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15 Patron Saints for Modern Situations

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints, often referred to as All Saints' Day or All Hallows (hence October 31 is Halloween, a contraction of All Hallows' Evening). In honor of the day, we present to you some of the lesser-known (and more modern) patronages of the saints.

Performers

There's a great story about St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors, that tells of how he had an epiphany while performing in a play satirizing Christian sacrament and converted to Christianity on the spot, right in the middle of the play. Emperor Diocletian, for whom the play was being performed, was enraged and, when Genesius refused to change his mind, had the performer tortured and beheaded. Sadly, this story is just that—a story—that originated three centuries after Genesius' death. Genesius was actually a legal clerk who became so upset about the edict of persecution for Christians that he left his position and went in search of baptism. He was beheaded, around 303 CE, but there's no evidence to suggest the conversion-during-a-play story is accurate. Nevertheless, St. Genesius remains the go-to patron for actors.

St. Vitus has a slightly more legitimate reason to be patron saint of performers, but it's still a bit contrived. Also martyred circa 303 CE during the persecution of Christians under the co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, Vitus is one of the "Fourteen Holy Helpers," a group of saints venerated together because their intercession is considered especially effective. Vitus' feast day, June 15th, was celebrated in the late Middle Ages with dancing in front of a statue of the saint (see the image at left). He thus was adopted as the saint of dancers, and of performers in general. He's also the patron saint of those suffering from epilepsy and Sydenham's chorea, a.k.a. Saint Vitus Dance, "a disease characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements."

Advertising, Television, & Broadcasting

Bernardine of Siena, who was a Franciscan priest, is considered the patron saint of advertisers, an honor that stems from his passionate and highly persuasive preaching. When he first became a Franciscan (an order known as missionary preachers), Bernardine focused on prayer and didn't praech much due to a weak, hoarse voice. After 12 years, he journeyed to Milan on a mission, where he preached with a voice so "strong and commanding" and "words so convincing that the crowd would not let him leave unless he promised to come back." From then on, he spent almost all of his time preaching, and even turned down several offers to be bishop. In 1444, he realized his death was imminent, and preached for 50 consecutive days until his death.

The funny thing about St. Bernardine being the patron saint of advertising is that he was noted for his dislike of indecent talk, something that features heavily in much of modern advertising. Once when he was a boy, an adult for some reason thought it would funny to stop Bernardine in the town square and publicly embarrass him with indecent talk, but the tables were turned when young Bernardine slapped the man across the face, humiliating him.

Radio broadcasters (and "communication workers" in general) can look to Gabriel the Archangel as their patron saint. Gabriel is, of course, the angel who appeared to Mary to announce her pregnancy with the Son of God. He's also the angel who announced to Daniel the "seventy times seven" prophecy and the angel who foretold the birth of St. John the Baptist to Zachariah.

And for those working in television, there's St. Clare of Assisi. Clare was inspired to imitate Francis of Assisi after hearing him preach, and she ran away from home to "live a poor humble life for Jesus," eventually founding an order of nuns known as the "Poor Clares." Near the end of her life, Clare became too sick to attend daily mass. Sick in her bed on Christmas Eve, she saw visions of the chapel mass on the wall of her cell, complete with organ music and singing. Considering this miracle to be the first live broadcast, Pope Pius XII declared St. Clare the patron saint of television in 1958. Bonus fact: It was a Poor Clare nun, Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), which broadcasts Catholic-themed programs including daily mass.

Beer, Brewers, & Alcoholics

Beer has just one patron saint, an Austrian bishop who was known for extolling the benefits of drinking beer. St. Arnold was born into a prominent Austrian family in 580 CE. In that time, water wasn't actually very safe to drink, as it was often filled with contaminants that could make people sick. Beer's preparation, however, kills off any harmful bacteria, making it positively healthy in comparison. Arnold spoke often on the topic of beer, especially its health benefits. He's credited with the statement, "From man's sweat and God's love, beer came into the world."

