See how the solemnity of the Pasch has reached its conclusion without losing any of its splendor. The Pasch is the beginning of grace, Pentecost is the crown. – St. Augustine of Hippo
On Pentecost we commemorate the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples in the cenacle of the Last Supper fifty days following Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The name Pentecost comes from the Greek word for fiftieth and the first Pentecost fell on the anniversary of the Jewish Feast of Pentecost that recalled when Moses received the Ten Commandments. Additionally, this Feast is also called Whitsunday after the white garments customarily donned by the recently baptised reborn in the spirit. Acts chapter 2 provides us with the Biblical account of the day’s full events.
But before we get to the plethora of traditions and customs we can choose to incorporate within our families to mark the day, and whole octave of Pentecost, first let us look at the instructive purpose of feasts and the extension of their celebration from the Sacrifice of the Mass to our homes – the practice now colloquially referred to as “Liturgical Living.”
When we take the time, effort, and energy to mark the feasts of the Church in our homes, our ultimate telos is to help our family get to heaven. We want to pass on the Faith in a memorable way that fosters friendship with the saints and joy in its daily living. In his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI explains how feasts are uniquely fitting for this task:
For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year – in fact, forever. The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.
We can also see this same sentiment mirrored in the classical education motto “Repetitio mater memoriae” or in the English: “Repetition is the mother of memory.” The year by year revisiting of these “truths of faith” breeds familiarity and, as our children mature, growing layers of understanding. But we need not even wait for another year for some feasts. In the shorter term, we can see the fruits of this Latin tenant by intentionally observing the focus of different octaves within our home throughout the liturgical year. With such a gift of opportunity, why would we not take advantage of these extra days? Now onto the specifics of Pentecost!
So how can we begin this particular form of family catechesis when it comes to Pentecost? As with Catholic family traditions and customs in general, there are several categories of practices from which we can pull. These include apropos prayers and devotions, Scripture passages, specific foods associated with the holy day, hymns and other related music offerings, and an abundance of other activities that call to mind the meaning behind the memorial. The implementation of these diverse options will therefore look different for each family based on a variety of factors like the ages and stages of its members, the number of children at home, the family make up, budget, schedule, and even other limited resources like energy level. But regardless of the forms we choose and are found to speak best to our family, we can be assured that God will bless our efforts, no matter how imperfect, and that our faithfulness in practice, not merely success, will be spiritually efficacious.
Vigil of Pentecost
With this in mind, for our family of eleven, the place we begin our celebration of Pentecost is with the traditional meatless observance of the Pentecost Vigil the day before. There are two sides to the coin of Catholic life. Feasting without fasting is just another form of gluttony. And fasting without its subsequent partner of feasting is spiritual starvation. The Church’s liturgical cycle gives us little ways to have a healthy balance through vigils before great feasts and even more significantly in the preparatory and penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. St. Bernard tells us that, “By fasting on the eves of festivals we learn that we can enter heaven only through many sufferings.” And the Early Church Fathers called vigils the “fast before the feast.” The traditional calendar includes 18 of these vigils while the new calendar retains only 5. Both calendars, however, still include the Vigil of Pentecost. Many of these were required days of fasting and abstinence for all healthy Catholics of age in the US. And it is encouraging to slowly see more contemporary Catholics joining in the traditional observance of these “holy days of opportunity” in recent years.
For the day of Pentecost, attending the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Pentecost Plenary Indulgence of praying the Veni Creator Spiritus (under the usual conditions) are our highest priorities. But one of the simplest ways we have marked the feast over the years is by wearing red, white, and polka dots. Of course the red is taken from the liturgical color of the day and the white recalls its Whitsunday title, however, the polka dots are strictly from our family lexicon and a tradition started by my oldest son. As a precocious 2 year old he would announce the third Glorious Mystery during our family Rosary and instead of “Pentecost” our eldest would say, “Polka dots, the descent of the Holy Ghost.” Our other children have adopted this moniker for a time around that same age and the Pentecost Sunday wardrobe has become a cherished custom to our family.
Some other prayers that we like to incorporate throughout the week with meals or as part of our Morning Liturgy are the Pentecost Golden Sequence: Veni, Sancte Spiritus, the Pentecost Benedictine prayers for meals, St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Prayer for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, The Prayer for the Help of the Holy Ghost by St. Anthony of Padua, St. Augustine’s Prayer to the Holy Ghost, The Office of Terce as that hour is held as when the Holy Ghost descended, the Medieval Office of the Holy Ghost, and The Litany of the Holy Ghost. Litanies are an especially wonderful way to get the whole family praying, because even wee ones can attempt a form of “pray for us!” and feel included.
Regina Caeli and the Angelus
It is traditional for the Regina Caeli to continue throughout the Pentecost Octave as the Easter alternative to the Angelus and Seasonal Marian Antiphon that concludes the Office of Compline. We bring back the ringing of the Angelus at supper and the Salve Regina Marian Antiphon begins with Compline on the Saturday of the octave, the night before Trinity Sunday. At meals, our bells, “alleluias,” and Pascal greetings stick around until then as well.
