Happy “Saint Distaff” Day!

Maybe we can use our Catholic tradition to help a world learn (again) how to celebrate.

Albert Anker (1831-1910), “Queen Bertha and the Spinners”
Albert Anker (1831-1910), “Queen Bertha and the Spinners” (photo: Public Domain)

For Catholics, Jan. 6, 2019, is the Solemnity of the Epiphany. But that’s only coincidental because the American bishops, having unmoored Epiphany from its traditionally fixed celebration on Jan. 6 and transferred it to the first Sunday of the New Year, are lucky that this year’s first Sunday is Jan. 6. Because it moves, Epiphany — “Twelfth Night” — can actually be observed in the Roman Calendar as applied in the United States as anything from “ninth night” (Jan. 2) to “fourteenth night” (Jan. 8).

I guess most folks will not complain, because if it were fixed, Epiphany last year would have meant back-to-back Saturday/Sunday Mass obligations (unless the American bishops applied their “Saturday-or-Monday-get-out-of-Church-free-except-on-December-8-or-25” card). And the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is pretty much a vestigial song anyway, so while “twelfth night” observances might retain some echoes in particular ethnic cultures (e.g., the Spanish el Día de los Reyes Magos), for “mainstream” American Catholics I’d bet by now the Christmas decorations have long been put away and the holidays over.

So, let’s talk about Jan. 7.

In England, Jan. 7 was once called “St. Distaff” Day. Now, there’s no such saint as “Distaff,” but the name stuck because Jan. 7 was the day people returned to work after the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Women went back to spinning flax using their distaffs, hence, while there were some “end-of-season” customs associated with playfully stealing and burning ladies’ flax, the poet Robert Herrick captured the meaning of the “feast,” writing:

Give St. Distaff all the right;
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow everyone
To his own vocation.

As I suggested in my earlier blog, Jan. 1 has in some sense become a mishmash of themes. The Church now celebrates it as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, an ancient feast that properly connected “Virgin Mother and Child” in the eight days of Christmas. Because Luke mentions Jesus’ Circumcision on the eighth day, the Marian feast was displaced for a time by the feast of the Circumcision until the latter’s suppression after the 1969 Roman Calendar reform. Pope St. Paul VI declared Jan. 1 “World Day of Peace” and authorized a Votive Mass for the day. And for Catholics who wonder why the theme of New Year is so seemingly absent, we need but remember that for a long time the civil new year began March 25 (the Solemnity of the Annunciation), because if our calendar observes time as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini)—and not the more politically correct “BCE/CE “common era” terminology—then why not begin the year when Jesus was conceived, i.e., nine months before His Birth, i.e., March 25? (What pro-life witness was lost when Pope Gregory XIII’s calendar reverted to the Roman Jan. 1?)

It’s been said that modern man has lost the sense of celebration. Reflecting perhaps on the Christmas cycle of feasts tells us about that. Outside of the Church, where do we ever hear of “octaves” or “tridua,” much less “novenas?” Jan. 1 is the octave day of Christmas, but how often do we really let Christmas joy extend eight days, much less twelve? For those who doubt my thoughts, do a curbside survey of discarded Christmas trees on Dec. 26.

We talk about the commercialization of Christmas, which usually means the frenetic pre-25th shopping season (followed by the post-25th returns season) which seems to start earlier and earlier every year. But Western secular Christmas is increasingly unanchored from its Christian roots, with “Christmas” being shifted into Advent (Christmas Parties, Christmas sales, Christmas events), followed by a rapid denouement after Dec. 25. For mainstream culture, there is little “special” that happens after, essentially, New Year’s Eve. As I said, Epiphany as a cultural event is largely privatized in certain ethnic groups. In Catholic Europe, the interval between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday was a time for celebration, perhaps not as fulsome as Christmas, but still a time of Carnival, followed by a serious (and quiet) Lent. (2019 has one of the longest “Ordinary Times” between Christmastide and Lent: 50 days, including seven weekends. How many pastors will encourage their parish societies this year to arrange their social events before Ash Wednesday and/or defer them until after Easter? A serious Lent might be a good thing for the Church, particularly in the United States, this year).

