Fat Tuesday

King Cake
King Cake

Today is Fat Tuesday. If you want to be more French, it is Mardi Gras. It began as a preface to the religious holy day of Ash Wednesday. It is the last day to eat up the fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent which is a penitential season.

I’m taking Fat Tuesday quite literally this year. On this Tuesday, I am feeling fat and my scale tells me it’s more than a feeling. I hit my all-time heaviest this past weekend. I’ve done it before and I have shed 25 pounds before and then eventually gained it all back.

On Fat Tuesday, people would indulge one last time in foods that they might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days. Being brought up Catholic, my mother and the church made a big deal about giving up something you enjoyed for Lent. Chocolate, candies, desserts were typical choices. I recall people giving up (or trying to give up) television, cursing, and other bad habits. Our local church held an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast on this day, perhaps as a way to illustrate the sin of gluttony.

Church bells seemed to ring more often as another reminder of what sinners we had become and remind us to now repent. The church didn’t formally endorse Fat Tuesday but since a season of fasting was ahead you had to get rid of all the forbidden foods. You weren’t going to thrown away good food away, so this idea of partying and eating all remaining foods began. The non-religious party that is Mardi Gras begins two weeks before the day that carries the name.

At one time, the fasting was more serious. Forbidden foods included meat, eggs, and dairy products. Shrove Tuesday is the name given to today by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics. For those who mark the day in a religious manner, it is about self-examination, considering the wrongs you need to repent, and what life changes you need to make. It does seem an appropriate day to start a diet.

This moveable feast is determined by when Easter occurs. The name “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, an archaic verb meaning “absolve” from the Old English scrīfan which meant “to impose as a penance.”

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. (Lent is a 40-day season because the Sundays aren’t counted. ) The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent symbolically, if not literally, asks believers to set aside time for similar fasting before Christ’s resurrection.

This first day of Lent is about confession and absolution. The symbolic ritual of burning of the previous year’s Holy Week palms happens on this day. On Ash Wednesday, the repentance ashes on put on the foreheads of churchgoers. As a child, I found this frightening as the priest would say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” And since it was a school day, if you went to the early morning mass, you wore those ashes to school. It identified you. Maybe in a good way or a bad way depending on your neighborhood and classmates.

Foods that are traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday (or during Mardi Gras) can be sweet. In the UK, Fat Tuesday is Pancake Day, and in Poland, it’s Paczki Day named for those jelly-filled doughnuts. In the U.S., places like New Orleans that celebrate Mardi Gras often serve the colorful King Cake with its rich, brioche dough and filled with cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. But the food can also be fatty and savory, such as fried Po’Boys.

I’m treating that day as a second chance New Year’s resolution. Eat up the remaining ice cream, donuts, chips and dip, and then try to give up all that bad food for 40 days. Maybe prayers would help.

A detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’, 1559

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Archangel Gabriel
Statue of Archangel Gabriel (15th century), on a pillar of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

Yesterday, I wrote about meeting the Devil at the crossroads, so I thought I should counter that today with something about a tutelary. That’s a word that may not be familiar. It means a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, person, nation, culture, or occupation.

In late Greek and Roman religion, there is a tutelary deity called the genius who functions as the personal deity or daimon of an individual from birth to death. More familiar is a personal tutelary spirit from European folklore – an angel.

Many people associate angels with religion but the word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos, which means “messenger.”

In Christianity, it is said that “angel” refers to their mission, not to their nature. They are personal, immortal, non-corporeal spirits with intelligence and will and entirely other.

As a child, I thought that when you died you could become an angel. A priest told me that was not possible but in heaven, I would be equal to the angels. I was also told that I had my own Guardian Angel.

A guardian angel is assigned to protect and guide a particular person, though it could also be assigned to a group or even a nation. For example, Portugal has a Guardian Angel.

Tutelary beings run all through antiquity and angels played a major role in Ancient Judaism, but in Christianity, a hierarchy of angels was developed in the fifth century.

An angel of high rank is an archangel from the Greek roots meaning “chief angel.”

The Archangel Raphael protects healers and helps with the healing of bodies, hearts, and minds.

The Archangel Michael is the leader of all angels and his main purpose is to rid the earth and its people of all toxins associated with fear. He actually is supposed to work with humans, called lightworkers, who can also perform healing. Michael carries a dazzling sword and in modern times has somehow also become associated with fixing electronic devices.

