'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

Golden rule cover

It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

On Christians, Gay Marriage & Finding a Middle Ground

My friend David likes to give me a hard time for my blog. Last I saw him — at a party a couple of weeks ago, with drinks in our hands — he leaned over and said: "You're not still writing all that atheist stuff, are you?" (He might not have said "stuff." Who can remember?) David's a Christian. And although he rarely talks about his religion — that is, he's not a proselytizer — he attends church frequently, and he sings (really well, actually) in his choir, and he unabashedly loves his Jesus.

But none of that seems to matter, or even come up between us, with the exception of some good-natured haranguing once in a while. (And believe me, I give it back in spades.) There are so many things I adore about David that I tend to forget "all that churchy stuff." Our roads may fork at belief, but they come together at so many other junctures — we're never too far away from each other.

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Take yesterday:  Supreme Court. Defense of Marriage Act. Prop. 8. You remember.

It was kind of a big deal.

A big deal for all of us, I'd argue, but especially for David, since he's both gay and married. (That's him in the picture, on the left,  with his partner, JP. It was taken on their wedding day.) His Facebook statuses yesterday were the best. Here are some of them, in order of appearance:

Today the government made an honest man out of me. No longer will I lie and check "single" on my federal income tax form.

My husband just woke up and my first words to him were, "Our marriage is federally recognized."

 Time for a federally recognized wedding ceremony. And reception. And GIFTS.

I'm mostly excited because I can now re-gift more of our wedding gifts.

Last night I made dinner for my husband for the first time ever. This morning, we awoke to some good news from SCOTUS. Must. Make. Dinner. More. Often. (Ok--"made dinner" is a bit of stretch--but I did heat up frozen turkey burgers).

In the morning my first words to my husband were, "Our marriage is federally recognized." Before going to bed my last words were, "How are your social security benefits looking?"

It's this type of thing that makes GOP-fundamentalist claims that the Supreme Court violated "God's law" so utterly nut-job. By all means, Michelle Bacchmann, be religious. Believe in whatever God or prophet you like. But know that invoking your religious beliefs in an attempt to discredit gay marriage doesn't turn people against gay marriage. It just turns people against you.

'Jesus Gosh!': Explaining Religious Sensitivity to a 4-Year-Old

il_570xN.302185289When exactly is the right time to broach the subject of religion with children? It's a common question not easily answered. Kids are so different. The brain develops at different speeds and in different ways. What interests children at any given age runs the gamut of possibilities and is constantly in flux. So parents like me, we look for openings. We keep our ears open for conversation starters, and signs that our little ones might be ready to think a bit deeper about life and people and beliefs. We want them to be old enough to hear different perspectives and not take everything at face value; but we also want them to be young enough to listen to us. We want to make sure they'll interested in what we have to say — as opposed to what their friends have to say.

My sister, Jennifer, was driving to my house last week with her 4-year-old son in the back seat. Shortly after Jack had climbed into his car seat, he said to him mom: "I invented a new word."

"What is it?" Jennifer asked.

"Jesus Gosh!" he said proudly.

He explained that it's a word meant to be said when you're surprised by something.

Jennifer saw her opening.

"You know, Jack..." she began, "that word — Jesus — some people don't like to hear that word used in that way."

Jack seemed fascinated by that, so she went on.

She explained how Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago. She said he was an important man who many religious people believe was a prophet, but who Christians believe was the son of God. Then she talked a bit about how that distinguished Christians from other religions and about different cultures. She said Christians from Latin and South American often name their children Jesus (though it's pronounced differently), but that in the United States, the name is considered sacrosanct and is not, in Christian circles at least, to be used in any way other than to talk about or praise Jesus.

"I know Auntie Wendy uses that word sometimes," she said at one point, "but someone like Gramma would never use the word that way. And, if she heard you say 'Jesus Gosh,' she wouldn't like that."

Yeah. She threw me under the bus is what she did.

But I digress.

