Gettin’ Glagolitic with Cyril & Methodius

May 11

Born in Thessaloniki in the 820’s, Cyril and Methodius are considered ‘Equals with the Apostles’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but were overlooked by the Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years.

Sts. Cyril & Methodius

Cyril & Methodius were two missionary brothers with a gift for language. In the 860’s the Prince of Great Morovia (in Eastern Europe) entrusted them with the task of translating Biblical texts into the Slavic tongue of Great Morovia. They had one major obstacle: No such language existed. At least not in any standardized, written form. The Slavic languages were a collection of spoken dialects that stretched from Russia to the Adriatic coast.

The brothers first had to devise a whole new alphabet, named Glagolitsa (a variation of the Greek alphabet) to capture the Slavic language in writing.

The language the brothers developed, known today as Old Bulgarian, fortified the spread of Christianity across Eastern Europe. The brothers died in 869 and 882. But as a posthumous reward for their noble efforts, the East Frankish clergy outlawed the brothers’ language and imprisoned 200 of their students and disciples.

Old Bulgarian posed a political threat to the West. The codification of civil laws in a non-Latin, non-Germanic text limited Frankish-German control over the Slavic rulers. But ironically, the exile and diaspora of the users of Old Bulgarian to other parts of Eastern Europe only served to spread the knowledge and use of the language.

The Glagolitic alphabet was soon replaced with a descendant called Cyrillic (sorry Methodius), developed by a student of theirs, and is still in use over a thousand years later.

It wasn’t until the 1880s that the Saintly brothers got their own feast day in the Roman Catholic Church (July 5), and in 1980 Pope John Paul II deemed Cyril and Methodius two patron saints of Europe.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saints Cyril and Methodius Day is observed on May 11 (Julian calendar) which is May 24 in the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Day of Letters.

In the Roman Catholic Church, their feast day is February 14.


Mayday Mayday

May 1

I was taught in elementary school that we didn’t celebrate May Day anymore because it was a Communist holiday.

Not only was this a lame excuse not to celebrate a holiday, it also wasn’t true.

In ancient and medieval Europe, seasons were determined not by equinoxes and solstices, but by the days that fell directly in between, known as “cross-quarter days.” The first cross-quarter day of the year is Groundhog Day or Candlemas, between winter solstice and spring equinox. The second is today, May Day, which once marked the beginning of summer.

May Day traditions such as creating floral wreaths date back to the Romans and Celts (Beltane), and survived well into the 20th century, including dancing around the Maypole and crowning a ‘May Queen.’

Mizzou, Missouri, 1911

In the 19th century May Day became a standard date for workers to re-negotiate contracts with employers. One reason may be because it was one of the few days off workers had that wasn’t a Sunday (church day) or a religious holiday. Thus, as communities got together to celebrate, the workers–usually the fathers of the family–could also unite for better wages or working conditions.

Over time May Day was adopted by (or hijacked by, depending on your politics) communist, socialist and labor groups. May Day fell out of favor in the U.S. where the first of May is celebrated with other, more patriotic holidays, including:

  • Law Day
  • Loyalty Day
  • National Day of Prayer (1st Thursday in May)

and the more casual

  • Lei Day.

Lei Day is, believe it or not, the oldest of those four holidays. It’s the Hawaiian version of May Day, dating to the 1920s. Loyalty Day, Law Day, and National Day of Prayer were officiated in the 1950s under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Even though May Day was seen as a communist import in America, it was in Chicago, Illinois, that May Day gained notoriety as a day for workers and eventually became the international holiday known as Labour Day.

Oh, and the distress call ‘Mayday! Mayday!‘ has nothing to do with the holiday. It’s from the French venez m’aider, meaning ‘come help me.’

Witches Night – Walpurgisnacht

April 30

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
the stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
with witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Exactly six months before Halloween, the Germans and Scandinavians celebrate Walpurgis Night, May-Eve, Beltane, or Hexennacht, aka Witches’ Night.

According to legend, on the last night of April, witches would meet at Hexentazplatz (Witches’ Dancing Place, conveniently named in case you got lost and had to ask a tourist) near the town of Thale in northern Germany. From there they would fly upon broomsticks to the highest point in the Harz Mountains, a summit called “The Brocken.”

At the Brocken there they would dance with the devil, a horned he-goat demon named Lord Urian, who would grant them mystical powers…for a price. Scarier than even the orgiastic rituals of Walpurgis Night, is the unholy marriage of Google-translation and the German language in describing this event:

“On the chunk of dance legend after all witches in a large circle around the fire and then the devil kiss the butt. Then you can have with the devil marry and receive from him magic powers.”

Don’t be Frightened!

