We went to Mass on New Year's Day evening. It's what Catholics (sometimes) call a Holy Day of Obligation. There were six of them when I was growing up (Christmas, New Year's, the Ascension, the Assumption, All Saints Day and the Immaculate Conception), but the church has tinkered with the formula over the past couple of decades. They've downgraded some, brought them back (although probably not by popular demand) and even re-named at least one.
When I was a kid, the feast day that landed on New Year's was known as the Feast of the Circumcision. I'd go to Mass with my mom, but one day, I found out what a circumcision was, and I said, "We're going to church to celebrate that?! And they call it a feast? Ain't nobody gonna feel like eating after that!"
This healthy skepticism helps explain my brief tenure in Catholic school. I had been an altar boy for a while, so they told my mom they'd let me go to Catholic school for free. I was in the fourth grade.
One night, my parents were watching the Spencer Tracy version of Inherit the Wind on TV. Tracy was playing the Henry Drummond character, which was based on Clarence Darrow. Fredric March played Matthew Harrison Brady, based on William Jennings Bryan. As a ploy, Drummond puts his adversary Brady on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible.
There is some delightful verbal jousting about the ages of rocks and Jonah and the big fish, but then Drummond asks Brady about Cain and Abel taking wives, basically asking if the two men married their sisters, or if "somebody else pulled another creation over in the next county."
To which I uttered a hearty, "Yeah, huh?!" I couldn't wait to get to school the next day to ask my teacher, Sister Mary Sadistic. It touched off a flurry of "ewwws" and caused me to assume the position (standing at attention, palm out and facing up). A whack on the palm with a ruler, followed by the obligatory, "Thank you, Sister," didn't change things. Neither did the next three. It led to the school's hierarchy suggesting that I return to public school.
Anyway, over the years, they've tinkered with the Holy Days of Obligation. I'm not really sure why. I've always wondered if it's like in a business when they put together a committee, and the members feel they have to do something to justify their positions, lest the committee be disbanded. I seem to remember that the name of the New Year's holy day was changed to something having to do with the Holy Family, and now it's the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Mary's big-time with us Catholics, seeing as three of the six Holy Days concern Mary. There's New Year's Day; the Assumption, when Mary was taken to heaven bodily upon her natural death; and the feast of the Immaculate Conception. If "Catholic Dogma" is ever a category on "Jeopardy!," they're guaranteed to ask who the product of the Immaculate Conception was. Probably 90 percent of all Catholics and 117 percent of everybody else would answer "Jesus," but it was actually Mary who was conceived without sin. I mean, how could Jesus have been conceived on Dec. 8, and then born 17 days later? Well, I guess anything is possible, but really!
If you ever take a quickie test to become a Catholic, that's worth many bonus points. Speaking of tests, I read that after many, many years, New Zealand recently dropped from its written citizenship test questions about rugby.
According to this thing I got from the Catholic Church, we were supposed to go to Mass on the six Holy Days of Obligation as though they were Sundays. However, there are exceptions. If Jan. 1, Aug. 15 (the Assumption) or Dec. 8 (the Immaculate Conception) happen to fall on a Saturday or Monday in the United States, Australia or Wales (I'm not making this up), then you don't have to go to Mass.
As a kid, I'd check the calendar to see where the Holy Days (including Christmas) landed. The worst-case scenario was always when Christmas and New Year's landed on Saturdays. Back-to-back Mass two weeks in a row!
But then the Holy Day Committee started tinkering. They actually downgraded a couple for a while, but then doubled back and reinstated them. It's like they're the freakin' Tucson City Council or something. It's like they don't want to offend anybody. I'll bet it doesn't work that way in other religions. Can you imagine the Mormon council of elders debating things? I'm betting that the prophet has all the votes in his pocket before he enters the room, although I would have loved to have been there in 1978, when Spencer Kimball dropped the revelation bombshell about black people. That would have been fun.
The Catholic Church also strongly suggests that you do stuff on Ash Wednesday, during Holy Week and on at least one saint day. My wife, Ana, has her saint day on July 26, which was the date for which Fidel Castro named his revolutionary movement. Speaking of which, did you see that Steven Soderbergh has made a movie called Che? Reportedly, it is more than four hours long, making it the longest butt-kissing in cinematic history.
Next time, I'll tell you what I prayed for.