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Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Saint Boniface first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
Saint Boniface, Saxon Missionary, shown cutting down "Thunderer's Oak" which was sacred to the god Woden, by Michael Godfrey
There is no doubt that many of the customs which we observe around Christmas time belong to religions that are much older than Christianity. In the bleak northern lands, from which so many of our ancestors came, Midwinter’s Day, which falls in the same week as our Christmas, was always a time of strange rites and festivities. Some say that it is from the old Norse legends that the popular figure of Father Christmas comes, for he is really a memory of the old god Woton (who we also remember in “Wednesday” – Woton’s day) driving across the winter storm clouds in his sleigh! The decoration of the house with evergreens, the lighting of candles, the burning of the yule log, are all signs of the promise of the returning Spring, and the hope of longer days of sunshine.
All this has since been linked up with our Christmas festivity, and is as harmless and enjoyable today as it was long ago. But these old pagan religions had a darker side which, happily, we have long since abandoned. In very ancient times people had the idea that the gods and goddesses who controlled such vital things as the sun and rain, thunder and lightning, or a successful harvest, were often jealous and angry. They had to be soothed and coaxed, and even fed with delicacies, and the best way of doing this was by offering them sacrifices. Of the offerings made to the gods, the most terrible of all was that of living people, for there were some who believed that only the death of a human person was enough to win the favour of these terrible forces. Many a family must have gone in terror of losing one of its members in this way, through the mistaken demands of their priests and rulers.
Human sacrifice lasted far longer in Northern Europe than it did in the lands to which Christianity had spread. Not much more than a thousand years ago it was still being practised in parts of Scandinavia and Germany. These were still wild, uncivilised lands, which neither the law of the Roman empire nor the influence of the Christian religion had yet reached.
It was no wonder that the bravest of men hesitated when they were asked to go to such places and preach the Christian message of peace and love. It was left in the end to an Englishman from Devon to make the “breakthrough.” Born at Crediton in about 680 A.D., his original name was Wynfrith. “Boniface” was a nickname, and had nothing to do with his appearance; it is the Latin for “doer of good.”
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Posted in America, Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
Dr Clement Moore reading his Christmas poem to his children
Yuletide without Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as we often call him, would be a sorry festival indeed. Many people believe that this famous character is named after Saint Nicholas, who was born in Patara, Asia Minor, and who became Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, 16 centuries ago.
His generosity was renowned, and he travelled widely distributing gifts to the poor without revealing his identity.
The best-known of these missions was the occasion when he dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of a peasant’s hut, to provide a wedding dowry for each of three daughters living there, thus enabling them to marry.
Yet this is only a part of the Santa Claus story. In fact the Father Christmas of today differs considerably from the Santa Claus of old.
Only in comparatively recent, times has he assumed the jolly appearance he displays nowadays. For centuries he was represented as a staid old gentleman who handed out Christmas presents in the manner of a guest-speaker at a school prize-giving event.
He had no reindeer or sleigh to take him on his round on Christmas Eve, and did not live in the Frozen North.
Oddly enough it was an American professor who “re-made” Santa and to whom the whole world is indebted for transforming him into a jovial, red-cloaked character beloved by countless children.
It was in 1822 that Dr Clement C. Moore, of Columbia University, New York, set out in a horsedrawn sleigh to deliver Christmas presents to friends around the snow-covered city.
As he drove through the crisp night air, he recalled that his nine children had long clamoured for a poem about Saint Nicholas, and by the time he reached home again he had mentally composed a string of verses beginning:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
In hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
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Posted in British Towns, English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints, Travel on Monday, 3 February 2014
This edited article about Canterbury first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 537 published on 29 April 1972.
It was in the year 1171 when King Henry II of England, barefoot and dressed in a robe of coarse, common cloth, made his way to the shrine of Archbishop Becket. There, in the sight of the wide eyed people of Canterbury, their monarch knelt and prayed at the spot where this great churchman had been ruthlessly cut down. Murdered, many believed, at Henry’s own command.
Henry Plantagenet was to return often to the shrine. On several anniversaries of Becket’s death he even allowed the local monks to flog him as a penance for his part in the affair, although it seems likely that the beating was more symbolic than painful. And just how much remorse the king felt about the death of his one-time friend is impossible to tell, for his public sorrow was almost certainly necessitated by the need to impress a Pope who was outraged by the crime. Nevertheless, where a king goes, his subjects will certainly follow.
