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Friday, December 2, 2011

Martin Luther's Answer to St. Nick

Let me begin with a disclaimer: these facts are not necessarily facts.  In other words, they're taken from Wikipedia.  But rumor has it that Martin Luther, in the nativity of the Protestant Church, promoted changing the culture's focus from St. Nicholas as the early winter gift-bringer to Christkindl, or the Christ Child.  Along with giver, the gift-giving date also changed: from December 6 to--appropriately--Christmas Eve.  Some of that new tradition spread beyond the Lutheran sphere.

"A gift-bringer familiar to German children, the Christkind bears little resemblance to the infant of Bethlehem.[2] The Christkind was adopted in Catholic areas during the 19th century, while it began to be, in a rather surprising turnabout, gradually replaced by a more or less secularized version of Saint Nicholas, the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas, Santa Claus) in Protestant regions..."  This from   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christkind

In Scandanavian countries, this morphing of traditional gifting linked itself to St. Lucia's Day.
"In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Lucy (called Lucia) is venerated on December 13 in a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray Lucia. Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession of women, each holding a candle. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucia's life when she was sentenced to be burned..."
This from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lucy's_Day

So much mystery, so much legend. 
By 1908, "...the oldest daughter brings coffee and St. Lucia buns to her parents while wearing a candle-wreath and singing a Lucia song. Other daughters may help, dressed in the same kind of white robe and carrying a candle in one hand, but only the oldest daughter wears the candle-wreath."  And, "today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students and a national Lucia is elected on national television from regional winners. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people's homes and churches, singing and handing out pepparkakor (gingerbread)."  Ibid. 

So much tradition, yet so unfamiliar to most well-rooted, modern Americans.  All I really knew of this festival as a school child in the US came from the occasional song shared in a music class, with the music's illustration showing the girl in white. But she gets much more attention in other places, even today.  One great opportunity for grooming humility:  visit other cultures' long-held traditions for this holiday.

Remember our Wikipedia disclaimer?  Well, whether these legends really are factual is of little import when weighing whether or not they are true. Truth can be found in them for the looking and the listening.  The wreath of candles alone offers truth.  Candles, the bringers of peaceful, lasting light in the darkest of days:  they require many dips in the wax if they are to form well.  There is no rushing the making of a candle.  This is a truth you can mull like fine cider if you don't get stuck in the muck of questioning whether the flames really refused to take St. Lucia.

We have both the luxury and the curse of leisure.  We have too much time for thinking, and not enought for relating meaning to actual tasks, I often think.  We forget what a "chore" it was, those days when our ancestors took up the task of chandling, because now we can simply stock the candle drawer whenever the local hobby shop offers a 50% off sale.

Still, we hold these candles as treasured elements in our holiday festivities.  How much richer might those traditions be if we allow something as humble as a candle to carry a larger meaning, one that honors the traditions of our neighbors or of our ancestors?
It can be a profound thing:  like a wreath of Advent candles; a centerpiece for purposeful devotions; ones that include a discussion of the ancient saints and prophets, who are themselves luminaries this time of year. 
Or, it might involve a humbler table, a less formal ceremony.  December 13th might include the serving of St. Lucia buns and coffee, the opening of ONE small gift and the singing of a carol or two. 
Whatever is on the holiday calendar, I challenge you to be intentional about taking some element of this holiday month and celebrate the mystery of secret graces.  Make Christmas fresh.  Make it new again.  Make it filled with wonder.

Happy candle-lighting!
P.S. If you should like to make those Lucia Buns, here's a recipe for you.
P.P.S. If you know how to find saffron easily, let me know about it!

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