About a year after Arnold's death and burial at his monastery in Remiremont, France, his body was relocated to the local church in Metz, France, where he had frequently preached. According to legend, the procession that transported his body stopped at a tavern for refreshment on the way, but there was only one mug of beer left, so they all split it... and the mug never ran dry, quenching the crowd's thirst.

Today, there's a brewery in Houston named for the patron saint of beer: Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

Brewers have a whole assortment of patron saints to call their own: Augustine of Hippo, Luke, Nicholas of Myra, Amand, and Wenceslaus. Yet the explanations for these patrons are lacking. The only one given an explanation is St. Augustine of Hippo, and it's shaky at best. According to Catholic.org: "St. Augustine of Hippo is the patron of brewers because of his conversion from a former life of loose living, which included parties, entertainment, and worldly ambitions. His complete turnaround and conversion has been an inspiration to many who struggle with a particular vice or habit they long to break."

His early bad boy lifestyle may have been a classic case of rebellion—his mother was the super holy St. Monica, who managed to convert her husband and his mother to Christianity. She prayed for Augustine through 17 years of his "loose living" and was consoled by a priest who told her, "It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish." Eventually, her prayers and preaching won out, and Augustine cast aside "all impurity" and began living "in imitation of Jesus."

Speaking of St. Monica, she's known as the patron saint of alcoholics (and those affected by them). In addition to her challenges with her son Augustine, her husband was an abusive alcoholic pagan whom she had married through arrangement at a young age. Despite their differences and his bad temper, Monica was able to not only "nag him to sobriety," as one site put it, but to convert him to her faith. She's also the patron saint of wives and victims of abuse, as you may have been able to guess.

Illegitimate Kids, the Divorced, & Single Moms

There isn't much information available as to why St. John Francis Regis is regarded as the patron saint of illegitimate children, but it's most likely related to his work with "wayward women and girls." John was ordained in 1630 and embarked on a life of assisting others, including helping wayward women and girls "withdr[a]w from vice," establishing hostels for prostitutes, and providing girls with incomes by setting them up as lacemakers (which is why he's also the patron saint of lacemakers).

Those who have been divorced, especially women, can look to Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine the Great, as their patron saint. St. Helena (also known as St. Helen) is most often associated with the True Cross, since she is credited with finding the relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. However, her personal life suits her to patronage of divorcées. It's unknown exactly when and how she met Emperor Constantius, but it is said that when they met he saw her as "his soulmate sent by God." Sources are also unsure as to the exact nature of their relationship: some say it was a legal marriage, others a common-law marriage; some say she was his wife, others his concubine. Whatever the specifics, the two were in a relationship that produced an heir, Constantine, around the year 272 CE. They remained together for at least 15 years, but in 289 CE Constantius, who was Roman Emperor Caesar, divorced Helena to enter into a politically advantageous marriage with a younger woman, Theodora, who was the stepdaugher of Maximian, Roman Emperor Augustus at the time.

As for single moms, they have St. Margaret of Cortona, who became the mistress of a nobleman when she was a teenager. Margaret remained with the nobleman for ten years and even bore him a son, despite his refusal to marry her as she desired. She left only after his murder (don't worry, she wasn't the one who killed him) and returned home to her father's house with her son, but her stepmother refused to let her stay. She took refuge with the Church of Saint Francis in Cortona, eventually joining the Third Order of St. Francis (although her past led to resistance by some members of the order).

The Ugly & Those Suffering Discrimination

Drogo of Sebourg, who was born into Flemish nobility, held himself responsible for his mother's death in childbirth and practiced extreme penance, ridding himself of all possessions at age 18 to become a penitential pilgrim. During one pilgrimage, he suffered an "unsightly bodily affliction." The term "unsightly" is actually a bit too mild to properly convey Drogo's condition: he became so deformed that townspeople were scared of his appearance, and they even built a cell (attached to a church, since he was so religious) for him to stay in, to "protect the local citizens of the village from his appearance." Yeah, he was that ugly. For the remaining 40 years of his life, the only human contact he had was via a small window in the door of his cell, through which he received his sustenance—barley, water, and the Eucharist. So if you feel that you're ugly or deformed, send up a prayer through St. Drogo... or just remind yourself he had it a lot worse.