The point is, to Jennifer, it was breakthrough. And she felt great about it. She told Jack that it's important to understand how our words might offend some people. "We can say whatever we want," she said. "But it's good to think about how other people might feel about our words."

Later, she told me, "I know I was using some words he didn't understand, but he seemed fine with it. He seemed to be getting it. So I just went on and on."

For 10 minutes. Ten. Whole. Minutes.

Jack never said a word, but he was listening so intently, that she just knew this had been the right moment. She hadn't missed it.

Then finally, she paused. Would there be any questions, she wondered?

Just one, as it turns out.

"Mommy," came his little voice, "what did you say?"

12 Simple Differences Between Catholics and Protestants

The rapid rise of the "Nones" — those unaffiliated with religious groups — was back in the news this week, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its most recent study on American religiosity. Here's what Pew had to say:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling... Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

In addition, the group emphasized that, for the first time in history, there is no Protestant majority in the United States. That is, Protestants have dropped to 48 percent, whereas they comprised 53 percent of the public as recently as 2007 — a drop of 5 percent in five years. (Catholics, by comparison dropped 1 percent during the same time period — to 22 percent). As you all know, Protestants are Christians who broke off from the Catholic Church 500 years ago. Although there are more than 33,000 (!!) Protestant denominations, all of them still operate in ways that are separate and distinct from the Catholic Church. But what are the differences, really? I mean, all Christians Churches hold the same core value: Jesus Christ was the son of the God who died for our sins, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Isn't the rest just window-dressing?

Well, here, you decide.

Twelve Differences Between Catholics and Protestants:

1. The Pope. Catholics have a Pope, which they consider a vicar for Christ — an infallible stand-in, if you will — that heads the Church. Protestants believe no human is infallible and Jesus alone heads up the Church.

2.  Big, Fancy Cathedrals. Catholics have them; Protestants don't. Why? Well, Catholicism says that "humanity must discover its unity and salvation" within a church. Protestants say all Christians can be saved, regardless of church membership. (Ergo... shitty, abandoned storefront churches? All Protestant.)

3. Saints. Catholics pray to saints (holy dead people) in addition to God and Jesus. Protestants acknowledge saints, but don't pray to them. [Note: There is much debate about the use of the word "pray" in this context, so let me clarify: Saints are seen by Catholics as an intermediary to God or Jesus. Although Catholics do technically pray to saints, they are not praying for the saints to help them directly but to intervene on their behalf. They are asking the saints (in the form of a prayer) to pray for them. It's like praying for prayers. Hope this helps.]

4.  Holy Water. Catholics only.

5. Celibacy and Nuns. Catholics only.

6. Purgatory: Catholics only.

7. Scripture: The be-all, end-all for Protestants is "the Word of God." For Catholics, tradition is just important as scripture — maybe even more so.

8. Catechism: Protestant kids memorize the Bible. Catholic kids get catechism.

9. Authori-tay: In Catholicism, only the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret the Bible. Protestants hold that each individual has authority to interpret the Bible.

10. Sacraments: Catholic are the only ones to have the concept of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony). Protestants teach that salvation is attained through faith alone.

11. Holidays: Catholics have 10 Holy Days of Obligation (which mean they must go to Mass). Protestants are more like, "Just come to church on Christmas, that's all we ask."

12. Communion: In Catholicism, the bread and wine "become" the body and blood of Jesus Christ, meaning that Jesus is truly present on the altar. In Protestantism, the bread and wine are symbolic.

This post originally appeared in October 2012.

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost?

Pentecost

From a historical perspective, Christianity didn't start with Jesus' birth, his death, or even his storied ascension to heaven. It started with Pentecost — the day the "Holy Spirit" entered a room holding Jesus' apostles and entered each of them, an event which — as my minister uncle tells me — "makes the church the church." Although Pentecost is chock full of religious significance, it is a holiday not widely celebrated. Sort of the opposite of Hanukkah, which is widely celebrated but not religiously important. My uncle says Pentecost is a bigger deal in liturgical churches, which follow a formal, standardized order of events (like Catholics). "Non-liturgical" refers to churches whose services are unscripted (like Baptists).

