Evangelism or Colonization? Lingering Questions After Missionary John Allen Chau’s Death
The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate.
The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate. Some blame Chau for his own demise, pointing to the tribe’s desire to be left alone and his disregard of Indian laws restricting visitation to the island. Meanwhile, a few others regard him as a martyr for his faith. Alongside these comments, larger questions are being raised about the ethics of missionary work. To understand the reasons behind these critiques, it’s vital to learn about the history of missions and how they’ve influenced cultures around the world.
A Brief Overview of Christian Missions
The Encyclopedia Britannica places the beginnings of Christian missionary work during the first century C.E. Paul of Tarsus and his fellow believers managed to spread the fledgling faith outside of Judea into Asia Minor, southern Greece, and then ancient Rome. Eventually, Christian missionaries reached some areas of Europe such as the British Isles, Holland, and Germany. Meanwhile, rulers such as Charlemagne imposed the faith upon their conquered populations. Over the next few centuries, European expeditions backed by both monarchs and the Roman church attempted to expand the reach of their faiths and empires.
Missionary Work’s Dark History in Canada
Emory University’s ScholarBlogs reveals that the “white man’s burden” concept focused on colonialist advancement by “civilization, commerce, and Christianity.” Thus, religion became a tool by which European morals were forced upon native populations while promoting the exploitation of lands, resources, and peoples throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to early Christian missions among Canadian Indigenous peoples as an “ostensible motive for European occupation.” Facing History and Ourselves cites Indian residential schools as a salient example of how First Nations civilizations were impacted in horrific ways. History reveals that these government-funded church-run institutions sought to replace Indigenous children’s cultures with a “civilized” Western version. Children at the residential schools were forbidden to speak their original languages or engage in their native cultural and religious traditions.
Understanding Chau’s Motives
One telling detail about John Allen Chau’s motives may come from his own journal. A CNN article published on November 23 revealed that he questioned whether North Sentinel Island was “Satan’s last stronghold.” Chau may have believed that he should obey what many Christians call “the Great Commission,” or the act of spreading Jesus’s teachings and making disciples. Yet many sources, including ABC News and The Root, report that Chau’s explicit purpose was to convert the Sentinelese islanders.
Several Protestant evangelical sects consider the Great Commission as an imperative that every Christian must follow, but modern thinkers wrestle with deeper questions about the meaning of this directive. Patheos columnist Paul Louis Metzger opined that modern missionaries must avoid colonizing by educating individuals instead of moralizing and oppressing them. Saba Imtiaz also describes how some progressive Christian denominations emphasize humanitarian aid rather than proselyting in a March 2018 article for The Atlantic.
Still others argue that Christian missions and their colonialist histories cannot be separated from each other. Splinter News’ Luna Malbroux discusses why many black individuals are abandoning Christianity for traditional African religions, declaring that patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy are still evident in Christian cultures. Others point to modern-day societal impacts, such as American pastor Scott Lively’s influence on Ugandan laws prohibiting same-sex love.
Serious Questions and Important Lessons
In the past, the desire to Christianize native peoples led to staggering atrocities and abuses. Thanks to Christian missions’ linked history with colonial occupation, people are questioning whether missionary work has an appropriate place in our modern world. If nothing else, John Allen Chau’s death can impart important lessons about discretion, respect, and understanding the difference between sharing one’s faith and significantly transforming or obliterating other cultures.
An Overview of West African Religions in Canada
While African religions originating from West Africa don’t get a lot of press coverage, they’re critically important spiritual paths for many Canadians.
Around two-thirds of Canadians claim to be Christians, but our country’s religious landscape also contains many complexities and nuances. Our religious diversity in modern times has been forged from a fascinating and troubling history, a colonialist legacy with still lingering wounds, and new immigration changing our population’s makeup over the last several decades. While African religions originating from West Africa don’t get a lot of press coverage, they’re critically important spiritual paths in the lives of both newer arrivals and native-born black Canadians.
