The American Catholic Liturgical Year

And here we are in December. I’m not going to bother updating you on the entire month of November because I’ve already done that for newsletter subscribers and I don’t feel like typing it out again. In a nutshell, it was the usual busyness plus I was trying to learn everything there was to know about fundraising so I could run a successful Giving Tuesday campaign for Accepting the Gift. (You can still donate here!)

Now I’m trying to focus on Advent and Christmas preparation. We had our St. Nicholas party at our parish (Tony played St. Nick!) and we put out our Advent candles which we remembered to get blessed earlier in the year. I forgot to buy an Advent calendar, but thankfully we had an extra unused one tucked away in a bin. And while I remembered to order chocolate coins online, we also invested in a beautiful icon of St. Nicholas and because there was production time involved prior to shipping, I didn’t have our special icon chocolate coins in time for the day. Oh well; more stocking stuffers! Nobody was deprived as there were plenty of other sweets provided from a shop downtown. Addie and Byron even got St. Nick care packages mailed to them. I’ve was unable to find baklava in the stores near us in time for the feast of St. Ambrose, so I mashed up two baklava inspired cake recipes I found on Pinterest with much success!

So many traditions! Even with older kids, there’s no lack of special foods to prepare. Thankfully, I don’t need to try to make anything cute out of food, just something delicious related to the day. I’ve been reflecting on all the different cultures our family pulls from when if comes to special foods and feasts.

  • St. Nicholas: chocolate coins, Dutch
  • St. Ambrose: baklava, Greek
  • St. Lucy: St. Lucy cake, Swedish
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego: tacos or chili, Mexican

Rather that simply celebrate our town’s patron, and the major feast days with special foods native to our area as was probably the historic norm in the Western Church, we celebrate all the saints we like with food from the cultures where he or she was most highly celebrated. The liturgical year as observed by many devout American Catholics is a completely modern American way of celebrating. On one hand, we’re observing ancient feasts with traditions passed down through the centuries, but on the other, this “doing all the things from all the places” is not at all how most Catholics observed the liturgical seasons 150+ years ago. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even the norm outside the world of Catholic influencers.

If you read Amy Welborn’s Substack, or talk to a certain generation of Catholic, you know that after Vatican II (for a variety of reasons) many different devotions and liturgical practices died out in America. Now, thanks largely to the internet, younger Catholics are rediscovering these traditions, from every time and place and throwing themselves into them 110 percent. That’s how it was with our family. Once we discovered the Latin Mass, it led my husband into exploring more about the Church’s liturgical traditions. Even as a cradle Catholic, he had no idea about the various ways to honor saints and celebrate feasts. He started reading liturgical blogs. I started reading Catholic mommy blogs. We bought all the books on the topic there were at the time, and it’s hard to believe how few there were 18 years ago vs today.

And we started doing all the things, and loved it, and still do. I love the rhythm of the liturgical year and the anchors throughout the year that bring our family together. As my children reach the age of discerning marriage I’ve told them, I’m fine sharing your future family with your future in-laws. Give them Thanksgiving or Fourth of July, even Christmas Day if you need to to keep the peace, we’ll take the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, 12th Night, or Laetare Sunday. We’ve created so many wonderful family traditions mashing up all these wonderful cultures and feasts. Certainly, you can establish family traditions around American or secular holidays, like Labor Day, but when given the option, why not pick a tradition that’s fun and brings the faith alive to your kids like hosting an All Saints Party, or eating dinner by blessed candle light on Candlemas?

I grew up thinking religion was a Sunday only thing. I didn’t see how what happened at church on the weekend carried over into my daily life. Today in our home, we’re almost to the other extreme; everyday we’re talking about or doing something related to our faith, and a large part of that is because we’re mindful of the liturgical year. Because we surround ourselves with a lot of like-minded people, I sometimes forget how uncommon it is to plan meals based on upcoming feast or fast days, schedule school activities around holy days, and keep a stockpile of incense, holy water, chalk, and blessed salt on hand for house blessings and processions. I like this living, breathing faith of ours.

But it’s foolish for us to think that the way we practice our faith is anything like that of our Pre-Vatican II ancestors, and that it is, or should be, the norm for all families. While I think most Catholic families would benefit from establishing faith based traditions in their homes that revolve around the liturgical year, I think a return to community based traditions which parishioners carry into their homes would be the ideal (but probably a long shot).

