January 4

1905 Birth of Sterling Holloway

If a woman’s face is her fortune, sometime’s a man with an unfortunate face can make his fortune by using his voice. Such was the case with actor Sterling Holloway who appeared in over 140 movies and television shows despite startling features and a shock of unruly red hair.

Holloway started on the stage in his teens and by his early 20s he was on Broadway where his very pleasant tenor debuted such Rodgers and Hart classics as “I’ll Take Manhattan” and “Mountain Scenery”. He moved to Hollywood in the last days of the silent era with roles in The Batttling Kangaroo and Casey at the Bat. After the introduction of “talkies”, his face and his distinctive reedy voice provided him a steady living in comedies

Holloway’s most memorable part was that of the rustic bumpkin Willie in the Christmas movie Remember the Night with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. He sings a lovely version of “A Perfect Day” accompanied by Stanwyck on the piano.

Enduring fame came to Holloway when he began to provide voice-over for Walt Disney animated films. He had roles in Dumbo, Bambi, The Jungle Book, Mickey and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, Lamber the Sheepish Lion, The Aristocats, and most notably as Winnie the Pooh. (On a personal note, I hated the latter performance. Pooh must have an English accent.)

In his private life Holloway had an extensive collection of modern art. He was survived by an adopted son, Richard.

December 29

December 29 is the saint’s day of the English martyr Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II. In the Middle Ages a legend grew up about the parentage of the saint, a legend that was credible enough even in the 19th century when Charles Dickens recounted it in his A Child’s History of England.

Once upon a time, a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert À Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord. This lord, who treated him kindly and not like a slave, had one fair daughter, who fell in love with the merchant; and who told him that she wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country. The merchant returned her love, until he found an opportunity to escape, when he did not trouble himself about the Saracen lady, but escaped with his servant Richard, who had been taken prisoner along with him, and arrived in England and forgot her. The Saracen lady, who was more loving than the merchant, left her father’s house in disguise to follow him, and made her way, under many hardships, to the sea-shore. The merchant had taught her only two English words (for I suppose he must have learnt the Saracen tongue himself, and made love in that language), of which London was one, and his own name, Gilbert, the other. She went among the ships, saying, “London! London!” over and over again, until the sailors understood that she wanted to find an English vessel that would carry her there; so they showed her such a ship, and she paid for her passage with some of her jewels, and sailed away. Well! The merchant was sitting in his counting-house in London one day, when he heard a great noise in the street; and presently Richard came running in from the warehouse, with his eyes wide open and his breath almost gone, saying, “Master, master, here is the Saracen lady!” The merchant thought Richard was mad; but Richard said, “No, master! As I live, the Saracen lady is going up and down the city, calling Gilbert! Gilbert!” Then, he took the merchant by the sleeve, and pointed out of the window ; and there they saw her among the gables and water-spouts of the dark, dirty street, in her foreign dress, so forlorn, surrounded by a wondering crowd, and passing slowly along, calling “Gilbert, Gilbert!” When the merchant saw her, and thought of the tenderness she had shown him in his captivity, and of her constancy, his heart was moved, and he ran down into the street; and she saw him coming, and with a great cry fainted in his arms. They were married without loss of time, and Richard (who was an excellent man) danced with joy the whole day of the wedding; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.  

Professional historians who don’t like to leave a good story alone have pooh-poohed the legend, but what do they know?  The triptych above shows the Saracen maid’s baptism and marriage and her rocking the cradle of the infant Thomas.

December 6


The Feast of St Nicholas

At one time, Nicholas was, aside from the Virgin Mary, the most powerful of saints, prayed to for aid by Christians of all sorts and the patron of hundreds of churches from Iceland to Turkey. After the Protestant Reformation he fell on hard times; in the twentieth century he fell even lower at the hands of Pope Paul VI. But thanks to a love of Christmas his reputation is arising once more.

Legend says that Nicholas was born into a rich family living in what is now Turkey in the days of the late Roman empire. He became a priest and then a bishop of Myra in southern Asia Minor. Nicholas is said to have been at the 325 Council of Nicaea, which was held to determine whether Christ was truly divine, and where he supposedly struck Arius, the arch-heretic, a blow to the head. He developed a reputation for charity and miracle working which, after his death, led him to be venerated all across Europe. In one incident he was able to fly and rescue a sinking boat, leading him to be the patron saint of sailors; in another he resurrected three young scholars who had been pickled in a cask by a cannibal innkeeper, making him the patron saint of students, barrel makers and pickle makers; in another he dropped off gifts of money secretly at night to a poor family, saving the daughters from lives of prostitution, thus becoming the patron of maidens, marriage and a magical gift bringer to children.

By the year 1200 stories had spread of his giving gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6. For 300 years he came by night on his white horse and left treats in the shoes of good children (and threatening bad or lazy kids with a good beating.) In the 1500s the cult of saints was abolished in Protestant lands and Nicholas was replaced in much of Europe as Christmas Gift-bringer by the Christ Child. However his legend was taken to North America by Dutch settlers where tales of good Sinterklaas lingered in the public imagination. Early in the 1800s New York poets, writers and illustrators reimagined him as “Santa Claus”, the figure who took the world of Christmas giving by storm, becoming a global superstar in the twentieth century.