Roots in the Homeland
Before examining contemporary versions of the West African faiths practiced in Canada, one should understand the collection of civilizations from which these traditions sprang. Modern-day Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast were home to several groups:
- Akan cultures like the Ashanti, Chakose, and Fanti
- Yorubaland peoples
- The Fon people of the Dahomey kingdom
- Gbe-speaking groups such as the Ewe
- The Kaybe
As Encyclopedia Britannica explains, members of these civilizations all speak languages from several branches of the Niger-Congo linguistic family. Not only that, they evidence a wide range of beliefs that differ slightly within each culture but share some major similarities:
- The universe’s creation as a product of divine action
- The importance of revering and connecting spiritually with one’s ancestors
- Pantheons of deities or spirits that each govern various aspects of existence
- A chief deity respected and revered by other supernatural beings
- The ability of mortals to supplicate and request divine intervention
Tragedy and Transformation in the Americas
Sadly, the transatlantic slave trade is primarily responsible for bringing West African religions to Canada. While no exact statistics are available, UNESCO estimates that 17 million people were stolen from the region and sold as slaves in the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. These individuals were shipped to several colonized areas in the Caribbean, South America, and the territories that eventually became the United States. Many European governments issued decrees and laws such as Frances “Code Noir” that prevented slaves from practicing their original religions and customs in these colonies.
Nevertheless, black people found resourceful ways to continue the faiths of their homelands. As they were forced to convert to Catholicism and other sects of Christianity, they syncretized their original West African beliefs with the new religion, producing several variants:
- Vodou in Haiti and Louisiana
- Brazilian Candomblé
- Las 21 Divisionesin the Dominican Republic
- Cuban Santeria and Lukumí faiths
- Akan-based Kumfu religion in Jamaica
West African Religions in Modern Times
The African diaspora in Canada is comprised of several populations that include a significant contingent of Caribbean origin, descendants of those who fled the United States, and immigrants directly from Africa. While many of these individuals are Christians, some observe the West African faiths they brought with them, deriving strength and pursuing deeper meanings through community support and private religious practice. At the same time, they also encounter harmful misconceptions about their belief systems. For instance, a 2014 Canadian Dimension article discussed the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Vodou exhibit held that same year, revealing that the religion’s adherents fight racist stereotypes insisting that their cherished faith is “primitive devil worship.”
Looking to the Future
Followers of West African religions gain positive psychological and spiritual benefits while retaining connections with ancestral cultures, customs, and beliefs. Headlines south of the border reveal that some black individuals originally raised as Christians are ditching these faiths in favor of traditional African spiritual paths. Although it’s difficult to derive conclusions about future trends in Canada based on events occurring in the United States, it will be interesting to see if traditions such as Vodou, Lukumí, Candomblé or their original African versions gain new Canadian believers in the coming years.
Zoroastrianism, Abrahamic Religions and the End of the World
Some evidence suggests that the “end times” ideas in the three Abrahamic religions may have been influenced by an older system of thought: Zoroastrianism.
Although most individuals tend to think of religious doomsday-style predictions within a Christian context, you might be surprised to know that “the end of the world as we know it” doesn’t just exist in Christianity. Islam also has an anti-Christ figure, and some Jewish writings reference a final “Day of the Lord” in which the wicked are punished. However, some evidence suggests that the “end times” ideas in these three Abrahamic religions may have been influenced by an older system of thought: Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrian End Times Theology
The earliest manuscripts of Zoroastrianism’s chief apocalyptic text, the Zand-i Wahman Yasn, date to the early 15th century C.E. These writings describe several key events that the religion’s deity, Ahura Mazda, reveals to the prophet Zarathustra:
- A battle between good and evil
- The arrival of a savior figure known as the Saoshyant
- A resurrection of the dead
- The physical suffering of wicked people
- The righteous transformed into a divine, immortal state
- Humanity living as one under Ahura Mazda
Curiously, the state of the world prior to the Saoshyant’s arrival seems somewhat like what’s described in the Book of Revelation. Both writings describe worsening climate changes that lead to famine and nearly unlivable conditions on planet Earth. Also, each book insists that people’s deeds become increasingly wicked prior to good’s final showdown against evil.
