Category Archives: St. Blaise’s Day

Your February Book of Days

NaturalHeart

The Third of February brings St. Blaise’s Day, and, as our gift to you, your printable Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February 2015. The calendar is a good companion to the blog, and it’s typically at the Convivio Bookworks website on the First of each month, whether I remember to tell you or not. Sometimes the remembering takes me a few days, as it did this month.

As for St. Blaise, he is the saint one would call upon for maladies of the throat. Visit a church today and you will likely find the clergy bestowing blessings upon the congregation, one throat at a time, using two crossed candles, one on either side of the neck. This, as a result of St. Blaise once healing a young boy who was choking on a fish bone. The candles used in the blessing could very well be linked to the candles that were blessed just yesterday at Candlemas (or maybe they are meant to evoke super sized fish bones).

My partner Seth had his throat blessed one St. Blaise’s Day by Father Brice, and the next day he woke up with a sore throat. Coincidence? Perhaps. All the same, Seth has avoided throat blessings since that fateful Third of February. Truth be told, the St. Blaise’s throat blessing is one of the more bizarre traditions of the Catholic Church, and probably a bit too “magical” for more straight laced church goers, like, perhaps, Presbyterians. Nothing at all against Presbyterians, mind you. I just imagine there might be a good deal of frowning upon throat blessings with crossed candles in this case. And then again, maybe I am wrong. There is an old custom of lighting bonfires on St. Blaise’s Night in Scotland, that great bastion of Presbyterianism, so there may very well be some throat blessings going on there, too, at least among those who like things a little quirkier. And that’s one thing I love about St. Blaise’s Day: it is an annual reminder that strange things sometimes still happen.

 

St. Agatha’s Day

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So the thing about saints is most of them suffered horrible deaths in the martyrdom that got them to sainthood. There’s a reason St. Blaise, whose feast day we celebrated on the 3rd of February, a patron saint of wool carders, I felt it was too gruesome to explain. And now today on the 5th we celebrate St. Agatha and when it comes to St. Agatha, there are traditions in Italy for her feast day that would make no sense unless you knew about the martyrdom she suffered for her faith. It is no less terrible. And so let me tell you and get it over with: her breasts were severed and then she was roasted over live coals. People were absolutely terrible back then. This was the 3rd century, and it was in Sicily, in Catania. St. Agatha is now patroness of Catania, and she is invoked for protection from volcanic eruptions (perhaps due to the roasting) and earthquakes, as well as for protection from breast disease.

And so in Italy St. Agatha is honored on her day by the baking of special round loaves of bread and by marzipan confections that are unapologetically meant to evoke the breasts of the saint. The marzipan breasts, called minne de vergine, traditionally were made by the nuns of Catania, and it is in these strange customs that the subtle dance between pagan and Christian in Italy is so fascinating. Italy, once the land of the Roman gods and goddesses, became eventually the home of the Roman church… but those gods and goddesses were not easy to evict, and many of them just evolved into the saints of the Church. Italians love their saints: San Antonio, San Giuseppe, Santa Lucia… and today, on the 5th of February, Sant’Agata. The saints are called upon by Italians as much as or perhaps even more so than the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And we eat strange ritualistic foods based upon their lives and works, and their deaths. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Lutherans so nervous around Catholics. We are a somewhat dramatic people.

In Catania, they’ve been celebrating the feast of St. Agatha for a couple of days by now, and it will all conclude tonight. There have been processions throughout the city of large carriages and many spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from the saint’s life––over the course of these three nights. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their many shoulders.

There is a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them: pastries made of sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, then covered in marzipan and dotted with a cherry, and he beholds them on his plate. It reminds him of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”

Who knows. But I suspect the Romans would have understood.

 

Image: Sant’Agata presenting her breasts on a plate, by Piero della Francesca, 15th century, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

St. Blaise’s Day

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For ailments of the throat, pray to St. Blaise… and on his feast day, the Third of February, it is not uncommon to go to church and have the priest bless your throat by holding two candles, crossed into an X shape, with your throat in the crook of the candles, as he says a blessing over your head. It’s one of those mystical ceremonies that seems almost over the top even to us Catholics.

St. Blaise became the patron saint of folks with throat maladies by association: He is famed for having healed a young boy who had a fishbone stuck in his throat. (I remember having a fishbone stuck in my throat once when I was a boy, too. These things stick with you. While it was stuck there, it was all I could think about. Had I known enough at the time, I would have prayed to St. Blaise to get that bone dislodged.) St. Blaise was a fourth century bishop in Armenia, but he had to go into hiding in a cave for his faith. It was there that wild animals would gather with him and join him in food and conversation… and so St. Blaise is also associated with animals and their protection.

He is fondly remembered in my family, for St. Blaise was the name of the church my grandparents attended, up the hill from their home in Brooklyn. My Aunt Anne and Uncle Joe were married there, and so were my own parents. Folks with high aspirations went to St. Frances’s, the big cathedral, but the simpler folks went to St. Blaise. It was a small church that served a small community made up mostly of Italian immigrants and their families.

The candles in the St. Blaise throat blessing perhaps are a remnant of Candlemas, which comes the day before his feast day. In England and Scotland, it was once customary to light bonfires on the eve of St. Blaise, which would be the night of Candlemas, and perhaps there is some connection to be made between Blaise and blaze. It is a day also important to wool carders ( a matter having to do with St. Blaise’s martyrdom), as well as to spinners and dyers.

Pictured above: My newly married mom and dad, posing for photos with their wedding party, on the front steps of St. Blaise Church in Brooklyn.