Pentecost is Sunday. Here's the rundown:

Holiday: Pentecost

AKA: "Birthday of the Church"

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: 50 days after Easter — May 19.

Celebrates: The day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, causing them to speak in tongues.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Pentecost depends on the person. My uncle, a Presbyterian minister put it like this: "To me personally, as religious observances go, Easter rates a 10, Pentecost a 7 and Christmas a 6. [But] the average member of my church would probably say Easter was a 10, Christmas an 8 and Pentecost a 3.

Stars of the Show: Jesus' 12 apostles

Back Story: Pentecost, which means "fifty," refers to a Jewish harvest festival that occurs 50 days after Passover. In Christianity, it refers to an event said to have occurred 50 days after Easter. (What a coincidence!) But let me back up: At his Last Supper, Jesus is said to have instructed his 12 disciples to go out into the world to minister and heal the sick on their own. It was at this point that they became "apostles." Fifty days after Jesus' death, as the story goes, the Holy Spirit (part of the Holy Trinitity — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit ) descended onto the apostles, making them speak in foreign tongues. This Pentecostal experience allowed the apostles direct communication with God, which signaled a major shift and laid the foundation for what would become Christianity. You'll notice that the disciples always are depicted in artwork as regular-looking men while the apostles are depicted with halos around their heads. (Several other apostles came later — namely the famous Paul who is credited with writing much of the New Testament.

Although all the original 12 apostles are important, some get top billing. Here's why:

Peter (also called Simon Peter) established the first church in Antioch and is regarded as the founding pope of the Catholic church. Instrumental in the spread of early Christianity, Peter was said to have walked on water, witnessed the "Transfiguration of Jesus" and denied Jesus (for which he repented and was forgiven.) The Gospel of Mark is ascribed to Peter, as Mark was Peter's disciple and interpreter.

John also is said to have witness the Transfiguration of Jesus and went on to pen the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and Book of Revelation. He died at age 94, having outlived the other apostles — all of whom, according to legend/history/whatever, were martyred. John is often described as "Jesus' favorite" and depicted as the disciple sitting to Jesus' right at the Last Supper.

 Thomas ("Doubting Thomas") is best known for questioning Jesus' resurrection when first told of it. According to the Bible, Thomas saw Jesus himself several days later and proclaimed "My Lord and my God," to which Jesus famously responded: "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." (John 20:28.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Biblal Book of Acts 2:1-47

Celebrations: Pentecost isn't associated with feasts or elaborate traditions. Generally, it is a holiday marked in liturgical churches. Because the holiday's liturgical color is red, to symbolize the apostles "tongues of fire" and also the blood of martyrs, sometimes Christians will dress in red or decorate churches with red. Many churches hold baptisms and confirmations on that day, as well.

What's the Deal with Speaking in Tongues?: "Tongues" is generally believed to be a type of gibberish (although some say it's God's language) created when the Holy Spirit enters a person. Many followers of Pentecostalism  — a protestant denomination that emphasizes a direct, personal experience with God — still speak in tongues when they are baptized or "born again" into the faith. They believe that, at the moment of this second baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them, which causes them to speak in tongues — just as it did with the apostles some 2,000 years ago.

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Fun Fact: Jesus was captured and crucified because one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him (that's not the fun part). Within days, Judas committed suicide out of shame (also not the fun part). That left only only 11 apostles, so the remaining 11 voted in a replacement: Matthias. Matthias was there during the Pentecost, which means he became holy without ever having been a disciple. (Okay, maybe "fun" was the wrong word.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This idea that, under Christian doctrine, God is able to take several "shapes" — the Holy Spirit being one of them — is sort of interesting. In this way, many Christians believe that God lives inside them because they have allowed the Holy Spirit to enter them. Pretty esoteric stuff for very young kids, though. Speaking in tongues, although far more fun/funny, may be no less difficult to grasp. As far as books go: I haven't yet read The Very First Christians by Paul Maier, but it's gotten good reviews on Amazon.