OK, be a little frightened. For centuries, tales spread of sordid revels atop the Harz Mountains. To this day, the Brocken is haunted by the spirits of angry tourists who felt cheated having yet to encounter a single supernatural event.

There are many reasons this mountaintop became synonymous with the dark legends of Deutschland. Its inaccessible height and remote location for one—okay, that’s two actually. Also, the region wasn’t settled until after 1000 AD. (That’s the German equivalent of 1950 in America.) And perhaps most important, the Brocken is the site of an unusual and eerie optical illusion known as the Brockengenspenst, or the “Brocken spector.”

“As the sun sinks, the shadow of a walker cast from a ridge becomes magnified and an enormous silhouette appears on low-lying clouds or mist banks below the mountain. Although it’s only a shadow, the distant “specter” appears to be walking at the same pace, doggedly tracking the observer’s path.”

— Season of the Witch – Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains

In other words, in the centuries before the meteorological sciences, many a Brocken hiker were spooked by their own shadows. At least one visitor was literally frightened to death.

Germany may not have been the birthplace of the witch, but it did propagate the image of the witch as we know it today, through its literature, legends, and its ‘litigation’:

“Between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of two Bavarian towns, Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, ordered the burning of at least fifteen hundred “witches” between them. The victims of Wƒrzburg’s bishop included his own nephew, nineteen priests, and a child aged seven. One reason why medieval Germany developed an obsession with stamping out “witchcraft” may lie in the food that was being eaten. If the weather is warm and damp, rye (then a staple crop) can produce a poisonous fungus called ergot. Hallucinations, fits, pinpricking sensations, muscle spasms: the symptoms of ergotism are similar to the effects of LSD, which itself is derived from ergot.”

Witches of the Harz Mountains

Walpurgis got its name from an 8th century saint. Walpurgis had nothing to do with witches, but April 30 was her feast day. In the Church’s effort to Christianize Germany’s tenacious pagan roots, they made Walpurgis Night about Walpurgis’ fight with the dark forces of paganism.

Yet still the pagan rituals continue to this day…

Walpurgis Night, the time is right
The ancient powers awake.
So dance and sing, around the ring
And Beltane magic make.

Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow

Brocken postcard

Brocken “Money” – a tourist gimmick from the 1920s

Brocken postcard collection from the late 19th/early 20th century.



Easter: Dates

April 4, 2010
April 24, 2011
April 8, 2012
Despite the overwhelming secular popularity of Christmas in the Western world, the big daddy of all Christian holidays is actually Easter. It’s the oldest Christian holiday and the most important.

No one knows for sure how the term Easter came to be. It probably derived from Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Fertility and New Life. Which helps to explain why we still celebrate the resurrection with bunny rabbits and painted eggs.

But in French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Danish, the words for Easter (Paques, Paschen, Pasqua, Pascua, Pask, and Paasske) all come from the Latin Paschalia, itself was a variant of the Greek Pascha, a term used by early Christians to refer to the even older Hebrew word Pesach, aka Passover. Pesach was the holiday Jesus and his Disciples were celebrating on the occasion of the Last Supper.

In the United States, by far the most common method for determining the date of Easter is by scanning the Sundays in March or April for the one that says “Easter” on your calendar. This proven technique has not failed me in all my years of prognostication.

But if you chronophiles want to get a little more complicated, Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

But if you really want to get freaky with the details…

…and believe me, you don’t…

Since the date of Easter determines the dates of so many other Christian holidays from the Triodion to Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, it was of paramount importance in the early days of the church, that Western and Eastern Churches agree on the same day to celebrate. Which, of course, they almost never do

In the first centuries after Christ, Eastern Churches related the date of Easter to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Passover falls on the 14th day, or full moon, of the month of Nisan. However, since the Jews at that time used a lunar calendar the date of Passover would change in relation to the solar calendar.

The Roman Church decreed that Easter should fall each year on a Sunday, and should show relevance to the solar, rather than the lunar calendar.

The Eastern Church used a 19-year “paschal” cycle to determine the annual date of Easter. (In the fifth century BC the Greek astronomer Meton had discovered that the 19 year solar calendar coincided with the 235 month lunar calendar, with a differentiation of approximately 2 hours.)

The Roman Church on the other hand, developed an 84-year paschal cycle, which is roughly the formula we use today. The Sunday following the first full moon after the equinox. In the Roman Catholic Church’s definition, the Spring Equinox is fixed on March 21. Thus the earliest Easter could fall is March 22.

The Eastern Church no longer relates Easter to Passover, but maintains that Easter should not fall before or during the Jewish holiday. Also the Eastern Church uses the actual spring equinox as measured from Jerusalem, site of the crucifixion, and follows the Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian, adding to the complication of the dates. Still, Western and Eastern Easters do sometimes fall on the same date as they did on April 8, 2007.