There's also St. Germaine, who supposedly was abandoned by her parents as a young child due to her unattractiveness. She spent her life isolated from society; as a shepherdess, she slept in fields and under stairways and had limited human interaction.

Desperate Situations and Impossible Cases

People who feel they're facing desperate situations can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they have several patron saints to whom they can turn: Jude, Gregory the Wonderworker, and Eustace. Really, the majority of the officially recognized saints suffered through "desperate situations," so almost any of them are worth a shot. St. Jude is probably the most well-known for desperate situations (and lost causes). His reputation as patron of the desperate is due to his New Testament letter, which "stresses that the faithful should persevere in the environment of harsh, difficult circumstances, just as their forefathers had done before them," according to Catholic.org.

If your situation is truly impossible, though, you have only one person to turn to: Rita of Cascia. From childhood, Rita (also known as Margarita) yearned to be a nun, but her parents forced her into marriage at age 12 to "a rich, quick-tempered, immoral man, who had many enemies in the region." She endured his "insults, abuse, and infidelities" and persevered in converting "her cruel husband from his wicked ways, making their home a peaceful sanctuary of holy bliss." They went on to have two children together. Despite her husband's change of heart, his past led to his downfall; he was stabbed to death, betrayed by his allies. As her sons grew older, they plotted revenge for their father's murder and wouldn't listen to reason from Rita. So Rita turned to prayer instead, and her sons died non-violent deaths before they were able to enact any revenge.

Now that we've run down some of the quirkier patron saints, we're curious to know about your favorites. Who's your favorite patron saint? Or what do you wish there was a patron saint for?

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25 Questions about Hanukkah, Answered!
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From proper spellings and whether to call it a menorah or hanukkiah, to how to celebrate in space and where you can find a competitive dreidel game, we have the answers to 25 pressing questions about the Festival of Lights.

1. HOW DO YOU SPELL IT?

"Happy Hanukkah" spelled with blocks.
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, variant spellings of the celebration include: Chanucha, Hanuca, Hanucka, Khanukah, and most every other combination imaginable, with the most common spellings today being Hanukkah and Chanukah. The reason for all the spellings is because Hanukkah isn't a native English word—it's not even from a language that uses the Latin alphabet.

When converting between alphabets, there is a choice whether to preserve the pronunciation or the spelling, and sometimes the results don't match [PDF]. In the case of Hanukkah and Chanukah, Hanukkah represents the spelling, while Chanukah more closely represents the original pronunciation, with a Ch like the Scottish pronunciation of loch.

2. WHAT DOES IT COMMEMORATE?

Wood engraving from the 19th century.
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The story is that in the second century BCE Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. The Empire began forcing Jews to convert to Greek culture and religion, resulting in the Maccabee Revolt. Eventually the Maccabees emerged victorious and needed to rededicate the Temple and light the menorah. But there was a problem: They could only find one jug of oil that was still pure, which was enough for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, which was enough time to get new oil. But historians still debate certain parts, such as how much of the Maccabee revolt was over Hellenization versus a power struggle between different factions of Judaism, and even when the story of the oil appeared in the record.

3. ON WHAT DATE DOES HANUKKAH START?

Calendar with December 12 noted as first day of Hanukkah.
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According to the Gregorian calendar, in 2017 Hanukkah will begin on the evening of December 12, while in 2018 it begins on the evening of December 3 and in 2019 on December 22. The first day can fall anywhere from November 27 to as late as December 26.

4. WHY DOES IT ALWAYS CHANGE DATES?

Star of David decorations.
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It changes dates for the same reason that there are so many spellings—conversion issues. In the Hebrew calendar the first day of Hanukkah takes place on the 25th of Kislev each year. But unlike the solar Gregorian calendar, the Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning that the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars don't perfectly correspond to each other. So while followers of the Gregorian calendar see Hanukkah moving around, to a follower of the Hebrew calendar, dates like Christmas move around—being celebrated on 7th of Tevet one year, and the 17th of Tevet the next.