Influences During the Babylonian Exile
If the Zand-i Wahman Yasn may have been written at least two millennia after Zarathustra’s lifetime, what are we to make of the possibility that “end times” concepts could have existed before the three main Abrahamic religions were even founded? To see the potential connections, it’s important to remember that Zarathustra himself lived and spread his teachings much earlier in human history. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that most scholars place his existence before the 6th century B.C.E., and BBC Religions writer Joobin Bekhrad mentions that he was likely alive between 1500 and 1000 B.C.E.
Both the ancient Greeks and the Jewish people of the Babylonian exile would have been exposed to his philosophies during the 6th century B.C.E., thanks to the Persian conquests of ancient Israel, Judea and Greece. In fact, it was the Greeks who gave him the moniker “Zoroaster” and helped propagate his notion that good and evil coexist as opposing forces. Along with this key concept, many of his other ideologies were eventually adopted by the three Abrahamic religions:
- Monotheism, or the existence of only one god
- Humans being either righteous or wicked
- Two spiritual destinations in the afterlife, Heaven and Hell
- The existence of angels and demons
- An adversarial figure who opposes God
- A final judgment determining the fate of every human for all eternity
During their captivity in Babylon from 598 to 538 B.C.E., Jewish exiles would have read and heard Zarathustra’s teachings. These trickled into their theology and culture around the same time that they impacted Hellenistic philosophies. From there, they would have been passed down into Christianity through New Testament writers such as Saint Paul and John of Patmos, who themselves may have also been influenced by Hellenistic ideas. Eventually, Islam would have inherited these same ideas, drawing from a similar ideological pool.
Its Eschatological Legacy Continues Today
Statistics Canada estimates there are only around 5,000 Zoroastrians in our country, and one of its last famous adherents, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991. Yet when we talk about the “end of the world” or fear Revelation-like conditions developing around us, we are rehashing ideas promoted by its ancient Iranian prophet over three thousand years ago. Its influences on religion and culture in the West are still apparent today thanks to his concepts leaking into the three major Abrahamic religions as well as Greek philosophies.
The Legend of Turtle Island
Studying the Turtle Island story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past as well as those in North America today.
Long before Canada became the country we know, Indigenous peoples flourished across the North American continent. From the Mi’kmaq groups near the shores of Cape Spear, to the Tlingit living around Mount Saint Elias, many distinct cultures descended from this land’s earliest inhabitants. As they developed into the Inuit and First Nations civilizations that were present when Europeans first arrived, some of these cultures told creation stories about a land known as Turtle Island. Studying the Turtle Island concept and story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past, as well as those in North America today.
The Origins of Turtle Island
Multiple Indigenous civilizations told stories in which the known world was called “Turtle Island.” The Turtle Island Native Network retells one common version from the Onondaga, one of the five original Iroquois nations. In many versions of the story, the ancient world is entirely comprised of oceans. Sky Woman falls through a hole in the heavens that was left behind from an uprooted tree. In their attempt to save her life, the creatures living in Earth’s waters dive deep beneath its surface to retrieve some dirt upon which she can stand. Turtle volunteers to carry the dirt on his back, completing Sky Woman’s rescue.
While the Iroquois versions are the most widely known, several other cultures’ mythos also contain Turtle Island stories:
- The Lenape people of the Northeastern Woodlands region
- Anishinaabe civilizations such as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi, and Algonquin
- Cheyenne cultures in the Great Plains region of the United States
While the concept of a massive turtle carrying the world on its back can also be found in older Sanskrit and Chinese texts, it holds the most prominent place among Indigenous American groups. Furthermore, the Mayans developed a similar myth about Zipacna, a conceited and violent oversized crocodile thought to carry their land on his back and cause volcanic and seismic activity as he moved. In contrast, Turtle Island legends tend to portray the giant turtles as helpful, benevolent beings.
Turtle Island in a Modern Context
Within the last few decades, “Turtle Island” has grown beyond a concept from Indigenous mythology and morphed into one with deeper symbolic meaning. Citing the desire to reclaim older cultural roots and acknowledge the sovereignty of Native civilizations prior to European colonialism, some use the term Turtle Island instead of North America. The America name originally derived from Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but there were Native civilizations living in these lands long before Vespucci started exploring. The Manataka American Indian Council explains that some Indigenous people also use the term “Niiji” to refer to themselves in place of the word “Indian,” the latter being a moniker mistakenly given to Natives by Europeans believing that they’d landed in India.
