January 23



Pascal publishes the first of his Provincial Letters.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was an enormously influential French scientist, philosopher and religious writer. His work on hydraulic power, geometry, mathematics and mechanical computation helped to energize the nascent Second Scientific Revolution.

In his 20s Pascal became acquainted with Jansenism, a Catholic movement with pronounced ideas on grace which ran into controversy with Church authorities who labelled it a heresy. Before the sect was outlawed by the pope and Louis XIV Pascal began to write on religious subjects. On this day in 1656 he published the first of his Provincial Letters, which were eventually to number eighteen. In them, Pascal, under a pseudonym, used brilliant satire and elegant language to attack current notions on grace and the Jesuit use of the philosophical tool known as casuistry, which Pascal condemned as a mere clever use of language to rationalize moral laxity. The series of essays won wide praise for its literary style but condemnation for its religious content. The king ordered the writings shredded and publicly burnt; Pascal had to go into hiding.

The Provincial Letters remain a monument of French literature, praised by critics of all sorts. The agnostic philosophe Voltaire and Bossuet, the ultra-orthodox Catholic bishop, were both admirers. Even the 20th-century Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, who attacked Pascal’s accusations against the Jesuits, spoke of the work’s “wit and fervour”.


January 18



The festival of St. Peter’s Chair, annually celebrated at Rome on this day, appears to be meant as an act of gratitude for the founding of the papacy. Butler tells us that it is well evidenced for a great antiquity, being adverted to in a martyrology copied in the time of St. Willibrod, in 720. ‘Christians,’ he says, ‘justly celebrate the founding of this mother church, the centre of Catholic communion, in thanksgiving to God for his mercies on his church, and to implore his future blessing.’ The celebration takes place in St. Peter’s Church, under circumstances of the greatest solemnity and splendour. It is one of the very few funzioni (functions), as they are called, which are celebrated in that magnificent temple. The affair is thus described by Lady Morgan in her work, Italy:

‘The splendidly dressed troops that line the nave of the cathedral, the variety and richness of vestments which clothe the various church and lay dignitaries, abbots, priests, canons, prelates, cardinals, doctors, dragoons, senators, and grenadiers, which march. in procession, complete, as they proceed up the vast space of this wondrous temple, a spectacle nowhere to be equalled within the pale of European civilization. In the midst of swords and crosiers, of halberds and crucifixes, surrounded by banners, and bending under the glittering tiara of threefold power, appears the aged, feeble, and worn-out pope, borne aloft on men’s shoulders, in a chair of crimson and gold, and environed by slaves, (for such they look,) who waft, from plumes of ostrich feathers mounted on ivory wands, a cooling gale, to refresh his exhausted frame, too frail for the weight of such honours. All fall prostrate, as he passes up the church to a small choir and throne, temporarily erected beneath the chair of St. Peter. A solemn service is then performed, hosannas arise, and royal votarists and diplomatic devotees parade the church, with guards of honour and running footmen, while English gentlemen and ladies mob and scramble, and crowd and bribe, and fight their way to the best places they can obtain.

At the extremity of the great nave behind the altar, and mounted upon a tribune designed or ornamented by Michael Angelo, stands a sort of throne, composed of precious materials, and supported by four gigantic figures. A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair, on which St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated; more precious than all the bronze, gold, and gems, with which it is hidden, not only from impious, but from holy eyes, and which once only, in the flight of ages, was profaned by mortal inspection.’

January 12




The death of a Canadian saint.

The colony of New France was in a perilous state in the middle of the seventeenth century. A number of private corporations had failed to establish a secure position in the St Lawrence valley; few colonists were attracted to the harsh landscape; infant mortality was high; and attacks by native tribes discouraged settlement. To this tenuous toehold came Frenchwoman Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1653.

Marguerite had been recruited to the colony by Paul Chomedey de Maissoneuve, the Governor of Ville-Marie (later Montreal) who brought her, 15 girls searching for husbands, and 100 settler-soldiers to hold the little fort. It was Marguerite’s job to care for the marriageable women, find suitable mates for them and instruct children. A cloistered community of nuns was unsuitable for the situation so Marguerite developed a community of secular sisters, a dangerous innovation in the eyes of some church leaders. She built the town’s first church, set up a school in a stable and recruited women to form the Congregation Notre-Dame which would teach the children of colonists and natives across the colony. She journeyed to France several times on recruitment missions and efforts to keep her community from being forced to accept a lifestyle of seclusion. Marguerite was successful in all these efforts and when she died in 1700 she had the reputation of a saint. She was officially canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.

