Nov 3, 2014

Tally-ho! It’s St. Hubertus Day

November 3 is the feast day of St. Hubertus, or Hubert, patron saint of hunters and ethical hunting behavior. And what better way to mark the occasion than by watching the Hubertusjakt (St. Hubert’s Day Hunt) held this past weekend in Stockholm?

Saint Hubertus was born in Toulouse in about 656. As a noble and hunter, he became the Grand Master of the household for Pippin of Heristal in Metz. When his wife died in childbirth, he retreated from the court and gave himself entirely up to hunting.

According to legend, while out hunting one Good Friday, Hubertus had a revelation where the deer he was pursuing turned and showed him a crucifix between its antlers. At the same time, he heard a voice telling him to lead a holy life or quickly go to hell.

The Vision of Saint Hubert (ca 1617) by J. Breughel and P.P. Rubens. Prado, Madrid. 

As a result, Hubertus gave up hunting altogether and became a priest. He was eventually ordained Bishop of Maastricht in 708.

Hubertus died on May 30, 727 or 728 near Liège, where he was buried in the collegiate church of St. Peter.

His bones were later exhumed and translated to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain in present-day Saint-Hubert, Belgium on November 3, 825. The abbey became a focus for pilgrimages until St. Hubertus’ coffin disappeared during the Reformation. 

St. Hubertus and the hunt

Because it was believed that St. Hubertus was lectured on compassionate hunting by the deer he was after, he became known as the patron of hunting and hunters. He is also the namesake of the Hubertusjakt  foxhunt held every year in Stockholm on or around November 3.

Fox hunting involves tracking, chasing and sometimes killing a fox using trained foxhounds or other scent hounds and a group of unarmed followers on foot or horseback.

Traditional fox hunting still exists in many countries, but the sport is controversial. In the US, where it is called “fox chasing”, the fox is normally not killed. In the UK, the hounds normally kill the fox, though hunting with a pack of dogs has been banned since the Hunting Act was introduced in 2004.  

Fox hunting on horseback or with packs is also banned in Sweden. However, for the last 118 years, the Stockholm Fältrittsklubb has been carrying on the tradition of the Hubertusjakt established by the Swedish princes Carl, Eugen and Oscar in 1886.

The Hubertusjakt involves riding on tracks prepared with a variety of obstacles that the riders must pass. To win the competition, the riders race the final 300 meters over several obstacles to secure the foxtail dangling on a rope at the finish line.

Riders striking a nice pose.  

Homemade split-pea soup and Swedish punch to keep us warm. 

Off they go!

"Hunting pink," not red, is the name of the red jackets 
worn by riders at a foxhunt.  

Other cool things to know about St. Hubertus and hunting

The more formal English word for hunting wild or game animals is venery.

“Tally-ho!” is a largely British phrase that comes from when a rider sees the fox (or other quarry), as in “There he is! Coming out of that coppice! Tally-ho! Today, it is also used as a greeting (though only if you’re a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel) or to confirm that a target has been spotted, as in air traffic control.

Hubertus also inspired the name of a metal charm in the form of a nail, cross, or cone that was used in Europe up to the early 20th century as a “cure” for rabies. Known as the St. Hubertus Key, it was heated and the head was pressed to bites from dogs believed to have the disease. 

Finally, if you need a digéstif after all of this fascinating information, why not enjoy the 50+ herbs in a shot of Jägermeister? While you’re at it, look at the label, which shows a glowing cross between the antlers of a stag. The image is a reference to St. Hubertus (as well as St. Eustache) and the name is German for “Master of Hunters.”

  Jägermeister label, with the deer and cross.

May 18, 2014

St. Erik, King of Sweden

Swedish king, lawmaker and patron of Stockholm, there are many reasons to know something about Erik Jevardsson, or St. Erik of Sweden. 

No actual historical records of Eric IX of Sweden, or Erik the Saint, have survived. Most of what we know about Erik is based on the Swedish Erikslegenden written in the 13th century.  But Erik is a saint whose legacy is relevant even today. 

Erik purportedly ruled from 1155-1160. From 1150, he was a rival king to Sverker the Elder who was crowned around 1130 and murdered in 1156, after which Erik was recognized as king. 

