The second half of the year is without doubt my favourite. This is partly because, having lived most of my life in Southern California, the heat of Summer was something I longed for relief from—and Autumn promised it, even if relief only came in November! Even without New England’s gorgeously coloured leaves, the cooler temperatures, golden sunlight, and deep blue skies make late Autumn and Winter a magical time, even in Los Angeles; the rains turn the usually brown hillsides to an Irish green and awaken a blinding display of wildflowers in the nearby deserts. Despite my ideological objections to the ever-earlier “Holiday creep,” no one can deny that the successive Halloween, Christmas, and St. Valentine’s store decorations make shopping a pleasanter task. I love the Jack O’Lanterns, trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving Turkeys, Outdoor Christmas lights and displays, New Year’s Eve festivities, hearts and flowers, and ever-expanding Mardi-Gras commemorations that dominate the ending and beginning of the year.
But when all is said and done, it must be admitted that our American “Holiday Season,” enjoyable as it is, cannot really hold a candle—or even a candelabra—to the European manner of celebrating the feasts of this enchanting time. Part of the reason is that, despite the clustering of the population in cities, the omnipresence of farms and forests in between the major urban centres—and the relatively small size of most of them – ensure that the populace are at least geographically closer to these perennial sources of folk custom than is the case of many of their American counterparts. Another is that the lingering influence of Catholicism—even in lands with Protestant State churches—means that many of the feasts of the Church Year receive at least a modicum of recognition by the State authorities in a way that outside of Christmas and Easter is not really possible in most of the United States (Louisiana being one of the brilliant exceptions).
September and October in Europe are filled with innumerable harvest festivals and blessings of the fields; Michaelmas is a great holiday in many places—and even in England greeted with daisies and roast goose. If Halloween is an American import outside of the British Isles’ Celtic Fringe (wherein you’ll still find some very interesting observances), throughout Catholic and even much of Lutheran Europe the cemeteries are the places to be on All Saints Night and All Souls Day, with their innumerable beautiful candles. Catholic or Protestant, hounds shall be blessed and horns sound in churches across the Continent in honour of St. Hubert’s Day. November 11, with its sombre memories of the Great War, is festooned with red poppies, blue cornflowers, and forget-me-nots in Britain, France, and Germany. But it is also Martinmas, welcomed with goose and red wine—and in Central Europe, singing children illumine the night with paper lanterns and songs in honour of St. Martin. Every Scot keeps St. Andrew’s Day, while St. Nicholas in turn is welcomed on his feast day with his creepy companion (be he called Knecht Ruprecht, Zwart Piet, or Krampus) for the children’s rewards or punishments. The buildup to Christmas unleashes a cavalcade of local customs, but the candle-crowned girls on St. Lucy’s Day in Sweden with their morning coffee and cakes are among the most charming. The observances of Christmas Eve and Day vary not only from country to country but province to province and even town to town, with the gifts brought by figures ranging from Father Christmas to the Christ Child Himself. But the next too is kept well, whether one hunt the wren in Ireland or bless the horses in Hungary. New Year’s Eve and Day are also great times for celebration, with everything from telling fortunes with molten lead to giving more gifts to first-footing. But the Epiphany is a much bigger feast in Europe than America, with children again going singing from door to door in German-speaking lands, and the Three Kings and Befana bringing gifts in Spain and Italy. So it goes on, until the revelry of Candlemas and Carnevale.
Even so, it is not just Autumn and Winter that are heavy with such feasts; every season has them, from Ireland and Portugal to the Ural Mountains—indeed, they are celebrated with redoubled vigour in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism. Most, of course, are based like the ones we have looked at on the liturgical year, be it Latin or Byzantine, Gregorian or Julian. Nor is it only on the calendar that Christianity has left its mark in Europe. Every palace and castle has its chapel; every city and town has its cathedral or civic church. The abbeys—ruined or occupied—still mark the landscape, as do innumerable wayside shrines and holy wells. So too has the Faith marked the arts and literature of Europe, no matter how much artists and writers attempt to escape it. In a word, the identity of Europe is complete, utterly, and inescapably bound up with Christianity.
But herein lies a problem. It is certainly true that – as with American Christmas, Easter, and Halloween—it is possible to celebrate the many feasts of the European year without any faith, even as it is possible for American Supreme Court Justices to attend the annual Red Mass of the Holy Ghost in Washington, D.C., or innumerable British municipal bodies to have civic services or kirkins of the council offered on their behalf. It can all be, as American jurists have it—“civic Deism”—pretty rituals emptied of all religious or other meaning through endless repetition. Christmas can indeed be just about gifts, Easter about bunnies, and Martinmas about geese. Even in this meaningless practise, there is the feel-good rush of nostalgia, of revived feelings of good-will. Surely that is enough?