The term “Turtle Island” has fallen into more widespread use as it’s being increasingly linked to Indigenous civil rights and environmental activism. One example mentioned in a June 2017 CBC article cites a grassroots group of First Nations activists mentioning “a crisis situation…on Turtle Island.” The activists staged a protest, calling for Canadians to address deeper issues from assimilation, colonization, and colonialism as Canada Day approached. Additionally, Native organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and initiatives like the Turtle Island Solidarity Journey continue to focus on solutions to climate change while drawing attention to their connections to colonialism and environmental racism.
An Old Legend With New Interpretations
Indigenous cultures across North American either developed their own cosmogonic mythos to explain the universe’s origins or borrowed these beliefs from their neighbors. Within many of these civilizations, Turtle Island began as a creation story. With the impacts of European colonialism leading to both modern environmental concerns and civil rights issues, Turtle Island now holds potent symbolic meaning for many Indigenous people today.
Astrology 101: An Introduction
Astrology is gaining renewed interest in popular culture. To better understand these trends, it helps to have a basic knowledge of astrology itself.
A January 2018 piece in The Atlantic reveals that astrology is gaining renewed interest in popular culture, especially from adults under age 40. Astrology websites are seeing more traffic than ever, sun signs and horoscopes are rich meme fodder, and daily horoscopes are getting up to three times more readership than in decades past. So what gives? To better understand these trends, it helps to have a basic knowledge of astrology itself.
What Is Astrology?
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes astrology as a method of divination focused on observing and interpreting the positions of planets, stars, and the sun. Three different astrological systems are commonly used today:
- Western, based on Greek and Babylonian traditions
- Vedic, which relies on the idea that all things in the universe are linked
- Chinese, which assigns astrological signs to years instead of month-long periods
The early foundations of Western astrological practices come from “Tetrabiblos,” a text written by Greco-Roman astrologer Claudius Ptolemy during the second century B.C.E. Meanwhile, Vedic astrology takes its cues from 15th century B.C.E. text “Vedanga Jyotiṣa” and was possibly influenced later by Hellenistic thought. Chinese astrology draws from traditional philosophical ideas such as the five-elements theory and the yin-yang principle.
What Are Zodiac Signs?
You probably know about zodiac signs from the horoscopes or lists of personality traits you’ve read. What you may not know is that each sign corresponds with a constellation in the night sky, with most representing Greek mythological figures. Twelve signs appear in both the Western and Vedic zodiac systems, grouped into four categories by the classical Greek elements with which they’re associated:
- Fire: Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius
- Earth: Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn
- Air: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius
- Water: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces
These signs are also classified as cardinal, fixed, or mutable depending on when they fall during a season. For instance, Cancer is a cardinal sign for summer while Leo is fixed and Virgo is mutable. AstroStyle explains that cardinal signs are thought to initiate energy while fixed signs maintain it and mutable signs prepare for transitions into the following season.
Sun Signs and Horoscopes
The methodologies used to create horoscopes may vary, but most rely on a person’s sun sign plus the position of the moon and a couple of significant planets in the night sky to pen some general advice. Your “sun sign” is shorthand for the constellation in which the sun appeared when you were born. The sun’s place in the sky changes according to Earth’s position in orbit, causing it to travel through an ecliptic divided into the 12 zodiac signs. In the Vedic system, the ecliptic is placed according to the positions of fixed stars, while Western astrology places the ecliptic based on the position of the sun at the celestial equator during the spring equinox.
The duration of each sun sign lasts around 30 days, but the Vedic system’s year begins with Aries on April 14 while the same point in the Western version occurs on March 21. That’s why someone whose birthday is on August 14 would have been born under the sign of Leo in Western astrology but under Cancer in Vedic astrology.
Astrology’s Enduring Popularity
As Julie Beck writes in her piece for The Atlantic, astrology tends to be viewed by most as metaphorical rather than literal. Even those who don’t believe in it, Beck clarifies, may find useful explanations for trends and major life events. Referring to this as the “astrology is fake but it’s true” stance, she observes that it’s a common concept among people who can successfully hold paradoxical beliefs and seek organization, order, and meaning while living in chaos. Perhaps it’s yet more proof that with uncertain or dim futures ahead, the human tendency to look for hope in forces greater than oneself endures.
