“It is as a general rule a bad sign when a man has not a particular feeling of devotion on the chief feasts of the year.” -St. Philip Neri
I think I was ten before I realized that Christmas, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth, is December 25… Up to that point empirical evidence …of a sort… convinced my child mind that Christmas was December 24. “What was this evidence that warped time and space?” you might well ask. FOOD!
Growing up in an Italian-American household in New York, we did all our feasting on Christmas Eve. Seven kinds of fish, capped by pastries of every stripe… Warm hugs and kisses from relatives whose names one only vaguely remembered… Picture “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” dipped in tomato sauce and you get the idea. But that wasn’t all. We went to mass on Christmas Eve… and as I got older, we’d sometimes even open our gifts late at night on Christmas Eve… ‘heck, even the name (at least to a ten year-old) is tricky: CHRISTMAS Eve… After all, wasn’t Jesus born at night?
My kiddie confusion was a witness to the great power of culture. The cultural phenomenon of a feast translates the cosmic realities being feasted (in this case Christmas) in a three hundred sixty degree way… an all encompassing reality that becomes familiar, heartfelt over time, engraining those realities into one’s very being.
Feasts speak to us of truth, of goodness, of unity… but they speak to us THROUGH beauty, and ultimately find their power in her convincing ways. Every culture has feasts… They are a hallmark of vitality and endurance… and, best as I can recollect, feasts only survive the test of ages if they celebrate something positive (again: truth good integral and beautiful). Think about it, have you ever heard of a feast that celebrates evil?
The positive power of feasts (particularly religious feasts) is one reason why it’s so sad to hear about school districts around DC wrangling over their inclusion in the school calendar. My primary school education was in public schools in NY, where we learned about the festal traditions of all the kids in our class. Most of us were Christians, but no one batted an eye learning about Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other customs. To us, it was all fascinating… and at the very least a great chance to try someone else’s food. Come to think of it, I owe my love of all DC’s many ethnic foods to the experience of encountering many religious feasts as a child even if those feasts weren’t my own. Did experiencing all these traditions in a public school setting damage the integrity of my own religious sense? Apparently not, I ended up becoming a Catholic priest.
Tonight (and yes, even tomorrow, Dec. 25), let us feast. Eat, drink and be merry, something beautiful happened, “a child is born to us, a son given us,” Jesus the Savior. Merry Christmas Washington!