Almost overnight, Canterbury became a place of pilgrimage.
But there was more to those visits at Archbishop Becket’s shrine than just a desire to emulate the king. It was said that miracles had been worked at the martyr’s grave almost as soon as his burial had been completed, and that the waters of the well in which his clothes had been washed would cure a vast variety of diseases. After all, men told each other, only a few days after his penance at the shrine, Henry had won a great victory over the Scots at Alnwick. What better proof could there be of Thomas Becket’s powers? And not just Thomas Becket now, but Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
There were, in fact, several reasons why the old Kentish town should so speedily have become a hallowed place. The pilgrimage had long been an important part of many religions, although only a comparatively recent feature of Christianity. But over the years the custom had been growing. At first, men had wished to visit the more important sites of their faith from little more than curiosity. Later, it was thought that a pilgrimage counted as a penance, and that by undertaking an arduous journey a man could be forgiven his sins. And finally, a belief sprang up that places associated with certain of the Saints had the power to heal sickness. Indeed, that anything from these shrines, even a few specks of dust brushed into a spill of paper, was bound to be full of the same miraculous power.
Not unnaturally, the most revered centres of the Christian faith were in the Holy Land and, to a lesser extent, around Rome, where hundreds of early converts had been martyred. But to travel abroad, even as an act of faith, was a tremendously hazardous undertaking, and permission had first to be granted by the Church. Strict rules were enforced regarding dress, and pilgrims made their journey wearing grey habits, fastened at the waist by a broad belt. They were also supposed to take with them a wide brimmed hat, a staff, sack and a container for drinking water, and all had to present themselves at a religious ceremony before setting off.
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, Saints, War on Thursday, 30 January 2014
This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 533 published on 1 April 1972.
Death of St Louis
Sorrowfully the priests and monks of Paris prepared to toll their bells of mourning. Their young, much loved king – already people were calling him a saint – was dying. Already he had said his last farewells to his friends and had prepared his soul for heaven.
For weeks King Louis the Ninth of France had been racked by fever. Like so many of his soldiers, he had caught it while fighting the English under their King Henry the Third, who had invaded France in the hope of recapturing Normandy, that troubled tract of land that was forever see-sawing between the English and the French.
Henry of England had been confident of success, but no one had told him that the new young king of France was not like all the others who had gone before him. This Louis was a man of resolution, hard as steel and full of courage. Henry had been obliged to make peace and get back to England to count the cost of his foolish adventure.
But the fighting, which had begun in 1242 and lasted a year, had cost Louis dearly, too. Never a very fit man, the fever had reduced him to a shivering skeleton. Now he was ready to die.
The court waited and the people wept, for no king had ever been loved like this one. Hour after hour Louis lay on the bed in his darkened room. At last he whispered feebly, “Bring the Bishop of Paris.”
Kneeling, the Bishop asked for the King’s command. “Place on my shoulder the cross of the crusaders,” whispered the King. “If I live, I shall fight a holy war.”
The King’s wife, Queen Margaret, and his mother, Queen Blanche, stirred uneasily. They knew the rigidity of such a vow. But what did it matter, since there was no hope for the King? Reluctantly, they allowed the Bishop to place a cross on the King.
Hours later, Louis’ health rallied. In a few days he was sitting up in bed; soon he was able to walk again. All France marvelled at the miraculous recovery.
“Now I must prepare myself for the Crusade,” the King said.
The Bishop and the two queens were aghast. They pleaded with Louis that his health would never stand the burning heat of Palestine, that he had taken the vow when he was out of his mind, that France needed a King of his wisdom and sanctity. It was all in vain. The King, quietly determined, sent out the call to his knights.
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Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Saints on Thursday, 14 November 2013
This edited article about education originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 458 published on 24 October 1970.
“And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.”
These lines are by William Shakespeare and they come from his play As You Like It in a passage starting “All the world’s a stage,” and generally called “The Seven Ages of Man.”
School! There it is for all of you, and, whether you “creep like snail” or are rushed there by bus, you’ve got to go. Elementary, Secondary, Secondary Modern, Grammar, Private, Public, Comprehensive. Catholic schools, Quaker schools, Co-Educational schools – schools of infinite variety. Schools where ancient tradition is the spirit of the place and schools where “free-and-easiness” is the principle and the Principal himself is called “Sam” and not “Sir”! Schools where the English cane, and the Scottish strap – or “tawse” – come down upon the hands or the hind-quarters as punishment for sundry sins, and schools where for a teacher to strike a child is an offence against society!
