “December 25th” is “the eighth day before the Kalends of January”. This is followed by the phase of the moon, the nineteenth in this case.

When numberless ages had passed from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and made man according to His image; and likewise many ages, from when after the Flood, the Most High had placed the rainbow among the clods, as a sign of His covenant and peace; in the twenty-first century from the migration of Abraham, our father in the Faith, from Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt, led by Moses; in roughly the one-thousandth year from the anointing of David as King; in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel etc. (The rest of the text is the same as above, except for the omission of the words “in the sixth age of the world”)

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas 2022 Photopost Request

Our next major photopost series will be for the liturgies of Christmas, whether in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, or any of the Eastern Rites, Ordinariate Use, etc.; as always, we will also be very glad to include other liturgical ceremonies, such as Prime on Christmas Eve, Vespers, the vigil Masses, and any liturgies celebrated during the Octave. Please send your pictures to, and don’t forget to include the name of the church and its location, and any other information which you think worth noting. Evangelize through beauty! (In the meantime, we will wrap up our record-breaking number of Rorate Mass contributions in the next few days.)

From our first Christmas photopost of last year: incensing the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger at Prince of Peace in Taylors. South Carolina.

From the second post: the proclamation of the Birth of Christ from the Martyrology during Prime at St Mary’s Oratory, the Institute of Christ the King’s church in Wausau, Wisconsin.

The blessing of wine in honor of St John the Evangelist on his feast day, at the church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
From the third post: solemn Midnight Mass of Christmas at St Mary’s, the FSSP church in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

At the convent of Corpus Christi in Valencia, Spain, Eucharistic Adoration held on the last day of the year, beginning at 11:00 pm; the Te Deum was sung before midnight in thanksgiving for God’s blessings given over the year, and the Veni, Creator Spiritus after midnight to invoke His blessings for the coming year.

On the Feast of Stephen

Icon of the The Stoning of St. Stephen

It might seem odd to celebrate Saints’ days within the Octave of the Nativity, but the timing is deliberate. Immediately following Christmas Day are the feasts of several holy men known as the comites Christi, “the comrades of Christ.” As the name implies, these saints are somehow close to their Master and are thus distinguished by a certain nobility: the title of “count” is actually derived from the word comes. It was in function of this noble closeness that the Eastern churches once honored the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, on December 28.

During this same week the Western Church, on the other hand, honors St. Stephen (December 26), the first martyr in both act and desire and hence the first to be honored after Christmas; St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the disciple closest to Christ during the Last Supper; the Holy Innocents (December 28), close to the infant Jesus by their martyrdom; St. Thomas Becket (December 29), whose death at the hands of a Christian king on that day in 1170 so shocked Christendom that his feast day was given the privilege of being allowed to remain within the Christmas octave; and St. Sylvester (December 31), the Pope who lived to see the civic peace that ended the Roman persecutions and whose feast thus aptly gives voice to our prayers for the new civic year.