Crusade to Finland
During his reign, Erik was responsible for codifying laws that became known as King Erik's Law (or the Code of Uppland). Erik also insisted on paying tithes to the Church as elsewhere in Europe, irking many of the Swedish nobles at the time. He was also instrumental in Christianizing the Finns and led the First Crusade to Finland along with English bishop Henry of Uppsala, who later became Finland's patron saint, St. Henrik.

Scenes from Erikslegenden by Albertus Pictor, 1400s, Uppsala Cathedral. Photo: Anders Damberg

Murder in the cathedral?
Eric was attacked by rebel Swedish nobles in Uppsala at Ascension Mass on May 18 in 1160 at a church once located on the site of the present-day cathedral. According to legend, he was beheaded by Magnus Henriksson, an assassin said to have been hired by members of the Sverker dynasty. Interestingly, like many other Nordic saints, he is represented as a king standing on his murderer, who is often depicted as a dragon or serpent, in medieval iconography.

Also in line with legends about Nordic saints, a fountain purportedly sprang forth at the spot where his head fell. This was one of many miracles attributed to him after his death. The spring, which was said to cure the ill and restore sight to the blind, still flows by the north wall of Uppsala Cathedral. 

Erik was buried in the Old Uppsala church, which he had built around the Viking burial mounds located there. In 1167, his relics and regalia were transferred to the present cathedral of Uppsala. 

Not just a pretty face
Erik was never actually canonized, but he has been regarded as a saint in the Nordic countries since his death. At the end of the 12th century, the Swedes chose Erik as their patron saint and he later became Stockholm’s designated protector. His image first appeared on the Stockholm seal as early as in 1376 and it is used as the  logo of the City of Stockholm to this day. 

Erik in the news
In April, St. Erik's reliquary was opened by a team of researchers investigating the development of osteoporosis from the Middle Ages. This is the first scientific investigation of his relics and the first time the reliquary has been opened since 2000. The injuries that can be seen on the cranium, by the way, show that the person  suffered a violent death.  

Cranium and crown from reliquary. Photo: Bertil Eriksson

The royal burial crown (the oldest in Sweden) contained within the reliquary will also be restored and shown in an exhibition at Uppsala Cathedral this summer from June 18. The exhibition will be a part of Uppsala's celebration of 850 years as a bishopric. 

Mar 24, 2014

Kit Kat

There are many saints named Catherine in the world of hagiology, like St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Catherine of Siena. Today is the feast day of another of them, St. Catherine of Vadstena.

Saint Catherine, or Katarina Ulfsdotter, was born in 1332 as the fourth of eight children born to St. Bridget of Sweden and Ulf Gudmarsson, Lord of Ulvåsa. She is best known as the first abbess of the Bridgettine convent at Vadstena and for her devotional work, Consolation of the Soul. 

She is the patron saint of protection against abortion and miscarriage, and generally represented with a hind (female red deer), which is said to have come to her aid "when unchaste youths sought to ensnare her." 

Noli me tangere
At the age of 12, Catherine married Lord Eggert van Kyren, a very religious German nobleman whom she purportedly persuaded to take a vow of absolute chastity. She accompanied her mother to Rome in 1349 (Bridget was on a mission to have her order authorized by the pope). While she was away, her husband died. 

She stayed on in Rome, accompanying Bridget on her travels in Italy and the Holy Land. When Bridget died in 1373, she returned to Vadstena with the body (or what was left of it after the "skelettering" that was carried out to remove the flesh from the bones) on what might be termed the most famous PR road trip of the Middle Ages, since Catherine and her companions visited monasteries on the way to drop off copies of the works of St. Bridget. 

St Catherine of Siena with her hind, from a triptych in Trönö church, Sweden.

Catherine became the head of the Brigittine convent, returning to Rome only to work for her mother's canonization, which took place in 1391. During this time, she befriended St. Catherine of Siena. She died in 1381 and in 1488, her relics were translated to Vadstena. Her canonization was never formally completed because of the Protestant Reformation. 