You, your parents, all of us take schools and schooling for granted. There the schools are, and you’ve got to go. If you “play hookey” for a week, then it’s your parents who catch it and are called upon to give account of themselves – and you!
And yet – before a mere hundred years ago you didn’t have to go to school at all. It was exactly one hundred years ago, 1870, when a certain Mr. W. E. Forster, M.P. for Bradford, fathered the Education Act which led to every boy and girl in Britain being compelled to go to school.
It had been discovered, after the Reform Act of 1867, that over a million people who could neither read nor write had been added to the voting register. You could vote for your M.P., even if you could not read his name. You signed yours with an “X.” A pretty dotty state of affairs you’ll agree. It was furthermore revealed that, while there were one-and-a-half million children in “voluntary” schools, some two-and-a-half million children weren’t getting any education at all.
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Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Wednesday, 13 November 2013
This edited article about Christmas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 456 published on 10 October 1970.
Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra
The Father Christmas legend must be the most widely believed legend in the world today – for millions of young children hang up their stockings each year in eager anticipation of his visit.
His style of arrival, even his day of coming, varies a good deal from land to land. In Holland he comes as good Saint Nicholas, wearing a bishop’s mitre and aided by a mischievous Moorish servant, Piet (Pete). The pair arrive by ship from Spain on the fifth day of December. Most Dutch children put their clogs by the door or window to receive their presents – and they often leave a gift too, placing carrots or a handful of hay in the wooden shoes for the splendid white horse upon which the good man rides.
In other lands Father Christmas has other helpers. In Sweden he is aided by the Queen of Light, a blonde maiden with a coronet of candles; in Switzerland he has a wife; in Iceland he has a gang of gnomes, his adopted brothers; in Norway, he has little men called Jul Nisser to help him. In Germany he has a strong young servant, Knecht Rupprecht; in Russia, where he is known as Grandfather Frost, and arrives on New Year’s Eve, he is helped either by an old peasant woman named Babushka or the Snow Queen.
Santa Claus in his red robe riding in his sleigh pulled by reindeer is not a traditionally British figure. This version of the legend stems from America. Santa is quite a newcomer to the British Isles.
The St. Nicholas legend was carried to America by the Dutch, many of whom settled in New Amsterdam, now New York. They carried on the tradition of presents for children, and gradually he was combined with the more northern idea of the saint, wearing a red fur-trimmed cloak and snow boots.
His sleigh and magic reindeer were born in a poem published in 1823. The poem was written by Doctor Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of theology, who lived in New York. The poem describes a visit of Santa Claus (short for Saint Nicholas). Intended only for his own children it was sent by a friend to the editor of the Troy Sentinel of Troy Town, New York State.
The poem was published and the tradition of today’s Santa Claus was born. Before every Christmas he holds court in countless department stores, visits hospitals, orphanages, schools and children’s parties.
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion, Saints on Monday, 16 September 2013
This edited article about missionaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 401 published on 20 September 1969.
It was a day of misery and heartache when, in the summer of 1870, police officials toured the Pacific islands of Hawaii, posting a sombre notice in each village centre: ALL LEPERS ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT THEMSELVES TO THE GOVERNMENT HEALTH AUTHORITIES . . . FOR INSPECTION AND FINAL BANISHMENT TO MOLOKAI ISLAND.
This order meant that many families would be split up, for sometimes only one person, the father or mother, had contracted the disease. One man, on learning that his wife would be taken from him, fled with her to a coastal stronghold, where he kept the police away with a rifle.
For a time no one dared approach the maddened husband, who shot at anyone on sight. Then a missionary priest called Father Damien went to reason with the couple. He persuaded the native to surrender his gun, and agreed that the man and wife should be allowed to go together to Molokai, to live and to die there.
But Damien was not satisfied with helping just the one stricken family. He wanted to comfort all the lepers, and so gained permission to go and live among the outcasts as their resident priest. He joined the leper colony on Molokai that summer, and immediately found that “vice reigned instead of virtue.”
Bereft of all human dignity, the doomed lepers lived in “defiance of divine as well as human laws.” A lesser man than Damien might have despaired of ever bringing the natives back to the ways of decency. But the priest, who was born in the Belgian village of Tremeloo in 1840, was a man of exceptional courage and humanity.