An Ancient Religion Struggles for Survival in Canada
The ancient religion of Zoroastrianism remains poorly understood by outsiders while continuing its fight for survival and relevance in the modern era.
Imagine a pre-Christian religion that is thousands of years old, originated within an ancient empire, and serves as the source of some important religious concepts that we take for granted. You might immediately guess that this description fits Hinduism or Buddhism. Yet both of those faiths count several hundred million believers all over the globe, while followers of the ancient religion just described number less than 200,000 worldwide. With less than 10,000 adherents in Canada today, Zoroastrianism remains poorly understood by outsiders while continuing its fight for survival and relevance in the modern era.
A Quick Crash Course on Zoroastrianism
This distinctive ancient religion originated with Zarathustra, a Persian religious thinker who was thought to have lived sometime during or before the sixth century B.C.E. Throughout his writings, he laid out a cosmology with several important elements:
- The existence of a benevolent creator deity, Ahura Mazdā
- A dualistic world with both good and evil
- The human capability of free will to choose a side
- Good’s eventual triumph over evil
These philosophies were expanded through later writings to include other concepts such as the existence of a destructive spirit known as Ahriman, a final judgment of all humanity, and an eternal afterlife. Some ideas influenced Judaism during the Babylonian exile, while others made their way into Islamic and Christian theologies.
Why Are There So Few Zoroastrians Left?
If asked to name a famous Zoroastrian, you’d probably struggle to find one. Freddie Mercury, the late front man for the British rock band Queen, was one high-profile believer familiar to many in the West. You’d likely have an easier time coming up with a name if you’re an Indian or Iranian Canadian, perhaps naming Bollywood actor and producer John Abraham or the late model and actress Persis Khambatta. While those two nations currently have the largest populations, with 69,000 and 25,000 respectively, estimates on the number of Zoroastrians in Canada vary. Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey counted around 6,100 while a 2016 CBC article cited 10,000 followers currently in our nation.
Either way, those are still relatively small numbers, but history may reveal why this is the case. As the Encyclopedia Britannica discloses, Zoroastrianism was a major ancient religion throughout Persia’s history until the Sasanian Empire fell. Between 629 and 640 C.E., the kingdom suffered several invasions from Islamic forces, including armies commanded by supporters of Muhammed. During the early years of Muslim rule in Iran, many Zoroastrians converted either by choice or force. Some groups opted to avoid persecution instead, leaving to settle in India during the 10th century C.E.
Canadian Zoroastrians Grapple With Faith and Inclusion
Canadian Zoroastrian communities discover that finding clergy and building temples remain salient concerns, as these elements are needed to serve their faithful as well as pass on and define traditions. Also, the Encyclopedia Iranica explains that there is no global hierarchy present, so local clerics wield supreme authority in each region when it comes to matters of doctrine. That includes the acceptance of converts, and stances on the issue can range from a liberal welcome to a refusal to even recognize the children of interfaith marriages as Zoroastrian. With traditionalists insisting that only those born into the religion can be members, growth proves to be an ongoing challenge.
Several historical and modern developments have contributed to the small numbers of Zoroastrians all over the globe. Thanks to conquest and persecution along with heated debates about accepting converts, some believe that this ancient religion’s future is in jeopardy. Although its legacy can be seen in vital ideas that were transformed into theological points within the three Abrahamic faiths, its Canadian followers continue to form strong communities while attempting to define key issues of their faith.
A Brief History of Religious Veiling
With current efforts to ban religious veiling in public, it is important to understand the history of this practice.
With several Western nations experiencing increases in Muslim immigration, one major issue rising to the surface is religious veiling. Depending on the type of Islam they practice and the countries from which they originate, Muslim women might opt for simple headscarves, veiling that obscures their heads and shoulders, or complete body coverings. Current public discourse has sometimes resulted in legislation to ban religious veiling in public. Against the backdrop of such fevered discussions, it’s important to understand Islam is not the only faith in which people wear veils. In fact, the origins of religious veiling can prove to be rather surprising.
