“Discovery of the True Cross” by Agnolo Gaddi (14th century)
I saw glory’s tree honored with trappings,
shining with joys, decked with gold;
gems had wrapped that forest tree worthily round.
— from “The Dream of the Rood” trans. Jonathan A. Glenn (1982)
Many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—also known as Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas†—each year on September 14th. Holy Cross Day commemorates both the discovery of the True Cross in 320 A.D., and the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 A.D.1
Although this feast day was established at the end of the seventh century, its roots lie in the early fourth century, when Saint Helena embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in an attempt to discover the True Cross—the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.2
st. helena’s pilgrimage
St. Helena, who was in her sixties when she made her pilgrimage, had begun her life as a pagan but converted to Christianity later in life, possibly due to the influence of her son, Emperor Constantine I. Constantine fundamentally changed the course of history in 313 A.D. with his issuing of the Edict of Milan, an agreement that gave full religious liberty to Christians.3 Prior to the Edict, Christianity had been illegal and Christians had been subjected to terrible persecutions.
According to the Greek historian Eusebius, at the time that St. Helena arrived in Jerusalem there was a pagan temple dedicated to Venus lying at the top of the hill of Calvary (otherwise known as Golgotha), the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. Helena ordered the pagan temple to be destroyed and an excavation to be undertaken at that location. Three crosses were discovered buried some twenty feet under the ground, but it was unclear which was the True Cross (two other men had been crucified alongside Jesus).4 Legend says that Helena touched each of the three crosses to the body of a terminally ill woman—the wood that healed her was identified as the True Cross.5 Helena took some fragments of the True Cross with her when she returned to Rome.
the building of the basilica
Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the newly-discovered site of Christ’s tomb, which was completed and dedicated on 14 September 335 A.D. The church was damaged by fire in the early seventh century. and subsequently destroyed during the rule of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1009 A.D. Reconstruction began about twenty years later, and concern about the long-term safety of the church and the city of Jerusalem played a role in the crusades of the Middle Ages. Though the building and the city changed hands numerous times over the centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has always served as an important site for Christian pilgrims, and today it remains a popular landmark in Jerusalem for visitors of all faiths.6
celebrate with children
Dear Lord, help us to treasure your cross above all things, and honor it in all the small crosses you ask us to carry as we follow you.
—from The Queen & The Cross
Holy Cross Day is a great opportunity to talk with children about Christ’s great love and willing sacrifice, and perhaps to discuss the cross as a Christian symbol. At our house we will be reading a book called The Queen and the Cross: The Story of Saint Helen, written by Cornelia Mary Bilinsky and illustrated by Rebecca Stuhff, which tells the story of St. Helena’s journey to Jerusalem and what she found there. We’ll also be painting unfinished wooden wall crosses that the children can put up in their bedrooms. Although typically baked on Good Friday, hot cross buns are also a perfect food to prepare for Holy Cross Day. Here’s a quick and easy recipe (no yeast involved!):
Hot Cross Buns, adapted from Cooks.com
For the buns
1 c whole wheat or all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 c raisins
1/3 c milk
For the frosting
1/2 c confectioners sugar
2 tsp milk
1/4 tsp vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter with a fork or pastry cutter until it looks like coarse crumbs. Add honey, cinnamon, and raisins and stir gently to mix. Make a well in middle and pour in milk. Stir quickly with a fork and form a ball.
3. Divide dough into 6 round buns and place on greased baking sheet. Cut a deep cross through the top of each bun. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
4. While buns are baking, mix together confectioners sugar, milk, and vanilla. When buns are done, let them cool slightly, and then apply frosting in the shape of a cross on the top of each bun.
†Rood, from Old English rōd, crucifix, pole
1 “Exaltation of the Holy Cross” by Fr. Don Miller, OFM, www.FranciscanMedia.org
2 “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” www.CatholicNewsAgency.org, 9/14/17
3 “313 The Edict of Milan” by David F. Wright, www.ChristianityToday.com
iv “The Finding of the Cross,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.CCEL.org
v “Helen,” The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints by Tessa Paul (Lorenz Books, 2014), p 94
v “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” www.ChurchoftheHolySepulchre.net
For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then the butterfly rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life too much,” it said, and vanished into the world.
