religious holidays

Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854

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A friend’s Facebook status reminded me that today is Easter’s infamous vigil. It’s the Christian equvilant of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva”, which is the mourning period for the dead. Instead of a person, however, Christians today mourn/anticipatory celebrate Jesus’s death and descent into hell.

I am not versed in how this day goes in any other religion except my natal one, Catholicism. My friend is of the Eastern persuasion, and her recollections on Easter differ from my own as they spin Holy Week in a more positive way than the gore, guilt and unworthiness focus of my Catholic youth.

But as I remember the lesson from my Catholic schoolgirl days, Jesus died on Good Friday and descended into hell. There, he rallied the souls of the faithful departed and led them to heaven. It’s a zombie version of The Rapture. The gates of heaven were locked against humanity after some snit God had in the Old Testament. Christianity, as a whole, makes a lot less sense when the Old Testament is examined too closely, and the nonsensical idea that God is anything other than capricious and scary as … um … hell, can be found all over the bible’s earliest books.

I bring this up because of a conversation I overheard Dee having with a friend who stayed over the other night.

Her little friend is Catholic and Dee herself was baptized in the faith back when I still entertained ideas of leaving her belief system up to the tutelage of others. I didn’t catch the opener but as I walked by her bedroom, I heard an audible gasp and then,

“But you have to believe in Jesus!”

I cracked the door a bit and observed Dee’s friend staring at her as though she was possessed and spewing green bile.

“I don’t believe in Jesus,” Dee assured her with a calm and determination that made me proud and a bit awestruck.

Later as we were driving the friend home, I caught a whispered conversation as the little girl tried to convince Dee of the consequences of not believing.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, there is this place you go to after you die that’s not nice,” she said, quite earnest and clearly concerned for Dee’s afterlife.

“I don’t believe in this,” Dee said, again with an assurance that seemed a bit too large for her tiny 8 year old self. “I believe that when we die, we go to the underworld and our souls are weighed with the feather of truth.” (she did not add the part about the hippodoodel that eats the wicked who wasted their lives and then try to lie about it – and it’s interesting to note the Egyptian that has crept into her Greek mythology).

“How does she square this with her idea that her grandfather and Daddy Will are in heaven?” Rob asked me as I related the story to him later.

“I have no clue,” I said, “but it’s not any worse spin than most Christians employ trying to reconcile the inconsistencies in their beliefs.”

There is a tiny residual bit of Catholic in me that worries about what I have wrought, but mostly, I was really proud of her. She wasn’t the least bit worried about what her friend would think of her beliefs. They were her beliefs and she held fast.

Rob and I are doing a far more awesome job than I realized with this raising a kid thing.

Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

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Driving Miss Dee home from Brownie’s this evening, she cheerily brought me up to speed on the “culture” badge they’d earned via the meeting’s activities.

“We made an egg holder shaped like a bunny and Browny Owl had some culture bread, which we ate while she talked to us about culture and then we wrote about our own culture in our books, which we got to make up.”

“You ate culture?”

“It was good too,” she chirped.

“Was this about Easter?” I asked, needing to nail down the cultural aspect of the evening.

“Yep,” she replied.

“Well, Mick and her old friend/new boyfriend are coming this Saturday for Easter,” I told her, having only just found out during a conversation I had with Rob before picking her up. She’d called to update him on her new job, confirm for dinner and remind him that Dare is deathly allergic to nuts. He’d recently had an incident at the restaurant where the older girls work because he was too polite to mention it to Mick’s co-workers.

“Easter is Saturday?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s Sunday. Remember? You wanted to call it Easter Eve instead of Holy Saturday.”

“But I thought it was Friday,” she said.

“Friday is Good Friday.”

“According to the Catholics,” she said, using a tone that sounded a lot like her dad’s when he talks about organized religion. A cross between “how quaintly foolish and we must put this evil down – hand me the hammer and sharpen the stakes”.

At this very moment, we drove by the Separate school in Ardrossan. Separate schools are Catholic but operate under the banner of the public school system and are funded by the province.

“Look, Mom,” she waves her finger at the building. “There it is! What is it?”

We’ve had this conversation and it’s never ended satisfactorily. There is something on the building that catches her eye every time and she describes it in such vague terms that I have never been able to tell her what it was.

But this time, I think I know what it is.

“The cross?” I ask.

“Yes! What does it mean?”

Oh, how to explain this unique symbol of death. Eureka, I decide to use Easter.

“Well, you know Easter? And Jesus?”

Affirmative to both.

“Jesus was nailed to the cross on Good Friday. Died. And then on Easter, he was brought back to life,” no sugar-coating is the best way to split this knot.