My mother really liked Archangel Gabriel. Maybe it was because Gabriel is often portrayed as feminine and she brought Jesus to Mary and now Gabriel guides parents from conception onward.

There are some angelic inconsistencies. They are typically depicted as masculine but in Christianity, they are supposed to be without gender, and in the Quran, God rejects feminine depictions of angels. It also didn’t seem right when I was told that a non-Christian can’t have a guardian angel.

Abrahamic religions often depict angels as intermediaries between God or Heaven and humanity. I was comforted as a child by the thought of something powerful protecting me. My mother put a guardian angel statue over my bed. It looked like most angels in artwork that look like quite attractive humans and have wings, halos, and are bathed in a divine light. (My little statue glowed in the dark!)

Yesterday I referenced the Devil and many Christians believe the Devil was once a beautiful angel named Lucifer who defied God and fell from grace. Some biblical scholars say that Lucifer isn’t a proper name but a descriptive phrase meaning “morning star” the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer.

I was confused when I met up with Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who earned his wings when he helped George realize that life was worth living. He didn’t fit any of the descriptions I had encountered, though he was bumblingly likable.

Are people still interested in angels? A search on Amazon for the word turns up 80,000 items.  A Google search shows 2,030,000,000 results. That’s 2+ billion.  (though some of those angels play baseball). So, the answer is Yes.

“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”  ― Tennessee Williams

“Every angel is terrifying.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Feeling Pensive and the Pensieve

The end of a year and the beginning of a year is a time when it would not be unusual to be in a pensive mood.  The word is defined as being engaged in or reflecting deep or serious thoughts.

Like many of you, I tend to review the year in late December more intensely than at other times of the year. This year I found myself looking into photo albums (the physical kind) at my life and the lives of my now-grown sons.  Objects – like photos and journals – are objects that can evoke strong memories, both good and bad.

A “Pensieve” is something from the fiction of Harry Potter’s literary world.  My wife and I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, and on the walk through their Hogwarts, we saw a Pensieve.

A poor photo I took of the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office while on the ride tour at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

That Pensieve and the ones seen in the film versions of the books look a lot like something I saw in my childhood Catholic church. The baptismal font that would be filled with water for baptisms of infants can appear in many shapes and styles from simple to ornate. Many are often symbolically eight-sided for eight days of creation and as a connection to the practice of circumcision, which traditionally occurs on the eighth day. Some are three-sided as a reminder of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These fonts are often placed at or near the entrance to a church’s nave to remind believers of their baptism as they enter the church since baptism was their initiation into the Church. In many churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a special chapel or even a separate building for housing the baptismal fonts, called a baptistery.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours  them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”
— Albus Dumbledore’s explanation of the Pensieve

The Pensieve is a fictional magical object from the Harry Potter series of books and movies. It is a way to review memories.

Physically it is a wide and shallow dish made of metal or stone, that can be elaborately decorated or inlaid with precious stones. The Hogwarts Pensieve is made of ornately carved stone and is engraved with modified Saxon runes,Only the most advanced wizards use them and there are fears about their use.  It is filled with a silvery substance that appears to be a cloudy liquid and gas which are the collected memories of people who have siphoned their recollections into it.

By gazing deeply into it, memories can be viewed by the owner or from a third-person point of view by someone else. I could look into it and see your memories if you had siphoned them into the bowl. Gazing into a liquid and “reflecting” is obviously part of the symbolism here.

The “pensive” of Harry Potter’s world is a homonym of “pensive” with a wink at the “sieve” part which alludes to the object’s ability to sort meanings from the many thoughts or memories it receives, like an actual sieve.  “Pensive” comes from late Middle English and earlier from Old French pensif, from penser “to think” from Latin pensare “to ponder” and also pendere “weigh.”

According to J.K. Rowling,  the possible dangers of using the Pensieve relate to its power over memory and because someone else can relive your memories in every detail. That is dangerous if you have memories you want hidden. Pensieves are generally buried along with their owner’s wand for that reason.

Albus Dumbledore allows Harry to use the Hogwarts Pensieve. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he adds thoughts to the Pensieve. The Pensieve reminds us that Snape and Harry are forever connected. Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, and now is bound to protect Harry.