Much the same may be said about what has become a common form of right-wing politics in Europe—though not so much in America (although we did have it in such figures as H.L. Mencken, H.P. Lovecraft, and George Santayana). On the one hand, folk of this sort will declare their love of the culture and history of Europe and the West. They speak loudly of the danger to European civilisation from liberalism and Islam. Above all, they declare their respect for Christianity in general and often Catholicism, in particular, as the major influence upon and key ingredient in the formation of the European identity. They may even go so far as to avow their adherence to “Christian values.” Is this not sufficient?
Well, in both cases, it is certainly better than nothing. It is better than the cold secularising attitude that would remove Christ from Christmas and remove crucifixes from public buildings. But welcome as such an attitude is in some ways, it carries with it a hidden danger, which can be seen in the writings of such as the Frenchman Charles Maurras, the Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, the Italian Giovanni Gentile, and the Pole Roman Dmowski. Without minimising one iota of their brilliance; their many useful insights; nor their sincerity (which in several cases led eventually to their authentic embrace of the Faith); in the thought of each, there is a subtle danger. The danger, often and easily ignored by their Catholic adherents, is that in seeing Catholicism merely as the animating spirit of France, Spain, Poland, or Italy—essential to the well-being of the nation—they ended by entirely overturning both the Church’s mission and what she has actually meant for her daughter nations. Moreover, they made of the nation a sort of idol whose worship, like that of all idols, must end when the idol’s feet of clay are revealed.
The truth is in fact the reverse; rather than the Faith being of value to the degree that she is the spirit of the nation, the nation is of value to the degree that she incarnates the Faith. The Gesta Dei per Francos, Hispanidad, Poland’s, and other nations’ roles as the Antemurale Christianitatis; these and so many other key elements of the various European peoples’ identities during the Medieval and Modern periods depended upon the degree to which they had absorbed the Faith into their public and private life. The fight to maintain it against various varieties of soul-killing secularism—from Portugal’s Miguelists to Russia’s White Guards—really provided the historical and ideological foundations of Europe’s traditional Right. By the time the Soviet Union had fallen, so too, in virtually every country, had they.
Which brings us to our current era, dominated by a weird kind of left that—having successfully overturned Altar and Throne, is in full revolt against nature—against reality itself. But for all that our strange elites are fighting for a nullity, a pure negation, they are filled with a furious intensity. They cannot be defeated by anything less to an intensity surpassing their own. As recent events in Afghanistan has shown, Islam possesses such an intensity; many of its adherents scattered around Europe and North America have a similar burning desire to impose their version of the truth, for all that our leadership tries to assimilate them to our own emptiness.
To combat both the certainty of our elites and the fervour of the Muslims, those who wish to maintain the identity of Europe—both on the Mother Continent and across the Seas—must understand that a liking for the symptoms of Europe’s past greatness, no matter how lovely and profound, cannot by itself regain the ground we have lost nor maintain what remains. What motivated our fathers to build the great civilisation we have inherited, to defend it over centuries, and to expand it across the globe must be our motivation as well. Do not be fooled; what ultimately impelled them was not mere greed for conquest or lust for gold. All cultures have that. What set our fathers apart from the rest of Mankind was their religion, pure and simple. It was Charlemagne’s armies that defeated the Saxons, to be sure; it was the faith they brought that made the Saxon chief Widukind first a monk—and then a Saint.
It might well be argued that the modern European has come too far to do this; his is too rational. Such rationality is itself irrational. Christ brought certain teachings, established Sacraments, and founded a Church to dispense them. Over time His followers spread it over the world, and formed a family of nations thereby. But He did not merely speak, nor did He just die on the Cross; He resurrected, and every step of the way, He peppered His teaching with miracles. These have continued until the present day—as the six Eucharistic miracles scientifically tested over the past quarter-century bear witness to. But all over Europe there are shrines dedicated to various miraculous events wrought by Him, His Mother, and His Saints. These should be approached not as museums or as cultural artefacts, but as places where what we are taught is impossible has actually happened, whether we like it or not. I recall contemplating the miraculous Host at Hasselt Belgium—a slightly off-white wafer in a monstrance. It bears a brown stain, attributed to its bleeding back in 1317. As I gazed at it, I realised that it was not in an air-tight container. To put it bluntly, it has no right to exist. Yet there its sits, demurely looking upon those who venerate it as it has for over seven centuries. In truth, if we know what we are looking at, Old Europe’s scenery, culture, and history shrieks the Divinity of Christ to the skies—but we need to be humble and sane enough to hear it.
One easy way to cultivate the humility and sanity we need is to celebrate the upcoming festivals rightly and well. Do let us revel in all the outward observances we are used to; but let’s read up about Ss. Martin and Nicholas as we eat our goose and leave the children gifts. By all means, we should enjoy the harvest festivals and drive the children around to gaze in wonder at the Christmas lights—but let us also attend the respective Church liturgies, meditating upon the Lord of the Harvest, His Godhood, and what His becoming man to redeem each of us really means. If we do so, not only shall our joy in them become ever more intense, we shall be steeled to face—and perhaps excel in—whatever the challenges the defence of our heritage calls us to.
Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.