And I hear the chirping of crickets from the back seat as Dee tries to make sense of this news.

How to relate it?

“You remember Osirus?” I ask.

Of course she does. She’s an excellent pagan.

“Remember how he was chopped up and Isis pieced him back together? He came back to life as the Lord of the Dead?”

More silence.

“That’s like Jesus,” I am feeling confident about having related a story I can’t even remember being told, that’s how etched it is in my psyche, to my daughter who knows next to nothing about anything that isn’t polytheistic in nature.

“Except, for the chopped up part,” she points out.

“Right, there’s that difference.”

“And Jesus is not the God of the Underworld. He is in heaven.”

Give me points for her knowing his geographical location at least.

“Yes, God raised him up to heaven,” I agreed.

“What’s God’s name?”

I flip quickly back and forth between Yahweh and Jehovah in my mind before offering them both.

“Why is he called that?” her tone clearly indicates that she is not impressed with his moniker.

“He called himself that.”

“And is he the god of?”

“Hmm, well, he’s just God.”

“And what did he do?”

Because Gods “do” things and have “jobs”.

“He created the world, they say, and humans.”

“But Zeus did that,” she said.

“Well, that’s what Catholics believe about him,” I said.

“Catholics,” she said, in that tone. “I’m baptized like a Catholic, right? So I am Catholic.”

Knowing, as I do, that it’s not really that simple – though many of my fellow cradlers aren’t that well-versed – I try to explain the “choice” thing.

“It’s not like being half-German or Irish, sweets,” I tell her. “Being Catholic is a choice.”

“Is Brookie a Catholic?”

Brookie is the neighbor girl who goes to the Christian school in town. I sigh inwardly. I really don’t want to branch off into the schism and confuse her with the splinter groups.

“She’s a Christian, which has many groups and Catholics are one of those groups.”

I can hear her eyes glazing over before she mercifully takes the conversation along another track.

“N2 was baptized like me. Is he a Catholic?”

“Yes, but he and DNOS and Uncle don’t practice it much anymore.”

“Because they are too busy with hockey?” she asks.

“Yes, hockey is time-consuming.”

“Like being Catholic?”

I am not sure that counts as a light-bulb moment, but I take it and steer the conversation away from religion, and it occurs to me that I bit off far more than I realized when I decided to teach her about religion rather than simply handing off to the church via Catholic school and catechism as my parents did.

Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

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I love the voodoo side of Christianity – Catholic ritual especially. Like getting ashes smudged unto one’s forehead to mark the beginning of Lent. I was in high school before I realized that the priest was supposed to be marking us with a little cross. The priests at our parish were old, curmudgeonly and lazy as lizards in the sun, so for most of my childhood, Ash Wednesday meant wearing a big fat thumb print of one misogynist or the other.*

We made a game of not washing our faces and letting the ashes wear off. That whole day in school was marked with the constant flake off of burnt palm leaves from the Easter before as we endeavored wear our religion like a Brownie badge.

Of course, in my nearly all Catholic town, it was those without ashes who stood out. The rest of us were “in the club”.

It wasn’t until I was off in Des Moines and teaching that I gave up the start of Lent, as I eventually gave up Lent itself. Finding a mass to attend became inconvenient when I was anchored to the teaching day. And Des Moines was a Protestant dominated place with evangelicals and even more loony to the right of far-right’rs. I quickly tired of their prejudice and worse, their willful ignorance of any faith but their own.

“Do Catholics really drink blood.”

Seriously, someone asked me that. Someone grown up and with a college degree.

But mostly, I came to realize that it was the ritual, outward trappings and the psuedo-polytheism in the form of saints that really was what Catholicism was about for me. The silly trappings and not the beliefs or the foundation they were built on was my “religion”.

But even now, I miss the spiritualism. The mantra of prayer and response. The pageantry of Christmas and even Easter though I always found the latter to be a bit sick and perverse as it feeds an unhealthy self-loathing that often manifests out and at others. I have never found shame, guilt and fear a good basis for a relationship and yet that is the one we were instructed to build with the Almighty.

But the ashes were kind of awesome because regardless of the twisted nature of Lent, they were a rather good reminder to live in the now.

“Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”


*Not an exaggeration. Neither man liked females in the slightest and took no pains to hide their contempt from us. Mothers, nuns or little girls. We were all barely tolerated.

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

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Halloween once marked the beginning of the holiday season that stretched from October’s end to the New Year.

When I finally became a homeowner in the summer of 1997, I felt free to decorate and celebrate with abandon. I dressed up for Halloween to hand out candies and had pumpkins and lights.

