Oyster Stew on Christmas Eve: An American Catholic Tradition

Here in the Driftless Area, it’s still Dec. 24, so a Christmas Eve post is in order. Prior to the calendar reforms of Pope Pius XII (I think; maybe St. John XXIII?), the Christmas Vigil was a day of abstinence from meat, just like Fridays and Lenten weekdays. In America at least, it became traditional to eat oyster stew on Christmas Eve. Just like Friday fish fries, Christmas Eve oyster stew seems to have spread beyond Catholic circles to the culture at large. I remember eating oyster stew on Christmas Eve when I was a child. My mother and I had oyster stew tonight.

oyster-stew Continue reading

St. Nicholas’ Day

Today (Dec. 6, regardless of what appears above) is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Confessor. When my maternal grandmother was a girl, children received gifts from St. Nicholas on the morning of his feast day. The children set out their shoes on the night before. I think they filled the shoes with hay for St. Nicholas’ horses. In the morning, they found the shoes filled with oranges, apples, and nuts. That’s how St. Nicholas was celebrated in one German-American Catholic family in the Driftless Area, 40-50 years before Vatican II.

This Old World Catholic tradition was remembered in Wisconsin through the year 2000 at least. When I was a freshman at Marquette, the Residence Assistant in our dorm set small gifts of candy from our parents outside our doors on the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day. We were in the midst of finals and looking forward to Christmas break. It’s a fond memory. Continue reading

St. Sebastian: Bastion of Catholic Identity

This post is inspired by a homily that the parish priest at my home parish in Illinois* preached about a month ago. The Rio Olympics were in full swing, and the priest commented on American gymnast Simone Biles. He related that Biles, a Catholic, had a devotion to St. Sebastian and lit candles to him. I subsequently found out that St. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes and of Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics were held. The full name of Rio de Janeiro is São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, which in Portuguese means St. Sebastian of the River January (the Portuguese first landed there in January). This got me thinking about St. Sebastian’s role as an icon and bastion of Catholic identity.

Here are the basics of St. Sebastian’s story. He was a Roman soldier who was martyred during one of the persecutions inflicted on the Church by the Roman Emperors. He was sentenced to be tied to a tree and shot through with arrows. He miraculously survived the arrows, so he was clubbed to death. The Christians buried him in catacombs outside the city of Rome that have been called St. Sebastian’s Catacombs ever since. Now a basilica in St. Sebastian’s honor stands over the catacombs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Sebastiano_fuori_le_mura). Here’s a photo I took of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom as depicted on the ceiling (!) of the nave of the Basilica of St. Sebastian’s Outside the Walls:

498

St. Sebastian became very popular in the Middle Ages for a number of reasons**. Here, I’ll focus on just one: the all-out awesomeness of his martyrdom. I think in many Catholics’ mind, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is the template for their own perseverance in the face of persecution and temptation. If you think of it, his martyrdom is very reminiscent of Our Lord’s Crucifixion. He was bound to a tree, with his face to his persecutors, as they pierced his flesh. He is the patron saint of grit-your-teeth-and-take-it.

Continue reading