History

Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying

Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

A Quick Overview of Thanatology

Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.

Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.

Religious Beliefs and the Death System

When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:

  • Predicting and warning about death
  • Caring for dying individuals
  • Creating funerary customs and practices
  • Consolation for living family members
  • Making sense of death
  • Determining any morals and ethics of killing

Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.

One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.

Thanatology in Canada

While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.

For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.

Religious Fasting: Understanding an Old Practice
Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Food is more than just sustenance for our bodies. A shared meal is an opportunity for social connection, and we naturally associate some dishes with comfort and well-being. Its preparation can be elevated to an art form, with the resulting cuisine a luxurious sensory experience. Yet at various times during the year, many people willingly give up food for short periods of time. Why do they do this? Learning about fasting and the reasons behind it may help us understand this practice.

What Is Fasting? It Depends on Who You Ask

Cultural Awareness International offers a quick summary of fasting. This custom is observed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim people as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, and those in the Baha’i faith. CNN’s Drew Kann explains that repentance and atonement are key themes, such as in Judaism’s 25-hour Yom Kippur fast. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast to exercise self-control, focus on spiritual things, and practice gratitude by providing food to those in need. Some Hindus fast to purify themselves and their bodies. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions fasting as part of purification rituals in some Indigenous societies.

Christian fasting customs vary according to each denomination. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs the faithful to participate each Friday as well as on Ash Wednesday during Lent. The USCCB defines fasting as abstaining from meat and eating one regular meal plus two smaller food portions that are each less than half of a standard meal. Patheos editor Terry Mattingly reveals that it can take on many forms in different sects:

  • Eliminating certain foods, such as meat and dairy
  • Eating no food but consuming liquids
  • Skipping food and drink from dawn until dusk
  • Absolute intake avoidance, cutting out both solid food and liquids

Most belief systems have rules and restrictions for fasting. Exempt individuals include those who are sick, elderly, pregnant, menstruating, traveling, or have conditions such as diabetes or heart failure.

Fasting and Spiritual Enlightenment

Many religious traditions contain stories about revered figures who fasted to repent for sin, purify themselves, or achieve a closer connection to their deities. According to Gospel accounts, Jesus endured temptations while forgoing food and drink for 40 days and nights. Others include St. Catherine of Siena and English mystic Margery Kempe. In contemporary times, some New Age practitioners and celebrities embark on sabbaticals during which they avoid eating or drinking. Self magazine writer Korin Miller recounts Ashton Kutcher’s seven-day fast on a trip to Big Sky, Montana. Kutcher reported that he began having hallucinations early in his ordeal.

Attempts to achieve altered states of consciousness aren’t new. They’re a cornerstone of shamanic and mystic traditions around the globe. Yale University’s Explaining Human Culture project mentions that fasting has been used to induce visions, trances, or prophetic dreams. How can a lack of food change our mental perceptions? Livestrong’s Allison Stevens points to possible stupor and delirium triggered by chemical imbalances, and NPR’s Susan Brink cites hallucinations as one symptom of late-stage starvation. Yet short periods with limited food intake may have some benefits, as Healthline discusses. These include improved blood sugar and boosted brain functioning, which could account for reports of increased mental sharpness from some individuals who fast.

Know Your Limitations

Many belief systems around the world include fasting in their traditions. While these faiths name a variety of reasons for the custom, most emphasize achieving deeper spiritual connections or understanding the sacrifices others have made. In the meantime, it’s important to take stock of both your physical and mental well-being before attempting to restrict your intake. While physical actions can be of great spiritual importance, it is our minds and hearts that receive their benefits.

 

Consecrated Women in the Ancient Greco-Roman World
Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

In December 2018, BBC News reported on the atypical wedding of an American Catholic named Jessie Hayes. Her ceremony had many traditional trappings such as a wedding dress, a ring, and a veil. The unusual part about this celebration was its purpose: to become a literal bride of Christ. Yet, swearing off marriage and sexuality isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles and religious orders in older pre-Christian cultures predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins

Sworn to decades of faithful service, vestal virgins provided divine service to the goddess Vesta. The Ancient History Encyclopedia reveals that some ancient writers traced the founding of their order to the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who reigned between 717 and 673 B.C.E. Apparently, he intended them as a state-supported group of priestesses who earned salaries from Rome’s public treasury. Since Vesta was a goddess of the hearth and home, these priestesses were given reverence and held a special place in Roman society.