5. HOW MANY ARMS SHOULD A MENORAH HAVE?

A stone menorah outside the knesset.

Benjamin, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This isn't as straightforward a question as it may appear. Outside the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) is a statue of a menorah with only seven arms. This represents the menorah of the Temple, which had seven arms and has long been one of the symbols of Judaism. And Hanukkah's miracle of the oil made use of the seven branched version.

6. SO HOW DID THE HANUKKAH VERSION APPEAR?

Menorah above
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There are multiple hypotheses for the nine-branched menorah used for Hanukkah celebrations. One is that it was forbidden to make replicas of the seven-branched Temple menorah, so adding extra arms got around that prohibition. The other possibility is that the practicalities of an eight day celebration lent itself to a nine-branched menorah.

7. SHOULD I ACTUALLY CALL IT A MENORAH THEN?

Menorah and Star of David.
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According to historian Steven Fine, the Hanukkah fixture and many other types of lighting were all called menorahs until the late 19th century, when Hemda Ben Yehuda, the wife of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was the driving force behind the reemergence of Hebrew as a language, decided that the Hanukkah lamp needed to be distinguished from the seven-branched menorahs that were starting to become widespread. Eventually, they came across a Balkan word, hanukkiah, to describe the lamp.

Today, some people maintain that menorah is fine to describe the Hanukkah candelabra, while others maintain that it should be referred to as a hanukkiah or chanukiah.

8. WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE MIDDLE CANDLE?

Close-up of a menorah.
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On a standard hanukkiah, one of the candles is raised, lowered, or otherwise separated from the other eight. This candle is called the shamash and is considered distinct from the main candles (in other words, on the first night of Hanukkah there are actually two candles lit—the first candle and the shamash). It serves multiple purposes, such as being used to light the other candles of the hanukkiah. The extra candle is also important because it's forbidden to use the main Hanukkah lights for non-religious purposes like reading or to derive a benefit from them. Part of the purpose of the shamash is to offload any benefit gained onto a non-important candle (although some Jews have other lights available to avoid even the shamash light).

9. WHAT DOES A TRADITIONAL HANUKKAH CELEBRATION ENTAIL?

Family lighting a hanukkiah.
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While there are regional and even family differences as to specifics, one of the most common orders of events is that the shamash is lit, and then blessings, or brachot, are recited. On the first night there are three blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, which is only recited on the first night, meaning the other nights have two blessings. Following the brachot the candles are lit, and then traditionally Hanerot Halalu is recited and songs are sung.

10. HOW DO I LOAD AND LIGHT THE HANUKKIAH?

Rabbi lighting a hanukkiah.
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According to the Talmud, this was a debate between two of the major sages of first century BCE Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, and their schools of thought Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Hillel argued that on the first night, only one light should be lit (not including the shamash), and then on the second night two lights, and so on until eight lights are lit on the eighth day. Shammai argued for the reverse; on the first night eight lights should be lit, decreasing by one until the last day. Each side backed up their argument with theological evidence (Shammai compared it to the bulls of the Festival of Succot, where the sacrificed bulls decreased by one each day, while Hillel argued that holiness should increase, not decrease). A vote was held and Hillel’s thought won and is the common practice today.

So on the first day, one candle is placed on the rightmost holder on the hanukkiah and lit. On the second day, a candle is placed in the rightmost holder and then another candle in the second rightmost holder. When it comes to lighting, the order is reversed. After lighting the shamash, the newest candle is lit first and then the previous candle, and so on. So the hanukkiah is loaded right to left, but lit left to right.

11. DOES IT HAVE TO BE CANDLES?

A battery-operated menorah.
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No. In fact, olive oil (with cotton wicks) is considered the ideal fuel as that is likely the oil used in the original miracle. Beyond that, beeswax candles and many other candles and oils are considered perfectly acceptable for use in a hanukkiah, as long as the light doesn't flicker. Where the debate occurs is in electric hanukkiahs. Some view them as a fine update on the tradition, especially for people who can't have or don't want open flames. According to Chabad.org though, there are issues. One of the major ones is that "fuel" (electricity) gets continually added, while one of the requirements of the lighting is that the required fuel needs to be present at the beginning, although they concede that battery-powered hanukkiahs likely fulfill this requirement. There are also issues with how the light is generated, so many people say to use electric hanukkiahs only for display purposes or if a traditional hanukkiah isn't possible.