2008 marks one of the earliest possible Easters, on March 23, only two days after the equinox. The ancient pagan traditions and rituals of spring have not only refused to die, they have become forever intertwined with the celebration of Easter.

published March 23, 2008

Pascha – Orthodox Church

April 24, 2011

April 4, 2010

In March the Protestant and Catholic Churches celebrated Easter; last week Jehovah’s Witnesses observed the Memorial of Christ’s Death; but today the Eastern Orthodox Church gets the last word, celebrating the Resurrection in what is known in many countries as Pascha.

The English word Easter is thought to derive from early pagan deities such as Eostre. In most Christian countries the holiday celebrating the Resurrection is referred to by variants on the Greek Pascha. (Pascha, or pesach in Hebrew, was the holiday Jesus and His disciples observed on the occasion of the Last Supper. Often translated as “pass over,” pesach can also mean “hover over” as in to protect, or safeguard.)

The Orthodox Paschal cycle repeats every 19 years, as opposed to the Western Paschal cycle, which repeats every 84 years. One proviso of the Orthodox date of Pascha is that it cannot fall before the Jewish Passover, which partly accounts for the different dates when Easter is celebrated.

Lewis Patsavos, in Dating Pascha in the Orthodox Church, points out a conundrum in the New Testament:

In the Gospels the Last Supper is described as a Passover meal, while St. John records the death of Christ as the same hour in which paschal lambs were sacrificed in preparation for the holiday.

Two traditions grew out of this discrepancy. One in which Pascha was observed on Passover itself, “regardless of the day of the week. The other observed it on the Sunday following Passover.”

The latter approach won out, which is why virtually all Churches celebrate Pascha on Sunday.

In Pascha Means Passover Reverend Anthony Michaels draws an analogy between the sacrifice of the lambs in Egypt by the Hebrews, the blood of which was meant to protect them from the tenth plague, and the “Sacrifice of the Son of God who is the ‘lamb that takes away the sin of the world.'”

The site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection is believed to be the present day site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.


“It stands on a site that encompasses both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where he was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world.”

Sacred Destinations

Easter: Origins

Holy Week comes to a close with the greatest and oldest of Christian holidays: Easter, or Pascha, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

The Easter we celebrate today encompasses a confluence of traditions and rituals that merged during the holiday’s transformation across 2000 years and even more miles from ancient Jerusalem, through Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and Central and Western Europe.

The name Easter itself  may be one of the many relics of ancient European paganism. Eostre, or Eastre, was a Germanic goddess. If the name bears a resemblance to the English word for the cardinal direction East, it’s no coincidence. East comes from same the Proto-Indo-European root as ‘dawn’. East is the direction where we see the rebirth of the sun each day, and Eostre was the goddess of the dawn.

The Venerable Bede wrote about Eostre back in the early 8th century, though by that time, he says, worship of the goddess had died out:

In olden time the English people…calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence after the manner of the Hebrews and the Greeks, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Sol-monath; March Hreth-monath; April, Eostur-monath…

Eostur-monath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. — Bede, Caput XV: De mensibus Anglorum

There are divergent theories on Eostre. Many relate her to the pagan goddesses Astarte, Isis and Ishtar. Some historians however have cast doubts on the breadth of Bede’s claims about Eostre. and question her very existence.

Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)
Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

The suspected pagan origin of the name in no way diminishes the reverence of the holiday for English-speaking Christians. Easter refers to the dawn and the direction of the rising sun, as well as to the ancient goddess, and as such it’s an applicable name for a holiday celebrating resurrection.

Other pagan pastoral traditions have become incorporated as secular, cultural rituals rather than religious ones. For instance, Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are ancient symbols of rebirth and fertility, common themes among Spring festivals.

Good Friday

April 22, 2011
April 2, 2010
April 10, 2009

The Crucifixion, by Tintoretto
The Crucifixion, by Tintoretto

Good Friday is the day of remembrance of the execution of Jesus Christ.

Also called “Great” and “Holy” Friday, the term “good” is recognized as a reference to the importance and solemnity of the day’s events, though no one knows for sure though where the name Good Friday originated. Perhaps the German “gute” in Gute Frietag. But Germans today call it the more apropos Karfreitag or “Sorrowful Friday.”

Here is a (very) brief timeline of events of the original Holy Week:

  • Palm Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem.
  • Maundy (Holy) Thursday, evening: after sunset, Jesus and the Disciples conduct a ceremonial Passover meal. After dinner, Jesus is arrested.
  • Good Friday: After being brought before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again, Jesus is sentenced to be executed by crucifixion. Jesus is crucified at noon and dies at approximately 3pm, allowing his body to be removed before the sun sets on Sabbath.
  • Easter Sunday: Jesus reappears, resurrected from the dead.

