The Importance of Customs and Traditions

While the feast of St. Wenceslas takes place in September, the name is for many in the English speaking world indelibly connected with the season of Christmas because of the Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslaus, written by one of Cardinal Newman's Oxford Movement confreres, John Mason Neale.

As a child it was our custom to always sing this carol at this time of the year and it became one of my favourites, fostering within me a curiosity and fond affection for this particular saint even when I knew little about him other than his name. It was only through this carol, in fact, that I had any knowledge of him whatsoever. Further, it was through this same carol that I came to a more conscious awareness that December 26th was not simply "Boxing Day" (as it is known in Canada, the U.K. and other parts of the world) but, in fact, St. Stephen's day -- which feast is also mentioned in the first line of this carol.

The promptings that I took from this carol as a child continued to be borne out in my life as a young man and as an adult for, even now, whenever the feast of St. Wenceslas comes around on the liturgical calendar, that spark of childhood excitement and intrigue is once again re-lit. Evidently others may not share this same experience as these matters tend to be very personal and individual, but regardless one likely has similar experiences with other things or other days, be it another carol or be it some particular food or custom associated with some other time or feast of the liturgical year; perhaps the Advent wreath, the roast goose of Martinmas or otherwise. Embedded within all of this is a lesson which is particularly poignant: the power of customs and traditions.

Many customs and traditions are attached to the liturgical year and spring from it. These, like the liturgical year itself, have the power to teach and the power to delight and their presence is particularly formative in children and something that can be carried by children well into their adult lives. It became commonplace during the period of cultural revolution to downplay traditions as being stuffy and somehow restrictive, but in many ways it is precisely the opposite; they have the power to free us from the chains and drudgery of our day to day lives and remind us of things more lasting and timeless (which is something the philosopher Josef Pieper also reminds us about feasts and festivity in his wonderful work, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity). 

In point of fact, customs and traditions are very effective and powerful aids which assist us and, as such, I can only encourage people to build and foster such customs and traditions, and especially rediscover old one's. Times such as Christmas are particularly and strongly imbued with customs and traditions of course, but it is good to also bear in mind that there are all manner of customs and traditions to be shared, learned or experienced all throughout the year.

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Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
    On the Feast of Stephen;
When the snow lay round about,
    Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
    Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
    Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither page and stand by me,
    If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
    Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence.
    Underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence,
    By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh,and bring me wine,
    Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thouand I will see him dine,
    When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
    Forth they went together;
Through the rudewind’s wild lament,
    And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
    And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now how,
    I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page;
    Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
    Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
    Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
    Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
    Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
    Shall yourselves find blessing.

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