12. WHAT HAPPENS ON SHABBAT?

Shabbat candles and bread.
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Since Hanukkah ranges over eight days, it will inevitably overlap with the Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), which has its own lighting tradition. In that situation, the Hanukkah candles should be lit first, as it is forbidden to light candles after the Shabbat candles are lit and the blessings said. But to ensure that the candles last at least half an hour after dark, special candles are recommended.

13. HOW TRADITIONAL ARE LATKES?

Plate of latkes.
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Not as traditional as one might think. Potatoes are native to South America and weren't encountered by Europeans until the 16th century. Before then, it's thought that latkes were based on an Italian ricotta pancake. Eventually the potato came to dominate, possibly thanks to the available frying oil. One theory for the change is that in Eastern Europe the pancakes were fried in chicken fat as opposed to a plant oils. As dietary laws prohibit Jews from mixing meat and dairy, the ricotta had to go, likely in favor of things like buckwheat. Meanwhile, another theory (not mutually exclusive) says that as crops failed in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, potatoes became a popular replacement crop. Come Hanukkah, people fried what was available to them.

14. HOW DID CHEESE ALWAYS END UP ON THE MENU?

Wine and cheese plate.
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The 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote "There are those who say to eat cheese on Hanukkah because the miracle was done through milk, which Judith fed the enemy."

The Judith in question was a beautiful widow in the town of Bethulia. As the town was under siege, the story goes, she went into the enemy camp and fed the enemy commander salty cheese to get him thirsty, then wine to get him drunk. After he got suitably drunk Judith cut off his head and ended the siege of the town.

According to NPR, despite the events of the Judith story taking place centuries before Hanukkah, medieval Jews began conflating the two, turning Judith into a close relation of Judah Maccabee. Judith's close association with cheese made it a natural Hanukkah dish.

15. WHY SO MANY FRIED FOODS?

Latkes frying in a pan.
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Fried foods are a very traditional part of the Hanukkah celebration for Jews around the world, and this is for a very simple reason—to recognize the miracle of oil.

16. WHAT OTHER TRADITIONAL FOODS SHOULD I MAKE FOR HANUKKAH?

Plate of sufganiyot.
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Gil Marks's Encyclopedia of Jewish Food contains several other traditional Hanukkah foods from all over the world. These include zangula, a type of fried batter from North Africa; sefengor kindel, an Algerian plum filled fried dough; and even a Yemeni dish called laches djezar, which Marks describes as a carrot sauté.

17. WHAT'S THE STORY BEHIND THE DREIDEL?

Four dreidels.
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The dreidel is a traditional spinning top game. The top has four sides each with a letter on it, and depending which side comes up after a spin, the player has to do nothing, put a piece into a pot, or get some or all of the pot. The traditional story is that the letters represent the phrase nes gadol haya sham or "a great miracle happened there," in reference to the Hanukkah miracle of the oil. Some versions go further, saying that the top was a tool persecuted Jews used to study the Torah. But modern historians tend to doubt this story, suggesting that it traces to a top game called teetotum or just totum. These tops traditionally had the letters of the action (Take all, take Half, Nothing, and Put) and when this was adapted for the Hebrew alphabet, the current dreidel appeared.

18. ARE THERE UNNECESSARILY COMPETITIVE DREIDEL LEAGUES?

Child spinning a dreidel.
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You bet: Major League Dreidel. In 2008, NPR explained that the contest, which featured such athletes as Tasmanian Dreidel and Jewbacca, wasn't the same as the traditional game. Instead, "Spinners compete on how long their dreidel spins on progressively smaller surfaces." And the puns don't stop at the player names: their "court" is referred to as the "Spinagogue," also the name of their tabletop game. This year, the Major League Dreidel championship will be held in Brooklyn on December 15, the fourth night of Hanukkah.