Click here for more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

This post first appeared in May 2012

Quick! What the Hell is Easter?

Easter CrossMy favorite anecdote told by Teach Not Preach blogger Jim Morrison appears in one of his first blogs. As you may recall, Morrison is a World Religion teacher at a Minnesota high school, and has been for decades. This particular anecdote involves a junior named Angel — Angel! —  who approached Morrison after class one day in 1997 to ask one, discreet question. "Is Jesus dead?"

Morrison said the girl had waited until they were alone and appeared to be blushing when she asked the question. Morrison played it off warmly, but, inside, he was dumbfounded. "How odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive," he wrote. Still, he was awfully glad she asked. (So many Christians talk about Jesus as though he's alive and well and walking among us, no wonder kids get confused!)

"Obviously, we should not fault Angel for being ignorant," Morrison wrote. "Her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion."

The moral of the story? Yes, Jesus is dead. He died 2,000 years ago. It's why we have Easter. And if our kids don't hear it from us, they might never hear it at all. So let's do this thing, people!

Holiday: Easter

AKA: Resurrection Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Celebrates: The resurrection of Jesus

Date: The first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. In 2013, Easter falls on March 31. In 2014: April 20.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Easter is a 10.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: During his lifetime, Jesus of Nazareth never called himself the Messiah or Christ, at least not publicly. But by the time he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for Passover in the year 33 AD (or thereabouts), many people believed he was both. As legend has it: Jesus caused a ruckus at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the tables of some dishonest merchants there — an event that likely raised the hackles of Roman leaders that may already have felt threatened by Jesus’ growing religious (and political) popularity. After hosting his Last Supper (famously depicted by Leonardo da Vinci), Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, and condemned to die. He was crucified on a wooden cross (which is now the symbol of Christianity) beneath a crown of thorns, his last words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” On the third day after his crucifixion, according to the gospels, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Christians believe Jesus' death brought forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and humanity.

Associated Literary Passages: There are many in the New Testament: Matthew 27:50-53; Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-53; John 11:25-26; John 20:1-22:25; Romans 1:4-5; Romans 6:8-11; Philippians 3:10-12; and 1 Peter 1:3, among others.

Easter is a Week-Long Affair: The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday (marking the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem). It also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper with Jesus' disciples (that's today!), Good Friday, honoring the decidedly not good day of Jesus' crucifixion, and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection.) Then there's the happiest day of the year: Easter. In a sense, says my Catholic-raised friend, Tim, every Sunday of the year is meant to be a mini-celebration of Easter.

The Food: Some of what Christians eat on Easter harkens back to the Passover Seder: Hard-boiled eggs and lamb, among them. Ham is also an Easter staple, along with chocolate and sweets.

The Fun: In addition to dressing in their “Sunday best” for Easter church services, Christians give to charity, share feasts with family, and give Easter baskets full of chocolates, jelly beans and other goodies to children. Much like the Hindu celebration of Holi, Easter conveniently falls at the beginning of spring — so lots of the activities are symbolic of fertility and new life. Eggs, which also are said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus, are central to Easter, with celebrants hard-boiling them, painting them and hiding them.  The Easter Bunny, although secular, also has become an Easter mainstay — the equivalent of Santa Claus to Christmas.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ironically, secular parents often have an easier time explaining Easter (without religion) than many Christian parents do (with it). The Passion is just such a damn mystery. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Why didn’t God intervene? How, exactly, did Jesus' death bring about forgiveness of human sins? And if Jesus rose from the dead, why can’t we? Secular parents are lucky they don't have to try to make sense of all this. Still, it's important to let kids know this story is the single most important one in all of Christianity. If your kid knows this one, the rest is icing. I am seriously remiss in not having some recommended Easter children's books for you guys here. Please check back; I promise to correct that. In the meantime, I strongly suggest thumbing through your library's selection of Easter books and staying the heck away from the Bernstein Bears' version. (Click here for tips on how to choose religious picture books appropriate for secular families.) Oh, and Jesus Christ Superstar is a great, G-rated conversation starter for kids, like, 9 and up.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012.