Chosen when they were between 6 and 10 years old, consecrated virgins each took a vow of chastity and served for 30 years. They would tend the sacred fire located within Vesta’s shrine in the Roman Forum. They also cared for religious objects, prepared food for ritual use, and officiated during the Vestalia feasts lasting between the 7th and 15th of June. These women were free to marry when their terms expired, yet few did so because most men believed it would bring bad luck. Consequently, most continued serving in the temple until they died or were too ill to perform their duties.

The Oracle of Delphi

While the vestal virgins were selected at young ages, some older women served in vital religious roles in ancient Greece. History Answers contributor Alice Barnes-Brown discusses the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. The local shrine was built on a spot thought to house the carcass of a gigantic slain serpent called Python. Fumes would emit from below, causing powerful trances during which the god Apollo possessed an individual. Considering the critical nature of his knowledge, his ancient devotees believed that one trustworthy individual should communicate it to others.

Residing at the Oracle during the nine warmest months of the year, the Pythia washed in the revered Castalian Spring. Another Ancient History Encyclopedia piece discloses that she would descend to the adyton chamber below the temple, filled with smoke from burning laurel leaves and barley meal. Seated on a cauldron suspended over a deep crack within the earth, she’d inhale rising vapors and prophesize. Scientists aren’t sure what caused her religious visions, but a Live Science piece proposes possibilities such as a lack of oxygen or the presence of ethylene, methane, or benzene gases. The ethylene theory is popular because of its sweet aroma, which matches ancient descriptions of visits to the Oracle.

Like the vestal virgins, the Pythia was honored by those who sought her guidance. Barnes-Brown explains that young chaste women were originally selected to serve in this role. However, sexual assaults by male visitors led religious authorities to later choose older women for the position. These candidates were over the age of 50 and were former Delphi temple priestesses. Even so, any upstanding female Delphi resident could be selected. Donning traditional virginal garments, every Pythia renounced her ties to her former family, marriage, and home.

Sacred and Set Apart

Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins are familiar to modern Western societies. Nevertheless, these groups have precedents in the ancient Mediterranean world. Vestal virgins served the goddess Vesta and the Roman state while older women gave up their former lives to serve as Delphi’s Oracle. Both prove that some spiritual concepts in the human consciousness never go away.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“Two-Spirit”: A Modern First Nations Concept
The modern term “Two-Spirit” is being used by some Indigenous peoples to speak to their experiences where gender, sexuality and spirituality intersect.

The modern term “Two-Spirit” is being used by some Indigenous peoples to speak to their experiences where gender, sexuality and spirituality intersect.

Prior to European exploration and colonization, some First Nations civilizations in Canada had less restrictive definitions of gender and sexuality. In several of these pre-colonial cultures, queer and transgender individuals made integral contributions. The modern term “Two-Spirit” is being used by some Indigenous peoples to speak to their experiences where gender, sexuality and spirituality intersect along with the histories of the special roles that many LGBTQ Indigenous peoples held within their tribes.

Contemporary Origins of the “Two-Spirit” Term

As the Canadian Encyclopedia details, “Two-Spirit” is a translation of the Ojibwa words “niizh manidoowag.” Manitoba First Nations activist Albert McLeod is credited with first developing the term, suggesting that it could refer to the Indigenous LGBTQ community at a 1990 meeting of the Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference. After its positive reception at that event, the “Two-Spirit” concept began to catch on within many First Nations communities, and its usage slowly spread to groups in the United States over the next two decades.

LGBTQ People in Pre-Colonial First Nations Communities

Since each First Nations society in pre-colonial Canada possessed its own views on gender, sexuality and spirituality, the definitions used and the roles assigned to LGBTQ people would have vastly differed from tribe to tribe. The Canadian Encyclopedia does list a few examples from these cultures, such as the Cree terms “napêw iskwêwisêhot” and “iskwêw ka napêwayat” that refer to “men who dress like women” and “women who dress like men,” respectively.

Each society defined its own sets of roles assumed by queer and gender variant members. For example, people initially considered male at birth might have donned “feminine” clothing and assisted with weaving, cooking and crafting, while others normally assigned female at birth may have worn “male” apparel and joined the men of the tribe in hunting, healing and protective duties. Writing for the Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society, Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn document that some groups performed rituals for children demonstrating these kinds of behaviors before puberty. At times, some civilizations believed they were powerful individuals who might be able to perform specific functions:

  • Heal
  • Prophesy
  • Provide spiritual guidance
  • Sing sacred songs
  • Intercede on behalf of their people with the gods

Difficulties With Historical Sources

Many sources speaking about the “Two-Spirit” phenomenon may disagree with each other for a variety of reasons. Indigenous peoples have elucidated that not every pre-colonial American culture treated its LGBTQ members in the same ways. When each culture ascribed special statuses to queer and trans folk, this may have required specific processes undertaken by tribal leadership, as a 2006 New York Times piece clarifies.

