November rolls in, and we roll out the traditions.
The civic stuff captures our conversations: the Thanksgiving table, the Super Tuesday ballot box, the Thanksgiving table avoiding talk of the Super Tuesday ballot box.
Did I mention we’re doing Thanksgiving in Atlanta?
Rinse, wash, deflect. November traditions.
Our local strand of Catholicism feels the traditional roots a little deeper in the second-to-last month of the year, too. From the grave cleaning on All Saints Day to the wine-bottle blessings at Thanksgiving Day Mass, this month we add a few more spirited practices.
But spirited is just our way, isn’t it? And not only in terms of cleansing agents and alcoholic beverages. New Orleans Catholics enjoy a living faith—with all the rights, privileges, and quirks that come our way.
Don’t believe me? Investigate a statuary alcove the next time you stumble inside a Catholic church. Two recent encounters with those plastered, painted faith figures have shown me something of the lengths of our local traditions.
Call them pen-pal conversations with the faithful.
First, this summer found me daily sliding into the last pew of Immaculate Conception Church. It wasn’t the best perch for the Jesuit Church’s sanctuary, but it sure helped me take stock of the daily traffic near the exits.
And as a busy, open downtown church, the Jesuits’ post on Baronne Street knows daily traffic.
Along the back wall, nearest to Common Street, sits a statue of St. Peter. As in, St. Peter has pulled up a bronzed chair to take a load off, from which he looks onto the backs of the congregation. It’s a replica of a statue in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with the faithful asking for the prayers of the first pope by touching the statue’s right foot. The practice is so widespread that the Roman original has maintained the body of the saint, but has gone through many a right foot.
New Orleanians maintain the tradition, if the dulled bronze is any indication, but I noticed a pious addendum: placed on the marble pedestal below the feet of St. Peter were keys.
House keys. Bike lock keys. Boat keys?
“Oh, if they want a boat, that’s how they ask,” one of the sacristans explained, after weeks of curiosity led me to finally pop the question.
There were never many, usually just one present at a time. But after a week or so, there would be a changing of the guard—or the lock?—one key leaving and another appearing.
I first guessed I was witnessing the other side of a Catholic home-buying transaction: If a statue of St. Joseph is buried in a lawn that needs to sell, maybe St. Peter gets the key once the title insurance comes through?
Turns out, as the sacristan relayed, it’s simpler. “St. Peter’s the keeper of the keys, so people just put down next to him a key that’s tied to their prayers,” another sacristan theologized.
And once answered, they retrieve it? “Oh, no. After a few days, we just clean them out.”
Longer than a votive but shorter than a novena. Pope Francis is famously devoted to Our Lady under the title of “Undoer of Knots.” We skip straight to twenty-first-century locking mechanisms.
But what if you’re in a more giving mood? Tis the season, right? The other new statuary tradition involves that spirit, with a side of snacks.
Some Catholic churches have a statue of St. Peter. Most, however, contain an Infant Jesus of Prague, a devotion to the child Jesus that began in 16th century (you guessed it) Prague and fashionably spread across the globe.
And it is the fashion that makes it stick out, as little Jesus comes in all his finery: gold crown, laced cuffs, and is that a dress? The best line I ever heard about the Infant Jesus of Prague statue channeled Joseph, that first-century laborer who seeing such a get-up might remark: “No son of mine is leaving the house looking like that.”
But with a crucifix prominently displayed in all Catholic churches, the child Jesus might present a more approachable image. Just be careful of how approachable.
On Sundays, Jen and I sit in the small, left bend of the St. Jude Shrine, in the pew below the church’s Infant Jesus of Prague statue. Going to Communion a few weeks ago, I felt something off. Or maybe I smelled it?
Little Jesus’ little hand held a tubular orange object. Jesus was snacking on Cheetos?!
After Mass, I climbed on the pew to examine more closely, eventually removing the cheese puff he was caught with orange-handed. Everybody’s gotta keep the fast, amirite?
I’ve seen some quirky expressions of faith, but never a crunchy one. Maybe to some observer Jesus looked hungry? Possibly this was all the offering the person had? Surely this was just a one-off?
Back in our spot last Sunday, I was reminded that we are firmly in November, the month of traditions, as Jesus looked down, with George Washington staring alongside. The child Jesus had found a quarter, resting in what had been his Cheetos hand.
Keys and snack food and pocket change. I wouldn’t recommend picking up any of these traditions—the volunteer sacristans send their thanks in advance! But in this month of traditions, it’s good to notice a few and maybe start one of your own.
Preferably one that doesn’t turn your hand cheese-puff orange.
All Saints Day and Ronnie Virgets? Yes, please! The graveside picnic he references was part of the Roman tradition, as well. The just-outside-the-walls “cities of the dead” were large enough to host family meals. So there’s a tradition that goes back a ways.