Whipping Up a Feast Day
When I was growing up, my mother had a charming book by Helen McLaughlin called My Nameday: Come for Dessert. Published in 1962, it was full of ideas like how to cover a cardboard basket with tiny icing rosettes, and how to combine white cake, pink icing, and packaged jello in various ways. It certainly was an interesting curio from that era! (What were the kids doing while mother was decorating cakes? That’s what I want to know. Probably riding bikes all around town, climbing trees, and other dangerous activities.) In theory, each high-heeled, pin-curled, frilly-aproned mother would call her sweet brood of scrubbed, smiling children to a table covered with a white cloth and a vase of carnations. They would say a prayer, listen to the significance of the ship cake (or whatever cake), and receive their slice on a little plate from Granny’s tea set.
It’s a pretty picture, and yet the modern family doesn’t quite look like this. For one thing, our many wheat and sugar and dairy intolerances makes our desserts look a little… funny. Our timetables are different, what with all the time spent in the car taking our kids to sports, music, and such. We mothers don’t spend our best hours in the kitchen. (Although it sometimes feels we spend ALL our hours in the kitchen…) Our tastes are different, too. We rarely use fine table linen anymore. (It was a lovely custom, and perhaps the children would eat more tidily if they were eating over something white—but I doubt it.) As for the modern family. Well. If you’re anything like us, you are the only big family in the neighbourhood. You are probably loud, fun, and messy. You probably don’t line up like ducklings in row, and perhaps, like me, you only have three pieces of Granny’s tea set left, and they’re up on a high shelf being saved for posterity. Parties are boisterous, not sedate.
My own childhood memories are filled with a similar, though less “Betty Crocker” picture. My mother was a Charlotte Mason-inspired home schooler. Her seasonal and liturgical celebrations were handmade and delicious. Her materials were imaginatively crafted from outdoors, thrift stores, or whatever raw materials were lying around. One of my favourites was her box of small statues and fine art prints of Mary, Jesus and various saints. On a feast day, she would take out the statue or picture of the saint and make a beautiful centrepiece on the breakfast table together with candles, flowers or whatever was in season outdoors. When we came downstairs in the morning a feast was awaiting us! She also had hanging centrepieces, like the hoop of dangling red ribbons with gold “tongues of flame” sewn on for Pentecost. It would sway gently in the heat from candles, and to us kids, it was magical!
Now that I have a family of my own, I am overwhelmed by the lavishness of Holy Mother Church in giving us so many feast days (a different one each day of the year for heaven’s sake!). Not to mention my mother’s artistic model, my Waldorf books, my Pinterest boards, my mental picture of that impossible scenario, happy children quietly awaiting dessert. With all these lovely things calling out for attention, where do I start? Do I celebrate 365 days of holy men and women? It’s too much! And yet I feel the need to go beyond Christmas stockings and the Easter bunny.
This has been an organic process for our family, and we are definitely starting small. If you are a newbie mother, or if you’ve been on this parenting journey for years and, like me, never felt you were organized or energetic enough to celebrate a liturgical feast, I want to encourage you. It can be done!
Just don’t do it all. Choose one feast, whether an major solemnity like Pentecost or an obscure saint’s day for your sweet little Walburga or Gondolphus. Or you could choose something significant to your family background, like a fiesta for Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12)—piñata and tequila in the middle of December? Yes please!—or Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s day (March 17) —Irish coffee for the grownups! The only rule is keep it very, very simple.
Here’s an example. The night before the feast day, go to your supply cupboard and pull out a piece of paper, the largest you can find. (Resist the temptation to reorganize your cupboard.) Write the name of the feast day in big letters using your best handwriting, calligraphy or bubble letters in pink highlighter, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about doing it right, it’s just about doing it. Tape it to the wall or window near your breakfast table. This is your feast day banner! Find a candle and put it on the table. A candle means “festive” and it makes the table special. Then open a recipe book or go online and choose something to bake that is easy and doesn’t require a trip to the grocery store. Most people can scrounge up four ingredients for the fabulous 4-ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies (which happen to be gluten/dairy free too!): 1 cup peanut butter, 1 cup sugar, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 375° for 8 minutes.
Resist the temptation to make a monthly meal plan or finally learn to make meringues. You can do that tomorrow night. And whatever you do, don’t clean the house! Go to bed early and sleep the sleep of the righteous, because at your table where your family will gather in the morning you have art, candle flame, and something special to eat! Don’t worry about not having flowers (it’s February) or special songs (your kids get all squirmy and embarrassed when you make them sing) or crafts or even a print-off. Just mark it on the calendar and remember that you can always bling it up next year.
You’re doing it! You’re celebrating! Our homes are “domestic churches”, which means that we pray, work, and celebrate along with our holy mother Church. The Church calendar intersects with the calendar of nature as it changes outside our windows. It puts us in touch with the whole history of salvation, from the mysteries of our Lord’s life to the holy men and women who have borne witness for the past two thousand years. It connects our present, concrete lives to the eternal things. What a privilege to be part of it!
Even when our children are grown up and no longer celebrating their childhood feasts, the changing calendar will evoke a feeling of rhythm and celebration. For example, December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, was made special by the white tablecloth and white frosted cake, and occasionally, white roses. For me, the date never passes without a special little “Today is a birthday!” feeling. On the other hand Lent always comes round with a faint odor of bland vegetarian cooking, and the popular saying at my house, “Putting the Lent back in Lentils!”
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