January 6



From the Greek epiphania, or manifestation. Celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches on January 6, Epiphany marks a number of important appearances or manifestations: the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the Feeding of the 5000.

Its first appearance seems to have been in the second century A.D. among the Basilidean heretics of Alexandria who believed that Jesus did not become divine until his baptism which they claim had taken place on January 6. Though this idea of a late-acquired divinity was rejected by orthodox Christianity, some churches seem to have used the date to celebrate Christ’s earthly birth — an epiphany of a different kind. When in the fourth century Rome adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity the Western churches’ Epiphany emphasis shifted to focus on the Magi while in the East stress was placed on the baptism. The period between these two important holy dates became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Epiphany became an official holiday in the Eastern Roman Empire, marked by a ban on chariot racing and attending games in the arena and by ceremonies of blessing the waters. At these ceremonies the emperor would drink the waters three times to the cry of “The emperor drinks!” The blessing of the waters takes place even today in Orthodox denominations. A priest will bless a body of water, either inside, or by a lake, river or sea and the faithful take it home where it will be used to sprinkle on houses, barns and fields to ensure prosperity for the coming year. In some places the priest will throw a cross into the water and divers will race to be the one to recover it.

In the West, Epiphany was a day to celebrate the visitation of the Magi or the Three Kings as they became known. Religious services honouring the Magi gradually turned into dramas held outside of the church such as The Play of Herod. As returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought back stories of the fabulous east, fascination with the Magi grew — cities held processions honouring the Kings and carols retelling their journeys were sung. (The remnants of these customs are the Star Boys and their January pilgrimages from door to door.) Epiphany came to be a time all across Europe for popular celebrations marked by eating a cake and gift-giving.

The custom of the King’s Cake, Twelfth Night Cake, Dreikönigskuchen, gâteau des rois, etc., can be traced back to the thirteenth century. A bean or a pea or a coin was baked into the cake and the lucky finder was named king or queen of the party and could direct others to do his bidding for the evening. Though the tradition lingers in much of Europe (as well as French America) the custom in England was displaced to December 25 where it became the Christmas cake. In medieval France it was customary to put a piece of the cake aside for the poor or to collect money from the rich for their share of the cake and use the money for a charity.

Because the Christmas season ends in many parts of the world on January 6, Twelfth Night became a time of raucous celebration, associated with masking, mumming, drinking and social inversion. This misrule may have been a carry-over to some extent from the riotousness of the pagan Kalends. In Byzantium for example church councils had to legislate against the dancing and transvestism that went on in early January. During the reign of Michael III (842-67) the emperor and his court went so far as to use the occasion to mock the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Mass itself. Mock coronations and consecrations become common in medieval Europe with clerical hijinks, cross-dressing, noise and laughter the order of the day on Twelfth Night.

To commemorate the visit of the Magi who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, Epiphany became the day for giving gifts, especially to children. In the Spanish-speaking world the eve of the day of Los Tres Rejes Magos is when the three wise men pass through on their way to Bethlehem and leave presents for kids who, in turn, leave out snacks for the kings and their camels. In Spain their Majesties and their attendants can be seen processing through the city streets on January 5 in great splendour. In Italy the night of January 5 sees the visit of the Befana (the name itself is a corruption of Epiphania), an old lady who refused to spare time from her housekeeping to accompnay the Three Kings on their journey. She soon repented of her decision and tried to join the Magi but has never succeeded to this day. She therefore visits each home in search of the Christ Child and leaves presents for the little ones that she finds sleeping there.

In parts of the Middle East there is a charming story about this night and another gift-bringer. On the Night of Destiny, when the Magi first journeyed to Bethlehem the palm trees bent down to show them the way — as they have done, says legend, every January 5 since. Once a mule was tied to a tree on such a night and when the trees sprang back to their ordinary posture the beast was whipped high into the branches. To mark this miracle the Mule was made the gift-bringer in Lebanon where doors are left open for him to bring in the presents and where hay and water are set out to refresh him.