19. WHERE DID HANUKKAH GELT COME FROM?

Bag of chocolate gelt.
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There are several different origin stories for Hanukkah gelt, the foil wrapped chocolate coins of every Hanukkah celebration. One version says that it derives from the coinage that the Maccabees minted after independence. Another story relates it to the word hinnukh, or education. This hypothesis says that due to the pronunciation and possible etymological relation between hinnukh and Hanukkah, coins were given to teachers and students at that time of year. There are other possibilities, but these were all real coins. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the chocolate may have come from an entirely different holiday figure: Santa Claus. The books says that in Belgium and the Netherlands people celebrated St. Nicholas' feast day on December 6 by giving both chocolate and real coins to students and children, although they caution "it would be a mistake to draw too close a connection between this Christian tradition and Chanukah gelt." No matter what, the first Hanukkah chocolate gelt is believed to have been from a chocolatier in the 1920s.

20. WHY ARE THE COLORS BLUE AND WHITE?

Israeli flag.
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Likely because of the Israeli flag. In the 19th century, the Jewish poet Ludwig August von Frankl wrote that "blue and white are the colors of Judah," likely basing the assertion on the Jewish prayer shawl the tallit. Eventually, the colors became associated with Israel and Judaism, and eventually Hanukkah.

21. WHAT'S THE TALLEST HANUKKIAH IN THE WORLD?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends the menorah lighting in New York City in 2013.
Getty

The largest hanukkiah in the world is generally thought to be in New York City near Central Park, which stands at 36 feet high, weighs two tons, and has been a New York fixture since 1977.

There's a reason that the hanukkiah is only 36 feet tall. That’s the generally agreed limit on how high above ground the candles are supposed to be placed, because any higher and people won't be able to look at the lights. This causes a problem for Jews living in a high floor of an apartment complex. According to New York's Lincoln Square Synagogue, people in this situation should place the hanukkiah by the front door as opposed to in the window. But they say some authorities maintain that if there are apartment buildings opposite that are clearly visible from your apartment, the window is an acceptable place for the hanukkiah.

22. HOW DO ASTRONAUTS CELEBRATE HANUKKAH?

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In 1993, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman went up to help fix the Hubble Space Telescope. But he wasn't going to let that ruin the Hanukkah celebrations. The mission broadcast him playing with a dreidel as he attempted to "reinterpret the rules for space flight, since there's no up or down." He then broke out a small hanukkiah, although he refrained from lighting it.

23. AND HOW ABOUT IN ANTARCTICA?

Sunset in Antarctica
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In 2015, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a blog post detailing how Hanukkah was celebrated at McMurdo Station. And there were problems. The first is that for safety reasons, open flames (like from a candle) are banned [PDF]. Special dispensation had to be granted for the hanukkiah that required the fire marshal to be present and it be lit in the McMurdo galley. The other issue was lighting the candles at sunset—in the Antarctic summer, there is no sunset. According to blog author Jenna Kloosterman, one person argued that they should go with New Zealand sunset, another voted for Jerusalem time, and someone else suggested United States sunset. In the end, Kloosterman says, "we just had to go with the time that the fire marshal was available, which was 7:15 p.m."

24. BUT WHAT IF YOU CROSS THE INTERNATIONAL DATELINE?

Menorah lights along a skyline.
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According to Ohr Somayach's "Ask The Rabbi," there are a few possibilities for how to handle traveling and Hanukkah (but you should consult your own Rabbi for specific cases). The first case involved someone who is traveling. Ohr Samayach recommends appointing an agent to light the hanukkiah in the traveler's home and recite the brachot when lighting both the traveler's hanukkiah and the agent's personal hanukkiah.

But if the traveler crosses the International Dateline and skips one of the nights of Hanukkah, Ohr Somayach recommends that the agent light a hanukkiah without a corresponding bracha (the singular form of brachot).