Lately, however, Santa Claus has been subject to a campaign of resistance in those countries where he displaced traditional gift givers. In Spain, supporters of the Three Kings want the Magi returned to centre stage while in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, societies for the restoration of the legend of St Nicholas have placed the old fellow back in the hearts of children.

December 2


1697 Dedication of the new St Paul’s Cathedral.

There has been a cathedral church dedicated to St Paul in London ever since the 600s. As fire and the ravages of time brought these buildings down there was always a desire to see them rebuilt. The fourth cathedral to occupy the present spot was begun after fire destroyed the third version in 1087. This was a massive stone structure that was completed only in 1314, in the Gothic style. This meant flying buttresses supporting tall walls filled with stained glass windows, pointed arches, imaginative decoration and a towering spire, 490 feet high. In 1561, shortly after the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and the restoration of Protestantism, a lightning strike destroyed the spire. The building remained a centre of London life where far more than religious services were carried on. Critics complained that people would use “the south alley for usury and popery, the north for sorcery, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for ordinary payments of money.” Little wonder that one of the cathedral’s paid staff was the “dog-whipper” whose job it was to control the noise of animals in the church.

In the seventeenth century John Donne was the Dean of the cathedral and preached there often (go here for a virtual reconstruction of his Gunpowder Day sermon of 1622: http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu ). After the Puritans won the English Civil War the building was used as a barracks and stable. Its final disgrace came in 1666 when the Great Fire of London destroyed the timber-arched edifice. A new structure was started under the supervision of Christopher Wren. The first stone was laid in 1675 and the building was declared open for use on this day in 1697 but it took another 14 years before it was completed.

Wren’s building was massive with a dome that dominated the eastern prospect of London before the rash of grotesque skyscrapers marred the view in the late twentieth century.

November 28

1859 Death of Washington Irving
Washington Irving, born in 1783 just after close of the American Revolution, was named after that conflict’s hero. Although trained as a lawyer Irving made a name for himself as the first great American writer. His 1809 mock historical Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty introduced Americans to Saint Nicholas as a Christmas gift-bringer, featuring the saint winging his way over treetops in a wagon, smoking a pipe and “laying his finger beside his nose” before flying off — all extremely influential images in the development of the figure of Santa Claus.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (1819-20) contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”, two beloved short stories, but also five sketches about Christmas at Bracebridge Manor in England. His account of the Squire of Bracebridge’s attempts to recreate an old-fashioned Christmas complete with feudal hospitality and a procession with a boar’s head fascinated both Americans and Englishmen and helped lead to a revival of interest in Christmas at a time when the holiday was under attack from public indifference and the Industrial Revolution.
Irving never married, remaining true to the memory of his 17-year-old sweetheart who died of tuberculosis.

November 24

1572 Death of John Knox

John Knox was a driving force in the Scottish Reformation which succeeded on replacing the Catholic Church in Scotland with a stern form of Calvinist piety.

Knox was born c. 1510 to a merchant’s family in Haddington, Scotland and by his early 20s had become a Catholic priest. He fell under the influence of Protestant reformer George Wishart and assisted him in his preaching campaign. Wishart was arrested and executed as a heretic in 1546 on the orders of Cardinal David Beaton. Shortly thereafter Beaton was assassinated and Knox joined the killers in their refuge in St Andrew’s Castle, becoming their chaplain. The Scottish Regent, Marie de Guise, mother of the child-queen Mary, called in the support of the French army to take the castle. Knox and other prisoners were condemned to be galley slaves but he was released in 1549 and went into exile in England. There he became a preacher at the court of Edward VI who was attracting Protestant thinkers and clergy from around Europe.

When in 1553 Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister, the very Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox had to go into exile again. He fled to the Continent where he eventually took refuge in Geneva, then under the sway of John Calvin. By 1558 Knox and other Marian exiles had decided that it was legitimate for persecuted Christians to rise up against a religious oppressor. He put a special spin on his doctrine of resistance making it especially applicable to female rulers.

Knox had found himself persecuted by women in power – Marie de Guise in Scotland ruling on behalf of Mary Queen of Scots, Mary I (Blood Mary) in England, and Catherine de Medici in France. He proclaimed in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women that philosophy, the Bible, and Nature itself testified against the reign of females. Unfortunately for Knox, the book appeared just as a Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, came to the English throne. Elizabeth was justifiably vexed at Knox who did not recant but only grudgingly admitted that occasionally God made an exception to the rule. His name was thereafter a dirty word at the English court and helped to discredit the hotter sort of Protestants in the eyes of the English government.

Back in Scotland Knox rejected the religious toleration proposed by Mary Queen of Scots and called for her overthrow. He was the intellectual foundation of the Reformation imposed by the Scottish nobility and its loudest voice until his death in 1572.