Epiphany is also the time for houses to be blessed for the coming year. A priest will recite a prayer, sprinkle the house with holy water and cense the home and barn. The initials of the Magi and the number of the year are chalked on the door frame as in “20 K+M+B 15”. Even the chalk can be first consecrated with a Ceremonial Blessing of the Chalk.

Just as Epiphany serves as a time for houses to be blessed and evil forces expelled from them, so is January 6 the date for driving demons out of the whole town. In parts of Switzerland boys go about on Twelfth Night to make noise with horns and whips to drive away nasty wood spirits.  In the eastern Alps, the Berchtenlaufen ceremony sees 200-300 boys with masks, cowbells, whips and weapons shoot up the sky and make and make as much noise as possible.  In Eschenloe  in Upper Bavaria, three women with bags over their heads go house to house carrying a chain, a rake and a broom. They knock on doors with the chain, scrape the ground with the rake and sweep with the broom, all to clear away evil.

In England it has been the custom since the Middle Ages for the reigning king or queen to imitate the giving of gifts which the Magi brought. On January 6 during the Epiphany service in the Chapel Royal at Saint James’s Palace two Gentleman Ushers, acting on behalf on the monarch, bring forth silken bags containing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold is in the form of twenty-five gold sovereigns which, after the service, is changed into ordinary currency and donated to the poor. This presentation used to be carried out by the ruler himself until the madness of King George III prevented his participation; since then servants have carried out the custom by proxy.

January 2


The Feast of St Gregory Nazianzus

Gregory (329-390) was archbishop of Constantinople and one of the great theologians of his age. Along with Saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa who were also born in central Asia Minor, he is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory defended Christianity against the revived paganism of the emperor Julian the Apostate and argued against the Arian form of Christianity which denied the divinity of Christ and which was supported by powerful politicians and churchmen in Constantinople. His brilliant oratory and writings in favour of the Trinitarian position helped that view of Christ to become orthodoxy.


Mercurius is elected pope and instead of using his own name becomes the first pontiff to choose a regnal name, styling himself John II. He felt it inappropriate that the Bishop of Rome should be named after the pagan god Mercury.


The Christian reconquest of Spain ends with the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. In 711 an Arab and Berber army from North Africa had swept into Spain, conquering all but a corner of the northwest. From there Christian princes waged centuries of the Reconquista, gradually pushing the Muslim occupiers south until finally eradicating the Islamic presence in 1492.

January 1

The Circumcision of Jesus

This feast commemorates the traditional date for the ritual circumcision of Jesus on his eighth day. The festival was known by the 400s in the West; in the Eastern church it coincides with St Basil’s Day. Legends grew up around the child’s foreskin and its preservation as a sacred relic which could perform miracles. Charlemagne was said to have given it to Pope Leo III in 800 but as many as 18 different churches have claimed to possess it. Protestants abandoned interest in the feast and recent Roman Catholic decrees have renamed January 1 “The Octave of the Nativity”.

January 1 also saw a number of other remarkable moments in church history:

404 The monk Telemachus is torn apart by a Roman mob for trying to prevent a gladiator fight.

1431 The birth of one of the Bad Popes of the Renaissance, Rodrigo Borgia, who went on to become the notorious Pope Alexander VI.

1484 The birth of Huldreich Zwingli, a Catholic priest who led the Protestant Reformation in Zurich.

1773 The first performance of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, sung to accompany a sermon by its author John Newton.

1795 French churches, which had been closed during the worst moments of the French Revolution, are allowed to reopen.

1814 The birth of Hong Xiuchuan. Influenced by reading the tracts of some Christian missionaries to China, Hong is led to proclaim himself the Little Brother of Jesus Christ, establish the Heavenly Kingdom and provoke the worst civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion, which resulted in the death of 20,000,000 people.

1927 The official outbreak of the Cristero War, a rebellion of Mexican Christians against the anti-religious regime of President Calles.