The Hogwarts Pensieve does not belong to an individual but to the school and has been used by many headmasters and headmistresses. Their memories remain within it.  This forms an invaluable library of reference for the headmaster or headmistress of the day.

In the second film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape’s memories are taken in the form of his tears. Severus Snape is not known for crying or warm emotions, but he tells Harry to put the tears in the Pensieve so that he may see something of his past and connections to him.

The connection between the Hogwart’s Pensieve and its use and the baptismal font is a tenuous one. The connection between using that magical object and reviewing our memories with or without some object to aid us is clear.

Harry Dumbledore Pensieve
Dumbledore and Harry at the Pensieve as a Christmas tree ornament

Me and Saint Augustine – Sinners

When I was 12 years old and attending catechism classes at my Catholic church on Sundays after mass, the nun who taught us assigned a report on a saint to the class. There was a list of saints and you put your name next to one. I randomly picked St. Augustine because he was at the top of the alphabetical list and that meant I could get my oral report over with it at the beginning of class.

After the list went around the classroom, Sister Wanda called me to her desk.
“I think you should choose a different saint.”
“Why?” I asked.
She hesitated and then said, “His is – a difficult story.”
“I’m a good student. I can handle it,” I replied confidently.
She thought about it a bit and then said I could do St. Augustine.

This exchange piqued my interest in the man.

Vittore carpaccio, visione di sant'agostino
St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502  Link

Augustine came back to me when I saw that today is his birthday. He was born in Tagaste, Numidia in 354 – a year that was incomprehensible to me in seventh grade and still is incomprehensible. I had to look up his birthplace which is a part of North Africa that is now Algeria.

I remember only a few things from that early research. One thing he believed that I found ridiculous was the idea that no one could be free from sin. Sinfulness is the nature of humans. He developed the idea of Original Sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins. That seemed incredibly unfair.

Sin was a big thing with Augustine who turned out to be a pretty good sinner himself. Reading about him (probably in a library copy of The World Book Encyclopedia and in a Lives of the Saints book that my mother had on our bookshelf), I started to see why Sister Wanda wasn’t sure I should learn about him.

His book, The Confessions, is one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion. There were a lot of them. The sins ranged from small ones (stealing pears from a neighbor’s tree) to ones he considered major (sexual fantasies and fornication). Augustine’s story got quite interesting and I found other books in the library about him and looked for the “dirty parts.”

He wrote, “Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. Lust stormed confusedly within me. The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”

I identified – at least in the fantasy parts – with him. Augustine’s life got me thinking about things that I probably would have to include in my next confession.

Augustine’s mother arranged a respectable marriage for him which he agreed to, but it meant he had to dump his concubine (I had to look that one up in the dictionary)  and that pained him. He wrote, “My mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding.” Augustine confessed he was a slave of lust, and he procured another concubine since he had to wait two years until his fiancée came of age.

Around that time, he said he first professed his famously insincere prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.” I think I may have said that a few times myself after doing my report. I thought it was funny.

I considered his Original Sin idea to be crazy. You’re telling me that the innocent newborn is doomed? No way. But I agreed that it was hopeless to think we could be innocent or free from what he considered to be “sin.” Since it is hopeless to be free from sin, I felt more relaxed about sinning.  After all, Augustine did a lot of sinning and became a saint! His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At least he thought that if Christian churches baptized infants it would cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

I wrote my report and turned it in. The following Sunday, we had to do a brief summary oral report. I was smart enough to not include anything about sex in my report. I stuck to him being a scholar whose writings covered theology, philosophy, and sociology. He realized he was a sinner and that we are all sinners and that we can only be redeemed by recognizing that and so our only hope is in God’s forgiveness.

Sister Wanda liked my report. I didn’t believe everything I had told the class, but I knew what I had to say to her and them.

His life story is still interesting to me. The lesson I took away is probably not what he or Sister Wanda wanted me to learn. I too want to be granted forgiveness and self-restraint – but not yet.

A Moveable Feast

robin eggs
Spring robin eggs

As with many holy days, “Easter” comes from pagan traditions. Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre, the goddess of springtime and the return of the sun after the long winter. Eostre, in legend, once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could still lay eggs, and that rabbit evolved into the Easter rabbit/bunny.

Eggs had long been a symbol of fertility. In winter they were scarce, so their return in spring were part of the seasonal celebrations. People exchanged decorated eggs at this time as far back as the 11th century.