Moreover, journalist Mary Annette Pember explains in a 2016 Rewire article that documentation of “Two-Spirit” traditions in Native societies was often written by non-Native individuals who lacked a deep understanding of the groups they observed, combining concepts and treating all these groups as if they were a single monolithic culture. She also emphasizes that “Two-Spirit” was developed in a modern context and that many LGBTQ First Nations people find it difficult to reconnect with their histories, thanks to the destruction of their heritage and older queer and trans Indigenous peoples remaining “in the closet” out of fear.

Recovering Lost Legacies

As Indigenous peoples in North American have contended with violence, the destruction of their families, cultural erasure, the loss of their tribal lands and even extinction, they have also attempted to retain or reconstruct their heritages. As part of these efforts, some LGBTQ First Nations people embrace the term “Two-Spirit.” While documentation is incomplete when it comes to the roles that queer and trans people used to play within their tribes, modern LGBTQ Indigenous individuals have used the “Two-Spirit” concept to create spaces of mutual support, forge identities and try to recover what has been lost.

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 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.

Wedding Invitations in the Digital Age
Do a little research and planning to decide if digital wedding invitations are right for your wedding.

Do a little research and planning to decide if digital wedding invitations are right for your wedding.

The vast array of available digital technologies includes many useful tools for planning and executing a beautiful, well-organized wedding celebration. You’ve got loads of options for contacting vendors, mapping out your ceremony’s program, shopping for essentials and more. With all these handy conveniences, it’s easy to wonder if the paper wedding invite is going the way of the dinosaur. Surprisingly, the paper versus digital wedding invitations debate rages on, with fans on both sides of the aisle emphasizing the benefits of each method.

A Quick History of Written Wedding Invites

During the Middle Ages, only upper-class families issued paper wedding invitations. With a mostly illiterate population in Europe, these major social events would usually be heralded by a town crier. Another common method of notifying a community was the banns, or public announcements within individual churches about upcoming nuptials. Their original purpose was to ensure that canonically or legally invalid marriages did not take place. Remember the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part of the ceremony? According to The Spruce writer Nina Callaway, that phrase is derived from the Christian “Book of Common Prayer,” but this may have been intended as a last-minute catchall for anyone who wanted to raise serious objections to an impending marriage.

While the development of lithography techniques during the late 1700s laid the groundwork for our modern versions, announcements were still delivered by messengers on horseback. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that printed invitations became standard practice, thanks partially to middle-class families borrowing traditions from the rich as well as the advent of etiquette mavens such as Emily Post. As these took root in American popular practices, they also quickly spread to Canada.

The Pros and Cons of E-Invitations

As engaged couples look for ways to streamline their wedding planning and cut back on their expenses, some eye traditional paper invitations as candidates for the chopping block. Huffington Post contributor Erica Laudon reviewed some of the typical benefits that digital versions offer:

  • Low-cost or no-cost invitations
  • Reduced paper usage for a “greener” wedding
  • Enhanced design options yield beautiful visual layouts

However, Laudon cautions that several factors may necessitate the use of printed stationery instead. Most etiquette experts strongly suggest utilizing paper invites, especially for more formal affairs. Additionally, digital invitations may not be accessible for elderly guests, and the traditional folks in your crowd could consider the practice offensive. Furthermore, you lose the capability to address your invite to specific individuals, which makes situations such as child-free weddings much harder to navigate. Finally, the news of your blessed event might get lost in the almighty spam filter.

The Best Option for Your Wedding 

Should you take the plunge and go paperless? That largely depends on the formality level of your event and the type of people on your guest list. If most of your crowd is computer-savvy, you have email addresses for the specific folks you want to invite, and you’re going for a semi-formal or casual feel, it can probably work well. Wedivite advises that you follow the same guidelines for paper invites, sending them at least six to eight weeks prior to your event. For destination nuptials, hit the “send” button at least three months in advance. If you don’t hear from your invitees after about two weeks, follow up with a phone call.

Modern technology has revolutionized many aspects of planning your nuptials. Wedding invitations are a trickier issue, with most etiquette experts promoting the use of traditional paper versions. Nevertheless, digital invites may still be an option if you’re trying to lower costs and make your wedding eco-friendly. For a straightforward, less formal event with a tech-friendly guest list, paperless invites might be a smart move.

 

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.

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 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.