St. Christopher's Day

St. Christopher's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: July 25 in the West; May 9 or 22 in the East
Where Celebrated: Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, and by Christians all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Blessing of the Cars, Staff, St. Christopher Medal

ORIGINS

Very little is known for sure about the man whose Christian name was Christopher, aside from the fact that he was martyred in Asia Minor around 250 C . E . during a series of persecutions ordered by Emperor Decius. By the sixth century, however, his following was well established in the East, and it had spread to the West by the ninth century.

The most popular legend concerning St. Christopher is that he started out as a pagan named Offerus, who lived in Canaan and was so proud of his strength that he vowed to serve only the most powerful man he could find. He started out serving the emperor, who turned out to be afraid of the devil. Then he served the devil, who turned out to be afraid of a cross. Finally he was converted to Christianity by a hermit, who baptized him with the name "Christopher" and suggested that the best way for him to serve God was to perform the earthly work for which he was best suited. So he became a ferryman, carrying pilgrims on his strong shoulders across a swift-moving river while using a STAFF to maintain his balance.

One day a young child approached and asked to be ferried across the stream. Halfway across, the weight of the child became so great that he feared they wouldn't make it. When they finally arrived safely on the other side, the child explained that he had been carrying the weight of the sins of the world. Christopher knew then that he had been carrying Christ, and that he'd met the all-powerful god for whom he'd been searching. The name "Christopher" means "Christ-bearer," and he is usually shown supporting the Christ child on his shoulders.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Christopher as well as other saints- is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

By the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had instituted canonization, the process of making a person a saint. Before that, Christians venerated people they considered saints. In some cases, the pope would formally condone that veneration. In 1120 Pope Callistus II approved the cult that surrounded Christopher.

Although the Roman Catholic church removed his name from its universal calendar in 1969-largely because of the lack of reliable information about his life-St. Christopher's reputation has not diminished. As the patron saint of motorists, travelers, pilgrims, sailors, and ferrymen, his popularity extends beyond the walls of any one church and even beyond Christianity. Statues of St. Christopher can often be seen on car dashboards (see BLESSING OF THE CARS ), and ST . CHRISTOPHER MEDALS often appear on car sun-visors and key chains.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Blessing of the Cars

In Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, St. Christopher's Day is the occasion for the Blessing of the Cars. The custom began in 1933, when the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church started blessing automobiles after he himself had been involved in three serious car accidents. Sometimes it takes an entire week to bless all the cars that arrive in Nesquehoning from throughout Pennsylvania and other nearby states. In recent years, other Catholic churches have taken up the custom and perform their own blessing ceremonies.

Staff

According to legend, after St. Christopher carried the Christ child safely to the far side of the river, he was told to plant his staff in the ground, whereupon it immediately turned into a tree and put forth leaves and fruit. It was this miracle that convinced him of his passenger's true identity and confirmed his vow to spend the rest of his life in the service of God.

The staff has more than one symbolic meaning in relation to St. Christopher. On the one hand, it is a symbol for travelers and pilgrims. But it is also a symbol of Jesus' strength and power, since its miraculous transformation into a tree proved beyond any doubt that God was more powerful than the emperor or the devil.

St. Christopher Medal

In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that whoever looked upon a picture or statue of St. Christopher would be free from harm for the rest of the day. This led to the practice of hanging his picture or image across from the church doors, where everyone who entered would gaze upon it. The popularity of St. Christopher medals today, particularly among soldiers and travelers, is an extension of this custom.

FURTHER READING

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.

WEB SITE

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/03728a.htm

St. Christopher's Day

May 9 in the East and July 25 in the West
The lack of reliable information about St. Christopher's life led the Roman Catholic Church to lessen the significance of his feast in its universal calendar in 1969. But he is still widely venerated—especially by travelers, of whom he is the patron saint. According to the most popular legend, Christopher became a ferryman, carrying people across a river on his strong shoulders while using his staff for balance. One day he carried a small child across, but the weight was so overwhelming that he almost didn't make it to the other side. When he did, the child revealed himself as Christ, explaining his great weight by saying, "With me thou hast borne the sins of the world." The name Christopher means "Christ-bearer."
St. Christopher's Day is observed by members of the Christopher movement in the United States, whose mission is to encourage individual responsibility and positive action. Founded by a member of the Roman Catholic Maryknoll order, the movement has its headquarters in New York City and embraces people of other denominations as well.
In Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania, St. Christopher's Day is the occasion for the Blessing of the Cars . The custom began in 1933, when the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church started blessing automobiles on the feast day of the patron saint of travelers because he himself had been involved in three serious car accidents. Sometimes it takes an entire week to bless all the cars that arrive in Nesquehoning from throughout Pennsylvania and other nearby states. In recent years other Catholic churches in the area have taken up the custom and perform their own blessing ceremonies. ( See also St. Frances of Rome, Feast of.)
CONTACTS:
The Christophers
5 Hanover Sq., 11th Fl.
New York, NY 10004
888-298-4050 or 212-759-4050; fax: 212-838-5073
www.christophers.org
SOURCES:
AnnivHol-2000, p. 122
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 122
BkHolWrld-1986, Jun 14
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 190
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 156
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 318
OxYear-1999, p. 306
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