December 25

An astonishing number of church-related actions took place on December 25. Here are a few of them:

  • 336 earliest recorded celebration of Christmas in Rome
  • 567 Beginning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as decreed by Council of Tours
  • 597 Augustine baptizes thousands of Saxons in Kent
  • 634 Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, warns of Islamic menace
  • 1000 St. Stephen crowned first Christian king of Hungary
  • 1100 Baldwin of Edessa crowned King of Jerusalem in Bethlehem
  • 1131 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses “Cristemesse” for first time as one word
  • 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket preaches in Canterbury Cathedral and prophesies his own murder (he is killed 4 days later)
  • 1223 St Francis of Assisi assembles first live Nativity crèche at Greccio, Italy
  • 1430 Joan of Arc imprisoned in a tower at Rouen
  • 1521 Protestant Reformer Andreas von Carlstadt shocks Wittenberg by performing Mass in German
  • 1535 Jacques Cartier and crew celebrate first Christmas in Canada at Stadacona
  • 1648 Riots break out in Canterbury over attempts by the Puritan government to suppress Christmas; King Charles I spends his last Christmas under guard at Windsor Castle.
  • 1667 Kateri Tekakwitha, Iroquois mystic, has her first communion at the church in Kahnawake, Québec.
  • 1734 J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” first performed at Leipzig with Bach conducting.
  • 1760 Jupiter Hammon, New York slave and first black American poet, published “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries”.
  • 1781 First lighted Christmas tree in Canada erected by Baroness Riedsel
  • 1818 “Silent Night” sung for first time in Oberdorf, Austria
  • 1836 Alabama becomes first US state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.
  • 1867 Christmas a holiday in Canada for federal workers
  • 1902 Pope Leo XIII endorses European Christian Democratic movement as alternative to socialism
  • 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador murdered
  • 2005 Benedict XVI issues his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est


December 22




The Dominican Order is officially confirmed.

In the early thirteenth century the power of the papacy was at its height but the reputation of the Church was not. New heresies were springing up among the people and the clergy had a reputation for being rich, unlearned and aloof. Two young men responded: in Italy, Francis of Assisi; in Spain, Dominic de Guzmán.

As a priest Dominic encountered the Cathar heretics of France who were well supported by local nobles and popular with the poor. This led Dominic to realize that the Church required itinerant, well-educated preachers who could combat religious heterodoxy and that this new sort of clergy should embrace poverty. Living off charity and working among the common people was the ideal of this new order, called Dominicans after its founder, but chartered by the papacy in 1216 as the Order of Preachers. Clad in white robes with a black cloak they became highly effective exponents of Catholic doctrine in markets and churches. They also came to staff the great new universities of Europe, especially Paris where its members included Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, and to be among the directors of the Inquisition. In Italy they produced famous mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso; in Italy they included fierce opponents of papal corruption such as Girolamo Savonarola.

A Latin pun on their name, Domini canes, has caused them to be known as the “Hounds of the Lord”.


December 21


The Feast of St Thomas

Thomas was one of the original apostles of Jesus known in the gospel of John for doubting the resurrection and renowned in legend for also doubting the Assumption of the Virgin. He is said to have evangelized in India where he met and converted the Magi and was martyred with a spear (see above). His feast day, December 21, is connected to a number of Christmas-tide customs.

In England it was traditionally a day of licensed begging for poor women who were permitted to go door-to-door to ask for alms. This custom was called “Thomasing”, “mumping” or “a-gooding” — it was considered good for one’s soul to give. Thus this song sung by the indigent women:


Well a day, well a day,

St Thomas goes too soon away,

Then your gooding we do pray

For a good time will not stay.

St Thomas gray, St Thomas gray,

The longest night and shortest day

Please to remember St Thomas’s Day.


The custom died out in in the early-twentieth century as charity became more institutionalized and attitudes to begging hardened. Many registered charities in Britain, however, observe St Thomas Day by choosing to make their payments then.

In Central Europe St Thomas Day was a time for driving out demons by making loud noises, cracking whips, letting off firearms or ringing bells — all while wearing horrible masks — or by using incense and holy water and saying the rosary. St Thomas himself was said in Bohemia to ride at midnight in a chariot of fire to the graveyard where he met the spirits of all the dead men named Thomas; there he blessed them and disappeared as they returned to their graves.

In other parts of Europe it was a time for schools to be breaking up for the Christmas vacation, an opportunity for social inversion, barring-out of teachers or extorting treats from them. “Thomas Donkey” is the title given to the last to wake up or who comes late to work on Thomas Day in some parts of Germany. In Norway it was once the custom for all preparatory work for the Christmas season to be completed by St Thomas Day. A two-week’s supply of wood for the stove had to be ready, else the saint would come and take away the axe; all baking and brewing had to be finished lest a string of kitchen mishaps take place.