And it only became more awesome when Will and I became a couple the following fall and the tradition of building and working the Jaycee Haunted House began.

I was a Corpse Bride long before Tim Burton thought of it. In a tattered white gown with a purple-streaked black wig, skeleton mask and black leggings, I sprayed my exposed arms with white hairspray and slipped skeletal gloves over my hands to slink along the hallways of a pitch dark maze, scaring the bejeezus out of teenagers.

Hand me a chainsaw (defanged, naturally) and I floored them literally. There is nothing like that revving roar to turn people around and create a terrific panic.

By the time Will was too sick to notice Halloween, there was Dee to consider. While our friends reared their kids in the corridors of the construction of the haunted house and had them running about during the running, Dee has always been too .. tender … for that. Her dad’s illness aside, we would have ended that tradition anyway.

So this naturally shifted to fairy and princess costumes and Trick or Treat. Beggar’s Night it was called in Des Moines. An odd tradition of kids telling jokes for treats and the celebration was never held on the 31st. Don’t ask me why. I tried to ascertain the rationale for shifting it to the 30th but never heard the same explanation and as nearly as I could figure it grew out of a mixture of the rabid Christian culture and a misguided notion that teens would be less inclined toward mayhem if it wasn’t the actual Halloween date.

And then we came to Canada.

The first year I suggested decorating the yard as a cemetery, but Rob wasn’t keen even though he’d once endured the scorn of his Bible thumping Kansas neighbors over a fake cemetery he erected in their yard when the older girls were a bit older than Dee.

Shelley, I am told, loved Halloween and dressing up in elaborate costumes. She’s passed this along to both Edie and Mick. This year, for example, Mick designed and sewed costumes based on Alice in Wonderland. And Mick always had multiple costumes a year as they make the rounds of the various to-do’s in the city.

Dee also has a box of costumes that she adds to every year. She is a huge fan of dress up play anyway and I have done nothing to squelch this instinct. Her scariest costume is a ghost number that I picked up at Walmart a few days after Dad died in ’08 and we Trick or Treated old school suburbia with DNOS, BIL, our two and a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Day of the Dead, however, is not Halloween. Even Halloween is a corruption if original intent counts for anything.

The 7th grade team I worked with in middle school got it into their heads to construct a cooperative unit around Day of the Dead one year. One of our teachers was enamoured of the Hispanic tradition and being a former nun had more affinity to the November 1st Christian observance than the 31st.

At any rate, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Our population had a sizable number of extremely wing-nut Christians. One of the local churches actually bordered scarily on “cult”, so my co-worker pushed the Day of the Dead idea, which is ironic because it is more objectionable than costumes and candies on many levels.

I was lukewarm.

First, it’s a tradition that is not symbolic and one really needs to be raised in it to not find it distasteful and/or morbid. North Americans are death fearing to the point that most of us see death as a personal affront that simply should not happen in our modern times. That death is the natural progression and that much of the early death that occurs is due to modern times collateral damage – we simply don’t want to acknowledge.

Second, I loathed dealing with the family trauma that bubbled like toxic sludge just below the surface of most of our students’ lives. Parents who would be skeptical or hostile and require much coddling and cajoling* also factored into my reluctance.

Finally, Day of the Dead is religious. There is no getting around it and we were a public school. Separation of church and state and all that entails. If we weren’t studying the traditions surrounding death in all cultures in addition to Day of the Dead then what we were doing was highly questionable.

But, we did it anyway.

And it was a minor disaster that dredged up emotional muck, angered some parents, offended the über-Christians and was a small joke to a small segment of the students, who insisted on honoring their dead pets.

Traditions that honor the departed are widespread around the world. The more death-fearing a culture, however, the less likely one is to find them. What one notices instead is a fixation on the grisly and horrific.

When I was young, November 1st was the anti-climax. We went to mass. It was boring in comparison to the evening before which meant running the neighborhoods in costume with hordes of other children, trailed by uninterested parents or older siblings. In my family, the dead were considered honored through masses and living our lives to their full potential. They also endured through the wonderful memories passed along through stories.

So here is one for you:

My dad and his siblings had a couple of horses they shared between them. Co-ownership was not unusual. The family was poor and there were five children. For example, they had a single pair of skis that they took turns with out in the pasture until my dad’s oldest brother collided with a pig and broke the poles.

One of the horse’s was a gray mare named Blue. Dad’s youngest brother, who died when he was 39, took Blue one day when he and a neighbor were heading to the creek – probably the one at my now departed as well Great-Uncle’s place down the road. When they arrived and dismounted, my uncle left Blue standing by a tree.