November 17



Boniface VIII issues Unam Sanctam

Since the middle of the eleventh century popes had been asserting their power over secular rulers. They claimed that the spiritual authority ordained by God held precedence over mere earthly power. They had deposed kings and emperors and named substitute rulers; they had precipitated civil wars; claimed dominion over entire kingdoms and excommunicated princes right, left and centre. By 1300 they had gutted the power of their chief rival, the Holy Roman Emperor and begun to quarrel with the new centralized monarchies of western Europe.

Benedetto Caetani, elected Pope Boniface VIII in dubious fashion in 1294, had twice forbidden the kings of England and France from taxing the Church in their countries. The King of France Philip IV “the Fair” responded by cutting off money from the French church to the papacy. Boniface replied by hinting that he might exercise his right of deposing Philip who immediately began a campaign of vilification of the pope including circulating forged documents.

This led Boniface on November 17, 1302 to issue the proclamation Unam Sanctam, which asserted the doctrine of papal monarchy in the most uncompromising terms ever. He asserted (1) there is but one true Church, outside of which there is no salvation; (2) that head is Christ and His representative, the pope who is above, and can direct, all kings; (3) whoever resists the highest power ordained by God resists Himself; and (5) it is necessary for salvation that all humans should be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Philip the Fair now summoned a kingdom-wide assembly, and before it he accused Boniface of every imaginable crime from murder to black magic to sodomy to keeping a demon as a pet. A small French military force crossed into Italy in 1303 and took Boniface prisoner at his palace at Anagni with the intention of bringing him to France for trial. The French plan failed—local townspeople freed Boniface a couple of days later—but the proud old pope died shortly thereafter, outraged that anyone had dared to lay hands on his sacred person.

This marks the beginning of the waning of medieval papal power. In 1305 the cardinals elected the Frenchman Clement V who submitted to the French king on the question of clerical taxation and publicly burned Unam Sanctam, conceding that Philip the Fair, in accusing Pope Boniface, had shown “praiseworthy zeal.” A few years after his election, Clement moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France, the start of the period of papal humiliation known as “The Babylonian Captivity”.

November 4

Our Lady of Kazan


Our Lady of Kazan was a highly-venerated icon of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is said to have originated in Constantinople and was transported to Russia in the 12th century where it disappeared in 1438.  It was miraculously rediscovered in Kazan after a vision in 1579. The city had been destroyed in a fire, after which a young girl had repeated dreams of the location of the icon. Despite scepticism of local church authorities it was found in the ruins of a house where it had been stored to protect it from the Tatar horde. Copies of the icon spread widely and churches were established in its honour. Prayers to this icon were credited for saving the country from invasion by Poles, Swedes and Napoleon.

In 1904 the icon was stolen and, though its gold frame was recovered, the icon itself was never seen again. The disasters of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the loss of the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War and the Communist takeover are attributed to its loss.

A splendid 16th-century copy was once owned by Pope John Paul II who returned it to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is now back in Kazan in the Cathedral of the Elevation of the Holy Cross on the site where it had been recovered.

November 3

The feast of St Rumald

Few saints have lived as brief, or unlikely, lives as the English St Rumald (aka Rumwold, Grumbald, or Rumbald). The son of an Anglo-Saxon princess and the king of Northumbria in the 7th century, he emerged from the womb proclaiming “I am a Christian! I am a Christian! I am a Christian!” He then made a full and explicit confession of his faith; desired to be forthwith baptized; appointed his own godfathers; and chose his own name. He next directed a certain large hollow stone to be fetched for his font; and when some of his father’s servants attempted to obey his orders, but found the stone far too heavy to be removed, the two priests, whom he had appointed his godfathers, went for it, and bore it to him with the greatest ease. He was baptized by Bishop Widerin, assisted by a priest named Eadwold, and immediately after the ceremony he walked to a certain well near Brackley, which still bears his name, and there preached for three successive days; after which he made his will, bequeathing his body after death to remain at Sutton for one year, at Brackley for two years, and at Buckingham ever after. This done, he instantly expired.

This remarkable infant was venerated by the pious believers of Buckinghamshire until the 16th century when the English Reformation put an end to such customs. At least four churches dedicated to tiny Rumald still exist. He is not to be confused with his contemporary St Rumbold of Mechelen, the English missionary martyred in Belgium.

October 14


Pope Saint Callixtus I

There have been three popes who started off as slaves and Callixtus (d. c. 223) was the third of them. If that wasn’t a bad start to a papal career, consider that Callixtus was also condemned (probably unfairly) for embezzlement and sentenced to a life term in the mines of Sardinia. Fortunately for him, the favourite mistress of the murderous emperor Commodus (the bad guy in the movie Gladiator) was a Christian and secured his release.

After leaving the mines, Callixtus was given a pension by the pope and then a series of church positions, becoming the superintendent of the Christian cemetery just outside of Rome, still known to this day as the Catacombs of Callixtus. By 218, he had rehabilitated his reputation enough that he was elected pope. His gentle spirit and love of forgiveness made him a number of enemies who would have preferred a harsher line toward repentant sinners or schismatics rejoining the Church. Tertullian wrote against his decision to readmit to communion those fornicators or murderers who had repented. Hippolytus denounced him as a heretic and had himself elected as the first anti-pope. Legend has it that Callixtus was martyred in 223 by being thrown down a well.