Lent—that penitential season of the Church year that precedes Easter— has arrived, and I thought it might be nice to offer some ideas for observing this special time with children. Below you’ll find two crafts focused on the concept of metamorphosis, which I feel works really well as a metaphor for the Easter story, that is, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also serves to illustrate the central tenet of our faith: Like the mystery of the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection makes it possible for all of us to be transformed into something magnificent and beautiful, too.
Lent & Easter Garden
Creating an Easter garden with children is a wonderful way to experience the miracle of the Resurrection. At the beginning of Lent, or anytime before Holy Week, fill a shallow planting dish with garden soil, then add rocks, a twig for a “tree,” and a small clay cave to the scene. On Maundy Thursday, sprinkle some wheatgrass seeds on the soil, cover with another layer of soil, and water generously (keep moist by watering daily). On Good Friday have children make a caterpillar from clay, wrap it in gauze, and place it in the cave. On Easter morning, parents can replace the caterpillar with a beautiful tissue paper butterfly. The wheatgrass seeds should pop up right on time—the dead and empty garden will burst into life overnight.
Lent Vine Table Runner
To construct this table runner, you will need a piece of thick, white fabric (I used a small linen table runner I bought at a discount store), a few colors of green plus some black acrylic paint, a paintbrush, and a smooth, flat rock of some kind. Paint a green vine with green leaves, sweeping back and forth from side to side, with one leaf for each of the forty days of Lent. The last three leaves are painted black, to represent Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The rock is painted the same color as the green leaves on just one side, and once that first layer is dry, a caterpillar is painted on top of the green background. If you’re not artistically inclined, you can just use a sticker. The other side of the rock will remain unpainted.
Throughout Lent the caterpillar will travel to a new leaf each day. On Maundy Thursday, the rock will be turned over to the dark, unpainted side and will remain that way as it moves through the next two days. On Easter Sunday, parents can remove the rock and leave in its place a beautiful butterfly. This could be a picture of a butterfly, a paper cutout, or even some sort of decorative object (available at most craft stores).
Creating plant-based natural dyes is a magical experience, and it’s actually easier than it looks! There are a lot of tutorials out there, and I read many of them, but the following instructions are based completely on my own process. My son absolutely loved this activity. For him, it was a real “Little Red Hen” moment: He planted the marigolds back in June, watered them all summer, harvested the flowers, picked off the petals, stirred the pot, and then put the silks in the be dyed. He claimed the first one as a cape for himself, and it looks beautiful rippling in the autumn wind. The other silk I kept for myself, to ring my vase of Michaelmas daisies and just to enjoy throughout the season. I have a lot of dye bath left over, and plan to use it to dye some worsted weight yarn as a Christmas gift. Don’t be afraid to give plant-dyeing a try—marigolds are an easy way to get your feet…or should I say hands?…wet!
In a large bowl mix up your mordant: I used two tablespoons of alum per half gallon (8 cups) of water—make sure all of the alum is dissolved. Soak your un-dyed silk in the mordant for several hours (mine soaked while I was at work, about 6 hours total). Harvest fresh marigold flowers—you’ll need about 4 or 5 cups of petals to make a vivid dye. Fill your dye pot about 3/4 full with water and add the marigold petals. Bring to a boil, and then let simmer for at least an hour, stirring and smashing (gently) the petals periodically. You will notice them cook down quite a bit! Strain the petals as best you can from the dye bath—it’s okay if a few remain, as they won’t affect the dyeing process. Add your silk to the pot and submerge fully. Continue to simmer silk in the dye bath for another half hour or so, and then remove the silks from the pot (don’t pour out the dye bath because you can use it again, though the second round of dye may be less vivid). Rinse the silks gently in first lukewarm and then cold water until the rinse runs clear. Line dry or tumble dry on low, and then iron to give the silk a nice sheen.
We are very lucky to live in a part of the country where a wide variety of summer fruits grow in abundance. A couple of years ago we planted some raspberry bushes in our yard, which we hope will someday be good producers. In the meantime, we have lots of local farms where berries are the main event, and some even let customers pick their own. Our little guy is very fond of berries so we thought it might be fun for him to have the experience of going berry-picking. We chose Monadnock Berries for its spectacular view of Mt. Monadnock, and we were not disappointed (with the view or the berries!). Picking berries with family and friends is a quintessential summer activity that should not be missed. Note: there was quite a bit of “sampling” of berries happening, as well—nothing compares to the flavor of blueberries right from the bush!