25. WHAT'S CHRISMUKKAH?

Hanging a Star of David on a Christmas tree.
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Chrismukkah is a portmanteau of Christmas and Hanukkah introduced in 2003 on the TV show The O.C. But that wasn't the first time those two holidays were combined. In late 19th-century Germany, the term "Weihnukka" appeared, combining Hanukkah with Weihnachten, the German word for Christmas. But according to Cary Nathenson in the Journal of Jewish Identities, Weihnukka had little to do with celebrating the day, writing "The Christmas these Jews celebrated was less about the birth of Jesus Christ than it was about fitting in with neighbors. Christmas was widely seen as belonging to and defining of the German nation rather than a religious festival, and therefore celebrating the holiday was just something that 'real' Germans did, regardless of their religion."

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15 Gripping Facts About Galileo
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Albert Einstein once said that the work of Galileo Galilei “marks the real beginning of physics.” And astronomy, too: Galileo was the first to aim a telescope at the night sky, and his discoveries changed our picture of the cosmos. Here are 15 things that you might not know about the father of modern science.

1. THERE'S A REASON WHY GALILEO'S FIRST NAME ECHOES HIS LAST NAME.

You may have noticed that Galileo’s given name is a virtual carbon-copy of his family name. In her book Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel explains that in Galileo’s native Tuscany, it was customary to give the first-born son a Christian name based on the family name (in this case, Galilei). Over the years, the first name won out, and we’ve come to remember the scientist simply as “Galileo.”

2. HE PROBABLY NEVER DROPPED ANYTHING OFF THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA.

With its convenient “tilt,” the famous tower in Pisa, where Galileo spent the early part of his career, would have been the perfect place to test his theories of motion, and of falling bodies in particular. Did Galileo drop objects of different weights, to see which would strike the ground first? Unfortunately, we have only one written account of Galileo performing such an experiment, written many years later. Historians suspect that if Galileo taken part in such a grand spectacle, there would be more documentation. (However, physicist Steve Shore did perform the experiment at the tower in 2009; I videotaped it and put the results on YouTube.)

3. HE TAUGHT HIS STUDENTS HOW TO CAST HOROSCOPES.

It’s awkward to think of the father of modern science mucking about with astrology. But we should keep two things in mind: First, as historians remind us, it’s problematic to judge past events by today’s standards. Sure, we know that astrology is bunk, but in Galileo’s time, astrology was only just beginning to disentangle from astronomy. Besides, Galileo wasn’t rich: A professor who could teach astrological methods would be in greater demand than one who couldn’t.

4. HE DIDN'T LIKE BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO.

OK, maybe you already knew that, based on his eventual kerfuffle with the Roman Catholic Church. But even as a young professor at the University of Pisa, Galileo had a reputation for rocking the boat. The university’s rules demanded that he wear his formal robes at all times. He refused; he thought it was pretentious and considered the bulky gown a nuisance. So the university docked his pay.

5. GALILEO DIDN'T INVENT THE TELESCOPE.

In fact, we’re not sure who did, although a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lipperhey often gets the credit (we know that he applied for a patent in the fall of 1608). Within a year, Galileo had got hold of one of these Dutch instruments and quickly improved the design. Soon, he had a telescope that could magnify 20 or even 30 times. As historian of science Owen Gingerich has put it, Galileo had managed “to turn a popular carnival toy into a scientific instrument.”

6. HE GOT LEANED ON BY A KING TO NAME PLANETS AFTER HIM.

Galileo rose to fame in 1610 after discovering, among other things, that the planet Jupiter is accompanied by four little moons, never previously observed (and invisible without telescopic aid). Galileo dubbed them the “Medicean stars” after his patron, Cosimo II of the Medici family, who ruled over Tuscany. The news spread quickly; soon the king of France was asking Galileo if he might discover some more worlds and name them after him.

7. HE DIDN’T HAVE TROUBLE WITH THE CHURCH FOR THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF HIS LIFE.

In fact, the Vatican was keen on acquiring astronomical knowledge, because such data was vital for working out the dates of Easter and other holidays. In 1611, when Galileo visited Rome to show off his telescope to the Jesuit astronomers there, he was welcomed with open arms. The future Pope Urban VIII had one of Galileo’s essays read to him over dinner and even wrote a poem in praise of the scientist. It was only later, when a few disgruntled conservative professors began to speak out against Galileo, that things started to go downhill. It got even worse in 1616, when the Vatican officially denounced the heliocentric (sun-centered) system described by Copernicus, which all of Galileo’s observations seemed to support. And yet, the problem wasn’t Copernicanism as such. More vexing was the notion of a moving Earth, which seemed to contradict certain verses in the Bible.