What is immediately apparent from the timeline above is that what the legal system in Christ’s day lacked in it’s ability to dole out justice (It could without remorse execute not merely an innocent, but a savior at that) it more than made up for in expeditiousness.

Today such a trial would take months merely to get to court. Indictments, motions, appeals would take years. And the span between sentencing and execution could take decades. But within 18 hours after the Last Supper, Jesus endured three state criminal proceedings, was tortured, sentenced to death, and nailed to the cross, all by approximately noon the following day.

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Today, jewelers sell almost as many crosses as diamonds.

“…what an irony that is. That we wear an item of capital punishment around our necks or in our ears or printed on our lapel. It’s become a thing of beauty, a thing of luxury in some cases, a fashion accessory. When really it’s an old rugged piece of wood that they would kill people with. — Pastor Carey Green, Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters

Crucifixion is believed to have begun with the ancient Persians and was adopted by Alexander the Great. The Romans began using crucifixion around the 6th century B.C. It was usually intended for criminals of low or no social standing of whom they desired to make an example. Roman citizens (not slaves) were generally exempt from crucifixion, the exception being treason.

Immediately following the crush of the Spartacus-led slave uprisings in the first-century A.D., the Romans crucified over 6,000 of Spartacus’s followers along the 200 kilometer Appian Way from Brindisi to Rome.

Jesus’s crucifixion is by far the most famous of all crucifixions, and indeed the one by which the very concept has been defined in the public mind, even in the earliest days of Christianity. After Jesus, the Romans used crucifixion as a means to execute many of his early followers, a number of whom actually preferred this painful method of execution as a way to emulate their Savior.

All that changed in 312 A.D. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine envisioned the sign of the cross before his historic victory over his more powerful rival Maxentius. As undisputed Emperor, Constantine abolished crucifixion in 337 out of reverence for Christ.

“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” — the final words of Jesus Christ, Luke 23:46

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The last four days of the Holy Week are also known as Holy Triduum, the holy Three Days. No, they didn’t mess up their counting. The roughly 72-hour period begins the evening of Holy (Maundy) Thursday and ends with evening prayers on Easter Sunday.

The Last Seven Sentences of Jesus

Maundy Thursday

April 21, 2011; April 1, 2010; April 9, 2009


Holy Week — Now that’s a name. It makes sense. It’s holy. It’s a week.

But some of the names of the individual days of the week…

Good Friday remembers the day Christ was crucified and killed. So whoever was in charge of naming either had a morbid sense of irony or put an extra ‘o’ in God, and the name stuck.

Easter, the cornerstone the Christian calendar, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is named, of all things, for a pagan Goddess.

Holy Saturday? Okay, well that one makes sense.

But what on earth is Maundy Thursday?

The word Maundy occurs but once in the English language. It refers to today, the Thursday before Easter Sunday. Maundy Thursday is observed as the anniversary of the Last Supper, the meal widely believed to be the Jewish holiday Passover. At the Last Supper, outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Jesus introduced the ceremony of the Eucharist:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  — Matthew 26:26-27

He also washed the feet of his disciples.  Matthew doesn’t describe the feet-washing. but John, who recalls the meal not as Passover, but as an event preceding it, records the ceremony as so:

…so [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…

…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” — John 13:4-15

That tradition lives on in Great Britain today, performed by none other than the Queen. No, she doesn’t wash her subjects’ feet anymore. James II, the last Catholic King of Britain, was the last monarch to do so, back in the late 17th century. These days the Queen carries on a Maundy Thursday tradition dating back to Edward I.

On Maundy Thursday, the British monarch distributes specially minted coins (Maundy coins) to as many subjects of each gender as the monarch is old. In other words, this year (2010) Queen Elizabeth, who is 84, distributes coins to 84 men and 84 women.

Maundy coins
Maundy coins

Roman Catholic Churches on the other hand still carry on the 2000 year-old feet cleansing tradition introduced at the Last Supper. During the the Pedilavium on Maundy or Holy Thursday, the priest washes the feet of 12 selected people.

The meaning of the ceremony goes back to the name Maundy. Maundy is from the same Latin root as the English word mandate, meaning “command”. The name maundy stems from the 11th commandment.

11th commandment? I thought there were only ten?

The 11th commandment is the one Jesus bestowed on his disciples at the Last Supper, just before his arrest:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” — John 13:34

It was to be a long night. As Jesus predicted, he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, arrested, and brought to trial. Also as Jesus predicted, Peter—who during the meal had offered to lay down his life for Jesus—denied even knowing him.

All before the rooster crowed.

The events of what happened the following day are recounted during Good Friday.

Succinct overview of Holy Week: Philadelphia Bulletin