04 May 2016

Should Old Customs Be Forgotten...

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/08/2e/56/082e566d14386d6a097a8978fe135a81.jpgIf you read as many books about Christmas customs as I have, you'll discover several writers quoted quite commonly. Charles Dickens, of course, is one, and Marjorie Holmes, from her At Christmas the Heart Goes Home, is another. But for Christian celebration customs, one writer is mentioned more than the rest: Francis X. Weiser, a Jesuit priest who wrote the classic The Christmas Book. Lesser known is Weiser's The Easter Book, which was written a few years later.

This is a very plain book, no fancy color illustrations or slick paper (there are line illustrations at the beginning of each chapter), just Weiser's lively narration about the Easter season, starting from the very first Easter (and tracing some of the pagan aspects greeting the spring that still remain in the celebration) and tracing ancient and modern celebrations from preparations before Lent through the Ascension. (I was amused at the revision of the tale of the Maypole, which was originally a pagan fertility symbol.) I learned several things here which I had never known before, one being that the word "quarantine" comes from preparations for Lent ("quarantine" referring to the forty days of Lent) many years before it was used for restrictions due to sickness. Also, there was always the joke when I was a schoolkid that it was really called "Length" because it lasted so long. Actually the word "Lent" does sort of mean that: it comes from Anglo-Saxon Lengten-tide (springtime), "lengten" referring to the days lengthening as the summer solstice approaches. Not to mention that the Sunday after Easter is "Low Sunday" because Easter Sunday through "Low" Sunday is all part of Easter week, with Easter being the "High" Sunday.

This book was published in 1954 and the one thing you wistfully wonder when you read it is if 62 years later the charming customs Weiser details so lovingly—sprinkling water in Hungary and Germany on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, not washing clothes on Good Friday, skipping rope in one English village, red eggs only in Greece, wearing mourning or at least dark clothing in Poland during Lent, etc.—are still kept. Even before I left home in the 1980s, it was no longer common to see Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagisima Sunday, and Quinquagesima Sunday listed in our missalettes (not to mention the aforementioned Low Sunday), although they were delightful tongue-twisters to a word-worshiping child. This book will make you nostalgic for seemingly innocent days when children reveled in finding home-made Easter baskets and you could hold open house where any stranger could walk in and not worry about being attacked.

A good edition to anyone's holiday library if you can find a copy at a decent price. This was the first one I found that wasn't over $50!

And I've finished this review just in time because tomorrow is Ascension Thursday...