8. GALILEO PROBABLY COULD HAVE EARNED A LIVING AS AN ARTIST.

We think of Galileo as a scientist, but his interests—and talents—straddled several disciplines. Galileo could draw and paint as well as many of his countrymen and was a master of perspective—a skill that no doubt helped him interpret the sights revealed by his telescope. His drawings of the moon are particularly striking. As the art professor Samuel Edgerton has put it, Galileo’s work shows “the deft brushstrokes of a practiced watercolorist”; his images have “an attractive, soft, and luminescent quality.” Edgerton writes of Galileo’s “almost impressionistic technique” more than 250 years before impressionism became, as they say, a thing.

9. HE WROTE ABOUT RELATIVITY LONG BEFORE EINSTEIN.

He didn’t write about exactly the same sort of relativity that Einstein did. But Galileo understood very clearly that motion is relative—that is, that your perception of motion has to do with your own movement as well as that of the object you’re looking at. In fact, if you were locked inside a windowless cabin on a ship, you’d have no way of knowing if the ship was motionless, or moving at a steady speed. More than 250 years later, these ideas would be fodder for the mind of the young Einstein.

10. HE NEVER MARRIED, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN HE WAS ALONE.

Galileo was very close with a beautiful woman from Venice named Marina Gamba; together, they had two daughters and a son. And yet, they never married, nor even shared a home. Why not? As Dava Sobel notes, it was traditional for scholars in those days to remain single; perceived class difference may also have played a role.

11. YOU CAN LISTEN TO MUSIC COMPOSED BY GALILEO'S DAD.

Galileo’s father, Vincenzo, was a professional musician and music teacher. Several of his compositions have survived, and you can find modern recordings of them on CD (like this one). The young Galileo learned to play the lute by his father’s side; in time he became an accomplished musician in his own right. His music sense may have aided in his scientific work; with no precision clocks, Galileo was still able to time rolling and falling objects to within mere fractions of a second.

12. HIS DISCOVERIES MAY HAVE INFLUENCED A SCENE IN ONE OF SHAKESPEARE'S LATE PLAYS.

An amusing point of trivia is that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). By the time Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky, however, the English playwright was nearing the end of his career. But he wasn’t quite ready to put down the quill: His late play Cymbeline contains what may be an allusion to one of Galileo’s greatest discoveries—the four moons circling Jupiter. In the play’s final act, the god Jupiter descends from the heavens, and four ghosts dance around him in a circle. It could be a coincidence … or, as I suggest in my book The Science of Shakespeare, it could hint at the Bard's awareness of one of the great scientific discoveries of the time.

13. GALILEO HAD SOME BIG-NAME VISITORS WHILE UNDER HOUSE ARREST.

Charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo spent the final eight years of his life under house arrest in his villa outside of Florence. But he was able to keep writing and, apparently, to receive visitors, among them two famous Englishmen: the poet John Milton and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

14. HIS BONES HAVE NOT RESTED IN PEACE.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Vatican refused to allow his remains to be buried alongside family members in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica; instead, his bones were relegated to a side chapel. A century later, however, his reputation had improved, and his remains (minus a few fingers) were transferred to their present location, beneath a grand tomb in the basilica’s main chapel. Michelangelo is nearby.

15. GALILEO MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN THRILLED WITH THE VATICAN'S 1992 "APOLOGY."

In 1992, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued an official statement admitting that it was wrong to have persecuted Galileo. But the statement seemed to place most of the blame on the clerks and theological advisers who worked on Galileo’s case—and not on Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial. Nor was the charge of heresy overturned.

Additional sources:The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo; Galileo's Daughter; The Cambridge Companion to Galileo.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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