Secret Santa Window

swallowThe builders of St. Francis de Sales Church left many messages for the faithful to decipher, but the symbols in the bottom part of the Nativity window (middle long window, St. Joseph side of church), are especially hard to puzzle out, since they were imperfectly formed in the glass.

Historic photos from the D’Ascenzo Archives at the Athenaeum are only a little sharper, but those seem to show the two lily-like decorations as anchors with crossbars, or anchor crosses. The blob between the crosses is a bird with long pointed wings and a forked tail — a swallow – a traditional complement to the Nativity scene above, and part of a unifying theme for the three bottom windows.

Swallows were mysterious birds because they disappeared in winter: until the early 1800s, it was believed that they hibernated, or slept, in mud at the bottom of ponds, and “returned to life” in the spring. Because of this annual  “resurrection,”  the swallow was used in art to represent the incarnation – the dual status of Christ as both divine and human.

(Incidentally, it was Edward Jenner, an English country doctor and naturalist, who marked individual birds, observed their behavior, and determined that they actually flew south in the winter and returned in the spring. Jenner is an interesting character, more famously credited with the invention of vaccination against smallpox).

The anchor crosses on either side of the swallow also fit nicely with the Nativity theme, since they are supposed to signify “hope” – and what could be more hopeful than the birth of the Savior! Why are they paired? All three bottom windows on that side of the church show variations of a double-cross (two crosses together, not a weasely form of cheating) – more emblems of Christ’s combined human and divine nature.

What’s the Santa secret? The anchor cross is an interesting cross choice for the Christmas window, since the anchor can also be a symbol for Saint Nicholas – the saint who inspired Santa Claus! His most famous legend relates to tossing bags of gold through a window to provide a dowry for young ladies. But he is also the patron saint of sailors and ships, since his prayers were thought to have calmed a fierce storm at sea as he returned by ship from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

So we are illuminated by our windows. We realize that like Saint Nicholas, we are on a pilgrimage through life, inspired by a divine mystery. The muddiness of the hand-crafted symbols in our glass offers an extra layer of meaning: reminding us of human imperfection, and our tendency to obscure the message of Hope that the season should represent.

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