For example, the town where we live hosts a huge “Italian American” festival every July- the oldest in the United States. Locally, it’s known as the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel festival because it started in 1875 when Italian immigrants celebrated her feast day with Mass and by processing around town with her statue. Nowadays, all the statues are brought out of the local parish and paraded down the main street on July 16, before a Mass is celebrated. There used to be celebrations like this all over America where Italians had settled, but little by little they were done away with, sometimes because a bishop felt the local Italian community was being “too superstitious”. But we’ve kept our festival and it’s a big deal to everyone who lives around here, whether they practice their faith or not. In Italy, festivals, processions, and such are still common and are central to a town’s identity. In America, we don’t have that same cohesive cultural experience, even in areas where there were ethnic parishes established. Families moved out of the cities and into the suburbs and all joined together in a liturgy very similar to that of their Protestant neighbors. Old world traditions, devotions, and feasts gave way to the Rotary Club, Labor Day cookouts, and Super Bowl parties. We created new communities, but today, many people don’t have relationships with their geographic communities anymore, say nothing of their parish community.

We’re looking for connection, for roots, for anchors to something enduring. The Catholic church offers all that if you look for it. When our family chooses to celebrate these traditions year after year, we are part of something larger than ourselves. We don’t need to create some magical experience out of thin air to touch the hearts of our children, we just need to expose them to the love, truth, and beauty that is already present in the life of the Church. The liturgical year continually points us to things greater than ourselves; the saints, the Trinity, and to heaven. In a society that increasingly encourages focusing inwards on our own wants and desires and following them at all costs in novel ways, it’s a radical notion to celebrate ancient feasts with your family or parish community in time honored ways. Having tried both ways, I prefer to be radical..or weird as most people would claim.

We’ve already started a new liturgical year-choose to be radical (or weird)! Embrace the melting pot of American Catholicism by celebrating some new feast days with your family, or -for bonus points- with your parish. We’ll eat king cake on 12th night, have Crêpes Suzette for Candlemas, and say a novena leading up to the feast of St. Joseph. If you need inspiration, check out any and everything Kendra writes. You’re not limited by time or location so the sky’s the limit!

Share your favorite family traditions below and let me know if you’re part of a parish that provides extra ways to live out the Church’s liturgical year in community.

3 Comments

  1. A friend and I were just discussing this actually at a little party we held for Our Lady of Guadalupe. We both grew up in Los Angeles (and still live here) and growing up in the 80’s, there were huge amazing events for Our Lady of Guadalupe, large and elaborate St Joseph’s Day tables, Polish Catholic celebrations, Vietnamese masses, etc. Everyone had their own celebrations and went to town but there wasn’t mixing so anyone could shop at the St Joseph’s Day table but only the Italians organized it (that was our family). Anyone could attend the OLG mananitas but organizing and participating was for people from Mexico. We were discussing between each other that although we were happy to host the event, and Our Lady is patroness of the America’s not just Mexico, we still felt a bit culturally awkward organizing something for a feast day that our whole lives has been organized by Mexicans. I wonder if perhaps this is just a Los Angeles thing. You mentioned that cultural celebrations went away after V2, as if it was V2 that killed them and not perhaps the lameness of the 1970’s or the inevitable distance that separated second and third generation immigrants from the original festivities and observances… But none of that really occurred in Los Angeles, as least as far as I and my friend remember. Anyways, after a few years of trying to live liturgically like Kendra, I have completely abandoned the approach. I have adopted simpler ways of marking the year and devotions to the saints and feasts we are fond of and it just feels so much more authentic.

    1. Yes, I think in areas that maintained a majority of immigrants and their families, even a few generations out did better at keeping certain cultural traditions (like our town). Even though where we live now has a large Spanish speaking population, the Italians here still do the Italian traditions and the Spanish their own (like the live Stations of the Cross on Good Friday that are done outside and in Spanish), though everyone is welcome to attend everything. And Kendra is definitely the epitome of the American Catholic; she does so much more than any other Catholic culture at any other time in history (she’s a good friend, and I mean that a compliment):no one should ever feel like they need to do all that stuff. But I think she provides a lot of good ideas for Catholics to pick and choose from. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  2. As a convert living the liturgical year has been a simple way to integrate our faith into our family life, but I agree that the ideal would be more community celebrations. I’m always drawn to the processions common to southern European Catholic communities.
    I also realized early on that it would be impossible to do all the things when it came to liturgical living. We started with traditions from our cultural backgrounds (German, Danish & Mexican) and it has grown from there. I celebrated St. Nicholas Day & Santa Lucia day as a child growing up in an atheist family, so it was easy to incorporate faith into traditions I already had. Marrying into a Mexican family was a wonderful motivator to learn more about Mexican Catholic traditions. In addition, we’ve attached a liturgical meaning to typical Christmas, Ester and Halloween activities, like looking at Christmas lights on the feast of St. Lucy or leaving letters to Santa in the kids shoes on Dec. 5th. An added bonus is that after 11 years, much of it is streamlined and simplifies meals and activities during busy liturgical seasons.
    Our little babies are teens now, but these traditions are still beloved and engaging. They now help me in preparing for our family celebrations and enjoying sharing them with friends and extended family.

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