If our cultural Christmas is increasingly disconnected from its liturgical roots, Easter is a bigger basket case. Our culture still retains some Noel festivity, even if it’s hidden under a “holidays” rubric. But Easter’s a tougher nut to accommodate.

Luckily, for the secular West, it always falls—unlike Christmas—on a Sunday, so it can be safely relegated to the “private” weekend. Ever fewer jurisdictions observe Good Friday as a holiday, which means the typical workweek consigns most observance of two-thirds of the Triduum to after-hours. (The Church in the United States has largely abetted this trend by shifting the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion from its traditional Good Friday time at 3 p.m. to the evening). Christmas is far more culturally intrusive than Easter; when it comes to mentioning the latter, co-workers can safely avoid even mention of the “holiday” or cubbyhole it under a “doing anything special this weekend?” query.

But can such great feasts as Christmas and Easter be celebrated in the span of a calendar day?

Celebration involves build up, experience and denouement. Our culture’s build up to most holidays is connected with sales. (Even those secular holidays whose core most Americans have long forgotten or never learned how to celebrate, e.g., Labor Day as a celebration of work or Washington’s Birthday as a memory of our founding roots, primarily exist in the context of bargains). The experience of holidays is often privatized or captured in a few minimal ritual acts, e.g., watching fireworks here or eating a hot dog there. There is no wind down: Dec. 26, July 5, or Easter Monday morning are workdays as usual. The converted Ebenezer Scrooge at least feigned anger at Bob Cratchit’s coming tardily to work on Boxing Day; I can think of plenty of bosses for whom a curious eye followed by a far more serious “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?" would follow the employee clocking in at 9:18 a.m. on the second day of Christmas.

Many factors are responsible for how we have gotten to where are, and overcoming them in a secularized, 24/7 culture where the Sabbath has lost its preeminence as queen of the week and any attempt to reverse that derogation would face (and likely succumb) to constitutional challenge will be arduous. In many ways, our fundamental dilemma is that we have lost the rhythm of human time which—pace the pagans and neo-Wiccan “spiritual” among us—has to be restored first and foremost by the recovery of the week with its day to be kept holy. (I say that because I have seen articles extolling the celebration of the day and year as “natural” but claiming the week is “artificial.” It’s not an accident that every major secularization project, be it Revolutionary France or Revolutionary Russia, tried to overturn the week).

But we would be misdirected if our first efforts were directed to legal fixes; ours is a culture whose capacity to celebrate is anemic. Luckily, we Catholics have some of the “temporal fixes” in our tradition to try to rebuild that culture of celebration. Alas, we have also grown anemic by letting those temporal devices fall into desuetude. There was a real value to novenas, tridua, octaves, the Twelve Days of Christmas, holydays, and other celebrations that marked out time in a way different from the secular culture, in a way that took account of the human needs of buildup, experience and denouement. Why have we lost the Christmas Novena (and other Novenas)? Why do we need to have Ascension Thursday on a transferred Sunday (which undermined the Church’s primordial novena and turned Pentecost into just another Sunday)? Why is Epiphany a moveable feast? Why, in the height of absurdity last year, was the one day on which there is a coincidence of sacred and secular celebration—Jan. 1—shorn of its significance as a holyday because it fell on a Monday? Why are the Sundays between the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and Ash Wednesday just “ordinary” time, which weakens the old Christian tradition of pre-Lenten celebration? Why do Catholics not think of taking Good Friday afternoon off to go to church at 3 p.m.? We’re one-quarter of America’s population, but our “diversity” cannot be accommodated?

Why have we lost the tools of our own tradition to humanize the celebration of time because we want to accommodate what is making us sick?

 I would welcome our bishops, if they can tear themselves away from figuring out how to spin (or maybe even better, solve) their malfeasance over sexual abuse, to think a little bit about how to change, rather than just accommodate the culture. Challenge rather than mitigation might be a refreshing posture.

And, in the meantime: Happy St. Distaff Day! It’s time to wind down Christmastime a little (although I hope you’ll enjoy Carnival until March 5 and leave your Christmas tree up a little longer, maybe even until another forgotten Christmas feast, Candlemas). But while we return to the workday world, maybe we can make one more 2019 resolution: using our Catholic tradition to help a world learn (again) how to celebrate.