His first object on Molokai was to show the lepers that, unlike almost everyone else they met, he did not despise or fear them. He mixed freely with them, eating from their dishes and smoking tobacco from their pipes. Apart from putting an end to drunkenness and theft, he acted as the islanders’ doctor, grave-digger, coffin-maker, and funeral official.
Realizing that help must also come from outside, he went round Hawaii raising money for medical supplies, proper sanitation, lumber and building materials. Before his arrival on Molokai the lepers had lived in flimsy huts which were blown away by the winds which swept the island.
With new homes and a supply of running water, the lepers at last began to take an interest in themselves. They knew they could not be cured, but at least they could treat each other as human beings, and try to make their community as happy as circumstances allowed.
Encouraged by Father Damien, they accepted their fate more stoically than before. The priest was never too busy to spare a word of advice or sympathy. His sermons were always well-attended, and one Sunday in 1885 he shocked his congregation by addressing them not as “My brethren,” but as “We lepers.”
At the age of 45, after spending 15 years on Molokai, Damien himself had caught the disease. He knew that his days were numbered, and told his assistants: “I would like to be put by the side of my stout old tree where I rested so many nights before I had any other shelter.”
Four years later, in April, 1889, his request was sorrowfully complied with.
Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, Saints on Wednesday, 4 September 2013
This edited article about Saints originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 398 published on 30 August 1969.
St Vincent de Paul sold as a slave in Tunis
On a bright sunny day in the summer of 1604 a small merchant ship was sailing through the Gulf of Lions in the direction of Marseilles. Because of a brilliant heat haze the crew and passengers could scarcely see the nearby French coastline. Therefore when three low, rakish ships suddenly came racing towards the vessel they were not immediately sighted.
The ships were driven by sails and banks of long oars, and they rapidly covered the distance between the shore and their objective. They were almost upon the merchantman before the look-out recognised them as corsairs belonging to some dreaded Turkish pirates.
No sooner had the look-out given the alarm than a shower of arrows came from the grim, bearded men who lined the corsair’s rails. Most of the people on board the merchantman ducked and ran for cover, but one of them – a young priest called Vincent de Paul – refused to show any fear.
“Two or three on our boat,” he said later, “were killed and the rest wounded, including myself, who received a wound from an arrow which will give me something to remember for the rest of my life. And so we were obliged to surrender to those bandits, more savage than tigers.”
After boarding and looting the merchantman, the pirates then towed her to the North African port of Tunis, where Vincent and his fellow prisoners were sold as slaves. The priest was first of all put in bondage to a fisherman, then to an alchemist, and finally to a renegade Frenchman. He experienced many strange adventures before eventually making his way home to France.
He later became tutor to the two children of Count Philippe de Gondi, Commander of the Royal Galleys. Vincent extended his duties to improving the conditions on the de Gondi estates. He saw to it that the peasants were no longer persecuted by their aristocratic master, and his work took him to Paris where he established a number of charitable organisations including, in 1632, the famous Sisters of Charity.
He also put through some much-needed prison and hospital reforms, paying special attention to the quarters housing the future galley-slaves. He had never forgotten his own time as a slave, and his heart went out to the members of the chain-gangs, which he accompanied south to Marseilles.
The cruelty and injustice so disturbed him that he visited all the galley ships at anchor, dressing the slaves’ cuts and even kissing the links of their chains. A few nights later, he managed to obtain the keys to the padlocks and unchained a slave. The man then hurried joyfully away to his wife, and Vincent himself took his place in the galley!
For the next three weeks the priest was whipped and beaten as the ship made a short voyage along the coast and back. He was only released when a search-party discovered him sitting chained and bleeding alongside four other “unfortunate wretches.”
St. Vincent de Paul (who was canonized in 1737) also founded a Lepers’ Asylum at the priory of Saint Lazare, and his name was cherished throughout France by the poor and the suffering. He died in 1660 at the age of 84.
Posted in Bible, Religion, Saints on Tuesday, 6 August 2013
This edited article about Saints originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 361 published on 14 December 1968.
Christ appears in answer to the incredulity of Thomas
To call someone a ‘Doubting Thomas’ is to suggest that that person is less ready than most people to believe what others say. And in using the phrase, we are recalling an incident in the life of one of the followers of Jesus which made his name a byword for someone who doubts everything except the evidence of his own senses.
This was Thomas, of whose call to be a disciple we know nothing beyond the fact that he was a twin, and that his name is found in the list of those whom Jesus invited to be his closest followers (St. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 3, verse 18).