“Aren’t you going to tie him up?” his friend asked.

“Nah,” he replied and continued walking.

The friend ran to catch up, casting a glance back at the horse which appeared to be content and uninterested in wandering off.

“Well, aren’t you afraid she’ll run off?

To which my uncle said, “Blue’s blind. She don’t even know we’ve left.”

There is no record of what the friend thought about having traversed a good mile up and down hilly fields and narrow dirt paths on a blind horse that my uncle barely bothered to “steer”.

A happy and peaceful day of the dead to you and yours.

Just about everyone we knew as kids celebrated St. Nicolas day but us. The leaving of small toys or treats in children’s shoes was not a tradition my dad had any interest in. If he or Mom were St. Nick recipients as wee ones, I can’t recall a single tale. Mom came from a fairly well-off background by comparison, but her father was a skinflint, who I highly doubt participated in the consuming side of Christmas any more than he was forced to. Dad’s family was dirt poor. Great-Grandaddy Christie lost the family farm in the bank crash after the first world war and Grandaddy and Gran were essentially the poor relations, who tenant farmed for years before winding up farming Gran’s family farm for first her father and then her sister. One Christmas, Dad and his four siblings got a single pair of skis which they took turns with until Uncle Leo ran into a pig and broke them. More than once I can recall Dad and his second oldest sister discussing how they each got an orange apiece in their stocking and that this was a rare treat. So, St. Nick? Not so much.

I may have put something in Dee’s shoe when she was two or three, but keeping track of holidays I didn’t grow up celebrating was not long on my list of necessities, so that good intention died before it had chance to take root. My sister, DNOS, however, has managed to instill the specialness of the day into N2 (Nephew2).

“But he slept over at Mom’s Saturday night and I forgot about it completely, ” she confided to me on the phone. “I hoped he would just forget about it, but nope, we were in the car on our way home from school and he wonders why St. Nick forgot him.”

“So what did you tell him?” I asked. DNOS is a great one for covering up parental faux-pas with stories that only an 8 year old could possibly believe. I admire that.

“I told him that St. Nick visits houses alphabetically and that he probably hadn’t gotten to the O’s yet.”

And N2 bought this as reasonable as any third grader would because “alphabetical” is how the world works.

After they got home from hockey practice later that evening, DNOS hustled N2 downstairs to strip him of his gear and pop him in the shower. According to my husband, hockey gear takes on an odor of its own and so, I imagine, does the child wearing the gear. As N2 showered, his father snuck upstairs and began stomping loudly about the living room. It’s a little house and BIL is a big guy, so let’s imagine timbers rattling.

“Mom,” N2 pops out of the shower, “There’s someone in the house!”

Eyes as big as saucers and shivering with chill and fear in his birthday suit, he began yelling for BIL.

“Dad! DAD! There’s an intruder upstairs.”

BIL has stealthily slipped back downstairs without notice and asks, “Are you sure, N2?”

“There’s an intruder!! Dad, get the gun!”

BIL hunts. He keeps his arsenal in a locked cabinet in the basement and he dutifully went for a shotgun and went upstairs to “look around”.

“Oh my god, Mom. There’s an intruder! And I’m naked!” N2 was literally beside himself with horror at this point and how DNOS and BIL live with the guilt is beyond me. They are great actors though and neither one cracked so much as a smile, let alone snickered.

“I didn’t see anything N2,” BIL reported when he returned.

“Get the soap out of my hair, Mom! I need to get dressed!”

A few minutes later, sans soap and pj’d, N2 charges ahead of his parents to the upstairs.

“Hey Buzz, nice of you to go first,” BIL calls after him and N2 freezes in mid-step.

“Mom, you go ahead of me and Dad you go ahead of Mom,” he said.

They crept through the kitchen and into the living room to find, not an intruder, but three St. Nick’d shoes. N2 took the contents out and distributed them and sat heavily on the rocker, clutching his small toy.

“Mom. Dad. I have to say this how I have to say this,” he said.

And they waited with bated breath.

“Dad, you almost frickin’ shot St. Nick! He’s Santa’s brother, and I wouldn’t have got anything this year if you’d killed him.”

And no, they didn’t laugh. They are that good.

*This tale is told with the permission of DNOS, who I am sure recognizes that I didn’t get it word for word as she told it because I am not the story-teller that she is.