Religious Veiling in the Ancient Middle East
Racked contributor Liana Aghajanian revealed in a December 2016 piece that women all over the world have been wearing some form of head covering for more than 3,000 years. For instance, the practice was common throughout the ancient Levant region as well as Greece, Rome and regions located in modern-day Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Rather than signifying any devotion to religious piety, they originally denoted that the women who wore them belonged to these societies’ upper classes. Aghajanian discloses the discovery of a 13th-century Assyrian text forbidding anyone other than aristocrats from donning veils. Working class women, slaves and other lower-class individuals faced legally prescribed punishments if they were caught wearing them.
Head Covering and Religion in the Modern Era
It isn’t immediately clear how head coverings became associated with religious modesty, but they were eventually adopted by women of all socioeconomic classes throughout the Middle East. Traditions from the three major Abrahamic faiths soon dictated that veils should be worn. The University of North Carolina’s Center for European Studies explains that some Jewish people interpret their faith’s “tzniuth,” or laws on modesty, to mean that women’s hair should be covered. While the Bible’s New Testament records no commandments issued by Jesus Christ concerning the issue, Saint Paul upheld the practice in his first letter to the Corinthian church.
Meanwhile, various sects of Islam actually disagree over religious veiling. CNN writer Abed Awad disclosed in a June 2015 write-up that the Quran never explicitly mentions the word “veil.” Additionally, there are two general schools of thought on the matter resulting from different interpretations of customs said to be handed from Aisha, one of Muhammed’s wives:
Veil everything except for the hands, feet and face upon reaching puberty.
It’s a good idea to wear veils, but they are not obligatory.
Bill 62: The Latest in Veil Legislation
Recent Canadian news includes reports about Quebec’s Bill 62, which initially required the province’s residents to show their faces to provide or receive any sort of public services. The Globe and Mail clarified in December 2017 that this law, which would have impacted aspects of daily life such as riding public transit and visiting libraries, was temporarily put on hold by the province’s Superior Court. The Quebec law is certainly not the first of its kind. The Guardian revealed in March 2017 that Europe has an almost decade-long history full of repeated attempts to regulate the practice of religious veiling, and debates over the issue rage on south of our border. While advocates of these regulations cite public security worries, pushback ensues based on concerns about religious discrimination as well as the safety of women who opt to cover their heads. Muslims also hold views on both sides of the issue, with some opining that such bans are fueled by Islamophobia while others support measures to outlaw face covering.
Several factors prove that the issue of religious veiling in public isn’t as cut and dry as one might be tempted to believe. Religion, personal freedom, public safety and concerns about racial and religious discrimination all play into the larger discussion. Since Statistics Canada predicts that the number of Muslims will significantly increase by the year 2036, public debate may continue for some years to come.
Santa Claus: A Religious Figure Transformed by Pop Culture
With roots in both religious folklore and pop culture, Santa Claus has come to dominate the season for countless children everywhere.
Every Christmas, children all over the world look forward to visits from Santa Claus, the season’s primary gift giver taking center stage in much of our pageantry. Who is this mysterious bearded legend, and why is he such an integral part of Canadian winter holiday celebrations? His roots in both religious folklore and pop culture may surprise you.
A Gift-Giving Man of Many Names
This red-suited modern myth goes by a wide variety of monikers: Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas, to name a few. The first is an American-derived nickname, arising from the German “Christkind” tradition, that became well-known in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Popularized by Protestant religious reformer Martin Luther, the Christkind is usually described as an infant-like version of Jesus delivering gifts to children. Meanwhile, Father Christmas was a British figure meant to symbolize feasting and good cheer. It’s the last name, however, that reflects his tale’s beginnings in Byzantine Christianity. The Encyclopedia Britannica divulges what is currently known about the original Saint Nicholas:
- He was probably born in Lycia, a small region on the southern coast of modern Turkey.
- This religious figure was likely the bishop of Myra during the fourth century C.E.
- Saint Nicholas may have attended the first Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
- Italian sailors discovered part of his skeleton in 1087 C.E.