For festal fare, our parish has a pot providence where the faithful bring all kinds of dishes from around the world. This is a fun nod to the disciples’ spiritual gift of preaching in many new languages on the day of Pentecost. For supper we go with the more historical custom of stuffed foul. I have Pentecost Dove on my wish list for someday, however they are out of our price range until we can shoot them ourselves or they are given as a providential gift. That being the case, whole roasted chicken is our go to. Another option, if price is not a deterrent, are those swanky, little cornish game hens. My older boys would eat about three a piece of them! Or, to go a completely different direction, some other possibilities are chicken wings, fire roasted hotdogs, BBQ and smore’s or spicy foods for the tongues of fire connection, and a menu of all red or all white foods.
In our home a First Class Feast (Solemnity) means dessert. A few Pentecost favorites from over the years have been torch topped meringue pies or crème brûlée, strawberry shortcakes with the berries cut vertically like flames and strawberry decorated cheesecake, Pentecost sundaes with strawberry ice cream or cherries jubilee, and flaming desserts like bananas foster and crepes suzette. Finally, we have twelve fruits of the spirit salad on hand specifically for the Whitsuntide Ember Days and fit in some holey or jelly-filled donuts usually Thursday of the octave.
There are a few moveable holy days that always fall during the Pentecost Octave including the newly added Feast of Mary Mother of the Church on Pentecost Monday, and the Whitsuntide Emberdays on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of Pentecost. Interestingly the Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost are former holy days of obligation. We have several southern New Year’s Day traditions so instead we keep Pentecost Monday for the Mother’s Day of Our Lady. Its sister traditional feast is Mary, Queen of the Apostles, celebrated the Saturday after Ascension Thursday. For this mother’s day we make a little local pilgrimage to bring “Mum Mary” fresh picked wildflowers and make one of my mother’s or grandmother’s recipes for supper – some iteration of southern comfort food.
Conversely, the Pentecost Embertide consists of days for fasting and abstinence in thanksgiving for the wheat used to make the Eucharist hosts and for vocations to the priesthood. In addition to the recommended penance, one of these three days we revisit Pope Leo the Great’s Sermon on the Whitsuntide Fast. Landing within the octave of Pentecost, this set of Ember Days has a distinctive nature from the rest. The fasting and partial abstinence of Wednesday and Saturday and the fasting and full abstinence of Friday are the same as other Embertides. However, it is the only group where Red vestments are worn instead of the customary penitential violet and the fast itself was called the “Fast of Exultation.” The mediaeval monk, Abbot Rupert of Deutz explains it eloquently,
It is not a fast to make us sad or to darken our hearts, but it rather brightens the solemnity of the Holy Spirit’s arrival; for the sweetness of the Spirit of God makes the faithful loathe the pleasures of earthly food.
A short meditations for each Ember Day, from the 1962 Roman Missal, can be read here.
Four Symbols of the Holy Ghost
Throughout the octave we aim to celebrate in ways inspired by the four traditional symbols of the Holy Ghost: the dove, fire, water, and wind. There are other symbols of the Holy Ghost, like light, that we do not choose to particularly focus on, but they can be read about in the 92’ Catechism 694-701. We review a Gift of the Holy Ghost and one Sacrament each day with motions and revisit the 12 Fruits of the Spirit with St. Alphonsus Liguori’s prayer for them mentioned above. Our hymn at lunch is also replaced with “Come Holy Ghost Creator Blest.”
During different seasons of life we have touched on these four symbols of the Holy Ghost in different ways. In memory of the dove symbol some years we have made and hung little white origami doves for the dining table, gone birdwatching, or done flying related activities like kites, boomerangs, frisbees, and paper airplane contests. Water and wind have some overlap with things like paper sailboat races, canoe races, going swimming, having a water gun or water balloon fight, running through the sprinkler, firing up the slip-n-slide, going to a splash pad, and for our littlest loves: blowing bubbles or taking a bubble bath. Children love any excuse to break out the swimsuits or spray someone with the water hose and we get the added benefit of being reminded of our baptism, and the Holy Ghost’s role in it, through the process.
In honor of this baptismal role of Holy Ghost, our sons have several watersports we have not had a chance to try but that are on their wish lists, and wanted to make sure I mentioned them as options for others to also consider. So if you also happen to have a rascal of boys and the opportunity, your family might enjoy parasailing, sailboating, waterskiing, wakeboarding, or skydiving to commemorate Pentecost.
My motto for liturgical living is “When in doubt, add fire.” So I will conclude with some ideas for calling to mind this symbol of the Holy Ghost. For the octave, two of the easiest ways we keep the commemoration going is by having a pitcher of firewheel wildflowers on the dining table and eating by the light of 7 candles to recall the 7 gifts of the Holy Ghosts. Red roses would also work in place of the wildflowers. We actually use faux red rose petals from the wedding section of Hobby Lobby as decoration and to re-enact the Pentecost rose petal drop at the Pantheon mass each year. And you cannot go wrong with a bonfire no matter how small. Be it in a fire pit, fire place, or even the burner of a gas stove, something about adding fire to a holy day helps sear it into the memory of our children. And for that work of the Holy Ghost I am truly grateful.
Genie is a Catholic convert and second generation homeschool mom to a passel of 8 bairns, deep in the heart of Texas where their little farmstead is modeled after the rhythm of monastic life and naturally observing the liturgical year. Genie writes the popular blog Barefoot Abbey, where cloister meets hearth, and is founder of the Feast Fast Feria Collective, a mentorship and community for busy Catholic mothers that takes the stress and guess work out of liturgical living