My daughter was asking me today about St.Patrick and why he needed to drive away snakes. I was getting her ready for school at the time, selecting the proper combination of green to ward off pinches. I keep forgetting that her in Canada it is not verboten to discuss religion in schools, so Katy is often reciting to me the public school version of my own Catholic school education. To tell the truth, I don’t remember the circumstances that led up to Patrick’s expelling of the snakes. Patrick was not Irish but a missionary from Britain trying to convert the heathen Irish. His snake trick has more ties to the paganism in practice there at the time to anything he may have actually done. I told Katy I didn’t remember why which prompted another question. Ignorance is not an out. She just keeps asking questions until I know an answer.


“How did he drive out the snakes?”




“Who helped him?”




“So God was his assistant?”


I had to smile. It’s an odd way to put it but in a way she is right. God is just there for the assist. Everything else is up to us.


“That’s right.”


“Who is God?”


“He’s the one who created the universe.”


“How’d he do that?”


“I have no idea.”


This time she let me off the hook. Perfectly green and sure of her Irishness, she bounced off.


I’d forgotten that it was the 17th.  St.Patrick’s isn’t one of those holidays I paid much attention to even as a child. As a teacher, I took care to remember the days when I was expected to wear specific colors, but the emphasis on drinking that is so heavily associated with the day where I grew up and where I settled as an adult, really turned me off to marking the holiday beyond color coordination. One of the things that struck me about today this year was that Katy knew she was Irish. She is more Irish in ethnic heritage than she is any thing else thanks to me. But, this is relatively new information. When I was a child and a teen, I wore green not really knowing if I was Irish in any part at all. Being adopted, I did what I had always done which was to adopt my parents genetic make-up as my own even though I was clearly different in most aspects from the physical to the intellectual to personality. I was in college when I learned that I was indeed half Irish though I suspected from my red hair and fair skin that I likely was. Still, it was such a big deal to be able to say that my ancestors came from Ireland. Mine. Not the ones I borrowed. People who gave me a true genetic link to that far away island.


It’s just an odd thing that came to me today in an innocent moment with my child.

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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So, even though I spent fifteen minutes on the phone tonight reassuring my mom that vegetarianism and Easter dinner is not a recipe for disaster, it only just occurred to me that it is Holy Week. I hated Holy Week when I was growing up. It meant going to church on a day that wasn’t Sunday, like protestants do, and masses that were longer than 30 minutes, a practically unheard of thing when I was a child.


It started with reading the Passion ensemble style on Palm Sunday. The longest freaking mass of the year, and you spent at least half of it on your feet. No slouching. No leaning. Back straight. Missile open. Attention paid. Not that I was ever paying attention. My favorite place to hide when I was a child was deep inside my head where I had many stories to occupy me when the world around me was too intense, or in the case of mass or school, too pointless.



In school that week we had prayer services and did the stations of the cross everyday. As often as I have done them, the stations, I still don’t know them by heart. Not like a Hail Mary or the responses during the consecration which come back unbidden and  virtually word for word no matter how many years it has been.


Thursday night, we went to mass to watch Father wash feet and to read yet another version of the Passion. There are four gospels you know.


Friday. Stations of the Cross. This time in a packed church in the middle of the day. The consecrated host was taken from the altar and the tabernacle draped to indicate Jesus’ death. Fun times.


Saturday night. Mass again and since there couldn’t be a consecration, no resurrection yet, you would think it wouldn’t take as long. You’d be wrong.


Sunday morning mass, the day of the Resurrection of God’s only son made flesh, was actually the shortest mass of the week. It was like a reward for having made it through Holy Week boot camp. The gospel was about Mary Magdalene finding the tomb empty and running to fetch the apostles. It was always interesting to me that Jesus appeared to Mary first. Didn’t that make her important? The answer to that is no. Mary was a woman. My Irish Catholic view of the world told me that women ruled it, but in the Catholic church, we ran and fetched. God only loved us second best and even that was predicated on our shunning birth control in favor of Kennedyesque broods or taking the veil.


Easter was crammed full of rituals I detested. Lent with its fasting and meaningless deprivation. Confession. The sisters made us go once a week during Lent. We were children. At some point over the course of forty days, we had to start making up sins. And of course, there were the endless hours of rosary my dad would insist we recite every night after the dishes were done. Praying as a family was something the church encouraged although I didn’t notice it making my family a happier group of people.


The last Easter Sunday mass I attended was with Will the spring before we got married. We had to sit in the overflow because everyone who was ever even nominally Catholic goes to mass on Easter Sunday. I remember he thought we spent an awful lot of time on our feet and knees, and why were there seats if we weren’t going to use them? Sometimes I wonder if I am making a mistake by not raising my daughter in the faith. It certainly shaped who I am in some ways.

Maybe that is why.