The Byzantine Bishop and His Service to the Poor
In Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and several other Christian denominations, Nicholas of Myra was revered as a saint. His entry on Biography.com includes stories of his generosity, such as repeatedly sharing from his sizable inheritance with poor and sick individuals. There’s also the most well-known tale depicting him as an elderly bishop, sneaking into the home of three poor sisters and leaving them a large bag of money to pay for their dowries. Legend insists that without this sizable sum, the trio would have been unable to wed, and their only alternative would have been to enter the sex trade.
How Did Saint Nicholas Turn Into the Santa Claus of Pop Culture?
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, December 6 was widely celebrated as a feast day by Catholics in Europe. It retained its importance in Holland, however, where children put out their shoes the night before in hopes that “Sinterklaas” would leave presents inside them. Immigrants brought these customs to the Americas. However, it wasn’t until a couple of centuries ago that the Byzantine bishop shifted into the scarlet-clad chimney-descending immortal, thanks to a few significant pieces of American pop culture.
The first linkage between the aged bishop and the sleigh-driving benefactor occurred in 1823 when a United States newspaper published “Account of a Visit From Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” This narrative poem regales its readers with the story of a nighttime visit from St. Nick, describing him as a “right jolly old elf” with a “round belly” that “shook like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughed. History.com discloses that the poem inspired political cartoonist Thomas Nast to draw this figure. In 1881, American and Canadian readers were treated to Nast’s vision of a chubby, white-bearded St. Nick making his rounds in a red suit and carrying a sack of toys for children.
“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”
Today, Santa Claus is an indelible part of our holiday traditions alongside other pop culture customs such as wintertime light festivals, roasted geese, Christmas trees and Boxing Day. Most of us discover in our childhood that this jolly old red-wearing elf is a myth. Whether or not you consider Santa Claus’ religious origins important, Saint Nicholas himself can illustrate the important principle of charity that so often gets forgotten during the hustle and bustle of the season.
The Christian and Pagan Roots of Halloween
Halloween blends Pagan and Christian traditions.
Halloween is a billion-dollar industry in Canada, ranking only second behind Christmas among profitable holidays. As with many modern holidays, it appears to be a mingling of Christian religious observances and Celtic pre-Christian traditions originating in an older festival known as Samhain. So where does Samhain end and Halloween begin? Keep a dish of sweet treats nearby to nosh on as you read through the mysteries behind this popular spooky celebration.
Is Halloween a Celtic Import?
The Canadian Encyclopedia reveals that Halloween’s most popular traditions came to North America sometime in the 1800s. The first documented instance in Canada of costume wearing occurred in Vancouver in 1898, while “trick or treat” was first recorded in Alberta in 1927. The Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry further suggests that these customs likely migrated here with Irish and Scottish immigrants. South of the border, the United States Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center appears to back up the assertion that Halloween came to us from Celtic Europe, with its observance rooted in older Samhain practices.
Samhain: A Time for Harvests and Spirits
The modern Irish term “Samhain” (pronounced “SOW-in”) refers to end-of-harvest revelries. It’s hard to ascertain when ancient Celts began marking the end of autumn, but the oldest documented example appears in Irish literature from around the 10th century C.E. Prior to that, Irish mythology mostly existed as spoken word traditions. Samhain’s festivities were held starting at sundown on October 31 and ending at dusk on November 1, a date that originally lined up with the Celts’ New Year. It’s also one of the four major seasonal holidays, along with Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh, on the ancient Celtic calendar.
Besides heralding the arrival of the cold season, these pre-Christian Celtic peoples believed that the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead thinned at Samhain, allowing the souls of the dead to enter the waking world. Bonfires were lit to honor them and encourage their return to the Otherworld, a vast supernatural plane in which fairies, demons, deities and departed souls dwelled. Because these beings were thought to wander around on Samhain, offerings of food and drink were left out so that they’d leave the living alone.
Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve
Multiple sources have pointed to Catholicism’s adoption of pagan holidays into its own liturgical calendar. For instance, the December 25 date of Christmas also coincides with older celebrations of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and mid-winter celebrations across the rest of Europe. The American Folklore Center remarks that Pope Gregory I actively sought to absorb older customs and celebrations from non-Christian cultures in hopes of converting more people.