God's (Alleged) Gender Proves Problematic for Some Parents

god About a year ago — when my daughter was six — I noticed that she had been sitting in silence for a surprisingly long time.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm sad," she said.

"Why are you sad?" I asked.

"Because," she said, "God is a boy and not a girl."

"How do you know?"

"I just know," she said, glumly.

"And why does that make you sad?"

"Because," she said. "I'm a girl."

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I don't spend a lot of time complaining about religion. Usually, I just don't see the point. Religion is so big and broad and amorphous. One person's going-to-synogogue-on-Saturday is another person's whipping-kids-for-talking-back. One person's giving-to-charitable-causes is another person's picketing-the-funerals-of-gay-soldiers. Just try to get two people to agree on the nature, purpose or value of "religion." But some things are just plain hard to swallow — in a universal sense. And, ever since that conversation with my daughter, the "gender" of God is one of them. Rarely, if ever, do children hear "Her" as a pronoun or "Mother" as a descriptor for God. Even "It" — which is the gender-neutral way that Muslims describe Allah in Arabic — sounds completely foreign to us.

This isn't to say, of course, that all religions conceptualize God as a man. They don't — not literally anyway.

Christianity describes God as a Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (who the heck knows). The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that "God is neither man nor woman." Yet, that statement is immediately followed by: "He is God."

There's that He again.

Similarly, in Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib is known for saying God was indescribable, but then the guru repeatedly referred to this indescribable being as "He" and "Father." Even Hindus, which have goddesses out the yin-yang, still describe their top god — Brahma — in entirely masculine terms. Judaism's God is, perhaps, the least manly of the bunch. Still, though, Jews — like Christians — are pretty tied to the language of the Torah/Old Testament. And, there, as we know too well, references to God are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

I Googled "God" today, and guess how many images of women came up?

Now, let me be clear: I am not weighing in on the debate over whether God is a man, woman, both or neither. That is one debate that will always be completely irrelevant to me personally. But there is no denying that we, as a society, continue to couch God in male terms. Even those of us who don't believe in God do it. At very early ages, American children are encouraged to form their images of God as a man. Specifically, an old man. Even more specifically, an old man with a beard.

Now, if you're a little boy, this is probably a nonissue. No big deal. Completely innocuous. But if you're a girl — well, one need only look at the conversation with my daughter to see that the distinction is a huge deal. Just huge.

When girls hear — and they all hear it — that the entity in charge of the whole universe, the one who has all the power, is a boy (more boy than girl, at the very least!) it changes things for her. It gives her a new perspective on her life and life in general. It limits her. It may even sadden her.

And that — on a very personal level — saddens me.

I dare say, it should sadden us all.

Anyone else have similar experiences or thoughts on this? If so, I'd really love to hear them.

Inject Some Religious Literacy into Your Valentine's Day

For the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, "it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how limiting my worldview can be. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. That's a real bummer. I'd love to be able to spin like that. And even worse? The chances are almost zero that I'll ever be sainted.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need." And to that, I say, “Thank you. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I'm not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my obvious assets, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles, being dead, etc.

The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I'm dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it's rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew's Jewish preschool doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day proves that the connection isn't entirely lost.)

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows, but many believe "Valentine" referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. (It's this successorship thing that makes Pope Benedict's resignation so tricky for the church.) I wrote about 12 differences between Protestants and Catholics here.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, you know, candy hearts.

 

A version of this post originally appeared in February 2012