The Brigittines still run a monastery in Vadstena, though not in the original building. The first building, which was a gift from King Magnus Ericsson, is now a luxury hotel and houses the Convent Museum. The order is contemplative, though nowadays they run a guesthouse. 

Klosterliljor, literally "monastery flowers" or spring snowflake flowers, were brought to Sweden by the first gardener at the Vadstena Abbey. Here, in full bloom near the original monastery in Vadstena.

Feb 2, 2014

Of candles and rodents of unusual size

Today, February 2, is Candlemas, which you probably know as Groundhog Day. 
In the Catholic Church, Candelmas is also called the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (at the temple) as well as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The idea of purification may seem a little weird, but it has to do with the old custom of "churching women" who were considered to be impure for six weeks after giving birth. In the Catholic tradition, it was believed that Mary gave birth around the winter solstice, about six weeks before February 2.
Candelmas is also the day of blessing of the candles that are to be used during the liturgical year. Incidentally, these newly blessed candles are used on the following day (Feast of St. Blaise) to bless the throats of parishioners to keep them from colds, flu, sore throats and the like.  

 "The presentation of Jesus in the Temple," James Tissot

So what does this have to do with groundhogs?
Candlemas happens to fall on the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In fact, the Celts celebrated the beginning of spring at this time at a festival called Imbolc at which they would try to divine the weather. 
In 16th century Germany, Candlemas became the day on which farmers tried to get a feel for how the upcoming growing season might be.
They would look for animals that hibernated (in this case, hedgehogs) to see if they were up and about. If these animals “saw” a shadow on February 2, then it was said that the winter would continue, while cloudy skies indicated an early spring. Indeed, this tradition existed in other parts of Europe, as evidenced in the traditional English poem:

If Candlemas be fair and bright/Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain/Winter will not come again.

Today, this tradition continues in North America as Groundhog Day, with two famous prognosticating rodents being Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania and Wiarton Willie of Wiarton, Ontario.

And according to Reuters, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow this morning, so it looks like a few more weeks await us. We may need those candles after all. 

Indeed, the news even reached the US White House, with President Barack Obama tweeting a reminder to Americans to sign up for health care coverage: #Punxsutawney Phil says there's more winter ahead - make sure you get covered. 

Dec 13, 2012

Gingerbread men banned, but Catholic saints okay in Swedish schools

If you're up on your saints' feast days (or your John Donne), you will know that tonight (Dec 12, actually) is the Eve of St. Lucy, or Lucia, the festival of lights celebrated in Sweden on December 13.
Lucia was born in Syracuse in 300 AD and was probably a victim of the wave of persecution of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. According to legend, she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels, wearing a wreath of candles on her head to light the way. When a rejected suitor had her arrested, she was supposedly saved by divine intervention from a life of prostitution and then death by fire, but was eventually killed by the sword. 
In the Middle Ages, St. Lucy's Day was a popular festival in many parts of Europe. Before the 16th-century Gregorian calendar reform, the feast day coincided with the winter solstice. Since December 13 was the shortest day of the year, Lucia was said to bring light and longer days. 

Today, Lucia is celebrated on many different levels in Sweden, from the televised Lucia wearing candles in her hair to the thousands of Lucia processions held in daycare centers and schools around the country.

In schools, Lucia is normally marked with a morning procession led by a girl dressed as Lucia wearing a white robe and a red sash around her waist. She is followed by a train of white-gowned girls and "star boys" wearing dunce caps singing Lucia and Christmas songs. The retinue may also include various gingerbread people and gnomes. The pageant is generally followed by a spread of saffron buns, gingersnaps and coffee.

This year's Lucia celebrations have created a buzz in the Swedish media. Earlier in the week, news about a ban on gingerbread men, gingerbread cookies and gingerbread-themed songs (possibly for fear of racial connotations) at a school in Laxå spread like wildfire on social media. The school has since reversed the ban, it seems.  

Lucia celebrations are quintessentially Swedish, but highly religious in nature. And the Swedish Education Act states that Swedish schools should be non-religious. 

Why then, given the recent public debate about holding school closing ceremonies in churches – and celebrating Advent in schools  is no one protesting the tradition of sending children to school dressed as Catholic martyrs?

Do-it-yourself Lucia paper doll