I picked over three pounds of blueberries in just under an hour, most of which I put in the freezer for later in the year when I want a taste of summer. Freezing berries is easy! Simply rinse berries in a collander, dry them lightly, and then spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze berries for a couple of hours, and then transfer them to quart-size ziplock bags and put them back in the freezer to store. If you want to use your berries right away, I highly recommend making blueberry crisp and then topping it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream—truly a summer treat that can’t be rivaled! Here’s a recipe I like to use (can be adapted to use with any type of berries, frozen or fresh):
Blueberry Crisp, adapted from a recipe by Williams-Sonoma
4 cups berries
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 stick butter
3/4 cup rolled oats
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Grease a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish with butter, or spray with vegetable cooking spray. Spread the berries evenly over the bottom of the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the lemon juice. In a bowl, using a pastry blender or fork, mix together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter and rolled oats until well combined. Sprinkle evenly over the berries. Bake until the top is golden and the berries are bubbling, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. Serve hot or warm, with ice cream or whipped cream!
In the Roman Catholic church, the month of May is devoted to a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For this reason she is sometimes called the Queen of May—she is given the title “queen” in Eastern Orthodox and Anglican faith traditions, as well. Traditionally associated with the birth of new life, May is a natural month to celebrate the Mother of God.
There are many Roman Catholic traditions associated with Mary in the month of May, but perhaps none so beautiful as the “May Crowning,” also popular in the Orthodox Church, in which an icon or statue of the Virgin Mary in the parish church receives ornamentation on May 1st. Garlands of flowers are a popular choice. May Crowning can also be done by families at home. A crown is constructed of wire and children could add flowers and leaves to it. Once finished, the crown could be placed on the head of a Marian statue, or secured around an icon of Mary. Children will also enjoy making flower crowns for themselves, a long-standing spring tradition and perfect for wearing to a May Day celebration or gathering.
Another activity that can be done with children is the construction of a home May Altar. If you already have a designated altar area, the addition of flowers and imagery showing the Queenship of Mary would be a nice addition. This could also be done with a nature table. If you don’t have a home altar or nature table, May is the perfect time to set aside some sacred space in your home. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, home altars can be a place for prayer, reading Scripture, journaling, or enjoying daily devotionals. Even a tiny space can become sacred by its use.
For those that enjoy spending time outdoors, planting a Marian garden might be the perfect activity for the month of May. Dating to medieval times, the practice of dedicating a garden space to Mary was revived in the early twentieth century. A statue of Mary, alone or holding the baby Jesus, is central to the Marian garden. Mary has long been associated with flowers, and has been linked to the phrase “I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys” from the Song of Songs. More than 30 flowers and herbs are associated with Mary, including: Lilies of the valley, peonies, violets, irises, columbine, lavender, and marigolds. Nurturing plants is a wonderful spiritual practice, and a Marian garden is a calm, serene place to engage in prayer and contemplation.
For a wealth of information about Mary visit www.udayton.edu
So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight
— from “The True Dragon” by Brian Patten
The Feast of Saint George is celebrated in Western countries on April 23rd each year. As the patron saint of their country, George is particularly popular with the English (and those anglophiles among us who love their culture, history, and “valleys full of light”). Though nothing certain is known about George’s life, there are some “facts” that are generally accepted. St. George was born in the third century A.D. in Cappodocia (modern-day Turkey). Raised in a Christian home, George joined the Roman army and served in the guard of the Emperor Diocletian. When confronted by the emperor and asked to renounce his faith, he refused. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed in Lydda, Palestine on 23 April 303 A.D.