As Church leaders demonized native Celtic beliefs and condemned their Druids as devil worshippers, the All Saints feast was also moved to November 1. The day before became known as All Hallows’ Eve, yet the association of October 31 and November 1 with the mythology of Samhain never completely faded. Older Celtic practices of playing pranks, wearing disguises to confuse the dead and leaving out treats to mollify malicious spirits continued.
Modern-Day Celebrations in Canada
While some fundamentalist Christians condemn Halloween as evil, the Canadian Encyclopedia disclosed that 68 percent of Canadians participate in its festivities every year. Followers of Celtic Neopagan spiritual paths might mark the day with bonfires, magical and ritualistic celebrations, and gatherings with friends and family. Moreover, the people who buy candies, dress up for trick or treat and throw Halloween parties come from many different faiths. With pagan and Christian contributions to the modern holiday and the childlike wonder and fun it can bring, there’s little surprise as to why it remains popular with Canadians in the 21st century.
How Catholicism Shaped Canadian History
The Catholic faith has played a large role in shaping Canada’s culture and history.
Like other nations in the Americas that began as former European colonies, Canada’s history has been largely defined by exploration and conquest, along with the establishment of religious missionaries. The last National Household Survey revealed that Catholics make up 38.7 percent of Canada’s population, a testament to the legacy of Catholicism in our country. Indeed, the Catholic faith has played a large role in shaping its culture and history.
Did It Begin With John Cabot’s Arrival?
Chronicles of America disclosed that Venetian explorer John Cabot, better known to some as Giovanni Caboto, landed in northeastern Canada in 1497. Depending on who you ask, Cabot’s ship landed in either Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Newfoundland, Labrador or even the northeastern part of the United States. In either case, his Biography entry reveals that he claimed the territory for King Henry VII of England. Some sources insist that he also raised banners for his home nation of Venice and for the Pope, but some of Cabot’s story has been lost to history and remains in the domain of speculation today.
Samuel de Champlain and French Catholic Settlement
French navigator and geographer Samuel de Champlain left his own mark on Canadian history as the first to make an accurate map of its eastern coastline. In 1608, he established a Catholic colony that eventually became our modern-day Quebec City. A few years later, he founded a fur trading post and Catholic colony on the Island of Montreal. Known as “the Father of New France,” he spent his time in Canada creating trading opportunities, charting new areas, and furthering relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
The Canadian Encyclopedia explains that several Catholic orders came to Canada later in the 1600s, including Franciscans and Jesuits. While the French Canadian Catholic Church’s focus was first on evangelizing Indigenous peoples, it soon had to turn its attention to the growing population of French settlers. With the establishment of parishes and other institutions, the first diocese was formed in Quebec in 1674, and Catholicism had firmly established itself in the region.
British Impacts on Canadian Catholicism
During the same period in which French Canada was developing as a Catholic territory, British Catholics were creating their own presence in Newfoundland. In 1620, George Calvert established the Avalon colony, in which a Catholic ministry was founded by two priests. As part of Avalon’s first charter, Calvert included the concept of religious tolerance to allow all residents, including Catholics, to practice their faiths freely.
However, British influence would not fully play out until the Seven Years’ War and French Canada’s conquest. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which converted New France over to British rule. The years that followed proved to be somewhat contentious for both French Canadian Catholics and their new British Protestant neighbors. French Catholics worried about conversion attempts from English Protestants, but the right to openly practice their religion was included in the terms of surrender. These liberties were further secured in the Quebec Act of 1774.
Irish Immigration Adds Further Complexities
Irish Catholics began migrating to Canada in the second half of the 17th century. This would set the stage for the later battle over French-language schools in the nation. Siding with Canadian Protestants, Irish Catholics opposed the use of French in public educational institutions, while French Catholics remained staunchly in favor of it. This heated debate led to legislation such as Ontario’s Regulation 17. As TVO revealed, it was enforced until 1927 and repealed in 1944. Moreover, full public funding to French-language schools was not instituted until 1968.
Catholicism’s Legacy in Canada
From initial settlement, to questions of religious freedom, to a battle between cultures, the history of Catholicism in Canada is a long and complex one. Our nation’s religious makeup, the monuments left behind by earlier settlers and even modern public policies all display evidence of its legacy.