Easter Sunday, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion, is a moveable feast. The date is based on the cycles of the moon. The New Testament says that Jesus was resurrected on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon of spring which places it as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th.

The almanac also reminds me that today is the day in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. He supported the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun and not that Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo took a plea bargain and plead guilty to avoid imprisonment or execution. He was sentenced to an unlimited period of house arrest in his home in Florence. It only took 359 years (1992) for the Catholic Church to formally admit that Galileo’s views on the solar system are correct.

Greetings From St. Nicholas and Krampus

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. He was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra (now Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire.

Many miracles attributed to his intercession led to his sainthood. His reputation evolved among the faithful and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving led to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”),


Sinterklaas arriving in the Dutch town of Schiedam Image: WikimediaSaint Nicholas Day is observed on December 5/6 in Western Christian countries and December 19 in Eastern Christian countries on the Old Calendar. This day is celebrated as a Christian festival, but along with the attendance of Mass or other worship services, there are gifting traditions.

In Europe, especially in Germany and Poland, boys would dress as bishops begging alms for the poor.

In Ukraine, children wait for St. Nicholas to come and to put a present under their pillows. Gifts traditionally are given to children who were good during the year. Children who behaved badly may expect to find a twig or a piece of coal under their pillows.

In the Netherlands, Dutch children put out a clog shoe filled with hay and a carrot for Saint Nicholas’ horse. “Santa Claus” is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas, the saint’s name in that language.

Some American children leave their shoes in the foyer on Saint Nicholas Eve in hope that Saint Nicholas will place some gifts or coins on the soles. The American Santa Claus, as well as the British Father Christmas, derive from Saint Nicholas and some traditions from other countries have been passed on, but the gift-giving tradition has been moved to Christmas Eve or Day rather than Saint Nicholas Day.

Besides Sinterklaas, earlier names for the legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas as a patron saint of children include De Sint (“The Saint”), De Goede Sint (“The Good Saint”), and De Goedheiligman (“The Good Holy Man”) in Dutch; Saint Nicolas in French; Sinteklaas in West Frisian; Sinterklaos in Limburgs; Saint-Nikloi in West Flemish; Kleeschen and Zinniklos in Luxembourgish; and Sankt Nikolaus or Nikolaus in German.

Of course, there is no hard evidence of any Nicholas type person’s miracles and the legend doesn’t stand up to scientific analysis. And most of what Americans now associate with Santa Claus (flying reindeer, down the chimney and other supernatural powers) come from the marketing of the commercialized version of Christmas.

Most people don’t know that while Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, he is also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe.

Some of the traditions followed in other countries bear little resemblance to the legendary St. Nick we know in the United States.

In Italy, San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari (where it is believed that his stolen remains are found) and their celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola. That occurs on May 7–9 of May and includes the relics of the saint carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare).

Also, since San Nicola is said to protect children and virgins, on this day in December the ritual of Rito delle nubili finds unmarried women seeking a husband at an early-morning Mass, in which they have to turn around a column 7 times.

My own childhood included not only Santa Claus and St. Nicholas but also the terrifying Krampus. My mother’s family were from Austria and my father’s side from Austria-Hungary (though Slovak by language). In those places, as well as in  Bavaria and Tyrol, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Croatia, this creature with Germanic folklore roots appears.

A person dressed as Krampus in Salzburg    (via Wikimedia)

You may have heard that Santa Claus keeps a list of who is naughty and who is nice, but Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon” who accompanies St. Nick. This demonic figure of the Krampus has the job of punishing children during the Yule season who have misbehaved. When I asked my mother how he punishes kids she sais “You don’t want to know.” He also sometimes captures the really naughty children in his sack and carries them away to his lair.

In some of these countries, the eve of St. NIck is called Krampus Night or Krampusnacht and that’s when he appears. In modern times, young men will dress up as the Krampus before St. Nicholas Day frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses.

When the Saint himself appears nowadays, he is usually in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a ceremonial staff.

Nicholas gives gifts. When not terrorizing children, Krampus supplies coal and ruten bundles. That is an object with pagan origins that may have had significance in pre-Christian initiation rites. They are bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children.

Greetings from Krampus!
Hopefully, you did not send or receive any cards this week like this one from the early 1900s that reads “Greetings from Krampus!”