The most popular legend connected to the life of St. George is his defeat of an evil dragon that was terrorizing the countryside. This story became wildly popular in England, mostly due to the publication in the fifteenth century of a book called The Golden Legend. George’s signature look—a suit of armor and white shield emblazoned with a red cross—grew out of this legend. The romantic image of St. George rescuing a fair maiden from a terrifying monster is in line with the medieval masculine ideal, the miles Christi or “knight of Christ.” Though obviously not an entirely factual account of a true historic event, the legend of St. George and the dragon has deep roots in Christian theology: The Church (the knight victorious) triumphs over the horrors of evil.
At our house, we celebrate St. George’s Day with an English-style tea party and a reading of St. George and the Dragon, written by Margaret Hodges and beautifully illustrated by Tina Schart Hyman. This year we made Cream Tea scones (see recipe below) and sipped Twinings’ Prince of Wales tea. We served everything on some beautiful English china I got at a second-hand store. As always, I’d like to stress that celebrating the Christian year should be fun, meaningful, and strengthen our connection to God—no need to get stressed or break the budget. The beauty is in the mess.
Happy St. George’s Day to you and yours!
Cream Tea Scones adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 12 scones
3 c all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 c granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream
additional heavy cream, for brushing on scones
additional sugar, for topping
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.
2. Sprinkle the vanilla over the dry ingredients, then drizzle in the cream, tossing and stirring gently all the while and adding just enough to make a cohesive dough. There shouldn’t be any dry flour in the bottom of the bowl, but the dough shouldn’t be particularly sticky, either.
3. Divide the dough in half, and gently pat each half into a 5 1/2″ circle about 3/4″ thick.
4. Brush each circle with heavy cream, and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
5. Place the two circles of dough on the baking sheet, and cut each into 6 wedges. Pull the wedges apart a bit, leaving them in a circular pattern with about 1″ space between each wedge.
6. Bake scones for about 15 minutes, until starting to brown and baked all the way through.
Serve warm, split and spread with a bit of sweet butter and jam or preserves.
8 Ask the plants of the earth,and they will teach you; 9 Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.
Gardening is a wonderful activity for children that can last from early spring until late summer, even here in the frosty Northeast. Before the snow even begins to melt, we’re already excitedly poring over our seed and garden supply catalogs, trying to decide what tasty veggies we will plant this year.
While gardening is one of my favorite warm-weather activities, I just want to note that this page is not meant to be taken as expert advice about growing a garden—there are so many resources for that already, and I am still a beginning gardener, myself. However, I thought it might be nice to touch on some of the ways that children can play a role in planning, nurturing, and enjoying a family garden.
We’ve had success creating gardens straight from seed and also with started plants. I think both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. Starting from seed allows children the opportunity to really understand the life cycle of plants, which is wonderful, but there is a lot of waiting involved and not everything you plant will be successful—we constructed a beautiful pea and bean teepee last year that really didn’t thrive and that was disappointing to all of us. On the other hand, using started plants generally guarantees a higher rate of success, and there’s a feeling of almost instant gratification, especially with fast-growers like zucchini! The downside is that buying started plants skips one whole stage of the plant life cycle, and sometimes the plants aren’t as healthy as one would hope. Always buy your seeds and started plants from reputable growers.
Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?
Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.
—Henry David Thoreau
Vegetable gardens need a lot of sun, so it’s important to take some time to find the right spot for planting. I highly recommend using containers and/or raised beds to start, as they are so much easier to manage (think: less weeding), and you have a lot more control over growing conditions. We actually have two raised beds in our front yard because that’s the sunniest spot—they’re off to one side, so they’re not too obtrusive. We’re planning to add another 1/2-sized bed this year just for our youngest. He’ll have a space all his own to tend, and I think that will be really special for him.
If you’re new to gardening, start with some tried-and-true favorites like herbs (basil is a good one to try) or greens like kale and swiss chard—they’re almost impossible to kill, and they’ll keep growing until you rip them out in the fall. If you find your greens are really prolific, you can always make smoothies with the surplus! My favorite recipe is very simple: cube a fresh pineapple, divide into four servings, and freeze in Ziploc baggies. When you’re ready to make a smoothie, blend one serving of frozen pineapple with a peeled banana and two handfuls of greens; add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water until smoothie is desired consistency. Kids love these smoothies, even when made with strongly-flavored kale.