It was not until the first Easter Day that Thomas took a prominent place in the doings of Jesus and his disciples. On that day, he was sitting with other followers of Jesus, listening to some of the things which had happened earlier that day. Three days earlier, all their hopes had been shattered when their master, Jesus, was killed in a cruel and shameful way by being nailed to a wooden cross. They had seen his dead body hanging there, and knew that he had been buried in a nearby grave.
Now there had come extraordinary news. Not only was the tomb empty, but Jesus himself had actually met several of his friends and talked to them. He had filled them with new hope, and assured them that he had indeed come back from the dead. On that first Easter afternoon, he had actually come into the room where most of the disciples were sitting. He had talked with them there, and shared their meal.
Thomas was not there when this meeting took place, and when he heard about it he refused to believe what the disciples told him.
“Unless I can actually touch his hands, and feel the places where the nails pierced him,” said Thomas, “and unless I can actually touch the wound which the spear made in his side, I will not believe you!”
A week later, the disciples were together once more, and this time Thomas was with them too. To their amazement, Jesus appeared again, but this time he spoke first to Thomas.
“Stretch out your hand,” he said, “and touch my wounded hands and side. Now, I think, you will believe that I am really alive again and here among you.”
Thomas was overcome with joy, and perhaps with regret, too, for his unwillingness to believe what he had been told. He fell on his knees in wonder and gratitude.
From that day onwards, Thomas believed as fervently as any other of the disciples that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. He remained a member of the little band of disciples who founded the Church in Jerusalem (Acts, chapter 1, verse 13) and, according to later accounts, sailed as far as India, preaching the new religion and establishing it there before suffering death as a martyr on Indian soil.
To this day, Thomas is honoured by Indian Christians, many of whom belong to the ancient church of that land known as the Mar Thoma, or St. Thomas’s Church. They keep his feast day on 3rd July, but in Europe it has long been observed on 21st December.
Posted in Bible, Missionaries, Religion, Saints, Scotland on Tuesday, 6 August 2013
This edited article about Saint Andrew originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 360 published on 7 December 1968.
Crucifixion of St Andrew from a C14 French painting
Saint Andrew has been regarded as the patron of Christian missions since very early times. The reason for this is not hard to understand; it arises from what happened when Jesus invited Andrew to become one of His chosen followers, the twelve apostles.
Andrew was the first of the several fishermen of Galilee whom Jesus chose as His closest companions.
It was during a talk between Jesus and himself on the seashore that Andrew had an idea which marked him out from all the others. Instead of accepting the invitation to visit Jesus at His home, Andrew decided that this meeting was too good to keep to himself. He wanted to share the new friend he had made, so he slipped quietly away and found his brother, Simon Peter.
This pleased Jesus very much, for Peter was one of the fishermen whom Jesus most wanted as one of His followers, and he was eventually to become one of His three closest friends.
Although Andrew never became as important a leader as his brother, he is remembered especially for the example he set of what a Christian ought to do.
Instead of keeping his meeting with Jesus a secret, he did the very thing which eventually made Christianity into a world religion: he went and found someone else to join the band of disciples. As the Gospel of St. John tells us (Chapter 1, verse 41) “He first findeth his own brother, Simon.”
Andrew is mentioned several times in other parts of the story of Jesus. Once a great crowd followed Jesus into the desert, and there He fed them in a marvellous way, by sharing a small boy’s picnic among all the hungry people (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 6, verses 5-14). It was Andrew who discovered this boy with the “five barley loaves and two small fishes” which Jesus shared among the crowd.
It would appear that Andrew was always ready to bring people to Jesus and to be then content to leave Him to say or do what He thought best for them. On another occasion, Andrew introduced some enquiring Greeks to Jesus (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 12, verse 22). In fact, he was the ideal missionary, and that is why he was chosen by the Church as the patron saint of all missionary work.
It is much more difficult to understand how or why St. Andrew was adopted as the patron saint of Scotland. All that can be said is that the Scots recognised him as such no later than A.D. 750.
Traditions of the 3rd century connect Andrew with missionary work in Turkey and Russia, and the diagonal cross known as the cross of St. Andrew is said to be in the shape of that on which Andrew was martyred in A.D. 70 at the Greek city of Patras, to which he had also taken the Christian faith.
“St. Andrew’s Tide”, on and around 30th November, is observed all over the world as a time of special prayer for the missionary work of the Church, inspired by the memory of this first follower of Jesus who had the gift of bringing others to Him.