In this essay, let us turn our attention to the first count, Stephen.
A Model of Charity
St. Stephen, one of the first seven men ordained a deacon by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is called the “Proto-Martyr,” for in being stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin, he was the first disciple to voluntarily shed his blood for the Faith. (Acts 6, 5 - 7, 59) He is a model of that divinely-infused love known in the Christian tradition as agape or caritas, that gift of God which in English we call “charity.” Charity’s divine origin cannot be overemphasized, for it is by no human love that someone can follow the example of our Savior and forgive the men murdering him. Yet as St. Luke tells us, as Stephen was dying, he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice: “‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’” (Acts 7, 59)
St. Stephen’s charity is not only a powerful example for us all but a cause for hope in obtaining his intercession. When St. Thomas More was responding to the newfangled heresies of Luther and Tyndale, which claimed the saints in Heaven did not want our prayers, he remarked:
We see that the nearer that folk draw [to Heaven], the more well disposed they are toward people here. And thus Saint Stephen, when he saw Heaven open for him... began to pray for them that maliciously killed him. And do we think, then, that being in Heaven he will not vouchsafe to pray for them that devoutly honor him, but has less love and charity being there than he had when going there? [1]
Further, as our Pope Emeritus makes clear in his encyclical Deus caritas est, true Christian charity bubbles over into good works for others. This is evident in Stephen’s life not only with his final act of forgiveness, but through his duties as a deacon, a holy order instituted by the Apostles for the service of the poor. (see Acts 6, 2)
St Stephen, by Carlo Crivelli, 1476
In the traditional Roman Rite prior to 1955, the feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr had a proper Mass on December 26 and on the octave day of January 2. In the Breviary, the feast featured psalm antiphons for Lauds that told the story of his martyrdom as well as proper antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat and a proper Collect. His cult was also recapitulated on August 3, the anniversary of the discovery of his relics.
St. Stephen was a servant (a diakonos) who served the poor, and so it is appropriate that his feast day became the occasion for generosity to one’s subordinates and to the less fortunate. In England and the British Commonwealth, December 26 is known as Boxing Day--either because of a custom of giving one’s servants Christmas boxes for their journey home on their day off or because the poor boxes in the church were opened on this day and their contents given to the poor. [2] Even today it remains the customary occasion for giving gifts to one’s servants, paperboy, mailman, and so on.
Because of his vocation, Stephen is the patron saint of deacons, and because of his martyrdom, he is the patron saint of occupations involving stones or stone-like substances such as stonemason, bricklayers, and builders.
But not all of Stephen’s patronages point so clearly to his life. The holy deacon is considered the patron saint of horses, despite the fact that he has no Scriptural connection to the equine. Some speculate that this association may have something to do with the relief from work that domestic animals, at the behest of St. Francis of Assisi, enjoyed during the twelve days of Christmas, but no one is certain.
In any case, the association stuck, especially in rural areas. Horse parades, horse races, and a “St. Stephen’s ride” in a sleigh or wagon were common, as was decorating one’s horse and riding it to the church for a blessing. Horse food (hay or oats) would also be blessed on this day, and so would salt and water in case the horse got sick. But this is not to say that horses enjoyed every aspect of the feast. In the same work quoted above, Thomas More’s interlocutor mentions that “on Saint Stephen’s feast day we must let all our horses’ blood with a knife, because Saint Stephen was killed with stones”! [3] Happily, the equestrian motif survives in less violent ways today. In several Catholic nations it is customary to bake special breads in the form of horseshoes to honor St. Stephen. [4]
Another animal to get the short end of the stick on St. Stephen's Day was the wren. In the British Isles, the Druids sacrificed wrens around the time of the winter solstice. The bloody custom somehow evolved during the age of Christendom into groups of “Wren Boys” going from house to house carrying a dead wren on a brightly decorated branch: the boys would sing a song and receive a treat in return. The dead wren was then “stoned” in memory of St. Stephen--as if the poor bird had not suffered enough already.
Christmastide would not be the same without its carols and hymns, nor would St. Stephen’s. There is an old Latin hymn used in the Divine Office of several medieval communities called Sancte Dei pretiose and a simple hymn in honor of the great deacon by Fr. C. Meyer, S.J., entitled, “Holy Stephen, Christ’s Dear Martyr.” 
But the most famous hymn associated with St. Stephen’s Day is “Good King Wenceslas.” John Mason Neale was a talented English hymn writer and Anglican priest. As a member of the Oxford Movement, he was interested in reincorporating Catholic elements into the Church of England. In 1849 he published a book recounting the lives of holy men and women, including St. Wenceslaus I (d. 935), the Duke of Bohemia and patron of the Czech Republic, who was martyred by his wicked brother Boleslaw the Bad and whose feast day is September 28. Around 1853 Neale was given a rare copy of a Finnish song book from 1582 that contained a lively springtime carol from the thirteenth century. Set in doubled trochaic meter, it was called “Tempus Adest Floridum” or “Eastertime is Here.” Neale loved the tune, and in 1853 wrote his own lyrics based on the life of, you guessed it, good King Wenceslaus.
There is more than a passing connection between the saintly monarch and the great proto-martyr. “Good King Wenceslas” tells of how the king saw a poor peasant from his window in the dead of night and, in keeping with the theme of St. Stephen’s Day, immediately chased after him with food, drink, and firewood. When the king’s page complains that he cannot walk through the deep snow drifts any longer, the king tells him to follow in his footsteps. Hence the last verse:
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
While the story is probably fictitious, it artfully combines what we do know about St. Wenceslas, such as his great charity for the poor and his custom of carrying firewood to them on his own back at night. But two of the verses in the last stanza are particularly telling. How could heat “be in the very sod/ Which the Saint had printed?” According to the Roman Breviary, one of the ways Wenceslas mortified his flesh was by walking barefoot in the snow until “his bloodstained footprints warmed the ground.”[6]
The footprints are heated, then, by the blood of the saint, whose sacrifices enables others to follow him. What a striking but beautiful image of self-giving for St. Stephen’s Day: a medieval king honoring an early saint with his mastery over the flesh and his love for the poor. And how inspiring this story is for us, the latest heirs of the Faith, to go and do likewise.
For more information on the Christmas season, see Michael Foley's latest book, Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of this article also appeared as “The Counts of Jesu Christo” in The Latin Mass magazine 17:5 (Advent/Christmas 2008), pp. 44-47. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.
[1] A Dialogue concerning Heresies, ed. Mary Gottschalk (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2006), p. 244.
[2] This, at least, is one of the theories about the origin of the name.
[3] p. 261. How prevalent this was is difficult to say, since the speaker is trying to bring up arguments against Catholic devotion and may therefore be exaggerating. But assuming that the custom existed, it probably tied into the medieval medical practice of leeching that was once believed to be beneficial to health.
[4] A recipe for one such treat, the Polish podkovy, is in Evelyn Vitz’s A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 156.
[5] The link for the hymn is: From the homepage (http:/ it can be found by clicking on the link “Blessed Virgin and other hymns.”
[6] From the office of Matins; translation mine. 

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