I will reiterate that there are many, many resources out there for beginning gardeners, and it can be a lot to weed through (pun intended). I recommend starting with a university extension—this excellent utility will help you find your local office. I always print out the planting schedule from my extension, which gives me a rough timeline for getting my plants in the ground, and ensures I won’t end up planting too early or too late.
Besides selecting what to plant, there are many ways that children can help with the family garden. With supervision, they can excel at weeding, watering, and harvesting, to name a few of the many tasks that need doing throughout the growing season. We often have itinerant helpers (neighborhood kids) who stop by to assist and to enjoy a ripe tomato or two—depending on the circumstances, planting a garden can be a community affair, and even a form of ministry.
What was paradise, but a garden full of vegetables
and herbs and pleasure? Nothing there but delights.
My final words of advice: Don’t be too hard on yourself if things go all “pear-shaped,” as the Brits say. Gardening can be very rewarding, and also very frustrating. Sometimes plants die, or get covered in downy mildew, or have blight, and that’s all part of the experience. There are ways to prevent these things, but the solutions can be expensive and/or involve chemicals you don’t really want your family to ingest. Sometimes you take what you get, and you do what you can with it (to quote my parents). And, for added reassurance, I will confess that I’ve had tomato plants with nothing left but yellowing stalks and a handful of shriveled, brown leaves and yet they still produced delicious fruit. Things don’t have to be pretty to be tasty!
Happy gardening, friends!
The 6th of January is the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, also called Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night in some places. The word “epiphany” is derived from the Greek word Ἐπιφάνεια, (Epiphaneia), which means “manifestation.” The etymology of the word points to its origins in the Eastern Church, and it was historically a celebration of the manifestation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, varying locally in its observance of different events from Jesus’s childhood. The first mention of a celebration called Epiphany comes from the writing of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who noted in 361 A.D. that it was considered Christ’s Birthday. In the Western Church a particular focus on the visitation of the Magi, also known as the Three Kings or Wise Men, has developed over the years.
My mother-in-law is a retired high school French teacher, and has introduced many French traditions to our family. The French celebrated Epiphany with great fervor until the French Revolution, when anything religious or related to the monarchy fell out of favor or was outright banned. Despite no longer being a public holiday, many in France still celebrate Epiphany with the Gallete des Rois or Kings’ Cake.
We always celebrate Epiphany with my in-laws. My mother-in-law cooks several dishes inspired by the flavors of the Middle East. We also have gingerbread cupcakes instead of a cake. For fun, my mother-in-law bakes a bean into one of them. Whoever finds the bean is crowned king or queen, and gets to wear the special tinfoil crown. It’s always a joy to be the one to discover the bean. The Kings also bring little gifts wrapped up in brown paper–often books–that are hidden throughout the house for the children to find.
VIVE LE ROI – the true king, Jesus Christ!
Menu suggestions for Three Kings’ Day–recipes courtesy of my mother-in-law, Sharon Wilson.
1 c bulgur
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c boiling water
1/3 c lemon juice
1/3 c olive oil
3/4 red onion, diced
5 plum tomatoes, diced
1 European cucumber, diced
3 cups fresh parsley, chopped
Pour boiling water over bulgur and salt. Cover and let sit for thirty minutes. Add olive oil and lemon juice, and refrigerate until chilled. Finally, add the onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and parsley just before serving.
Chickpea and Spinach Curry
Sauté in 8 quart pot for three minutes:
2 onions, chopped
2 tsp oil
2 Tbsp bottled ginger
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp curry powder
Add to pot and simmer for two minutes:
2 cans chickpeas
2 cans diced tomatoes, undrained
Add to pot, and cook for one minute or until wilted:
8 c fresh spinach
1/2 tsp salt
Serve over basmati rice and pita bread.
Gingerbread Cupcakes des Rois
Adapted from Family Circle Light & Easy Meals, 1996
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c granulated sugar
1/3 c packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c light molasses
1/4 c applesauce
1/4 c milk
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 egg whites
1 whole egg
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line twelve 3.5-inch muffin pan cups with cupcake liners. Stir together flour, sugar, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, cloves, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together molasses, applesauce, milk, oil, egg whites, and egg in another bowl. Fold in flour mixture until just moistened and spoon batter into muffin cups–don’t forget to put a bean into one of them! Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely.